Joss Whedon Jeopardy

***SPOILER ALERT!!! This post contains spoilers concerning Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1 all episodes through Episode 13 “T.R.A.C.K.S.”, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 2 Episode 17 “Passion”, and Serenity (the Firefly movie).***

The moment the gun was fired in the basement this week on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I thought, “Oh my god, he’s done it again!”

I was referring, of course, to the habit Joss Whedon has of killing off major characters without warning in the middle of the story.

My first experience with this ‘Joss Whedon Jeopardy’ was, as I’m sure it was for many of my readers, in the second season of Buffy, with the sudden, brutal demise of Ms. Calendar. I later either watched an interview with him, or heard the commentary– I can’t remember which– but Joss Whedon said something like, “After that, everyone knew they had to always be acting at their best level.”

In many ways, sudden deaths of dearly beloved main characters– the ones you think are safe and will never die– has become one of the hallmarks of Whedon. In Serenity, the death of Shepherd Book was a shock, but it also lulled the viewer into a false sense of security: OK, he has killed the one major character he’s going to kill. Then Wash’s death is that much more of a blow.

Skye (Chloe Bennet) lying in the compression chamber on the brink of death.

Skye (Chloe Bennet) lying in the compression chamber on the brink of death.

So when Quinn shot Skye not once but twice towards the end of the episode this week, I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s done it again! A game changer! A Joss Whedon Jeopardy moment!’ I don’t want you to think I was happy about it. No, I’ve grown to like Skye quite a lot, though I’m not yet identifying with her the way I do Whedon’s other female main characters. However, I thought it could be a really promising move on the part of a show that, while doing well, hasn’t quite hit the ratings high that the network expected of it.

Once I realised there were still seven minutes left in the episode, of course, my hopes for Skye’s life expectancy went way up. By the end of the episode, when she was still alive, I decided that in all likelihood she wasn’t going to die, and so I’ve been much less stressed this weekend than I might have otherwise been. But Skye’s near-death still achieved what the other actual-Joss-Whedon-Jeopardy-sudden-deaths also achieved.

These seemingly random actions increase the shows’ “Heart,” as readers will know I like to call it. To understand more about what I call a “Show with Heart,” please read this post. Essentially, shows have Heart when we care about the characters, and the characters truly care about each other (and not just in couple-y sorts of ways).

Ms. Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Buffy, Ms. Calendar’s death in the episode “Passion” draws the Scooby Gang together in grief, gives Giles motivation to become more aggressive than he had been previously in the show, and gets the Scoobies over an internal betrayal that had previously been threatening to tear them apart. Jenny Calendar had been of questionable Scooby-membership due to her withholding important information about Angel and the curse, and in her death it becomes clear that she was still loved by all the Scoobies. Her murder also provided proof to the audience that Angel was truly a dangerous enemy, to be taken seriously. Jenny’s death shocked and upset the audience, making us worry more about the other characters, and empathize with the pain they display. Joss Whedon Jeopardy made the characters care more about each other (the first thing Buffy must do after is save Giles from his own recklessness), and made us care more about them. In short, it gave the show more Heart.

Firefly was full of Heart from the get-go, and there was therefore no need within the short time it was on air to create more. Had it continued for multiple seasons, I feel certain that the relative security of a few of those characters would have changed, and it would not have been Jayne who went down (more on Jayne soon I hope). But the show was cancelled, so we will never know. However, in the reincarnation of Firefly into Serenity, I feel that the change in medium did cause some loss of Heart in general. At the beginning of the movie, the Captain is withdrawn, more taciturn than ever, and Kaylee seems pretty pissed off at him which is never a good sign. The crew of our favourite smuggling space ship is more fragmented, and people spend more time apart from each other. Furthermore, Mal is kicking Simon and River off the boat, which we all knew would never have happened on the show. In short, they needed a little more Heart in the movie.

From the beginning, it certainly helps to have Inara back on board so quickly. Inara melts the Captain’s heart a little bit, which starts to thaw things all around. But it certainly wasn’t enough. After all, Mr. Universe just seems like a different sort of jive than the rest of the space-western feel of the show, and everything is still a little off-kilter without some good old moral judgement from the Shepherd. When he dies, Book’s death does make us a little outraged. (Besides, we never get to learn who he really is, and what his history is!!) But it’s Wash’s death that leaves us gasping and shaken. In Wash’s death we see Zoe’s pain, and see the crew begin to take care of each other again. It is only with Joss Whedon Jeopardy that Serenity finds its Heart.

From L-R: Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe (Gina Torres), Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Mal (Nathan Fillion), Inara (Morena Baccarin), and Simon (Sean Maher) in the movie Serenity.

From L-R: Wash (Alan Tudyk), Zoe (Gina Torres), Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Mal (Nathan Fillion), Inara (Morena Baccarin), and Simon (Sean Maher) in the movie Serenity.

One thing that has been lacking in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has definitely been Heart. I have been enjoying the show, especially the characteristic witty banter and slightly made-up words that signify something truly Whedon. But I wasn’t sure I really cared that much about any of the individuals, and the mode was a bit too militaristic for me to always be sure that they cared about each other. That improved in “FZZT” when Simmons became infected and we all were very worried, especially because of how worried Fitz was. “The Well” also increased the show’s Heart score for me, but more in May’s favour for me than in Ward’s favour. “The Bridge” and “The Magical Place” also increased my ability to care about Coulson, though not as much as they could have. When Coulson told Skye about her origins, and I watched the actress with tears streaming down her face, I must admit I wasn’t very moved. But “T.R.A.C.K.S.” has done what couldn’t be accomplished before.

First of all, the moment the agents run to Skye’s side as Simmons attempts to save her is (I believe) the first time in the entire show that all the main characters are gathered in the same room without a techno table between them and a screen up for briefing. It’s the first moment they become a social entity, caring for one of their own, rather than a team that works together.

Second of all, without Skye needing to die, the current situation creates the exact same motivations for characters in S.H.I.E.L.D. as “Passion” did in Buffy. The agents are suddenly drawn together in urgency and concern over the tenuous thread that remains of Skye’s life. Skye’s membership in the group had until this point been fairly suspect; she had even worn a monitoring bracelet until very, very recently. Her mortal wounds have clarified the group’s feelings: she is now one of them, and they will seek revenge for her (or avenge her) as one of their own. I found the look of determination on May’s face upon gazing down at Skye in the pressure chamber especially remarkable. (This goes towards a theory I have about May being more a part of Skye’s origins than she’s letting on– more on that later!) I also found Simmon’s desperate tears with Fitz far more compelling than the tears shed by Skye some weeks earlier.

No matter what happens next week on S.H.I.E.L.D. (and you know it’s going to be big because the episode is called “Tahiti”), I’m going to care a lot more about these characters than I did at the beginning of “T.R.A.C.K.S.” I’m sure Skye will live, and I’m very happy about that– her death will matter to me more now than it would have even the moment she was shot. While I’m not completely sold on S.H.I.E.L.D. as a show yet, it has definitely moved up the ranks. I hope this is the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D. becoming a Show with Heart. We shall have to wait and see.

Lion King?

I had a few people ask me privately why my last post about Frozen did not mention The Lion King in the litany of past Disney successes.

First of all, there is no doubt that The Lion King was one of the greatest commercial successes Disney has ever experienced, and I’m still dying to go see the musical on Broadway or in the West End.

However, when The Lion King first came out, I was nine years old, and I went to go see it in the theatre. Needless to say, I found the whole experience very traumatising, especially the stampede (didn’t Disney learn their lesson with Bambi?!!), and ended up needing to leave the theatre twice due to my own upset. (I had found The Little Mermaid similarly traumatising at age 4.)

Later that day, a family friend sat down with me and tried to explain, “Heather, that’s what life is really like for animals in Africa.”

To which my response was, “In real life, ANIMALS. DON’T. TALK.” So now you have an idea of what I was like as a child.

The Miracle that is Frozen

I, like almost all Americans my age, grew up on some excellent Disney staples. I think I spent most of second grade singing Beauty and the Beast songs on the jungle gym, and became quite torn over my favourite movie when Aladdin came out. At 14, I condescended to forget I was a teenager long enough to go see Mulan, which made a nice little change from the other princesses. While I never went to Disney as a kid (my parents preferred to spend money on vacations to Williamsburg and Plimoth Plantation, for which I am eternally grateful), it is inevitable that these Disney incarnations of ancient tales in  many ways shaped my childhood. As a teen, I moved on to finding my heroines in Star Wars (the original trilogy) and Xena: Warrior Princess (yeah, that was a phase, we don’t need to dwell on that). I grasped at Eowyn as a role-model in Lord of the Rings, though I hated her for loving Aragorn when he clearly couldn’t love her back. As a young adult, it was with great joy that I discovered the work of Joss Whedon, the new Battlestar Galactica, and Veronica Mars. In my childhood, books and real life provided me with the truly strong women; in that, the silver screen failed me.

I really, really wish that the world had been ready for Frozen about 20 years earlier.

A few years ago, I heard that Disney was doing a version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” and I remember thinking briefly, “Well, that’s a terrible idea.” I thought it would easily fall into the same traps that Once Upon A Time had been finding itself in during its first season: buying into the fairytale idea that if a woman doesn’t fit the traditionally feminine expectations set out for her, she is evil and should be punished.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Years later, I first became re-acquainted with the idea that became Frozen when a friend posted this little gem on Facebook:

(I won’t condescend to call this girl cute or amazing– she is phenomenally talented and she’s only 9 years old. If you don’t want to watch now, feel free to enjoy it later, because it’s worth it.)

I loved the song the moment I heard it, and it got me curious about the movie. I still had no idea that Frozen was the final incarnation of “The Snow Queen.” In fact, I had absolutely no idea what it was about. Seeing the occasional clip of Olaf the Snowman had led me to think maybe it was the next incarnation of the Ice Age franchise or something. But when Frozen won the Golden Globe for best animated feature and I heard Idina Menzel was involved, I realised this might be something I needed to go check out.

It makes sense that the song “Let It Go” was what got me interested in Frozen: the song was what changed the course of the whole movie. Written by Bobby Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Book of Mormon fame, “Let It Go” was the earliest piece of composing that made it into the final film. In an Entertainment Weekly interview, Kristen said, “We … [were] still walking the line– is she a villain? Is this about good versus evil? And then we put ourselves in the head space of someone who would have to leave everything they knew, who was keeping a secret their whole life and then messes up once. Just once! And gets chased out.” From then on, she said, the story became about hope versus fear, rather than good versus evil.

However, I would say that the success of Frozen started even before that, but was the reason that “Let It Go” had to happen: Kristen and Bobby were writing this film for their daughters. I would argue that nothing else worked before “Let It Go” because good versus evil creates one dimensional women that are not sufficient for the daughters parents today want to raise.

FrozenElsaFist

In another interview, Bobby and Kristen tell us their favourite lines in the song are, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and “That perfect girl is gone,” respectively. Bobby cites the subversiveness of the former, and how much he loves introducing that to a female Disney character. Kristen says she can personally relate to the latter, because as a career woman, she feels she constantly has to block out those feelings that she’s not being a good enough mother, wife, or woman. She literally has to “Turn away and slam the door.”

This is a far cry from “Tale as old as time,” or, “I can show you the world.” It’s even a welcome improvement on “Be a Man.”

Yesterday, I serendipitously ended up seeing Frozen with two friends after a lunch date. The moment it opened with a Saami chant, I knew I was in for something truly special. (The Saami are an indigenous people who live in far northern Europe, mainly Norway, Sweden, and Finland.) Visually, it was beautiful. I strongly recommend going to see it on the big screen in HD, because moment after moment left me gasping. The music is phenomenal. And the story is one of the best ever told. I laughed and cried, and laughed so hard I cried, and became totally lost in the wonder of it all. Oh, and did I mention Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) voices Anna, and Idina Menzel (Wicked and Glee) is the power behind Elsa? Plus, the cast is full of a host of other acting gems like Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening and Glee)  and Alan Tudyk (Firefly and Dollhouse). Dare I say it, but Frozen may be the best film of 2013.

I really hope that Anna and Elsa mark the start of a new era of Disney princesses. I’m aware that both Tangled and Brave made way for these ladies in recent years, and I hope to watch both those movies in the near future. But Frozen has that combination of excellent writing, phenomenal visuals, and truly inspiring music that makes true Disney magic.

Firefly, or How it all began

The idea sounds terrible. A Western, set in outer space on a space ship 5,000 years in the future. Look a little closer, and those assumptions could be confirmed: cancelled without warning after a meagre thirteen episodes on air. Must have been a horrible experiment gone terribly wrong, and the guy at the network who signed it probably got fired.

Wrong.

Cancelled after being unfairly aired out of order, and with next-to-no publicity campaign, Firefly is quite possibly the best piece of television made in the last thirty years.

Kaylee (Jewel Staite) in the pilot episode of Firefly.

Kaylee (Jewel Staite) in the pilot episode of Firefly.

Fans of the show already know this, but if you’re a Firefly virgin, I’m almost jealous of the experience you have ahead of you. If you’re in North America (or live elsewhere and have a proxy-server… ahem, excuse me, I mean I have no idea what that might be), go to Hulu Plus, Netflix, whatever you’re signed up for. They have all the episodes, including the three that never aired. Start with the first one. But make sure you start early in the evening, or you might not get any sleep tonight. You’re not going to want to stop watching.

What makes it so good? I’ve asked myself that millions of times. Since Firefly has become the one to which I compare all other television shows (no matter the genre), I’ve had to come up with some reasons. Here’s how I see it:

  1. It’s pretty. Episode after episode, Firefly is a feast for your eyes, from the landscapes to the sets to the costume design. In the future in outer space, all human cultures have collided, and it’s a gorgeous thing to see.
  2. It’s cool. I mean, they swear in Chinese. (I speak Mandarin, and the comprehensibility of each actor’s attempt at the language varies greatly, but no matter what it still sounds awesome.) They also ride horses and go to balls and pull off some very nice heists. You’re having fun watching it, and the people making it were clearly having a great time, too.
  3. It’s smart. The writing is excellent. They expect the viewers to possess intelligence, and they don’t dumb down the show for you. They make you think– not in the moralising way that Star Trek does (though I do enjoy the occasional Next Generation episode), but in an interesting way that stays with you for a long time. You can watch the same episode over and over and always come away with something new. It’s like a good book that way.
  4. But, most of all, and this is the most important: It has HEART. That’s become my ultimate standard for a television show. What do I mean by “heart?” In order for a show to have heart, the following questions must be answered with a (resounding) yes:

Do the characters in the show care about each other? And I mean, do all the individuals care about everyone else in the group? (This might be what Joss Whedon calls the ‘family’ effect– more on that in another post!)

Do I care about the characters? Am I going to be upset if one of them is hurt or killed?

Do I feel what they feel when I see them feel it? Has the show elicited my empathy?

Am I invested in their future?

If you answer “yes” to these questions, then I call it A Show With Heart. Firefly set that standard; it’s a lot to live up to.

Of course, a lot of other things matter, too, like whether or not the cast can act. But I guarantee if the cast can’t act, or if the directing sucks, or any of those standard measures for the worth of a show show problems, then the show won’t have Heart. It just won’t pull it off. But the cast of Firefly is amazing! Did I mention it stars Nathan Fillion?

Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) smiling at dinner.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) smiling at dinner.

“BUT,” you say, “SCI-FI?? Really? I hate all those shows about not-real things, with aliens and stuff I can’t relate to.” First of all, no aliens in Firefly! Nope, in the Firefly universe, we never did find any other form of intelligent life anywhere else in the galaxy. So you’re safe on that front. But Firefly isn’t your typical Sci-Fi show in a lot of other ways, too. The reason why most Sci-Fi haters (rightfully) hate Sci-Fi shows, is that there is a trap that these shows often fall into of becoming overly absorbed in the technology, futuristic coolness of it all, and they forget the humanity. I can assure you, most of the time Firefly doesn’t feel like it’s set in the future– the ship Serenity can sometimes be more reminiscent of Das Boot than of the Enterprise or anything you saw in Stargate (a show I’ve never watched). But Firefly is all about humanity: these are human stories and human questions (and sometimes very funny human foibles) that surpass time and space so that the setting ultimately matters little, and the journey matters the most.

I won’t get into my specific thoughts and analysis on all the wonderful things that Firefly has to offer in this post. I can probably write more posts about this, the shortest running of shows, than about The X-Files, also a favourite, a show that ran for nine years. But I will leave my already enlightened readers with one parting fact to enjoy:

‘Objects in Space’ was originally filmed after ‘Heart of Gold’, which never aired. In the current versions on the DVDs, Netflix, and Hulu Plus, the episode runs as it was originally filmed. However, when it aired the first time, an alternate conversation had to be filmed between Mal and Inara (Morena Baccarin), because the earth-shattering ending of ‘Heart of Gold’ had never yet been seen. So if you have never seen the DVDs, look for the scene in the ‘Deleted Scenes’ section of the Special Features on disc 4.

Steer clear of Alliance cruisers, keep a low profile when Reavers are about, and enjoy finding a family at the edge of the galaxy! You will never regret your choice to fly with the crew of this particular Firefly class transport and her taciturn captain Malcolm Reynolds.