When it comes to science fiction television series blended with western and cowboy motifs following an ensemble cast of snarky badasses who go from job to job, throughout a star system on their awesome spaceship with a spin-section, Firefly is my second to most favorite next to Cowboy Bebop. But all joking aside, when Firefly aired in 2003 in the US and when I finally got my hands on the DVD set around the time the movie hit, it was a series that friends of mine got tired of me talking about until I had infected them with the Firefly virus as well.
I loved the stories, the universe it set up, the characters, their motivations, the wonderful soundtrack, it was great. I wondered who the genius was who had created this wonderful show that I had come to adore so much and that was the way I learned about Joss Whedon. Oh, Joss Whedon, what can you say about the man that the internet hasn’t dragged up yet? Well, nothing much. From Buffy to Angel, from Dollhouse to Agents of SHIELD, from Serenity to The Avengers, numerous comic book runs and entire tropes of the likes of “Buffy Speak”, the man certainly has left a mark on pop culture over the last little while. And yet there was always this slight nagging in the back of my mind whenever fans and pop-culture critics praised the man for being the innovator that he was.
It’s been close to a decade now that I have come to contact with the man’s work, I have almost finished dual Anglistics and History Bachelor’s degrees at my university and now find myself in a weird spot where the two fields of study I have chosen for myself in what future historians and grumpy Millennials will call “the Great Uni Rush of 2012” (it’s a German thing, you wouldn’t get it…) have started to let me see the world in two different ways: one in which Joss Whedon was a revolutionary TV creator and one in which he was part of a larger movement, surely talented and even the most mediocre of his work still enjoyable on some levels, but surely not revolutionary.
To make you understand my predicament, it feels like I need to make you first understand the mindset in which Anglistics, or as it is commonly but falsely simply known English, and History matter. In theory both Anglistics and History most departments focus on the interpretation of data, one fiction, the other reality, the past.
Yet while most historians of the past hundred years or so have slowly come to the point of telling the history of a culture and a people instead of what was previously known as “Great Man History”, in which important people are put in the center of history and shape it rather than people shaping the societal trends that lead to certain great men being products of their time and simply having emerged instead of others in their place by sheer luck, family interests, or others. Anglistics meanwhile, with their study of cultural trends, literature, film, music, art, and really all products of culture, focus on nothing but Great Man (or Woman) History, the Great Man in question being the creator of that work of fiction. It’s an important difference to make as it means you will inevitably interpret occurrences differently. It will color your expectations and opinions on certain individuals. Was, for example, Julius Caesar the man who brought down the Republic, ushering in three (or 15, depending on whether or not you count the Byzantines…) centuries of Empire? Or was Rome already doomed a century before Caesar was even born. Ever since the Army Reforms of General Marius in fact when he bound the loyalty of the legions to the general instead of the state and necessitated with the land grants to all veterans and ever expanding Rome? In one Caesar was, while a brilliant general, “merely” a product of his time, whose place could have been taken by any other patrician, and had been before by the likes of Sulla. History lesson over.
And this is where opinions are gonna vastly differ when it comes to the topic of today, namely Joss Whedon. Following the example of “art/events influencing culture”, as brought forth by English majors everywhere instead of “culture influencing art/events” then he certainly was the man who revolutionized dialogue writing, created strong female protagonists, kicking off the last decades of better written characters on TV single-handedly.
Well, to me it seems like, when looking at the times he comes from, as just an example of the children born of the Hippie generation in the 60s now having gotten their stab at writing for Hollywood. Younger generations will almost always be more liberal than their parents’ generation and with Joss’ generation there is, as mentioned, the additional benefit of coming from a show business family, whose parents were in the right age to have been shaped by the Woodstock and civil rights revolutions of the 1960s, when the American establishment, as had been known since the end of WW2, started to break down.
Whedon was also a graduate of Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college from New England. Interestingly, a similar path to education can be found with Ronald D. Moore, co-creator of Battlestar Galactica and producer and writer on Star Trek Deep Space Nine, both shows lauded for their complex female characters like Kira Nerys, the Daxes, Starbuck, President Roslin, and numerous side characters. Or, to move outside of the box, West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, lauded for his realistic dialogue, who is just three years older than the other two and I think at this point I should probably stop because you are hopefully seeing what I’m saying at this point. Love or hate Whedon or his contemporaries, he and his successful and sometimes less successful shows are just products of a new generation moving into Hollywood at the time.
Babylon 5 had aired a year after the Buffy movie and was already wrapping up its run in 98 when Buffy started its second season, the West Wing started airing the year after after Sorkin had already written several lauded scripts. Xena, Daria, Voyager even if we wanna be charitable, and many more shows aired in the 90s, all in rapid succession, all lauded or at least tolerated. The VHS was the recording medium of choice and as a kid of the 90s the VCR was your best friend to never miss an episode, making it easier to move away from the episodic format of TV of yesteryear. As the decade closed The Sopranos began the age of HBO and cable, which show after show pushing the envelope of what was possible on TV, as the showrunners had handed their baton over to the next generation so had the tv executives, the Cold War was over and so was the age of conservatism, all signs pointed to a future in which the likes of Buffy where the norm, not the exception. It is just that we needed to open our eyes and notice them. And as always, hindsight is the Historians bread and butter.