Alpha Meets Omega

- Or Tech in Dollhouse-

Mag (regarding the Dollhouse): They really thought they were helping, huh? Giving people what they needed. Is this what we needed?
Iris/Caroline: No. Kids playing with matches and they burnt the house down.

- Epitaph 1, Dollhouse

I find the relationship between tech and the supposed ‘human soul’ in Dollhouse to be…disconcerting. Perhaps it’s because, for the most part, Adelle thinks she’s doing good by ripping the personalities out of people and then using their empty husks as wish fulfillment for the rich. Or maybe it’s because sometimes I find myself agreeing with her, at least in some cases. (Most of those cases include helping the helpless or helping those in mourning.)

For the most part, the concept of a ‘dollhouse’ and ‘actives’ is one that terrifies me. For one, how does the person uploaded into a wedge know that Rossum will keep their word and release the active (with the correct memories) after five years? More than that question, though, I find the concept of personalities being interchangeable unnerving. To me, the soul and the personality are the same thing, and the remove one constitutes a crime against the very nature of humanity.

I think that, especially in Epitaph 1, this view becomes more common, especially when Rossum asks Adelle to offer eternal life, to sell the actives, and she refuses. It also affects Topher (who previously did not believe in a soul) in the form of guilt and mental illness, in response to the ‘army in an instant’ situation that resulted in the collapse of society. The problem is that it takes the extreme to make the administrators of the LA Dollhouse realize that their actions are fundamentally wrong.

Of course, this is probably intentional – as an exploration of what makes us human, as well as what humans would do with the technology that allows us to rip personalities out of a body and replace them with another, Dollhouse probably accurately recreates the ‘oh shit’ moment. People only ever seem to react to extremes, or when it’s too late.

What I do agree with, most definitely, is Caroline’s quote from Epitaph 1, listed above. The dollhouse is a box of matches, waiting to catch fire, as we see through the ‘memories’ left behind for Mag, Zone, Iris, and Whiskey to go through. (I only put memories in quotes because Joss Whedon has stated before that the memories may not be ‘actual’ – like the personalities routinely put into the dolls, they could be fabricated.) Technology in Dollhouse may be extreme, but it makes you think about how we currently use the tech available to us, and whether or not we are just children playing with matches.

 

My Eyes

- Or Billy and Dr. Horrible: The Dual Identity-

And I won’t feel/A thing.

- Everything You Ever, Dr. Horrible/Billy

There is something about the duality of Billy and Dr. Horrible that has been bugging me for two years now, and I think I have finally come to a point at which I can articulate my ideas around it.

Dr. Horrible is a persona of power for Billy – you can see this very clearly in the ‘Blogs’ and in the situations where Dr. Horrible is dealing with the world of Heroes and Villains. But Billy is still a very important part of Dr. Horrible; for most of the film, Dr. Horrible and Billy are the same person. Once again, you can see this in how Dr. Horrible acts in terms of social, non-work situations.

He blinks more.

I know this is a weird, tiny thing for me to notice and latch on to, but Billy projects his anxiety so incredibly clearly through his eyes that it’s hard for me to ignore. When Dr. Horrible is talking to Moist about Penny, he blinks frequently and squeezes his eyes shut. He also exhibits the same behavior in regards to his anxiety about the Evil League of Evil. Billy exhibits the same behavior when talking to Penny in the alley, in the laundry mat, and in…basically any other social situation.

But Billy and Dr. Horrible split.

Dr. Horrible, I contend, Billy uses as a way to talk to the world (via blogs) about the issues he sees with society. Yes, he’s evil, but he just wants ‘social change!’ Dr. Horrible is the persona that gives Billy to confidence to act on things he thinks are wrong (such as the heroes of this city being total jerks), but in the end (at least in acts 1 and 2) he is still Billy.

Then, Penny dies. But Penny doesn’t just die. Penny, who has been ‘dating’ Captain Hammer for the entirety of the film, and then Captain Hammer accidentally kills Penny with the shrapnel of Dr. Horrible’s death ray and she dies. But before she dies, she sees Billy, (“Billy,” not Dr. Horrible, she said, even as we saw her realize that they were one and the same during Slipping) and says “Don’t worry. Captain Hammer will save us.”

This breaks Billy, and it’s truly a brilliant break, because you can see the transformation on his face. Dr. Horrible was a tool, but now he is Billy’s shield. Billy shrinks in on himself in grief over Penny (and anger, possibly, at her faith in false heroes), but Dr. Horrible tells the world “I am fine.”

The break is more clear with the last image of Dr. Horrible, during Everything You Ever. Not only does his costume change – from white, which is usually associated with innocence, to red, which is normally associated anger – but he pulls his goggles over his eyes. Again, this is possibly a case of over analysis, but Billy’s eyes are so expressive that putting that barrier down is important. Billy’s anxiety can no longer be shown in Dr. Horrible’s eyes. There is no room for Billy’s weaknesses anymore. This is further highlighted in the ending ‘blog’ – Blogs are Dr. Horrible’s domain, but suddenly we are faced with Billy, whose line in Everything You Ever is ‘a thing,’ following Dr. Horrible’s statement that he ‘won’t feel.’ Billy, though, is clearly feeling – he looks as if he has just finished crying.

This line is significant – Dr. Horrible will not feel, cannot feel, so Billy has to shoulder all of the guilt, grief, and sadness that stems from his continued Villainy. He has achieved his goal – The Evil League of Evil – but at the cost of the woman he loved and his faith that people could see past appearances to the truth (“Captain Hammer will save us”). Billy and Dr. Horrible, once the same person, are now dual identities, and the audience is left with the horrible feeling that Billy may never exist outside of his apartment again.

At the risk of this becoming too academic for this blog, I’ll end on this – Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long blog is rife with themes of identity. Some people are layered with a “third, even deeper layer, that’s the same as the first. Like with pie.” Others constitute a duality that is easily broken. My point, I suppose, is that this film is more than just a silly thing the Whedons made during the Writer’s Strike – it takes a serious look at different types of identity, and how sometimes our archetypes do not work.

Take the Sky From Me

- Or Why Firefly is Different from Buffy, and How It’s Air Schedule Crippled It Narratively -

Aside from the obvious, Friefly demonstrates a departure from the narrative structure of Buffy. Starting from the episode Serenity, which is the canonical starting point for the series, viewers are thrown into the end of a war that serves as a backdrop and anchor into the setting that Mal and Zoe are a part of. Over the course of the episode, we are introduced to the well established crew – family – of the Serenity, rather than watching the crew form (as with the Scooby Gang in Buffy). All of this would be super overwhelming were it not for Simon, River, and Book, three passengers on the Serenity who get caught up in the crew’s antics. These three characters provide a relatable and stable (or unstable, in the case of River) anchoring point for views to get used to the banter, relationships, and conflicts common to Mal’s motley crew.

The way Firefly was aired, however, ruins this anchoring point.

Firefly’s first official episode, according to Fox, is The Train Job, which, in order of filming and production was the second episode. In this version, all viewers have in the way of anchoring is a short series of clips from the first episode narrated by Book, and even that doesn’t fully explain what the hell is happening. The bar fight does little to explain Mal all that much (though, he is a rather complex character, so not a whole lot of introductions are adequately going to explain Mal), or Zoe, or Jayne. Or Wash, for that matter. Simon and River are already established parts of this small community (though they are still outsiders) and Book is really…full of questions.

This, understandably, leaves the audience confused.

In any good work of fiction – book, television, movie, or otherwise – it is vital that you give the audience what I have been calling ‘anchors.’ These are concrete details about the setting, the main characters, or the plot that the reader can latch onto before they figure out how the universe they are entering works. In Firefly, the passengers Mal picks up are anchor characters – they are just as confused and out of their element as the audience is. When thrown into a show where the anchor characters have already been explained in an unaired pilot, the audience is left groping for a handhold and are let down. This causes them to abandon the story except for a few heroic cases (the original Browncoats).

To avoid turning this into a rant against Fox, I will end on this - Firefly is a weird story. It is a non-conventional mash up of the Sci-fi and Western genres and a mash up like that requires narrative anchors, or the story will never float. Joss seemed to have provided those anchors in Serenity, which where then not provided by the cable network. The situation surrounding this show is, of course, complicated, but some of the blame (I think) on why it failed is because the airing order and dates provided by the network ruined the narrative construction of the series.

Overly Ambitious Crafts

- Or When a Project Gets Out-of-Hand -

Projects, for me, often get out of hand. I always set out trying to think of the most unique and interesting way to achieve the goal of assigned projects (especially with projects I am passionate about), and, usually, I end up compromising towards the end (closer to the due date) because I find that I lack the skill to accomplish such ambitious projects.

Perhaps this is why writers block is such a common issue for me – it’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I am afraid that I will end up settling for a half-assed product.

Well, not really half-assed. I always push myself, and try to create the best possible end product, but I find my ambition exceeds my skill. For example, for my midterm project in my Honors Colloquia, I was going to create a website for the aggregation of my thoughts on the Whedonverse. Luckily for me, when I sat down to plan out my study/work schedule, I realized I was creating more work for myself than needed. So I settled for designing a booklet from scratch. It only took me about 4 hours to do, and I am proud of it, but can you see where my reasonable-project meter might be off? I had another project due this week, have to get a head start on my homework for next week, and have real-life adult work that eats up valuable project time. I am lucky I knew exactly how to create the type of booklet I wanted, or this would have been yet another project I ended up disappointed in.

I guess I understand where this comes from – I care about the subject matter, so I try to push myself when creating something around said subject. But, what I don’t understand is the disappointment. I push myself, I try new approaches, and sometimes that results in a less than perfect product. At least I can say I tried something new, right? Unfortunately, that’s the opposite of the case – I set off to be perfect and failed. Failure stings.

I guess the point of this meandering post is that I push myself, fail, and then rail against the failure. Sometimes the best thing to do is to get up, and start working again. Improve, rather than complain.

Anya

- Or The Body  -

But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore! It’s stupid! It’s mortal and stupid! And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.
Anya; The Body; Buffy the Vampire Slayer

If I were petty, (or perhaps just lazy) I would simply post this quote and leave it at that. But it is unfair to rip quotes out of their context and just expect people unversed to understand why something, contextless as this is, can be so important to a character.

I have always admired Joss for how he writes his characters. Namely, his characters are people — though, with Anya, that is a little less than true. She’s technically a demon (is this a good time to shout SPOILERS? Okay, spoilers). To top is off, she is, essentially, a replacement Cordelia – not totally Cordelia, of course, but she fills the roll of blunt, at times inappropriate, and generally the fringe member of the Scoobies.

But this speech defines her. It is a fantastic bit of dialogue that I bet my bottom dollar most writers would never think to give a character like Anya. Anya is supposed to be the 1000 year old blonde girl who is a bit on the evil side – better not humanize her in any way. That’s what makes this bit of writing unique.

Anya is terrified. She has never had to deal with the mortality of those around her, because a) she was previously immortal, and b) has never taken the chance to get to know the women she previously avenged. She doesn’t know what to do, so she asks the most morbid questions because she literally does not understand. No one is telling her why or what to do and she literally cannot comprehend the idea the Joyce is gone. And how could she – death was never real to Anya. She asks things like “Will we see the body” and “Will they cut open the body” because she is Anya, and mortal things confuse her, but it is incredibly plain to see that she has no concept of how one operates in grief.

We are meant, at first, to react like Willow does – horrified and disgusted that someone would even say such things about a women they all knew. And that’s why this speech is so important. It humanizes Anya in a way almost nothing else can and carries through the scene (the worry in hr voice when Xander punches through the drywall and ‘could have hit an electrical thingy’ is clearly part of her emotional hangover).

People are never only one thing – they are always changing, always growing in some way. To give a speech like this to a character that most TV shows would treat as a one dimensional cardboard cut out is what cements Joss’ skills (to me at least) in character development. He used emotions we all know – aching sadness and grief – and applied them to a character that would not understand the situation and (much like a child), grows up because, in the end, know one really has the answers she seeks.

Silence is Golden

- Or How Stories Can Be Written Without Words -

The end of ‘Hush,’ the tenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the most brilliant endings to a television show I have ever seen. It seems sort of obvious, but it’s fantastic.

But let’s start at the beginning.

There are a lot of ways to tell a story, but when someone mentions writing, society has taught us to think of text. Everyone recognizes that Television, Movies, Plays, and even Oral Performance involve writing because it is understood that the actors had to read a written script, or the performer is reading off of a written piece. This leaves out quite a bit, if we are only considering what is written out as dialogue, stage direction, or flavor text (in the case of multimedia presentations, including video games). It leaves out game mechanics, for example, and simple silence. This definition of writing leaves out musical cues, the absence of music, the cinematography decisions, and a myriad other things.

“But E,” you say, “those things aren’t writing.”

No, they aren’t writing in the traditional sense. In the case of ‘Hush,’ nearly the entire episode is silent. No dialogue. Yet, there was undoubtedly writing involved. It may have been in the form of direction on the page, which inevitably gave way to direction on set. Then, at the end, when all the characters have their voices back, Buffy and Riley sit down to have a conversation. There is no music, and, after the initial ‘I guess we need to talk’ conversation starter, there is no dialogue. This is brilliant, and was possibly barely written down (I wouldn’t know for sure, since I don’t have a script).

But let’s go to a more extreme example – the game Journey by That Game Company. Journey is a multiplayer experience in which the two players involved cannot speak to one another. There is no dialogue, flavor text, or reading involved in this game, which provides an interesting challenge to the players. They have to communicate through the game mechanics – drawing in the sand, or ‘chirping’ at one another.

The game itself is based on The Hero With A Thousand Faces  by Joseph Campbell, and is a silent exploration of the stages of the Hero’s Journey. At first glance, it is easy to say that That Game Company did not employ writers in the development process. Yet, at the end of the game, you have most definitely experienced a story. So where are the writers? They are the programmers, artists, character designers, sound designers, composers, engineers, and so on. Each person on a development team must have been aware of the story and feel that the game was supposed to have, and, though they did not have a writer, they wrote metaphors into their mechanics, cut-scenes, graphics, and music.

They told a story.

Writing, I think, becomes synonymous with story telling, but, like most things, we have to think about it more complexly. Writing words is on thing, but people also write code, scripts, directions, etc. and you can convey a story without any written words. Storytelling is more than just text on a page – it is action in a movie, metaphor in game mechanics, silence on the TV screen, and it’s time we recognized the writing is not the sole driver of these things. It’s the story.

Enter the Bad Ass

- Or How Warped Has Our Image of Women Become -

As a writer, I pay a lot of attention to how people are portrayed in media. As a woman, I tend to also pay close attention to how women are portrayed because of how much of a Big Deal it is to me. Buffy, as a whole, does an excellent job of presenting characters that are human. They aren’t shamed, really, for who they are. Each character is well rounded and feels, you know, like an actual human being.

Buffy, in particular is fascinating to me because she is a ‘girly-girl’ – she’s into fashion, cheerleading, and boys – but the audience never once doubts that she is intelligent (just maybe not in a ‘public school’ sort of way), brave, strong, and empathetic. She was allowed to care about how she looked and also care about her physical strength. She is allowed to be caring and defensive and offensive and Bad Ass.

I wonder, sometimes, how girls in my generation would handle a character like Buffy today. I have seen arguments that would lead me to believe that, if they did not already associate Joss Whedon with feminist characters, they probably would not react well to Buffy.

There is this idea out there that a Strong Female Character must be Physically Strong, or Mentally Dominant, or Controlling. She must not care what anyone says about her, and must not care about others, except in a…leaderly way. She cannot be Motherly, Girly, or Conform to any Gender Norms.

But that’s a really limited definition of a ‘strong’ character, and perhaps strong isn’t the right word. In my opinion, Buffy is a strong female, but she is also a person. She has flaws and a personality that fluctuates as she tries to figure out who she is. She is simultaneously a typical teenager and a responsible adult in Band Candy. She is able to take charge and deal with Angel’s conflation of strength and cowardice (while crying, might I add) and she is not seen as weak. On the other end of the spectrum, we quite literally see two sides of Willow in Dopplegangland, and both, I would argue, are excellent representations of women. Yes, one Willow is Vampiric, and a little sadistic, but she’s still her own person, not a cardboard cutout side character.

Strong, I think, is the wrong word. Well-rounded is better, but that calls to mind ‘well adjusted’ for me. Buffy and Willow represent people to me – their personalities are malleable and they have flaws and they are not shamed for anything that they do. They suffer through the consequences of their actions, but they are never, ever, outright shamed. I think that is what makes Buffy and Willow great representations of women in the media; they were written, first, as people.

Intertextuality

- Or Fandom and Separation Between Fans and Creators -

Fair Warning: This post is sort of Tangentially Related to an article called  I Know What You Did Last Summer: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Crossover Teen Stardom. I’m going to be talking about trends in fandom and also advertising. 

Many of these posts…say nothing about the fans’ preference for seeing stars, such as Gellar, on film versus television, and instead focus on the star as a text unto itself.

-Susan Murray, I Know What You Did Last Summer

In Murray’s essay, she examines how, using the popularity of Buffy, advertisers for films, television shows, and other products of the 1990′s and early 2000′s use the fame of an actor or actress to draw fans from one show to another, with the entry point being the star. The actress, in this case, Sarah Michelle Gellar, is the ‘entry text’ to a new series, item, or movies. I have experienced this advertising method many a time, as it is, in fact, how I rediscovered Whedon (I was on a Neil Patrick Harris kick at the time).

Something that I found interesting, was how the essay refers to Sarah Michelle Gellar as a ‘text’ – a way to read into new franchises, brands, and media, through a person’s physicality and attachment to a role on a television series. I tend to think of texts as…well, written objects, not entry points or, stranger still, people, that allow a person to connect a show, like Buffy, to a movie, like I Know What You Did Last Summer, to a brand like Maybelline.

Advertising normally feels like a shady business to me,  but using someone’s intertextuality, their connection to a single popular character to boost the ratings and/or profit margins of other companies and films seems extra shady to me. If they are doing what Murray suggests, and treating actors like ‘texts’ it seems to work. The girl, Katy, who Murray is using as an example in the quotes, has seen almost everything Gellar has been in (up until the point that post was written), but it seems…wrong. It seems like you lose sight of the person behind the character, and they just become an idol, a text of entry, a thing to be read into.