Here Liam Whitton writes about his admiration for writer-director Joss Whedon
There are few bigger names in entertainment today than Joss Whedon, who steered Marvel’s The Avengers to box office record-breaking success in 2012.
For his fans, this day was inevitable. Many of us had watched — or in my case, grown up on — Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and knew as early as then what a remarkable talent Joss Whedon was.
What was also apparent to many, although perhaps many wouldn’t know it by name, was the extraordinary humanist quality to Buffy, and which can be found throughout Whedon’s work.
An obvious theme in Whedon’s work is the empowerment of women. But Whedon’s feminism is only a constituent piece of his larger, more encompassing humanist philosophy. Buffy, crudely summarised, is about a young woman with supernatural strength and physical attributes who fights the forces of evil. What elevated the show above its television forebears and contemporaries, and which continues to make it a seminal work of TV-as-art, is the programme’s relentless focus on the inner lives of its characters. The writers on the show were told to write with one question in mind: how does Buffy feel? From this spawned a rich show of complex characters encountering philosophical problems as often as social ones, making some of the most fully realised drama in all of fiction, and spawning an entire academic sub-field known as ‘Buffy studies’.
Whedon’s other themes are capitalism and greed, as explored largely in Angel, Dollhouse, and the comic book Fray; the fundamental dignity that comes with personhood, explored through Dawn and Connor in Buffy and Angel and as the central premise of the show Dollhouse; and secular explorations of redemption, as seen in all of his shows, where characters who have done terrible things attempt to make amends for their actions, and all learn in various ways that redemption is never finished, and that simple human compassion motivates the most profound and honest sacrifices.
Andrew West has written for HumansitLife about his love of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry before, and BHA Chief Executive Andrew Copson has written admiringly of Roddenberry as well. Star Trek‘s popularity with humanists is partially rooted in its optimism for the human race, and its almost Utopian depiction of a universe where the Humanism Roddenberry so passionately felt has motivated humankind to explore, develop rational scepticism, and foster cooperation, all to great success. And I myself have written on Doctor Who‘s humanist themes, particularly in the form of its non-human main character the Doctor, a firebrand humanist with one advantage the rest of us don’t have — he knows much more than we do about the world (which is often used to justify the show’s forays into fairly fantastical heights of speculative fiction). But neither of these programmes achieve what Joss Whedon has consistently done throughout his work, which is to present Humanism and explore its implications in a world where essential human problems share the scale of epics.
Whedon’s worlds are alive with Humanism despite these worlds often not being humanistic or physical materialist in conception. In Buffy and Angel, the characters confront monsters, demons, witches, and deities, and accept that these things exist. They have a good reason to believe these things exist which we do not: in Buffy and Angel they really do. The ‘soul’ is a major plot device in both those shows as well, as it accounts in a nebulous and nonspecific way for the presence of morality. An early Angel episode, ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin,’ even suggests that the absence of a ‘soul’ explains true human psychopathy. Yet as both those shows go on, Whedon becomes increasingly interested in using the supernatural framework of the show for exploring the human problems we all really face, and to advocate the evidence-based and compassion-led approach to ethics we should be using to make decisions our daily lives.
From the beginning, Buffy used the supernatural to generously provide metaphors for all manner of social issues. Often the personal struggles of a character would be reflected in those of the monster of the week, or some atrocity in a character’s past would contain meaningful wisdom the audience could apply to another person’s present-day dilemma. Good fiction has long done this: the most successful novels take a chosen theme and stretch it into every line of dialogue, every visual motif, make their pages blossom with insight into the world. With cinema and theatre, the visual and textual have long been aligned in this effort, but until Buffy, television was a odd-man-out, a place for episodic dramas about buddy cops and the like. Buffy itself quickly moved from ‘high school’ themes to more mature ones. Season one’s ‘Invisible Girl’ provides a fairly mundane example of this: high school social alienation (and the fact that Sunnydale High sits above a Hellmouth) literally makes a shy girl turn invisible. By its later seasons, Buffy was commenting on the same theme with all the deftness of a poet.
Buffy‘s most fantastical and high-concept episodes are probably season four’s ‘Hush’ and season six’s ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ a silent episode and a musical respectively. The musical television episode had been pioneered for the modern age with Xena: Warrior Princess (several times in fact) before then, but it was ‘Once More, With Feeling’ which set the bar for TV concept episodes to come. In both ‘Hush’ and ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ Whedon’s characters, who are otherwise known for their verbal dexterity and linguistic playfulness, struggle to express themselves. In ‘Hush,’ they fail to articulate and say what they truly mean, and gradually find through the silence which has enveloped Sunnydale that in fact, language can be a barrier to honest communication; a hindrance rather than a tool. When the silence ends, Buffy and her boyfriend Riley sit in awkward silence, failing to at all express what they truly feel. In ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ subtle characterisation and running plot threads in the character’s emotional lives come to the surface when the people of Sunnydale find themselves living in a musical. For all their exposed personal dilemmas, Buffy’s is the greatest, and it is the tortured character of Spike who must remind Buffy (through song) of her reason for living, despite her life-as-hell experience with severe depression:
Life’s not a song
Life isn’t bliss
Life is just this
You’ll get along
The pain that you feel
You only can heal
You have to go on living
…echoing Buffy’s own advice to her sister Dawn, in the previous season. You see, Buffy’s depressed in season six because she died, went to Heaven, and came back against her will. But her realisation in the season five finale ‘The Gift’ was that her love of her sister was a gift, and to sacrifice herself to save her sister’s life was her personal privilege. ‘Death is your gift,’ Buffy was told prophetically earlier in the season. She struggled to understand what that meant, if anything, before later arriving at a subtler understanding of life and death, and how one cannot have true meaning without the other. A humanist message in itself. ‘The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,’ Buffy counsels Dawn. Even in the supernatural world of Buffy, Whedon systematically undermines the supernatural to force the characters to explore the world as we ourselves face it.
The best example of this is in Buffy’s sister show Angel, when the beloved character Winifred ‘Fred’ Burkle dies in ‘A Hole in the World.’ The literal hole of that episode aside, which was a actual cavity running end to end through the Earth, the central ‘hole’ encountered was an emotional one for the characters as Fred died, possessed and eaten out from the inside by the ancient demon Illyria. In the ensuing episode ‘Shells,’ remembering Buffy’s aforementioned resurrection, Angel travels the world looking for a quick fix to the problem, before learning that Fred’s ‘soul’ was ‘consumed in the fires of Illyria’s resurrection.’ The hole in their world then becomes that much deeper, and I remember being 14 at the time it aired and really being hit powerfully for the first time by the reality and permanence of death. It made Buffy’s sacrifice (which for her, was to an unknown end) carry the same weight in subsequent rewatchings, and deepened my admiration for non-religious people who risk their lives for the good of others. It also reminds me of the Greek proverb: ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.’
Another example of the undermining of religious supernaturalism in Buffy is that ‘Heaven’ is probably just another alternate dimension (called ‘hell dimensions’) of the infinite number which exist in the the show’s multiverse: merely an especially benign type of the world, among many more of infinite horror, and several others such as the World Without Shrimp and the World With Nothing But Shrimp. When the character Cordelia goes to one such heavenly dimension in Angel, she finds it is simply inconsolably boring, and later the characters learn that the heavenly beings behind Cordelia’s ascension are really just as nasty as the demons they typically encounter down on Earth — except relentlessly mean-spirited in their pursuit of a bigger-picture, consequentialist ‘good’, providing a healthy rejoinder to that Christian maxim that ‘God works in mysterious ways.’ In Angel, gods work in mysterious ways because they’re dicks. Or rather, because sometimes people are. Angel‘s deities are just another set or kind of fallible people, and in Whedon’s world, the bigger and tougher of us always face greater propensity to be bullies.
For all she’s seen, Buffy remains an agnostic atheist: unconvinced that the supernaturalism of her world means anything. Not that it’s mentioned much; it’s sort of inconsequential to her life of kicking butt and stopping evil. ‘The jury’s out,’ she says, when asked if there’s a (Judeo-Christian conception of) ‘God’ early on in season two.
Whedon’s later series Dollhouse is very much rooted within a materialist universe like the one we really live in, and is as much as anything else about human corruptibility, and mankind’s negative traits, including (through a science fiction lens) the world of prostitution, sex trafficking, organised crime, and how badly we treat the mentally ill, the disabled, and the less fortunate. Unlike Buffy and Angel, there is no ‘soul,’ no secret sauce to the human experience outside of our material bodies. We can be uploaded, downloaded, altered all through changes to the electrochemical states of our brains, as new hardware allows brains to be treated like hard drives for minds. And yet even so, as main character Echo goes on, she cobbles together a personhood formed from fragmentary fictional and borrowed identities which is just as valuable and ‘real’ as any of the ‘real’ people with real personalities she encounters. When humankind is given greater power and propensity to abuse, humankind abuses it (which is perhaps the show’s sole environmentalist message), but even so, it is only people — in all their diversities — who can champion and stand up for all that is good in the world, too.
They do so in spite of impossible odds. In Angel season four, the character of Gunn is told that by a shady character that higher powers manipulate their lives to such a degree that their active choices carry little weight; he presents a free will problem we’ve probably all thought of before. We’re all shaped by forces outside of ourselves. Some big, some small. Can free will exist in a deterministic universe? Gunn makes, as best he can, a passionate plea that our choices still matter. Like Sam Harris would say, even in a world without free will, we can still find meaning in our lives, and make our decisions count.
Similarly, in season two’s ‘Epiphany,’ Angel, who spends much of his long life on one crusade or another, always reaching for the grand gesture which will redeem him in his own eyes and in the eyes of others, reflects on finding meaning in a universe with no ‘cosmic plan’, and no certainty. He concludes, in his titular epiphany, which is presented as a milestone for the character’s development:
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, [and] if nothing we do matters… then all that matters is what we do.
It’s really no surprise that Angel’s ‘mission statement’, and the character’s last words (which closed out Angel‘s five-year run) are ‘Let’s go to work.’ Whedon symbolically had Buffy repeat the line in the concluding issue of Buffy‘s first canonical comic book season five years later, reflecting the fact that these two heroes are united by the same basic purpose. They separately arrive at the conclusion that your good work is never finished. Good work is their shared duty simply because it needs doing; no more, no less. Whedon’s characters are unlikely ever to arrive at the paradisiacal future of Star Trek, or the easy happy endings which characterise Doctor Who, but still they continue, hoping to plant oak trees for future generations.
Unlike Roddenberry’s vision, in which humankind has on the whole shown its best possible face, the characters in Dollhouse face the fullest extremes of human deplorability and summon up the strength to fight it with the only weapon they have: their humanity. (That and advanced fighting skills.) In Whedon’s shows, religion is not the enemy of Humanism, but nor is it really on the agenda (or of any interest) to any of its crypto-humanists. Instead, they are tackling the world in all its complexity and all its difficulties, across dimensions of class, creed, (species,) gender, and health. Whedon depicts the world at its worst and people at their best. And when they’re at the best, they’re grappling with the world as it really is, in all its difficulty and strangeness, and still finding the strength and motivation to go on in their Humanism.