Joss Whedon’s (and my) take on SF

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Director Joss WhedonJoss Whedon has a biography coming out (one of those things you look at with a strange crick in your neck, because biographies usually come out at the end of someone’s career), and in some excerpts printed in IO9, I’ve discovered some significant similarities in the way he and I see science fiction these days.

For instance, when he had the opportunity to submit a TV series concept to Fox, he wanted to do science fiction.  Problem was, most TV SF turned him off.  He wanted to see realism, but most sci-fi TV shows looked too plastic, too clean, like Star Trek.  Or too cheap and cheesy, like Blake’s 7 or (pre-2000s) Doctor Who.  One movie series he appreciated—Alien—but he wanted more than a “ripoff” of the Alien look.

Firefly castWhedon’s decision to mix sci-fi tropes with a post-civil war American western motif was a desire to move away from the larger-than-life heroes who make history, and closer to those who have to live with history’s choices, whether they like it or not… those who have to make a living, who have dreams and desires, but not necessarily a way to ever achieve them… but that doesn’t stop them searching for it.

The result was Firefly.  It was an ensemble of archetypes, most of which could be directly ascribed to John Ford’s movie Stagecoach, but also had parallels in Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series.

At about the time Whedon was developing Firefly, I was thinking along the same lines.  Paramount had given us four iterations of Star Trek, and as they considered possibilities for series 5, talk was about what they would base the series on.  I was briefly caught up in the mania, but when I thought about a potential new Trek series, the last thing I wanted to see was the same antiseptic bridges, clean uniforms, by-the-book exchanges (even the arguments were formalized) and neatly-tied-up mini-sagas every week.

cover of The Kestral Voyages: My Life, After BerserkerMy feeling was: We’ve seen the future’s military; why not spend some time with the future’s civilians?  Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 gave us a taste of civilians living amongst the military, but it still felt (to the viewer) like a primarily military operation; I wanted a lot more.

Borrowing from (ironically) an idea from the Star Trek original series novel Prime Directive, I wanted to tell a story about a former Starfleet captain who now owned and operated a star freighter, flying about with a small crew, doing freight jobs and occasionally getting into adventures involving the locals, in the style of classic TV shows like Rawhide and Route 66.  I didn’t have a western motif in mind, but I did picture people living on terraformed worlds, many of them in lives and jobs not that different than what people are familiar with today, making a living, searching for love, getting in trouble and trying to get out of it without calling in the National Guard.

My result was The Kestral Voyages. And at the time, I thought the similarities between my concept and Whedon’s Firefly, which aired not long after I’d developed my Kestral premise, were nothing short of uncanny.  (Paramount, in contrast, gave us Star Trek: Enterprise.  You be the judge who got the short end of the stick here.)

Whedon’s type of stories were also similar to mine in being very character-centric, built around the characters’ own issues, not their struggles to deal with over-arching, world-class crises.  They were very personal, and that resonated with me.  Also, Whedon’s Firefly characters generally tried to avoid trouble; it wasn’t their job to be policemen, but they were committed to doing their job and capable of defending what they had.  That’s a human-scale story that I can appreciate.

And Whedon doesn’t jargon himself around a scene.  The Firefly episode “Out of Gas” is a prime example of the ability to avoid jargon and cut to the characters’ basic interpretations of things.  Instead of trying to impress us with the engineering and quantum energy-channeling properties of a part of the engines, Kaylee simply shows Mal the part that’s “broken,” and says it’s not a part that can be fixed. So they plan to abandon ship.  End of discussion.  Wash doesn’t discuss the thermodynamics involved with re-entry when he pilots the ship, he just flies it.  Simon doesn’t bother Mal with medical jargon, because Mal couldn’t care less… he just patches people up.

I’m trying to remember those lessons as I work on some TV script treatments right now; though both very different premises have a pretty big Big Picture, audiences aren’t going to care unless they can identify with the characters’ journeys, why they themselves care about what they’re doing and why.  This is the formula that made the Battlestar Galactica reboot successful, and a formula I heartily endorse.

So I guess you can consider me a disciple of the Joss Whedon school of sci-fi writing.  Hopefully it shows.

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