Learning and having scones

Think of a weekend away to celebrate and examine the works of Joss Whedon, the genius who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and who wrote & directed Marvel’s Avengers (Assemble) and Age of Ultron, and you’d be forgiven for thinking about a convention. That was the reaction I had from several people when telling them I would be attending EuroSlayage, but it instead was something rather different (and I would argue a whole lot more) than this.

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Poster courtesy of the WSA, and designed by Michael Starr. T-shirts were also available.

Organised by the Whedon Studies Association, the seventh biennial Slayage was an academic conference; an oppurtunity for teachers, scholars, and researchers to come together to present and discuss ideas from across a wide range of the Whedonverses, or to utilise ideas and characters present in them as an example of wider arguments.

Although primarily a gathering of those active within academia itself, there were also a number of passionate fans of Whedon’s work who had attended essentially for their own enjoyment. Having studied for both a Bachelor and Master of Arts in the realm of Film and Television Studies, although having finished the latter four years ago, I was somewhere between the two.

Regardless of background however, it seems as though talking with friends, family, and colleagues, was met with the same kind of misunderstanding. “You’re studying Buffy?” is a question often posed to academics by those from other disciplines, whereas “you’re studying Buffy?” is one posed by those outside of academia. Thus EuroSlayage was made up of fans and academics (although I argue that both labels would apply to all at the conference, regardless) who not only recognise the value of studying such topics, but who were also delighted to be in the company of those who understand the struggle of dealing with others who consider it ‘just’ a TV show. There was even one presentation which dealt specifically with this issue.

As this was my first Slayage (primarily as it was the first to be held outside of North America, and as such much attention was paid to Whedon’s use of Englishisms), and my first academic conference at all, I was told on several occasions that it was not to be taken as an example of academic conferences in general. My first thought upon hearing this was to feel sorry for the rest of academia…

Having booked my train to the wrong station (I was so excited about securing my place at the event in Kingston that I failed to notice I was actually staying in the neighbouring London borough of Surbiton), my Slayage began by turning up to register at the Knight’s Park Campus, followed by taking my travelling backpack to the Seething Wells halls on what can only be described as an urban hike (it is a rather big backpack), and then the journey back again.

I arrived at the wine reception shindig to see a room full of people all chatting away as if they had known each other for years, and at this point realised that many of them indeed had, and that I had no idea as to how I would join in. Luckily I arrived just before the welcome by WSA President Stacey Abbot, and Associate Professor at Kingston University Simon Brown. As much as I enjoyed their introduction, I have to say nothing was as welcome as the whole sea of hands raised at the question of “who here is attending their first Slayage”. I was far from alone.

And far less alone that I originally thought, as people soon came up to me to introduce themselves, thankfully negating the fact doing this for myself is not one of my strong points. Although I didn’t recognise any faces, I have to admit that there was a great thrill at having Rhonda Wilcox, the author of Why Buffy Matters, a seminal Buffy textbook, say hello and that she recognised my name. Admittedly just from the list of those registered to attend, but still.

This was matched by having a short but sweet conversation with a lovely lady taking photos, about whether she wanted us to pose or if she would prefer us to act natural. She then introduced herself as Mary Alice Money, someone who Wilcox often quotes and defers to in her book, essentially becoming analogous to a grand sire of mine in terms of Buffy studies. Whoever came up with the idea of never meeting your idols because you’ll only be disappointed obviously never attended a Slayage.

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I’m not saying Kingston is far from the centre of London, but this is the Thames..

This was also another situation in which geeky T-shirts should never be underestimated, as they made a great ice breaker for many more than just myself. After the formal event ended, this lead to going to dinner with two women I had never met before, from entirely different countries to my own, but who I was chatting with as though I had known for years.

The next morning the conference began in earnest, with three full days (9am – 7pm) of talks, presentations, and four flights of stairs to get to them. I personally couldn’t have asked for a better start, with a keynote speech about fan reactions to the endings of TV series, and the ways in which those series continue, something which I find particularly interesting. After this came something completely different, but which I was equally looking forward to.

Although Joss Whedon is undoubtedly the current writer/producer/director whose work has the most analytical scholarship about his works, the first talk of the day (or at least my first, the nature of parallel sessions meaning I couldn’t attend them all) was entitled “Images of Tea in the Whedonverse“, something I had never begun to consider before, and was curious as to what I would learn.

In fact it turns out that tea is a perfect example of how even something that a first seems like the most inconsequential element will have many layers of meaning that you only realise after they have been explained to you, but which you can’t unsee afterwards. As well as conforming to English stereotypes, tea – of the British/European variety – was used to highlight the idea of the friendship group; both Wesley’s tea set and Fred’s mug being the first and most obvious possessions seen to be packed away after their respective leavings of the core group in Angel.

Chinese tea meanwhile, and the rituals surrounding it, is also often used as a representation of invitations, particularly those of an intimate or sexual nature. Upon watching Firefly when I returned home I noticed that the introduction of companion (read: courtesan) Inara saw her entertaining a client – both in the physical and ‘smile and nod’ sense – only to be insulted by an insinuation of cheating him of both time and money. With the mood obviously ruined, her reaction is to discard the tea set she had been carrying for seemingly no other reason that to discard it. As I said, cannot be unseen.

Other talks throughout the conference ranged from such a wide variety of approaches and disciplines that it is impossible to list them all here, although the full schedule can be found on the conference’s website. Whilst some may be fairly obvious in terms of tracing the links to classical literature (comparing Serenity‘s Operative to Les Misérables‘ Javert), or looking at the influences and contrasts of ancient mythology (the reversal of the Greek Orpheus myth, with heroine rescuing the male from hell), others took more outside the box approaches to Whedon’s work. There were also those which looked at Whedon himself, with one such talk examining at how fans (and indeed anti-fans) react to his own politics and charity work.

There was so much on offer to take in, and as much as I can only congratulate the organisers for the entire weekend, I cannot blame those who chose not to attend every session, particularly those directly before or after their own presentations. While it was impossible to attend every single panel due to them running parallel with each other, all those I did attend were fascinating, although perhaps last thing on a second full day wasn’t the best time slot for an examination of Buddhist philosophical concepts about self/no self regardless of any relation to Dollhouse? It’s fair to say that wasn’t when my mind was at its sharpest, but then I highly doubt I would have understood it all anyway. Perhaps at least this way I have a reasonable excuse?

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Dinner and a show…

Luckily the first day was followed by an evening meal which, presumably like other conferences, allowed the attendees to continue meeting new people and continue many discussions. There was also a raffle in which a number of text books were given away as prizes, of which I myself was a lucky winner, and now that my brain has been given a rest I can actually sit down and read. There was also a handing out of lyric sheets for the Buffy Sing-a-long, although I have been lead to believe this is not a standard occurrence at other conferences. As I mentioned before, the rest of academia has my sympathies.

In fact the only downside to such an evening was following a group who were walking back to what myself and one of many newly made friends originally thought was where we were staying, but who turn into the car park of a B&B and say good night. I can only thank them for not minding us tagging along in the first place, add London to the list of cities in which I’ve gotten lost, and figure that hey, part of the reason I attended Slayage was to learn, right? And what better way to learn than from your mistakes?

But whilst I wholeheartedly endorse this type of behaviour (by which I mean the merriment, although getting lost can have its merits), it is important to note that the conference wasn’t one to shy away from the more serious topics either.

Several presenters at Slayage raised many valid points which often came to the same conclusion about how Buffy, and pop-culture in general, help frame society’s values. One talk focused on how ideas of/reactions to abortion and sterility have been represented in the Whedon’s works, and the now infamous attempted rape scene in “Seeing Red” was mentioned several times in relation to notions of ‘masculinity’, as well as actual audience reactions to the very real world concepts of consent and abusive relationships. These also lead to discussions as to why other attempted rapes (as seen in “The Pack”), and telefantastical rape analogies (“Tabula Rasa”) were often overlooked. Ideas which were summed up expertly at one of the last talks of the entire conference, in which “The Wish” in particular was examined in terms of upholding and continuing the trend of victim blaming.

Likewise, two other talks as part of the same panel were the start of an audience debate in terms of attitudes towards of the deaths of women of colour. Although each talk was looking at the death of a particular slayer as examinations of the vampires who kill them rather than the slayers themselves, the point was rightly raised that at the very least in terms of how arguments are phrased, more awareness needs to be highlighted in terms of both gender (slayers are always female), and race (Kendra and Nikki are both black).

Discussions such as these raised the quality of Slayage as not only are they those which have to be had, but despite the obvious passion with which people were making their argument, they were also done so professionally and in a constructive manner. “Xander’s a dick!” is another point which was brought up with regards to a central male character who is often considered to be the heart of Buffy‘s Scooby Gang (see “Primeval”/”Restless” in particular), but whose other actions throughout the series also include slut-shaming the female lead.

That’s not to say that the entire conference was dominated by such seriousness, as analysis of the varying ways post-coital “morning after” scenes depict specific relationships elicited the giggles you can’t help but expect from such a topic. This is to say nothing of the way in which a room of fully grown academics reacted to the image of Anya eating chocolate whilst unashamedly staring at Spike’s masculine (à la Bruce Lee) body. More than this though, the friendly nature of the conference as a whole meant that presentations were given in a relaxed and even jovial atmosphere.

All of which added up to something one of the earliest professors of my BA once said; subjects like Film and TV aren’t easier than any other, we just have more fun while we’re studying them. Something I can attest to personally as I thoroughly enjoyed my own studies, and attended Slayage having still followed the work of the WSA throughout the four years since I was last within academia. Going back to study for a PhD is also something I have always considered as a possibility for the future.

Despite being hectic at times, and with far more to take in (not to mention write down by hand) than anything else I’ve experienced in such a long time, Slayage has left me with that bittersweet feeling of being sad that it is now over and I have to go on living in the real world once more (apparently it’s the hardest thing), but also glad at having experienced something which, either despite or because of current events, chose to “live as though the world is as it should be, to show it what it can be”.

So.

What am I gonna do now?

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Transmedia storytelling: Where do we tie-in from here?

Having been around almost as long as cult film and television itself, tie-in media is now serious business. Star Wars alone includes over 20,000 years of “Expanded Universe” history to support only six (so far) canonical feature films. But how do you go about creating such a detailed background, and what exactly is this background in the first place?

Firstly, you don’t have to. Tie-in media is generally anything that takes an already established story, usually a TV show, and tells another story using those characters, settings, etc, and it doesn’t have to be part of an epic sci-fi saga. Something as simple as the novelisation of Snakes on a Plane, or even the Dad’s Army stage adaptations could also fall under this category.

Starting at the beginning, perhaps one of the earliest pieces of original tie-in fiction was 1968’s Mission to Horatius, a young adult Star Trek novel by Mack Reynolds. Like the episodes of the series itself, the novel told the story of the Enterprise crew on an outer space adventure, thrills and danger were experienced, before everything is heroically, and not to forget neatly, concluded. Returning everything to the status quo meant that viewers and readers could dip in and out of adventures and not get lost. Everyone knew the central relationship between Kirk, Spock and McCoy, knew that Uhura would be there to take the messages, and the Klingons were the badguys. As time went on however, things changed.

The 34th Rule, by Armin Shimerman and David R George, filled in many gaps the on-screen 'Star Trek' to regarding humanities future 'Utopia'.

‘The 34th Rule’, by Armin Shimerman and David R George, filled many of  ‘Star Trek’s Utopia’s gaps.

Klingon peace treaties and the civil rights movement aside, Star Trek evolved, and its tie-in fiction along with it. The episodic TV series’ led to feature films with an ongoing story arc. The Voyage Home remains one of the most popular Trek films to date, but without a recap of The Search For Spock, those who haven’t seen it may be a little confused as to why there’s no Enterprise. Likewise novels were joined by comics that contained stories that could often have cliffhanger endings, leaving readers waiting with baited breath for next month’s issue.

Ten years after it’s initial cancellation, the other long running science-fiction series Doctor Who regenerated into audio adventures, reuniting cast members to portray their charcters, even if by only voicing them. With the series once again gracing TV screens, these classic Doctor tales are still going strong.

Following this, the new millennium began with The Matrix gifting the world with a new breed of tie-in, containing almost as much new storytelling as slow motion CGI. More than just new adventures however, The “Wachowski Warship” as the Wachowski ‘Brothers’ are now known, utilised comics, short animation films, and even a computer game, in order to tell the same narrative story, only from different perspectives; While the audience watching The Matrix Reloaded would witness Niobe imparting news of how a ship called The Osiris discovered a Sentinel threat, those who have seen the aptly named Final Flight of the Osiris would witness that discovery first hand, but only Enter The Matrix players would know how the story, and indeed the intel would be picked up and delivered by Niobe after Osiris’ drop off.

While The Matrix fleshed out a story that fans already knew, the TV series Lost would take this one step forwards (or possibly backwards?) throughout the show’s six season run. Although maybe not producing as many tie-ins as other series, what was produced put a twist on traditional elements, such the ‘in-universe’ tie-in novel Bad Twin (whose ‘author’ was also on flight 815, and the manuscript to which was read on-screen by Sawyer), and merged storytelling with mere merchandising, thanks to a collection of four “Mystery of the Island” Jigsaw Puzzles that advertised “exclusive new insight into TV’s most puzzling drama series.”

Jigsaw Puzzles were an original but laboured piece of 'Lost' transmedia story-telling.

Jigsaw Puzzles were a unique, but laboured piece of ‘Lost’ transmedia story-telling.

But despite such originality in their storytelling, they gave at best only the merest hints towards any further information regarding the show’s many unanswered questions. Meta-fiction aside, the puzzles themselves were just collages of screenshots and images from the show itself, each one only showing a quarter of the completed “insights” which were not only hidden on the back of the completed puzzles, but were written in both code, and glow in the dark ink (the cypher for which was only found on the fourth puzzle). As if this weren’t confusing enough, those that solved everything would only be asked further questions by script co-ordinator Gregg Nations; “I’d have to say yes, they can be considered canon. But keep in mind who wrote those coded messages to begin with — Radzinsky and then Kelvin. What were their states of mind when creating it? And can they really be trusted?

Even worse than Bad Twin‘s duplicity however, semi-canonical storylines set on the island itself, Lost: The Video Game for example, only served to complicate ideas even further by leaving players wondering what should be separated as Lost ‘fact’ from Lost ‘fiction’. Frustrations aside however, you can’t help but admire the planning that went into such a tie-in effort, orchestrated by writers and producers of the show itself.

With the advent of serial-arc based TV drama however, a concept that even Star Trek adopted, tie-in media encountered new problems, but which were relatively easy to overcome. With such a vast universe to explore, Star Trek: New Frontier was created to boldly go where no tie-in had gone before, featuring a completely new ship and crew. A short lived series of novels also looked at how the exploration that epitomised Star Trek was conducted by Starfleet’s Klingon counterparts. Needless to say, conquering was involved.

But the main problem came when the series ended. Often tie-in media was the place to go for fans who were hungry for more, but with the number of television programs adopting story arc’s now being the vast majority, there are more than one in which the final episode concludes its story through what would be a major game change in the characters lives. With tie-in authors unable to make any significant contributions to the development of character’s audiences loved, this was often the last they ever heard from them.

Whether boosted by the example set by Lost, or by their own enthusiasm as fans, producers of cult shows have begun to take transmedia storytelling more and more seriously, and continue to tell their stories themselves, after the shows have been cancelled. Something which comic publishers have been keen to capitalise on, releasing stories that not just continue a TV show’s narrative, but do so to the point where they are considered canonical, and even released in mini-series corresponding to the original show’s seasons. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight is an early example of this, and it has just been announced that The X Files will be the latest, with “Season 10” due to be published over a decade since “Season 9” was broadcast. Obviously great news for fans of cult franchises whose cast and crew could not be reunited, but more importantly, those that studio executives are no longer willing to risk money on.

But in the current climate of “Brand Recognition” (the idea that particularly in a recession, audiences are less likely to take risks with unknowns, and spend their money more on franchises they already know), this also comes at a price. As Buffy was a popular money maker throughout it’s seven season run, I’m sure Fox have no problem in allowing Dark Horse to license it’s intellectual property for as long as the royalties will keep on coming in.

Firefly on the other hand, also written and produced by Whedon, is a series that Fox doesn’t generally like or understand, and so was cancelled during it’s first and only season. Unable to establish the widespread fanbase it deserves, what the show lacks in quantity of fans it more than makes up for in quality, and with only fourteen episodes and one feature film produced, they are always eager for more. Joss Whedon’s time management aside, surely I’m not the only one who considers Fox’s dismissal and consequentially the the series’ lack of money making ability to be an important factor in it’s lack of comic production, a mere fraction of the titles set in the already heavily established ‘Buffyverse’.

The slayers' Scythe appeared in 'Fray' before 'Buffy The Vampire Slayer'

The slayers’ Scythe appeared in the comic ‘Fray’ before ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’.

Although transmedia has gained popularity and acclaim throughout it’s lifetime, I can think of only one instance in which a piece of tie-in fiction has influenced the TV show which had born it. When writing a comicbook mini-series, Whedon (I know I keep mentioning him, but do so not through choice, but simply due to the prolific and various natures of his work) assumed people would only want more slayers from him, and so obliged accordingly.

Even when considering this is just a very brief overview of its history, it is no wonder that tie-in media is increasingly now referred to as ‘transmedia’ storytelling. These new stories are no longer being written to tie-in with bigger storylines, they now often are the bigger storylines.

Before commenting on the current emerging trends of where it is taking us next, it is important to remember that new developments of transmedia do not always mean the end of the traditional, which are still important in their own right. Whilst Star Trek‘s on-screen adventures may have returned to an alternative view of Kirk & co, with the films writers and producers involved with the parallel and prequel comic series, brand new adventures of Picard, Sisko, and Archer (not so much Janeway) are still recalled through a plethora of novels. Novels which do not just keep characters alive, but which allow newer and previously unpublished writers to be read.

Una McCormack for example, has gone from writing internet fan-fiction, to pretty much holding the fate of Cardassia itself in her hands. More than just Hollow Men and The Never-Ending Sacrifice being two of the best Star Trek novels I have read (and I’ve read more than a few) writing tie-in fiction has given a writer the opportunity to not only contribute to series she loves (she has also written books for Doctor Who), but this has also lead to her own original fiction being publisd as well.

But just as with all evolutions, it seems the tree of transmedia is again spliting into two separate branches. Whereas previous divergences occured from prose to comic to audio however, this one is at the heart of on-screen media itself.

One thing it seems, is that with a rise of adaptations and series such as The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, transmedia has come full circle. Whereas tie-in material published through books were previously used to supplement on-screen adventures, now it seems that what we see on screens, is more and more filing in the gaps and producing it’s own additional narratives to supplement books and comics. Somehow creating three longer than average movies from a single children’s paperback, The Hobbit immediately springs to mind.

The Avengers Assembled. Six movies that form only "Phase One" of the 'Marvel Cinematic Universe'.

The Avengers Assembled. Six movies that form only “Phase One” of the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’.

More than this however, is the new tradition that has developed in which feature films now seem to be produced at a rate to rival TV episodes, something seen particularly with the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is well worth noting here, as what is being described as “Phase Two”, the continuation of films that culminated in Joss Whedon’s (told you, prolific) recent blockbuster The Avengers (Assemble), will constitute not just Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World et al, but also a S.H.I.E.L.D. Television series.

While it remains to be seen exactly how much this new series will link in with the films, with the inclusion of Agent Coulson who was seen dying in The Avengers (Assemble), filling in the backstory of how the S.H.I.E.L.D. organistation was created cannot be ruled out.

But regardless of the stories the TV series will tell, it seems that where TV has traditionally been the primary narrative with tie-in stories from ‘lesser’ media supplementing them, the twentyteens have not just followed Star Wars’ lead and promoted the primary narrative to cinematic heights, but with S.H.I.E.L.D. alongside The Clone Wars, promoted the supplementary stories to the ‘lesser’ medium of Television.

Although these phases of transmedia are still emerging, it is interesting to speculate who will take them up, and where they might go with them. Not forgetting of course, in the years to come, what other changes might come next…