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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Another Golden Oldie: From Screen To Stereo

As promised, here’s another Rabbit article I’ve managed to find and upload. Prior to the 19th November 2010 issue, the film editor asked round if anyone would like to write about their top ten film soundtracks. Despite it being limited to 500 words if I remember rightly, I gave it a go, and lo and behold, my first article based on someone else’s brief was published for all the world (well, on campus) to read.

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Why ‘Firefly’ shouldn’t be given a kickstarter back onto our screens.

One of the most talked about things that happened in Geek/Film/Internet news this past week, is that a Veronica Mars spin-off film has been greenlit, based on fan reactions (and donations) to a crowd-sourcing project started by the TV show’s creator Rob Thomas.

Although hardly the first film to get started this way, it is by far the most well known, which is probably the most important factor for it breaking the record to be the fastest $1m dollar earner, which it achieved in less than five hours. Because of this, it is not unexpected that people have started to look at it with some suspicion, if not doubt. Will the fans get anything extra in return for their investment, or is their devotion just being exploited?

The feature film 'Serenity' was unprecedented in its creation from a cancelled TV series.

The feature film ‘Serenity’ was unprecedented in its creation from a cancelled TV series.

It is also hardly surprising that fans of other cancelled TV series and movie franchises are also wondering what it could mean for the objects of their own affection, none more so than the so called ‘Browncoats’: Fans of the TV series Firefly, who have taken their name from the Independents of the series, a passionate army fighting against the all powerful Alliance.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, Firefly was an extremely short series which, thanks to the tenacity of creator Joss Whedon and the devotion of fans, was picked up by Universal Studios, and the feature film Serenity was born.

Somehow Firefly had done the impossible. There are whole numbers of long lived series that can only dream of making it to the big screen, and Firefly had done it after just fourteen episodes? Fourteen episodes that FOX hadn’t even broadcast in the right order, three not even at all during its initial run. Serenity was a massive success in just getting made, but was only less than mildly successful at the box office.

Whilst fans went to see it in their droves, the general audience went there only generally. Despite the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) being just one of the many awards it received, not to mention reaching the #2 spot at its opening weekend at the box office, the film wasn’t all that Universal had been hoping for.

Like the series that preceded it, it was DVD sales that would be its economic lifeline, but they were still not enough to greenlight even a TV movie, let alone the two cinematic sequels to complete the “Big Damn Trilogy” fans were hoping for. Serenity was made back in 2005, Firefly was first (partially) broadcast and cancelled in December ’02, and only the small number of comic book mini-series and one-shots that have been published is all that the Browncoats have heard from the Firefly ‘verse in all this time.

Needless to say, Veronica Mars‘ latest news has reignited the spark of hope in fans’ hearts (if it ever went out to begin with), and Whedon has already been interviewed for his take on what it means for the future of the ‘verse:

“I’ve said repeatedly that I would love to make another movie with these guys, and that remains the case. It also remains the case that I’m booked up by Marvel for the next three years, and that I haven’t even been able to get Dr. Horrible 2 off the ground because of that. So I don’t even entertain the notion of entertaining the notion of doing this, and won’t. Couple years from now, when Nathan [Fillion]’s no longer [on] Castle and I’m no longer the Tom Hagen of the Marvel Universe and making a giant movie, we might look and see where the market is then.”

As one fan put it, “Drat. More “maybe eventually”s.”

Needless to say, fans’ hopes and expectations are a constant up and down, hanging on to anything Whedon and the rest of the cast and crew have to say on the matter. Speaking as a fan myself, I have to say that, in my opinion at least, Firefly is dead. And it should stay that way.

For those of you who haven’t left in disgust, I’ll explain why.

As I mentioned, the series was cancelled ten years ago. I don’t know if anyone else has ever seen a film based on a series that’s been gone for ten years, but I have, and I didn’t find Star Trek: The Motion Picture that interesting.

[Dammit, Twitter has just directed me to Jane Nelson’s blog on SFX.co.uk, where she’s saying exactly the same thing. Whilst she’s talking about a variety of shows though, allow me to carry on with Firefly in more detail].

Looking at this properly (and in more detail than Nelson), Whedon is busy for at least the next three years, and even then it seems as though Dr. Horrible 2 gets first dibs on his constantly busy schedule. In her blog Nelson says many fans think Whedon should hand over the reigns to someone else, but a Whedon-less project also has the potential to anger as many fans as the initial cancellation. Assuming fans would compromise with someone else producing and directing a Whedon written script, he still wouldn’t have time to do even that.

Also, there was speculation of the sequel to Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Whedon’s online project during the Film & TV writers’ strike, being a feature film even before Whedon was attached to the Avengers. There were also reports of the story outline and even songs, had already been written. If we were to assume the already in the works Avengers 2 makes it to screens in the Summer of 2015 (which is pushing it), and the Doctor Horrible 2 script already to go, the very earliest it could be released is Christmas ’15.

Bear in mind this is taking Whedon’s ability to juggle projects to max, and assuming there are no other problems in Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, (and Felicia Day?) finding room in their busy schedules. Very (very very) vaguely possible, but still highly unlikely. If (again, very big if) this happened, the earliest we could expect Serenity 2 is Christmas 2016. With his own passion for the project it is not something that Whedon would allow to be rushed, just the knowledge of knowing it was being made would placate fans enough for it to be given the time it would need, and I doubt Universal would give it priority in their summer blockbuster schedule anyway.

So, Christmas 2016 it is. (Very big if.)

Remember how I said Firefly was cancelled in December ’02? That’s fourteen years difference. As Nelson (damn you and your being paid to write!) points out, that’s a big difference. Too much of a difference to pick up where they last left off, and no-one wants to see them still in the same place. When you consider the character of River Tam was 17 years old, she’d now be 31. Hardly the crazy and mischievous teenager she once was, the fact that actress Jewel Staite was even younger only complicates things further.

'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' was released ten years after 'Star Trek' was cancelled.

‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ was released ten years after ‘Star Trek’ was cancelled.

But rather than carrying on the hypothetical situations, lets go back to that comparable TV/Film series, Star Trek. Like Firefly, Star Trek was unappreciated in it’s own time, and much like Serenity, a fan campaign was needed for season 3 to be commissioned, when NBC cancelled it after only two. It was during syndication that it achieved the major popularity it is recognised for today, but with people finding it only after it had been cancelled, again the only ‘official’ stories were hand drawn, with Star Trek: The Animated Series producing 22 episodes in 1973-74. The Motion Picture was finally released in ’79, ten years after season 3 originally aired. What started as the pilot episode to what would have been Star Trek: Phase II, it was a massive hit with fans, but only mildly popular with the critics.

Looking back it isn’t exactly seen as one of the best Trek films, and it’s sequel The Wrath of Khan performed so well thanks in part to the replacement of Gene Roddenberry with a newer, and more objective creative team. Headed by producer Harvey Bennett, together they had the insight to acknowledge the character’s age, putting fearless Captain (now Admiral) Kirk in the middle of a mid-life crisis. Whilst fans would find this a not only plausible but also hilarious situation for Captain Malcolm Reynolds, by now he would surely have been pushed beyond the raggedy edge, and his crew scattered to all corners of the ‘verse. And it’s not as though it could have an emotional/unexpected Spock style death to end on a (dramatic) high with either, thanks to both Book and Wash having already suffered that fate. Yet another obstacle for new Firefly projects to overcome.

This ousting of Roddenberry to the role of “consultant” in the first place wouldn’t have been sacrilegious to the fans, even if it was disappointing. Despite being the shows creator, Roddenberry himself jumped ship during the show’s third season and remained executive producer in name only. As a TV show its three seasons were crafted by a range of extra writers brought in, Whedon’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel also worked this way like nearly all US shows, but Firefly was never given the chance. The creative team was kept to a core of only a few members, and as mentioned before, any Whedonless project could split fandom wide open in a manner not seen since The Phantom Menace. A film which itself is a warning to leave the long gone, well alone.

Actors and characters aside, it’s also the audience who have grown. Whilst I was aware of it when it was released, I didn’t see Serenity until a screening at my University’s Students Union. This would have been around the time of the DVD’s European release, and I got into Firefly from that. I’ll admit I was late to the party (sorry!), but there is now a whole generation younger than me who are even later. Despite DVD and now Blu-ray keeping the series alive for new audiences to find all the time, it’s fair to say that the majority of people younger than me are too young to remember it first time round, even if it isn’t their fault.

Even as a film student, Serenity is the best example that I can think of, of exposition aimed at audience members that are both new, through to those with encyclopedic levels of knowledgeable, simultaneously. In today’s climate of ever increasing, and attention seeking, media, relying only on word of mouth (and blogs) will never be enough to keep up, and many of today’s teenagers simply won’t be interested in something that’s ten years old. I can’t even imagine 2016’s teenagers being even remotely interested in something that would be older than they are. Between many older fans’ incessant expectations, and newer audiences’ ambivalence, the stakes just seem to high to live up to.

So what about Serenity: The Next Generation? Despite featuring only one solar system compared to Star Trek‘s entire galaxy, there is still a whole host of other ships and crews out there, many in similar situations. What about a fresh start for the ‘verse  featuring one of those?

For a start, the actual Next Generation is more than just what Phase II would have been, and Decker/Riker & Ilia/Troi aside, the differences outweigh the similarities. Not only is the whole show is set in the next century, there’s even a Klingon on the starboard bridge console! While retaining the same exploratory spirit of the original, it’s more than just another crew on another ship, because it needed to be something different. Although Data is not so far removed from Spock (the two of whom finally meet in Unification part II, a conversation which doesn’t disappoint), there is a difference between the same roles and same characters. Picard may hold the same rank as Kirk, but has a far more diplomatic way of going about it.

The fan-film 'Browncoats: Redemption' "Project has ended & the DVD/Bluray is no longer available."

The fan-film ‘Browncoats: Redemption’ “Project has ended & the DVD/Bluray is no longer available.”

This different crew approach was when the 2010 crowd sourced fan-film Browncoats: Redemption was released, which featured a cameo from Adam Baldwin and reportedly received a “blessing” from Whedon himself. Although the project has raised money for many different charities and is given respect for the undertaking involved, it hardly filled the gap many fans still felt was missing in their lives.

Unlike in any Star Trek, the mercenary crew of Serenity are so much more than a militaristic unit, and it is the characters and relationships that made Firefly what it is. Just as any ‘reunion’ movie wouldn’t likely work for the reasons outlined above, Redemption was criticised by some fans for trying too hard and following the original too closely. This is an obstacle that even a new Whedon created crew would also have to tackle, and anything too different seems almost beyond waiting for.

By 2016 I’m sure Whedon’s clout in Hollywood would be enough for those writing the cheques to greenlight anything he wants. As much as passion is needed to create a film that works, rather than creating a film because “If I don’t, it’s the only thing I’m ever going to be asked ever by anyone“, I believe fans should instead be asking for original stories in new universes. Whilst I’m sure the above quote was said with the zany sarcasm present in most of Joss Whedon’s interviews, he has a very real point.

Yes I would have loved Firefly to have continued rather than be cancelled, and by all means please do give us more comics. But by now the on-screen adventures of Serenity and her crew are long gone, and any continued efforts to bring them back just seem like flogging a horse that is dead as Browncoats’ hope should be. Like so many others, as a huge fan of Whedon’s, I continually can’t wait for his next projects. The general release of Much Ado About Nothing can’t come soon enough, I’m sure The Avengers 2 will be just as breathtaking as the first, and I can’t wait to see Doctor Horrible again, but original or not, these are all projects that Whedon and co. have already started working on.

While too many Browncoats are waiting impatiently for the box office success of Veronica Mars: The Movie to bring their dream that one step closer, my time will be better spent specualting on something else.

Whedon is not just a writer, he is a creator. Thanks to the fruits of his creative genius, a teenage girl not only saved the world several times over, but reshaped the landscape of American TV while she was doing it. A crew of mercenaries instilled so much passion in fans that they actually achieved their goal of getting a feature film produced from a TV series cancelled during its first season.

 These are feats that are unprecedented, and cannot be overstated enough. And I for one am eager to know what game changing universe Joss Whedon will create next.