Tag Archives: Buffy

“The Nevers”, Joss Whedon, and Who Controls Meaning

The biggest element of “The Nevers” you should know is that the show was developed and showrun by Joss Whedon. Given the multitude of disturbing allegations regarding racism, misogyny, and abuse that have surfaced about him, it will hopefully be his last. The creator of “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” and “Firefly” stepped away from “The Nevers” late last year, citing exhaustion. Given the timing as these allegations started mounting, it’s likely his departure wasn’t by choice. He was replaced by writer-producer Philippa Goslett as showrunner for subsequent seasons, but it was after a large amount of work on the first season had already been completed.

HBO series “The Nevers” follows heroine Amalia True and inventor Penance Adair. They run an orphanage for those who have been “touched” – granted a range of superhuman abilities. True can see glimpses of the future, for instance, Adair can see ways that electricity might be manipulated in her inventions. One of the girls at their orphanage is a giant; another they rescue can speak multiple languages but can’t control when. It’s all a bit 1890s London X-Men, but focused on women’s equality.

It’s unfortunate then that Whedon is the one who developed the show. Joshua Rivera tackled this well over at Polygon, describing “The Nevers” as a retread of Joss Whedon obsessions. Laura Donnelly’s True is the best martial artist around but struggles with inner vulnerability and suicidal tendencies. Rivera mentions Buffy, Faith, River Tam, and Echo from “Buffy”, “Angel”, “Firefly”, and “Dollhouse” as comparisons. I’d also add what Whedon did to Black Widow in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”. But this is just the gateway to the full retinue of Whedon tropes “The Nevers” suffers.

I’ve already mentioned Ann Skelly’s Penance Adair – the awkard, genius, geeky confidant with a talent for research and coming up with deus ex machinas for tough scrapes. Think here of Willow from “Buffy”, Fred from “Angel”, Simon Tam from “Firefly”, or Claire Saunders from “Dollhouse”.

Don’t forget the stoic, fatherly, socially misplaced male figures who care for them and insist they should slow down and be less aggressive. That’s Rupert Giles, Wesley, Simon Tam doing double-duty, Shepherd Book, the “Dollhouse” parental-figure-of-the-week set-up. Welcome Zackary Momoh as Dr. Horatio Cousens.

The male romantic interest is a loose cannon whose history of sociopathic tendencies, shortness of empathy, and lack of reliability must be understood and dismissed in order for him to be tamed. That’s Angel, Riley, Spike, much as I love him Captain Mal. To a large extent, that’s Jayne as well – just without the romantic-interest side of things. “The Nevers” gives us James Norton as sex addict Lord Hugo Swan.

And yes, I understand that for vampires in the Buffy-verse, this archetype is usually a case of not having their soul while committing mass atrocities, but isn’t that what we hear time and again from men who’ve been exposed for bigotry, sexual assault, and abuse – “That’s not who I am”. Hell, isn’t “Dollhouse” about people who act as others – often violently – who then set it aside as a personality that isn’t their own? This might be the core Whedonism of them all, but learning that it’s core to Whedon himself can’t help but change our view of that trope.

Not to be forgotten, there’s also the awkward-but-lovable, largely innocuous male friend (Xander, Lorne, Wash, Simon Tam pulling triple-duty). Tom Riley is Augie in “The Nevers”. He’s Swan’s painfully shy best friend, whose abrupt insensitivity to the two women leads is presented as a feature of being too sensitive. What?

Oh, and if you can also squeeze a fetishized, make-believe interpretation of severe mental illness for a woman who’s clearly been victimized but who can’t communicate it to the outside world, you’ve got Whedon bingo. Think Drusilla, River Tam, Echo. This might be Whedon’s most insidious trope – the woman who has suffered trauma, and who most around her dismiss because she can’t communicate it. If anything else here can be understood as a potential projection of Whedon’s, this is the most frightening. For that matter, think of every leading woman on “Angel”, from Cordelia’s sudden death to the horrific possession and replacement of Fred by Illyria. Here, it’s Amy Manson’s Maladie.

If you want to think of the other half of what “Dollhouse” is about, this is it: people who are abused, over and over again, made to dismiss or forget what’s happened to them, powerless to communicate it, and trying to figure out how to do so in a coded way. In the wake of realizations about Joss Whedon, many of the tropes we call Whedonisms suddenly play out much differently. Few play out so terrifyingly.

The cast of “The Nevers” is charming, and that’s without mentioning Olivia Williams as True and Adair’s benefactor Lavinia. It goes without bringing up Pip Torrens’s blink-and-he’s-Hugh-Laurie turn as villain Lord Massen, Nick Frost’s double-crossing Beggar King, or Ben Chaplin’s growling Detective Mundi.

Yet the casts from all these shows have been charming. That shouldn’t make it easier to come to terms with “The Nevers”.

I still find a great deal to love in all these shows. I know where I took value from them, or where they did in fact challenge a pre-conception I had growing up in the 90s and becoming an adult in the 00s. Some of those shows did make progress. They did confront old problems, even if they brought up new ones. They did mean something, and that meaning wasn’t necessarily a lie. At the same time, I have a new awareness that contributes to my understanding of them, an awareness it would be irresponsible to view these shows without.

None of this is to say we should hate these characters. I love many of them. To me, it’s important to remember that Whedon didn’t realize them alone. Buffy is a creation of Sarah Michelle Gellar, Kristy Swanson before her, of countless writers and directors who contributed to the character, and yes – of Joss Whedon. He is one of the most primary voices in every character of these shows, but he is not the only primary voice creating them.

Do we reject these shows and characters outright? As fans, do we have the ability to transfer mass understanding of their ownership and creative control to, say, Sarah Michelle Gellar? Do we understand her as the person who tells us who Buffy is now? Is it more productive to reject the characters and meanings of those shows, or to seize them and decide their meaning ourselves? Is what’s productive the same as what’s right?

I don’t know the answers to this. We are grappling with these questions across the board. It’s not the first time this has happened either – Harry Potter fans grapple with the role the franchise had in their own youth, even as they pry their understanding of it away from author J.K. Rowling and her anti-trans bigotry. Maybe it’s possible to still value what Harry Potter contributed while rejecting Rowling herself.

On the other hand, what Bill Cosby did amounted to a complete cultural rejection of “The Cosby Show”. Some people will say “turn it up” when a Michael Jackson song comes on; others will say “turn it off”. And yes, there is a racial double-standard at play here – how many white musicians are never held accountable for this? Pick your decade – Elvis, Jimmy Page, Stephen Tyler, and Anthony Kiedis all committed statutory rape. Where is our rage against them?

It’s made more difficult when the creations we’re talking about are less the product of a single person. Can you still watch the original “X-Men” movies because Patrick Stewart has worked so hard on domestic violence causes and is himself a survivor of child abuse, and because Ian McKellen has for so long been an icon for LGBTQ representation? Or should we avoid them because director Bryan Singer has been accused multiple times of statutory rape?

How do we weight those different elements? I don’t think I can tell someone who watches because Stewart or McKellen mean so much to them that they shouldn’t. I certainly can’t tell someone who won’t watch because of Singer’s behavior that they should. What I do know is that the conversation around them is deeply necessary. Above all, if we choose to watch, we can’t do so in ignorance. We can’t cut out the problematic element from it and act like it’s not there when it’s still fundamental to what we’re watching.

You can judge any show on its own qualities. Yet when so many of those qualities are informed by the well-established tendencies and projections of an abusive creator, you cannot pretend those qualities are isolated from him instead of informed by him.

Despite a litany of problems in “The Nevers” that arise from both this and from technical quarters (the show often looks like a 90s TV mini-series, and not in a good way), I’m debating whether I’ll still watch in the hope that it will get better. I wouldn’t consider this if Whedon was still on the show. If he was coming back, no chance. Given that he’s been replaced, I may give “The Nevers” a shot in the hope – perhaps misplaced – that what’s most Whedonesque about it will wash off as it goes. Then again, maybe the point is that it can’t.

Whatever it may be, whether this, Harry Potter, X-Men, countless other projects…I think it sends us all through a messy loop of thoughts. Perhaps I’m just making an excuse for watching something I’d like to see improve. Perhaps it’s an attempt to take a kind of control back from what feels like a betrayal. Or maybe that’s just an easy way to justify the cognitive dissonance of watching a show Whedon developed. Am I even hoping for the show to become good, or is there some part of me that would be even more satisfied seeing Whedon’s last work become a full-blown disaster? Do I want the show to succeed without Whedon, or fail because of him? Doesn’t thinking that way assign it as his, and disempower the cast and crew that also made it? Is it useful for me as a critic to analyze Whedon’s tendencies through what is hopefully his last show? Can that inform us in a way that helps, or is it just angrily chasing down a rabbit hole? Is there part of me that’s hiding behind the excuse of being a critic because I want to watch it? I do hope I’ll get to see the show reject these elements over time, and grow away from Whedon’s influence. How satisfying would that be? But it’s just as likely the show doubles down on what are now industry tropes even under a new showrunner.

If I watch this, is it one last place where Whedon gets to control meaning in a harmful way, or is it one more place where we get to take control of that meaning so that he can’t have it? I really wish I knew which it was.

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The Case for Counselor Troi — How “Star Trek” & “Buffy” Shaped Movies, TV, and Me

Buffy the vampire slayer

by Gabriel Valdez

I was raised on Star Trek. In The Next Generation, male power figures struggled to connect with their emotions (Picard, Worf, Data).

On Deep Space Nine, they struggled to contain their anger when the universe took away the things they loved (Sisko’s sanity, Worf’s wife, Bashir’s research and humanity, O’Brien’s pretty much everything – I think the writers made it their mission to obliterate O’Brien twice a season).

On Voyager, they struggled to be commanded by a woman, not because she was a woman – mind you, Star Trek posed a civilization too advanced to be dealing with that – but because she was the Yul Brynner to their rag-tag, rowdy Magnificent Seven (Chakotay, Paris, the Emergency Medical Hologram). The metaphor, however, was pretty clear.

These struggles with male expectations often proved to be the most difficult obstacle for a plot to overcome. For all the derision heaped on Counselor Troi in Next Generation – the running joke in a lot of the show’s criticism was that she was useless – she may’ve been the most crucial cog in that entire crew, constantly coaxing men to get over themselves and experience another person’s or culture’s perspective. She may have saved the Enterprise more than any other character, not through the orders she gave or actions she took, but by helping the crew to inhabit situations from the perspectives of others.

Picard goes through the ringer several times – indoctrination by the Borg, torture by the Cardassians, living a whole other alien life because of a mysterious space probe – and it’s always Troi bringing him back from the edge. She helped Data achieve his goals of becoming more human by introducing him to concepts of art, empathy, and social responsibilities outside of his duty. She talked Worf out of suicide countless times. The suicide was always ritual – cultural – but it came at times when Worf was afraid of dying in a way that wasn’t warlike enough – that wasn’t manly enough.

Major Kira

On Deep Space Nine, while Sisko and Worf and O’Brien struggled with their personal losses, it was Kira Nerys – a survivor of genocide who had lost her family, culture, religion, and most of her species – who held it together the best. There were times the others were barely fit to command, and would risk crewmates or shirk their responsibilities in order to exact vengeance, but Kira was the one who could fight for a cause one minute, and look her enemy straight in the eye and relent when it saved lives. (If you’re at all a fan of science-fiction, Deep Space Nine is on Netflix and Hulu. It is the best science-fiction show ever put to television, with the possible exception of The Twilight Zone.)

On Voyager, Captain Kathryn Janeway incorporated a band of rebels into her crew, relied on a convict navigator, a holographic doctor, an officer who was essentially reconditioned from a lifetime in a genetically enhanced cult, and even – at points – the son of an omnipotent being. She made decisions more quickly and more fairly than any other captain because she came fully in tune with her own emotions – she didn’t have the same struggles as Picard or Sisko – and constantly approached situations from the perspectives of her opponents. She was Counselor Troi and Captain Picard all rolled up into one.

So Next Generation showed me that being manly, being Rocky or Rambo, could cause more problems than it ever solved. Solutions came through the diplomacy Picard represented, yes, but true diplomacy could only be achieved through the empathy Troi championed. Deep Space Nine showed me that relying on my anger would only risk those around me, that anger is self-perpetuated and can destroy better solutions in order to maintenance its own survival. And Voyager showed me that sometimes men should shut up and listen, not because women know more or have better opinions – it’s all pretty much equal – but because our society gives men so many more chances to speak that we can’t benefit from the opinions we never hear.

Captain Janeway

But then came Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its men whined and pouted and spilled their feelings willy-nilly, while the women kicked ass and got things done. Creator Joss Whedon is often criticized for making women strong by making them literally, physically strong rather than emotionally or mentally, but that’s a false argument to me. Buffy coped with heartache and breakup and becoming a single parent to her sister while dealing with the end of the world and staking vampires through the heart. Guys like Angel and Riley couldn’t do both at once – they would get sidetracked by bottled-up emotions they had failed to deal with and lose sight of the fight at hand. At times, they may have been Buffy’s physical equals, but they were never her mental or emotional equals. They had a lot of maturing to do before they could make that claim.

Fast-forward to the spinoff Angel and even Valley-girl Charisma Carpenter became the war-wearied voice of reason and unofficial leader of the pack, allowing Angel to continue his more personal quest to become the moodiest moodster in Moodytown.

You know what, though? Angel became a better person – he literally gets his soul back – by connecting with those around him and sharing his feelings. Clutzy, nerdy Xander becomes a leader precisely because he was so emotionally honest in his formative years – he had learned to deal with his emotions rather than hiding them or pretending they weren’t there. Giles is perpetually himself and doesn’t feel any pressure to be any other way. It keeps him sane through some pretty messed up plot. So Buffy might have strong women, but I’d already bought into that idea. It was important to have that reinforced, but just as importantly, Buffy featured men who understood it was OK to be weak, to talk about your problems and, yeah, to whine. And that was pretty crucial for me to be exposed to.

None of these shows on their own finished painting the picture, but all of them combined helped me place different priorities on what was important in “being a man.”

I didn’t see them in a vacuum either – they were informed by Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis styled action roles. Yet when I watched those roles, they didn’t seem like the examples of manliness they were supposed to be. I saw pieces missing. I enjoyed their exploits, but they never seemed like full characters.

There’s a reason that male Marvel heroes spill their guts and confront each other about their emotions now. It’s not because Whedon’s in charge of them either – they did that before he came on board. It’s because shows like Star Trek and Buffy forced science-fiction to grow up when it came to how men and women related to each other. Schwarzenegger and Stallone stopped feeling real to enough people, they stopped having as much function for viewers; men who were strong because they shared their emotions started feeling more real and started being more useful.

We often talk about how geek culture took over – I don’t think it did, at least not because it’s specifically geek culture. I think science-fiction, comic, and fantasy fiction were the only genres that let us progress as a storytelling society and so, like water flowing down the path of least resistance, we gravitated toward the genres that allowed us to evolve our storytelling and the kinds of characters we felt were important.

We still watch the old-fashioned movies, and there’s still a lot to fix in the new ones, but it’s nice to know that Troi and Kira and Janeway all helped explain (along with the voices of friends and family) that there were better ways to solve problems than just beating them up, that empathy was more important than dominance, and that characters like Picard, Worf, O’Brien, and Chakotay would be less successful, or even dead, without the benefit of empathy, understanding, and compromise. That paired well with Buffy telling me it was better as a man to talk about emotions and move on than to be tough, hide them, and never cope. Voices of women not only saved other characters from science-fiction and fantasy predicaments, they saved science-fiction and fantasy themselves.