Why we love Joss Whedon

By Lorenzo

Because of this.

There is also BuffyAngelFirefly and Serenity. (Dollhouse, not so much.)

I have a particular soft spot for Serenity. Not merely because it is a fine SF film, but because it such a fine anti-utopian film. Mal’s speech [spoiler alert] is a great moment:

Somebody has to speak for these people.

As sure as I know anything, I know this. They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they will swing back to the belief that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that.

In one of the special features in the Australian release of the DVD, Joss Whedon says of the film that it explores:

where the Utopian vision stops. Because whenever you create some kind of Utopia you find something ugly working underneath it.

Utopianism is always evil, because it is always a war against people as they are in the name of people as they should allegedly be; it is always an assault on the core of being human. The utopian aim justifies utter unscrupulousness (because the goal is so wonderful and noble that any means are justified), utter arrogance (because the anointed just know how things should be while any resistance just proves how benighted and inadequate such folk are) and complete control (since otherwise how is one going to be able to remake folk who, as inferior versions who fail to realise their own inferiority, obviously shouldn’t get a say). It is hardly surprising that the utopian urge has left nothing but misery and disaster in its wake.

Joss’s anti-utopian realism creates a coherent moral structure for the plot of Serenity, with all those themes working out and driving the story. That actions have consequences, that the dark in the human soul is real, are two guiding principles of his art. (Hence his anti-utopianism.) But he also creates vivid characters, great stories and sparkling dialogue.

Joss is even great in what he inspires, as in the classic Buffy versus Edward. (Because real vampires don’t sparkle: yes, that was completely gratuitous Spike action. Here’s more, from the classic Once More With Feeling, the Buffy-the-Musical episode. I am also fond of the Angel puppet episode Smile Time. Which gives us yet more gratuitous Spike action. For we love Joss because he is willing to go there, and pull it off.)

But we come back to where we came in, loving Joss Whedon because of this.

21 Comments

  1. Posted April 12, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    This is the best thing I have read in ages.

  2. Movius
    Posted April 12, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    All this may be true…

    …and yet there is Alien 4. Never forget.

  3. Posted April 12, 2012 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    The Firefly universe certainly was an enthralling blend of many classic story telling elements. I always found Dollhouse worth watching, and still don’t quite understand why it was seen as not up to par.

  4. Ripples
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    It’s funny that I never considered any of the gender roles or portrayal of women and equality of power. I just enjoyed a cracking fun adventure with Joss’s work. I especially love the quotable quotes and one liner’s he always seems to have in his works.
    I did love the Sweet’s “Little Willy” as the backing track to the Spike fan vid.

  5. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the idea of “making humans better” is inherently wrong – because I see a lot of merit in Xun Zi’s (aka Hsun Tze) argument that “Man’s Nature is inherently evil, but we can be educated”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xun_Zi#Man.27s_Nature_is_Wayward

    (Xun Zi is from the “hard-arse” Confucian school, as opposed to the “Man is naturally an angel but the environment can make him fall” line of Mencius – who, because agreeing with Christian’s got a Latin name which Xun Zi didn’t)

    Steven Pinker also takes the line that we are becoming more civilized … ever so slowly, in an evolutionary feedback loop with civilization.

    Perhaps it is the external imposition of Utopian order when the hearts and minds are not prepared for it that is the problem, and it’s possible to “fast track” the improvements discussed by Pinker with wider and better (whatever “better” is) education that is more for the development of the inner life rather than the current emphasis on workforce credentials. If all hearts can be given a desire to be better people, rather than merely have better “stuff”, then the Utopia would be an epiphenomenon rather than imposed and unstable.

    That said – I love Huxley’s “Brave New World” – the “wrong” is really “not quite right”, offensive to those of us who’d make good Guardians/Controllers – but, with everyone fulfilling their potential, the happy Gammas, the Betas with the feelies and soma … it was probably happier than our bogans (cashed up or not) who are disgruntled and hard-hearted, the aspirationalists who can never be sated.

  6. Posted April 13, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    [email protected] There is an ambiguity in “make people better”. If you mean get folk to behave better, to think more respectfully of their fellow humans, that’s fine.

    If you mean reach in and try and change their nature, that is a different thing. Forcing them to change their nature, even more so.

    On Brave New World, Huxley would have said people like you are precisely what he was worried about 🙂

    I would point out that it is made clear the society had been imposed violently, including by killing off unhelpful humans. Also, it postulated wildly implausible levels of informed control.

  7. Posted April 13, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] : Yes, I /am/ the type Huxley would worry about. I love it (the book) because there are good and bad points – and it’s hard to think of which are more significant. Violent installation of any paradigm is par for the course.

    But … still … I reckon everybody in the never-watch-ABC-news demographic (lots of those) would LOVE to have the BNW Beta lifestyle … Feelies (beats 3D with Surround sound), Centrifugal Fumblepuppy (is that it?), sex and Soma, and never having to read Shakespeare would be heaven to that lot. Wonder what that demographic would prefer?

    In “Firefly”, the Controllers just weren’t good at beta-testing (ahem!) their version of soma (producing the Ravers), and then they tried to hide the screwup.

    The only difference between Firefly and BNW is that the second had better pharmacologists.

  8. Mel
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    “Utopianism is always evil, because it is always a war against people as they are in the name of people as they should allegedly be …. It is hardly surprising that the utopian urge has left nothing but misery and disaster in its wake.”

    Well yes, utopians from Hayek to Rand to Mises are indeed scary beasts. You’re welcome to hold your faith in the Road To Serfdom, but I think I’ll just keep amblin’ down the Road To Nowhere.

  9. Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] I believe they were Reavers. I can’t quite see Ravers as a scary by-product of utopianism 🙂

    And it was Serenity the film, not Firefly the series where Things Are Explained.

    [email protected] You’re just calling Hayek a utopian to provoke me. *Ostentatiously walks away from obvious smelly-cheese trap*

  10. Mel
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Nah, it’s Friday the 13th and I’m just feelin’ a little wacky!

  11. Patrick
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    I liked Brave New World as a thought game rather than a novel as such.

    But I didn’t detect the ambiguity you seem to refer to DB, I was pretty much certain it was all bad.

    Unless of course you were a member of the ruling class – but if we ever did implement this kind of society, the only ‘arty/lefty’ elites admitted would be, as in the USSR/Nazi Germany, the useful idiots.

    Anyone worth talking to would be by definition dead.

    Mel, you were on such a roll until about lunchtime today, I think the early morning is catching up with you!

  12. Mel
    Posted April 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Hayek’s version of John Lennon’s Imagine

    Imagines there’s no taxes
    It’s easy if you try
    No coal left below us
    Above us only Carbon Dioxide

    Imagine a tiny Government
    It isn’t hard to do
    No artists gettin’ handouts
    And no social welfare too
    Imagine a handful of property owners
    Owning all the World!!

    Yooo hoooh!!!

  13. Posted April 13, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] That might describe some of the madder Rothbardians, but Hayek was not an anarchocapitalist. Indeed, Hayek is regarded as close to a sell-out by such folk.

  14. Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Rothbard’s your man for that ditty, Mel. Hayek by comparison is positively statist.

    Dave, some of your comments on this thread bring to mind a couple of S.M. Stirling’s observations on his Draka books: he got a bit worried when people were writing to him expressing their admiration for the Draka society he’d created in the series (basically all the nasty bits of Rome and Sparta combined with one good bit from both — the high status of women — plus modern technology).

    He had to keep pointing out that it was, ahem, meant to be satire, and he was not endorsing those values in any way.

    It’s just that Stirling, being a good writer, made his Draka characters sympathetic and interesting, not cardboard cut-outs, and huge numbers of people couldn’t tell the difference between that and ‘siding’ with them.

    My, I know how that feels.

    Stirling’s final observation?

    There is a technical term for someone who confuses the opinions of a character in a book with those of the author. That term is idiot.

  15. Posted April 13, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    SL: Another Stirling fan! Loved the Draka books. Though The Peshawar Lancers remains my standout favourite.

  16. Posted April 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Oh, Brave New World had the poisons added to the test tube to stupefy the brain.

    In our world, the poisons are in the cathode ray tube (if you haven’t got a plasma/lcd tv yet).

    The /problem/ with Brave New World, why it unsettles me, is that, however much you dislike the dumbing down in the test tube and the lack of culture, the masses were /happy/, in a way that north koreans /aren’t/. The happy gammas and betas are fully realizaling their potential granted at birth. How many in gamma jobs in /our/ worlld are fully using their potential?

    John Savage might be seen as a troublemaker by the Controllers, but in our world, the “elites” (such as the denizens here, of all political persuasions), are viewed as the angst spreaders and troublemakers by the masses.

    Huxley’s other novel with a Utopian theme, “Island” is another unsettling mix, “nicer” in some ways, but something again is “missing”, and I can’t resolve the problems posed in these works, which is why I love them. (what was that in B5 about good questions never having easy answers?)

    So, again, I ask those here, what percentage of the population here who have beta or gamma brains would choose the lives of betas and gammas in Brave New World over lifestyles here? If they answred honestly? If we asked the “bottom 60%” or even “bottom 70%”?

    What is the purpose of a society, of climbing down out of the trees in the first place? Having the members happy? Having a happy stock market? Having production of “high culture” (including science). Can we slag off any (eu/dys)topia without being able to look at our own society using equally critical eyes, without clarity of what we’d like optimized?

  17. Patrick
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Dave, I’m happy to give you that BNW was better than the DPRNK. But I’m not sure that there is anything for us to learn from either of those countries or the USSR other than what not to do!

    I don’t personally think much of happiness, either, I think it is a crock of an idea in many ways.

  18. Mel
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Final verse of the Libertarian Torch Song, once again based set to the tune of John Lennon’s Imagine

    You may say we are schemers
    That’s because you are a lazy bum
    And if the Sheeple complain it’s gettin’ warmer
    We’ll use the Invisible Hand to block out the Sun!

  19. kvd
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Picturing Mel, p-ssed and almost passed out, like the trainee Terminator in Up In The Air, hogging the karaoke mike after everyone’s left the LP breakup party, singing to the cleaners 😉

    And Patrick, please don’t tell me happiness is a crock.

  20. Posted April 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Mel and kvd win the internetz for today.

  21. Mel
    Posted April 14, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    You know me far too well, kvd 😉

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