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"Lessons of Firefly : Learning from the Works of Joss Whedon" Workshop - Wired.com Review

Friday 31 July 2009, by Webmaster

It was a show that premiered seven years ago and lasted only four months, yet Firefly today not only entertains viewers but inspires writers, including romance writers.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Lessons of Firefly: Learning from the Works of Joss Whedon was one of the workshop choices at the Romance Writers of America conference earlier this month in Washington, D.C. Author Jacqui Jacoby believes that Firefly’s brief life is part of its appeal. She said given a longer life-span, the show might have lost the quality evident in the first season. Instead, browncoats have a something that stands the test of time. And Whedon’s writing is also a great example of how to do things right.

“I really feel as if he’s the Rod Serling of our generation,” sad Jacoby.

Jacoby opened the workshop with a video montage of the show set to Holding out for a Hero, and it struck me during this how Whedon used very specific heroic images to clue the reader in to Mal’s true character.

Holding Out For a Hero–Browncoat Version

In these quick cuts, we see Mal as Buck Rodgers, Mal as a western hero, Mal as a Regency/Three Musketeers duelist, or Mal as in just a plain old fist-fight.

These images brought home to me how good Whedon is at using our collective memory to enhance his characters. According to Jacoby, the well-known re-shuffling of episodes and the production of a new pilot caused Whedon to rework a couple of key scenes from the original pilot. How those scenes came off in the new pilot illustrates the difficulties in getting across character traits quickly to viewers.

The two scenes were Kaylee eating the strawberry and Mal shooting a Fed to preserve his crew. Kaylee’s scene, written to showcase the senses and what life was like on-board the Serenity, made it to the new pilot intact. Mal killing the Fed did not. It was meant to show the moral dilemmas in the world of Mal and his crew. In the new pilot, Mal famously knocks a bad guy into the engine. But instead of it being seen as a hard choice, it comes across as funny. Well, I laughed. And I’m not the only one.

Which is not quite what Whedon intended. But overall, he was able to create the characters he wanted. For instance, the cast surrounding Mal grew outward from him. “Mal is a shattered man,” Jacoby said. “So he’s surrounded himself with people that have the qualities that he’s lost.”

For example, Book represents Mal’s lost faith, and Kaylee shows Mal’s lost innocence, thought both characters are far more than that. Even the character that we initially believe is irredeemable, Jayne, has depth (and some of the best lines) as viewers later discover that he’s supporting his family. “He moved from shallow to beloved,” said Jacoby.

The characters are three-dimensional because Whedon spent so much time building his world. The ship, Serenity, essentially becomes the tenth character of the show. And the icing on the cake is Whedon’s distinctive dialogue.

“Characters are defined by dialogue,” said Jacoby. “Simon didn’t swear. Kaylee was bubbly. Book was careful.”

As for Whedon’s tendency to kill off leading characters, as happened in the film Serenity, Jacoby defended the unexpected death as moving to viewers, rather than just there for shock value. She pointed to the tension added in the scenes after the death and how much they added to the emotional impact of the movie. “If nobody dies, there is no price to pay for what you want,” she said.

I agree with her on that but after Serenity and other deaths in Whedon shows over the years, I think he’s gone to this well far too often. It’s gotten so every time a happy couple shows up, I start looking for the target on the chest of the beta member of the pairing.

But now I am inspired to get out the Firefly DVD and start watching again.