The Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses 4

Slayage Logo This summer, my wife and I are presenting papers at Slayage in St. Augustine, Florida.  For those of you unaware, Slayage is a biennial national academic conference dealing with any and all of the Whedonverses.

Jennifer presented there in 2008, while this is my first go-round. To say that I’m excited would be fairly understated.  I mean, for us Whedon nerds, this is the place to spend a few days when it comes around every couple of years.

Since the conference schedule was just recently posted, I thought I would share a little of what kind of research we’re doing and what’s going on our little corner of Joss Whedon scholarship these days.

Firefly Logo My paper is titled “Curse Your Sudden but Inevitable Death: Exploring the Reasons and Purpose in Wash’s Demise,” and the idea for it came out of a conversation I had with my best friend a while ago.  We were talking about how much we love Alan Tudyk in all his roles, but that on Firefly, he does not really serve any nonredundant function either as a character on the show or as an actor within the ensemble.

And thus, my proposal was born:

Hoban Washburne–Wash–was destined to die from the moment Firefly began.  As the funnyman among a crew of funnymen (and funnywomen), he serves no vital function in the ensemble.  Every other crew member fulfills at least one role unfulfilled by anyone else. Wash’s main purpose is to provide comic relief, while his secondary roles are to pilot the ship and to provide the audience an emotional focal point through his marriage with Zoe. Unfortunately, these functions fail to create for Wash a unique niche, either in terms of his practical function on the crew or in creating a well-rounded television ensemble.  None of his roles are his alone: Mal can fly Serenity, Simon and River provide emotional tension, and every other member of the crew cracks just as many jokes as Wash does.

A major character’s death was integral to the film Serenity‘s narrative, and no other character’s death would have left a void that could have been filled so easily, if not as deftly, as Wash’s. Everyone but Wash offers viewers something that could not be found in any other character.  For example, in the episode “Ariel,” other characters step out of their normal roles and succeed, while Wash stays behind to do the same old job he always does.  In the film, even the consistently peaceful Kaylee takes up arms–an archetype most often reserved for Zoe and Jayne. However, when Wash tries to fulfill a similarly violent role in “War Stories,” he fails.

Analysis of Firefly and Serenity reveals that the crew’s consistent ability to shift roles and responsibilities dooms Wash.  The inflexibility written into the character prevents him from ever being fully integrated into the ensemble of Firefly, and his death serves as a catalyst for the other characters to reposition themselves as a more efficient crew.

Dr Horrible Logo My wife has been a Whedonite far longer than I have.  While I had discovered Firefly in college and read Whedon’s intial two years of Astonishing X-Men, Jennifer was already presenting a paper at the 2008 Slayage Conference before I had even finished Season 2 of Buffy.  So when Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was due to come out, she was aflutter with anticipation (which happened to rub off a little on me).  It’s no surprise that when the next Slayage came around her proposal had to deal with the incredible antiheroics that NPH graced us with.

Her paper is titled “Aspiring to Evil: Buffy’s Three Nerds and Dr. Horrible,” and her abstract is equally awesome:

The sixth season of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer features a trio of villains who sharply differ from the demons, vampires, and goddesses of the previous seasons.  Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew are three young men who have watched too many James Bond movies and read too many comic books, and they are determined to become supervillains, complete with evil plans and mad-scientist inventions.  Several years later, Whedon created Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, in which another aspiring supervillain attempts to join the Evil League of Evil, take over the world, and woo the cute girl from the laundromat.

The nerds and Dr. Horrible exist in very different worlds, and analysis of how these characters exist in their respective contexts reveals Whedon’s exploration of the idea of self-aware evil. Even within the fantastical world of Buffy, the nerds’ goals are the stuff of movies and are ridiculed by the other characters.  Dr. Horrible, however, is surrounded by real-life superheroes and supervillains. And yet, in both cases, the characters exhibit similar insecurities and false bravado and face the same dismissals from their reluctant nemeses.

Analysis of these wannabe supervillains not only reveals similarities between the characters in these very different worlds, but also shows that, in Whedon’s texts, human failings are far more dangerous than any death ray.  In both cases, the characters only succeed in true evil when their plans become motivated by passion rather than fanboy fantasy, with the deaths of Tara in Buffy and Penny in Dr. Horrible.  Whedon’s creations offer commentary on weapons, violence, and the human capacity for corruption through characters who aspire to evil but only reach true evil by accident.

As much fun as doing the research is (we get to watch TV shows and read books about them, for goodness sakes!), probably what I look forward to most is the canoodling and schmoozing.  I am finally going to get to meet Nikki Stafford (whose blog I simply adore) and David Lavery, who just may very well be part of my future Ph.D. program.  I am finally going to get to hang out with friends from graduate school whom I’ve wanted to spend time with for a while.

Buffy Logo But the best part?  I am going to get to go to a sing-along banquet (yes, you read that right—a sing-along banquet) full of academics belting out off-key melodies from Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling,” the entirety of Dr. Horrible’s book, and the strangely catchy opening theme from Firefly.

So if you’re a Joss Whedon fan of any sort, and you’re going to be around St. Augustine, Florida near the beginning of June, you should definitely think about stopping by Slayage.  Is there really a better way of nerding out?

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.