In honour of the fact that Joss Whedon’s starting work on Dollhouse right about now, and also the fact that, let’s face it, most of us would readily accept him as our lord, master, and hopefully benevolent overlord, here’s a list of his 10 finest moments, across all media:
Buffy The Vampire Slayer – Hush
Such is Whedon’s ear for dialogue and love for his characters that it was always clear when he was behind an episode of his signature show. As for his best installment, contenders include the forth season coda Restless, a surreal exploration of the gang’s dreams, riddled with foreshadowing dialogue and images; The Body, where Buffy discovers her mother’s corpse and the gang learn of her death, and Once More, With Feeling, the ingenious musical episode featuring song and dance routines from the primary cast and the wonderful guest villain, Sweet.
Whedon’s best episode, however, is season four’s Emmy-nominated Hush, a dark fairytale which sees the terrifying demons known as The Gentlemen float through Sunnydale, stealing the voices of its residents before cutting out their hearts. Whedon, by forcing the Scoobies out of their distinct verbal bantering, is able to say a great deal more about his characters than expected. Interestingly, on the DVD commentary he admits his distaste for the final shot, that of Buffy facing Riley, their true identities finally revealed, voices now intact but lost for words. For once he’s wrong; it’s the perfect final image, and hits home the episode’s acutely constructed message of the difficulty of communication.
Angel – Waiting In The Wings
Again spoilt for choice, Whedon’s best episode of Angel is probably this beautifully realised change of pace from season 3, bringing the team out of their hotel office for a trip to the ballet. Managing to combine the best examples of the show’s comedy (Cordy snoring on Angel’s shoulder as the normally overtly-macho Gunn stares transfixed at the pirouettes on stage) and drama (gentle development of Angel and Cordy’s turbulent relationship and the troubled love triangle of Gunn, Fred and Wes), Whedon seamlessly blends the grace of dance with a great fight sequence, while the episode also boasts a nuanced performance from Summer Glau as the ballerina trapped in time. Of course, Whedon would go on to cast the actress as River in Firefly.
Firefly – Objects In Space
Whedon felt this episode best summed up the tone of his undervalued ‘space western’, and so it sits as the final episode on the series DVD. The plot sees a bounty hunter manage to board Serenity in order to capture River for the Alliance. Featuring one of recent television’s most appalling villains, Jubal Early falls somewhere between Hannibal Lector and Anton Chigurh, delivering threats of rape and torture without a beat of emotion. Despite sterling performances from the main players, he’s the most memorable thing in this and was, of course, the foundation for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s operative in Serenity. Though Whedon claims the episode Our Mrs. Reynolds is his favourite of all TV episodes he’s written, Objects In Space takes first place as a perfect, simple, wonderfully scripted swansong to a cruelly cancelled show.
The Office – Business School
The first of two episodes Whedon has directed of the American sitcom, this third season installment riffs on the British episode where David Brent holds a motivational training seminar. Here, Michael carries the stereo-system into a lecture theatre and even attempts to inspire the young faces with unconventional teaching methods from Dead Poets Society. Right up Whedon’s alley is a subplot involving an office bat, which Jim uses to wind up Dwight by pretending he’s developed vampiric tendencies. Best of all, however, is the touching conclusion, where Michael turns up late to Pam’s art expo and is so impressed with her drawings that his compliments bring her to tears. Classic stuff.
While the final season of Buffy was still on air, Whedon took the show’s infamous scythe and developed the story of Melaka Fray, a 19-year-old vampire slayer living in the future, who finds the weapon and, tutored by her mentor Urkonn, uses it in her battle against the vampire Icarus. Centuries since the last slayer was called, ‘lurks’ roam the streets of New York in number, where thief-turned-slayer ‘Mel’ must find her path in a plot riddled with murder and betrayal. Published by Dark Horse, this eight-issue limited series was competently drawn by Karl Moline and expanded the Buffyverse to great effect. Whedon has since said that he will be returning to Fray’s world, and that the character’s journey has not yet finished.
Astonishing X-Men – Issues 1-24
Despite comic credits prior to this, it was his twenty four-issue run on Astonishing X-Men that showed Whedon’s talent for the medium and propelled him into the spotlight as one of the most exciting writers around. Partnered with artist John Cassaday, Whedon seemed to effortlessly weave together the stories of a renegade Danger Room, a cure for mutation, a new Hellfire Club and a prophecy involving the resurrected Colossus and the destruction of a civilization.
His masterstroke, however, was in brilliantly developing Cyclops, a character who has received a great deal of criticism over recent years through lack of attention. His progress here, as leader and strategist, was surely the inspiration for his similarly assured interpretation in the recent X-event Messiah Complex. Best issue? Probably number 23, the penultimate chapter, which sees the revelation of a brilliantly orchestrated escape plan, showcasing Whedon’s unparalleled talent for outrageous plotting and upending reader expectation. It also has a kick-ass cover. Though delayed, these X-Men were not so much astonishing as near perfect.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 8 – The Chain
Buffy’s season 8, coming four year’s after the final TV episode and in comic form, serves as a canonical continuation of the series. It has been a mixed bag over its first thirteen issues, but will occasionally come close to matching the impact of the show. None more so than in Whedon’s issue 5, The Chain, which sees one of Buffy’s decoy slayers, a potential activated during the events of series finale Chosen, sent into an underground society of demons. Killed by the devilish Yamanh, she sacrifices herself as a nameless soldier in Buffy’s ongoing war. Poignant and beautifully narrated, the issue was apparently inspired by the death of Janie Kleinman, a TV executive Whedon worked with and admired.
Though one of four credited writers, Whedon nevertheless contributed to – and received an Oscar nomination for – what is arguably Pixar’s best film. Tom Hanks voices Woody, the cowboy doll who grows jealous of his owner’s new favourite toy, Tim Allen’s heroic Buzz Lightyear. However brilliant, the sequel does not match the original film’s fine balance of humour and humanity.
Browncoats rejoiced when it was announced that the horribly cancelled Firefly would be resurrected in movie form. And didn’t Joss deliver. Starting with an intricate tracking shot through the corridors of the ship, he finds all nine crewmembers sufficient screen time, taking their existing stories and carving an arc for each. Some don’t make it through the final battle, which sees the team take the flesh-eating Reavers head-on in their mission to expose the corrupt Alliance. The final scene, River taking the wheel of the ship and conversing with her captain, Malcolm Reynolds, about what keeps his boat afloat, comes as bittersweet; providing us with a taste of Whedon’s long-term intent for these characters, the film ultimately acts as a painful indication of just how brilliant Firefly could, and would, have gone on to be. We eagerly await the Blu-Ray.
Yes, it’s the film accused of killing the franchise, and is rightly berated for some awful animated effects and use of action over intrigue, but it’s worth remembering that it was Whedon’s Ripley-clone script that rekindled Sigourney Weaver’s interest in the project. Whedon has also since expressed his disappointment in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s adaptation of his screenplay, and it is true that he has had terrible luck working with the film studios – Fox rejected his original concept of an Alien: Resurrection without Ripley. For shame, we might have seen an Alien 5 by now if they hadn’t.
OK, maybe not much of an excuse, but hey, nobody’s perfect.