Stuffing a rabbit in it: character, narrative and time in the Whedonverses

Activity: Academic Talks or PresentationsOral presentationResearch


Character has become increasingly important to television drama, even in genres where it previously took a back seat to action or spectacle. Popular hits like Lost combine cult elements with mainstream television successfully, some would argue, largely through focus on character (see Pearson, 2009). The revival of another mainstream cult show, Doctor Who, differs from its original by developing its main character, in keeping with existing mythology but also in line with audience expectations of ‘quality’ contemporary television. Key players in this new focus on character in genre television are the shows of Joss Whedon, which use character to explore how subjectivity is constructed.
This paper examines three ways Whedon’s shows apply conventional television strategies for developing character over time to foreground subjectivity as fluid and under construction, rather than fixed. Time is always manipulated in narrative and the Whedonverses employ standard televisual and genre methods of rendering time, engaging with period drama, retrofuturistic science fiction, and hybridising genres and styles. Such methods provide spectacle and novelty [see also PD] but remain closely tied to character and its development. In relation to character, time also functions to provide depth through direction, dynamism. Thus in Buffy time moves forward as the teens mature, while in Angel regular flashbacks reveal past histories of demon characters, typical of vampire fictions (more usual TV convention, see e.g. Dexter, cf. Lost and Flashforward). In Dollhouse almost the reverse applies and time is erased or repeated whenever Echo is given a new assignment and with it a set of memories that construct a new identity (cf. also River in Firefly). These functions, in turn, suggest that time itself is subjective and constantly impacts upon identity. Whether through point of view and narration, memories of the past, or prophecies of the future, perceptions of time and identity are always limited, contingent and open to interpretation.
The Whedonverses are not unique in using such strategies to develop characters or even to interrogate identity. On the contrary, their consistent meditation upon the de/construction of subjectivity, culminating most recently in the extreme example of Dollhouse, is one thing that makes them so typical of, and influential for, contemporary television and thus worthy of continued study.
Period3 Jun 2010
Event titleThe Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses 4 (SC4)
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionRegional