Joss Whedon stopped by Harvard last night to receive the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, and we were there to hear him wax philosophical, talk Dollhouse, and settle the Whedonverse's most important debate.
A massive crowd filed into the school's Memorial Church (because when you're hosting an event all about cultural humanism, where else are you going to go?) to see Whedon accept the award. The president of the undergraduate secular society introduced Whedon, explaining the reasons to honor Whedon were twofold. One, his body of works show a consistent interest in developing ideas of morality without the presence of religion. Two, everybody really, really wanted to meet the man. (Hey, I'm not complaining.)
Then it was time for Whedon himself to take to the stage. Tracing his humanism back to an epiphany he had while watching Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he spoke of rewatching the film several times in an attempt to build a ritual that would recapture his sense of philosophical awakening and make Steven Spielberg lots of money. On the state of humanism today, he said things were relatively good, noting the reference to non-believers in President Obama's inaugural address was one of the first times in his life he felt actively included and welcomed in the national discourse.
In terms of the future, Whedon pointed to education as the surest, least violent way to make people confront the ideas of humanism. He stressed that he did not mean people would be educated out of religion, but instead this would work to counteract the fear, hatred, and ignorance that are the real enemies of humanism; these are all part of the darker side of humanity that is within humanists and non-humanists alike. He closed with a brief musing on the nature of faith, pointing out that while religious people believe in a divine deity with no evidence to confirm or deny this, humanists believe in the basic goodness of humanity in the face of a huge amount of evidence to the contrary. In that sense, humanists are the most optimistic, most faithful group of all.
Next came the Q & A. After largely eschewing his creative works during his acceptance speech, Joss faced a barrage of questions regarding his shows, including Dollhouse. Here now are some of the highlights:
- On the topic of Dollhouse's much-discussed and instantly legendary thirteenth episode, "Epitaph One", Whedon shared a few details that I don't think have been reported previously. The episode was mostly shot on video, as opposed to the film used for the other twelve, which should be an interesting stylistic fit with the episode's reported post-apocalyptic setup. The episode might also not be quite as much of a standalone as has been suggested; he mentioned that the episode addresses and even somewhat answers some of the most important questions regarding the Dollhouse. He also said in no uncertain terms that he wants people to see the episode on TV, not as a glorified bonus feature on the DVD release. (But Joss, what about the Prison Break finale? Don't you want to see when they realize the real prisons were in their hearts all along?).
- Whedon spoke candidly about his problems with the first few episodes of Dollhouse. He admitted that he has made episodes that have nothing to say, for which he is ashamed. He singled out the fifth episode, "True Believer", as one that fails to explore the motivations for why people join cults and how these reasons connect with why people end up in the Dollhouse. Ultimately, he said, though there's nothing wrong with making television that is merely diverting, it's not something he's interested in doing.
- He also addressed one of my biggest random questions about Dollhouse when an audience member asked whether we will be seeing actives with some of the less cool-sounding code words in the military alphabet, such as "Golf" or "Hotel." Whedon explained he had written an entire bit all about the active Golf, but it got cut, meaning we won't see Golf or Hotel on Dollhouse this season. Or, as he put it, we won't be seeing them on Dollhouse, period.
- Indeed, he was generally highly pessimistic about the show's prospects for a second season, all but acting as though the show had already been canceled (which, for the record, it hasn't yet, at least not officially). He didn't give any specific reason for his opinion, although one might guess lackluster ratings and bitter experience are contributing factors. This means he won't even be entertaining the notion of a Dollhouse musical episode, although he did say that, if he could hire Actives from the Dollhouse, they would be of the all-singing, all-dancing variety.
- Whedon explained that Dollhouse is not a feminist show, as to make it explicitly adhere to any set system of belief would make it didactic instead of dramatic. When an audience member asked whether he saw it as troublesome that all the actives were unfailingly young and gorgeous, he acknowledged this to an extent, mentioning that early drafts of the show had involved actives of all shapes and sizes to reflect the fact that people's fantasies don't always adhere to Hollywood's conception of attractiveness, and the beautifying of the Dollhouse was one of the realities of dealing with Fox. There had been an entire early subplot about an active named Tango who was an older woman, but sadly all of that had to go when the show's direction changed.
- On a less relevant but equally crucial topic, Joss gave his spoiler-free review of the Battlestar Galactica finale. Declining to even give a thumbs up or thumbs down after a quarter of the crowd begged him not to spoil it (calling them "spoiler thumbs"), he simply said there were parts of it he felt unsatisfied by and aspects of it he loved very much, a review pretty much tailor-made for everyone to assume he agrees with their opinion.
- But perhaps the most important question of the evening was one of the earliest, as Whedon was asked who would win in a fight, Buffy Summers or River Tam? He admitted that this was the one question of the evening for which he wasn't prepared. He first sought to answer the question democratically, conducting an instant poll of the audience; the results were about a fifty-fifty split (my tenuous grasp of journalistic objectivity prevents me from revealing my vote on the matter). After buying sufficient time to consider the question, Whedon finally reasoned that, while Buffy is stronger, River's whole thing is being programmed to kill, so…He trailed off there, but I think that's a pretty clear vote for River. (What? I said my objectivity was tenuous.)