Typing Faster

July 22, 2009

Multiple Timelines and the Art of Subtext: Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Filed under: Craft, Stuff I Like — petertypingfaster @ 12:43 pm

I’m about to reveal something to you, gentle readers, something that may shock you.

I don’t like Joss Whedon‘s stuff all that much.

I know, I know, it’s heretical of me to say that, but it’s true. I never cared for Buffy, or Angel. I flat out hate Dollhouse. Those opinions alone are likely to land me in writers’ jail for a good ten years.

I thought Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was smart and funny, but I’m still not convinced it was as earth shattering as people make it out to be (higher budget, higher talent level maybe, but not earth shattering).

Don’t get me wrong, I think Joss Whedon is an incredibly talented writer. Even without liking his shows all that much, I can certainly appreciate the brilliance of (stunt) episodes like Hush, The Body or Once More With Feeling. I definitely have enjoyed individual episodes of these shows, but over all they just leave cold.

In fact, the only Joss Whedon show I really, really dug was Firefly, which I absolutely loved. I guess it combined all of the things Joss does so well (humor, nicely drawn characters), but did it in a world that I found way more interesting than his previous ones.

I recently rewatched Firefly and was again struck by just how well crafted a lot of its episodes really are. One of my favorites, Out of Gas, has always struck me as being particularly well crafted, and definitely worth look at for a couple of valuable lessons.

There are two things that “Out of Gas” does really, really well. One, it manages to juggle three concurrent timelines at once, and does so without feeling confused or stretched. The other is the way that Tim Minear uses subtext so effectively.

You can download the script to the right. It’s definitely worth a read.

First, lets talk about juggling multiple timelines. “Out of Gas” has three concurrent timelines. You have the deep past, where Mal first finds Serenity, hires Wash and Kaylee, etc. This is also as close as we come to a real origin story on Firefly. Next up, there’s the “present,” with the accident. And finally you have the “future,” in which Mal’s the only one left on Serenity and has been shot.

Juggling two, let alone three, timelines is a daunting task at the best of times, but Tim Minear pulls it off with aplomb. The biggest reason for how well this works is the way they transition from timeline to timeline. There’s always something, whether it’s a sound, a similar physical action, etc, that pulls us from one time period to another.

Just look at the first couple of transitions in the teaser. We start with some prelap dialogue, followed by the sound of the airlock opening and daylight hitting Mal in the face. It works because it pulls us from the present, where Serenity is dead in deep space, right through and back to a time when she was parked on a planet somewhere.

The script is littered with great transitions like that. Definitely worth checking out to see how it’s done.

The other thing that “Out of Gas,” and Joss Whedon in general, does so well is to really exploit the art of subtext (a lot of that’s due to great casting, but we’re going to ignore that for now).

My favorite bits of subtext throughout Firefly can be found in the relationship between Mal and Inarra. Their farewell scene in “Out of Gas” is great in this regard, and definitely worth checking out.

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