This site will work and look better in a browser that supports web standards, but it is accessible to any browser or Internet device.

Whedonesque - a community weblog about Joss Whedon
"It's about power and it's about women and you just hate those two words in the same sentence, don't you?"
11944 members | you are not logged in | 28 July 2014












April 04 2011

Zombies, Reavers, Butchers and Actuals in Joss Whedon's Work. A look at how the Zombie is portrayed in Buffy and Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.

Great thought provoking article. I didn't get to the end of Dollhouse, this made me want to.
I was just having a conversation yesterday whether or not Serenity could be considered a zombie movie...
Reavers aren't zombies, they're crazy people.

My definition of a zombie is a dead person, coming back to life, walking around dead, whatever. I assumed most people though that. Reavers are just people who turned crazy, not supernatural beings. I thought that was clear after watching the run of Firefly and then Serenity, since we then know how it happened. The reavers were spoken of by the crew as if they were monsters, maybe supernatural ones, but really, they're just crazy men who enjoys hurting themselves and others, driven mad by poison, which the crew of Serenity discovered. Sure, I think the writers could have wanted us to think they were supernatural beings, but in the end of the movie, it seemed like the only supernatural being could possibly River, and she could just be a extraordinary human.

One could argue that reavers are some kind of new breed, more or less than human, but there's nothing saying they're dead, not even a little bit.
Skytteflickan88, while I agree with you that the traditional definition of a zombie is a dead person coming back to life, I would disagree with you and say that the Reavers are in a way a type of zombie. They are dead, not in a literal sense, but in the sense that they aren't the people who they were any more. There original 'selves' are dead. This is a lot more in line with the voodoo zombie than a Romero-style zombie though. Not sure if I personally would call them zombies, but I can see the writer's point.

Anyways, this was a really interesting article, I liked how the author compared and contrasted Buffy, Firefly, and Dollhouse. I hadn't really made the connection that all three have zombie story elements.
I liked this very much, especially the use of the old-school "zombi".

Zombies were much scarier in the good old days, when you weren't as afraid of being eaten by one as you were of becoming one.
I just watched "The Crazies" the other day and that movie had zombies that weren't reanimated corpses but rather people infected with a disease. So in a way Reavers definitely fit into the zombie genre.

Valentyn, when I talk to my friends I always describe Serenity as a space-western-kungfu-steampunk-zombie movie.
I would have liked to have seen more discussion of Habeas Corpses, as that always screamed Resident Evil Angel to me but otherwise it was a very good read. Plus it was on a topic which I don't think had been covered much before. And that's hard to come by these days in the Whedonverse.
I never really got reavers. They are supposed to be insane but can pilot starships and plan attacks on planetary populations... that's no way to win an insanity defense.
Hive mind?
It's never really medically/psychologically established that they're insane, per se. Just... rabid?
That was an excellent article. Hat off.
eddy, no dramedy? :)
I think that if Joss had had two or more seasons of Firefly in which to reveal more about the Reavers bit by bit, the ultimate explanation of what they were and perhaps how they came about was going to be somewhat different from what we got in the movie.

The Reavers as a shadowy menace were very effective in the series. I find the visible, fully explained Reavers to be the least convincing part of the movie, for the reasons Dana5140 cites. My supposition (not necessarily supported by any facts outside the works themselves) is that Joss had to retcon the Reavers to make the movie work. It wasn't entirely successful, IMHO, and is a reason why Serenity is a really good movie but not a great one.
Although Joss has said that the Miranda revelation would have been, what was it, the end of season two? That sort of makes it not a retcon, no?

[ edited by The One True b!X on 2011-04-04 21:01 ]
I wrote "what they were and _perhaps_ how they came about." The Miranda revelation would be how they came about. That could be as in the movie and still leave room for some differences in the Reavers' abilities, means of social organization, and activities.

Joss has stated in an interview around the time Serenity was released (paraphrasing from memory) that a movie plot has to be bigger scale, more directly epic, than plots for a TV series. He has also said that he does not think of the Alliance government as villains. My inference is that the Reavers' capacity for organized action was scaled up for the movie in order to provide a clear cut menace to fight.

Excellent article; I agree.
Although Joss has said that the Miranda revelation would have been, what was it, the end of season two? That sort of makes it not a retcon, no?

It's an interesting question, isn't it? We have no clue how the Reavers would have been explained/explored had the series lasted several seasons, so the seed of the idea for the origin of the Reavers could have been rather different than what was revealed in the BDM.

I mean, look at Buffy the Vampire Slayer and how it handled how the Slayer line was created and perpetuated. The basic myth, via Giles' little spiel to Xander and Willow in S1, is rather contradictory to what we get as the explanation on S7...it's not the PTBs or God empowering a chosen young woman but a group of human magic users forcing the essence of a demon into her.

So, the Reavers could have been meant to be more Donner Party-gone-rabid or vicitms of a brain disease from raw human flesh rather than people with a genetic quirk to make G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate have a massively adverse reaction rather than drug them into fatal vegetive state.

[ edited by BlueEyedBrigadier on 2011-04-04 22:31 ]
That's a pretty good article, of course, it always starts to lose me when it glamourous what works out to the permanent brain damage of the Actives who are not affected in the end. I'm not sure I can think of two people who have been more epically effed over in television history than Madeline and whoever the poor creature that originally belonged under Amy Acker's face, whose name we never learned.

"Serenity" and "Dollhouse" definitely both belong to zombie lore and add to it. I'm troubled by the idea that the Alliance doesn't occur to Joss as being 'villains' -- Mal was correct when he described their motive as the "belief that they can make (i.e. force) people better (i.e. more in line with the better-maker's viewpoint of what's better), and no mindset can be more unambiguously evil than that one.
We have no clue how the Reavers would have been explained/explored had the series lasted several seasons, so the seed of the idea for the origin of the Reavers could have been rather different than what was revealed in the BDM.

Well, but apparently we do know, if the Miranda revelation would have been the end of season two. That said, I don't recall at what point Joss decided that Miranda would have been the end of season two. At the same time, he could always have changed his mind.

But, really, my only point for bringing it up is that something new revealed narratively -- as was the case with Miranda -- isn't a retcon. It's simply storytelling. Unless some other definitively stated explanation for the Reavers had been given (and, narratively, it wasn't), the Miranda events didn't retcon anything.
But, really, my only point for bringing it up is that something new revealed narratively -- as was the case with Miranda -- isn't a retcon. It's simply storytelling. Unless some other definitively stated explanation for the Reavers had been given (and, narratively, it wasn't), the Miranda events didn't retcon anything.

Ahhh...but there's the wiggle, The One True b!X, in that the viewer sees only the Reavers get semi-mystical boogeyman treatment in the series and then they're the Alliance's biggest dirty little secret as a science experiment gone wrong in the BDM. Which admittedly, on the surface, equals not a retroactive continuity moment but a first time revelation of the Reaver origin story. But one has to wonder: IF Joss had the storyline planned out enough to know the BDM would have been the S2 ending arc, then the intended reveal could have been different.
Maybe I shouldn't have used the word "retcon". Hope I'm not beating a dead horse.

I meant that when Mr. Whedon introduced the Reavers, he may have had something somewhat different in mind about where he was going with them than what he wound up writing in the screenplay for the movie.
Now that's an impressive article. Thanks, Gerry Canavan! I'm amused that a Blue Devil is so fascinated by zombies. ;-)

[ edited by Emmie on 2011-04-05 00:37 ]
I'm not -- look at Krzyzewski.
Mal was correct when he described their motive as the "belief that they can make (i.e. force) people better (i.e. more in line with the better-maker's viewpoint of what's better), and no mindset can be more unambiguously evil than that one.

On the contrary, it's the fact that it's ambiguously evil that makes it interesting IMO. If every instance of people being "made better" was unambiguously evil then the Alliance would be a pantomime villain, as it is they're more a cautionary tale (compulsory primary education is one example of the ambiguous nature of making people better but there're others of varying shades of grey).

Good article that, maybe could've been a bit shorter and some of it's pretty reachy I reckon e.g. Mal's nerve cluster has always seemed to me about choice (he was a volunteer so it's ultimately his capacity to choose and willingness to believe in a cause that saves him. The Operative's technique depends on taking away his victim's capacity to choose but with Mal that's a pretty tough row to hoe. Guy's kinda stubborn ;) and River kind of becoming a Reaver in her battle with them doesn't feel right, to me she's pretty much the opposite, she's absolute precision and control become action, not much like the uncoordinated savagery of the Reavers (and nitpicking, there're a couple of mistakes e.g. even in 'Serenity' the Reavers are most definitely killers, they're just victims too) but an interesting read.

(the "what's a zombie ?" question is kind of like "what's sci-fi ?" but for horror fans. Purists define them to be genuinely undead and slow, some folk call e.g. the '28 Days Later' horde zombies but many draw the distinction that they're infecteds and so on. You can easily make a case for Reavers being a sort of zombie depending on where you draw your individual line)
There is a world of analysis embedded in saje's comment here: what really is a zombie? I would love to have that debate, but fear it would lead to nichification and atomization of zombies, so that we end up with a hundred subcategories of zombies: slow zombies, brain-eating zombies, horde zombies, infecteds, etc. :-)
Yeah I agree with Saje, the Alliance's desire to civilise and 'force' people to be better is possibly the most ambiguous moral aspect of human life and development. To me that very quandry is a driving force academically and politically.

I also agree a lot that River didn't become like the Reavers at the end of Serenity but she becomes something more, having gained control over her mind and actions, she is now more human than she was before, and I may be missing the point here:

In their recent “Zombie Manifesto” Sarah Juliet Lauro and Karen Embry point to this history to suggest that the zombie, in its position at the boundary between subject and object, rebel and slave, life and death, is still the best metaphor we have for what it means to resist power


...but this isn't what River does, she makes a choice to embrace the power that is inside her to protect her family, i.e. not resisting power at all. That whole quote threw me a little though, I can kind of see the point its making but can't figure out why I don't fully agree.

As much as I enjoyed and admired the essay as a whole I was a little confused by the Buffy section because the author seemed kind of disapproving of the use of zombies in Buffy, when the fact that the writers refused to let zombies just be a blank space is completely understandable for a television series which uses horror as a prop for developing character. If they'd used Romero zombies in Buffy it wouldn't have been Buffy-like.
On the contrary, it's the fact that it's ambiguously evil that makes it interesting IMO.


No, the notion that it's ambiguously evil (and therefore implicitly even metaphysically possible for it to be good) is why sometimes I think a bottle of maalox would be more relaxing than a glass of sweet tea. In 100 out of 100 cases, the Alliance is unqualified to decide how people should be, rendering any scheme they have to fundamentally alter how people are morally void. I actually think its the hubris that their attitude embodies that makes the zombie overtones of the Reavers work, and why it's so viscerally satisfying to see Mal rain their own results down on them when he leads the reavers into the Alliance fleet. The big picture visionaries in the Alliance who thinks it's even possible to think that way and do anything other than monstrosity killed all who fought in that battle, Alliance, Reaver, and Big Damn Hero alike.
In 100 out of 100 cases, the Alliance is unqualified to decide how people should be, rendering any scheme they have to fundamentally alter how people are morally void.


I think that's a bit over the top, Joss has said in the past that they do try to do good and he and his characters have spoken about this "not being some evil empire". It's more a more powerful statement that in trying to do good that we can mess up beyond our comprehension than it is to say "they are evil and wrong and bad bad bad". It's also bad storytelling :)
Or dull storytelling at least. Which is bad I guess ;).

As I say King of Cretins, compulsory primary education is "making people better" and yet I think it's a good thing in general because most of the time the end result is more choice for its recipients. I'm not even sure democracy (another good thing ;) works without it since a functioning democracy is predicated on a certain percentage of the population being informed enough to make good decisions (and that depends to some extent on a certain minimum level of education).

At the same time, we need to be extremely wary of doing things "for their own good" because though it's not unambiguously evil, plenty of bad things've been done with that aim (even with the best of intentions, as i'm sure the Alliance had to start with). Big John kind of has a point in other words:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right...

even if I think in the really real world it's not quite that simple (because there's more than one kind of harm to others).
a functioning democracy is predicated on a certain percentage of the population being informed enough to make good decisions


AH, so that's where we've gone wrong ;).
I don't think the Alliance is unambiguously evil. Otherwise, all Browncoats would have been rounded up and killed after the war, not allowed to buy starships and go about their business while still disagreeing with the PTB.
They're like the Nanny State in space.
sp-Nanny sp-State ?

AH, so that's where we've gone wrong ;).

I was even kinda shaking my head as I typed it ;).
Zeitgeist, what Joss said and what I said aren't actually in conflict unless he means to say that there are good things the Alliance tries to do that are, like the PAX, an actual attempt to rewire people that are "okay". There's no right way to do Miranda, is my point.

And, yeah, they are the Nanny State... which really makes me double down on my assertion that they're pretty much evil. De Tocqueville is a Browncoat :)
Yeah but Miranda is like the extreme case where the state oversteps its boundaries and ceases to act with the people's best interest at heart. Stuff like wanting to introduce education, healthcare and a justice system aren't evil things. The Alliance aren't only about mind control.

What can I say I'm a socialist.
Miranda's also a case where a government majorly messes up and abuses its power in discrete little steps that each make sense on their own, initially. It's a very realistic scenario and thematically makes a ton of sense as the place where terrifying space zombies would come from. Civilization accidentally creates the stuff of the oldest human nightmares while trying to advance itself, and then the people responsible bury all knowledge about it while people living at the edge of civilization bear the costs. This is totally what humanity will do if we ever make it off-world.
KoC - no right way to do Miranda, certainly, but Joss repeatedly says that they aren't evil and that he sympathizes with them and that they have done a lot of good, etc., so when you say they are pure evil, you are in fact, expressing an opinion that is in opposition to Joss' statements. You say 100 out of 100 cases, not 100 out of 100 cases where they try to rewire people. If you'd said that, then we wouldn't be having this conversation. Perhaps it's what you meant to say?
What can I say I'm a socialist.

Ssshhhh, you'll scare the septics ;).

Miranda's also a case where a government majorly messes up and abuses its power in discrete little steps that each make sense on their own, initially.

Exactly. You can imagine the Alliance taking those early steps and various people issuing grim warnings about loss of civil liberties or potential abuse while others pooh-pooh them and quote the slippery slope fallacy. Pretty similar stuff happened 10 or so years ago with RIPA (in the UK) and the Patriot Act (in the US) and then slightly further down the line we have supposedly anti-terror/paedophilia legislation being used to check if families qualify for a school catchment area or whether folk are taking their bins in on time and old men being arrested under the Terrorism Act for expressing an opinion. Over the pond people are being water-boarded or held indefinitely without legal recourse.

It's not scary cos it's unambiguously evil, it's scary cos it's plausible that well-meaning, decent people (from both the right and left) could follow that path all too easily.

(good to see that compulsory primary education is apparently one way of making people better we're all fine with though. Who doesn't like school, right ? ;)
Well, here in the US, education is well under attack, saje. By people who should be supporting it.
In relation to the zombies, the "real life" ones who are used in Haitian voodoo are often people who have suffered damage to their brains, not dead, inflicted upon them by voodoo practicioners. So taking this into account, Serenity's zombies are a more accurate repressentation of the zombie. "White Zombie" also mentioned that the zombies were not dead, that was the driving force behind John Harron's character's movements.

It was in "I walked with a zombie" that there was the first crossover between science and religion in the zombie genre, where Mrs. Rand tried to bring medicine to the voodoo tribe, but she did not create the zombies. Romero was the first person to look at science as the cause in NOTLD with a vague reference to nuclear fallout causing it.

So for the real purists amongst us, reavers are zombies in an almost accurate way. They have suffered brain damage, as msnpnr said the crew fear becoming them, but the rest of the zombie lore has impacted them more greatly; science, flesh eating, hive mind, etc. So really, FF zombies are the perfect joining point for all the zombie fiction out there. Well done Joss.
We probably should make a distinction between "trying to do good" and "trying to make people better." It's axiomatic that trying to do good will sometimes have unintended consequences, but that's not a reason to stop trying. The position that it's wrong to try to make people better when they don't want to be better or disagree with your definition of "better" is one that I have a lot of sympathy for. In California, it's virtually impossible to treat a mentally ill person against their will.

Example of unintended consequence of trying to do good: child labor laws. In the nineteenth century, many children had their educations truncated at the age of ten or eleven or even earlier because they had to get paying work to support themselves or their families. Making it illegal to employ children at that age was the right thing to do IMHO, but an unintended consequence is that children can no longer escape from bad home situations. Before child labor laws, a boy (more rarely, a girl) who was tired of being beaten or abused or just didn't get along with the old man or the old lady could leave home without fear of the law pursuing him, strike out on his own and get employment. Now child protective services has to get involved, and find a foster home placement that may be no improvement, and runaways have no legal means to earn money, so they are forced into prostitution or drug dealing.

[ edited by janef on 2011-04-06 02:15 ]

[ edited by janef on 2011-04-06 02:17 ]
no right way to do Miranda, certainly, but Joss repeatedly says that they aren't evil and that he sympathizes with them and that they have done a lot of good, etc., so when you say they are pure evil, you are in fact, expressing an opinion that is in opposition to Joss' statements. You say 100 out of 100 cases, not 100 out of 100 cases where they try to rewire people. If you'd said that, then we wouldn't be having this conversation. Perhaps it's what you meant to say?


I never have any problem saying Joss is wrong when he's wrong. Here he lands somewhere between wrong and hair-splitting. The lesson of Miranda is that it's the ultimate and inextricable destination of the "Nanny State". The Nanny State is an exercise in trying to be "just Miranda enough", if you will. And for the Reavers to eat a good chunk of that state is as satisfying for me as when zombies in Melinda Clarke's "Return of the Living Dead 3"* start eating the military that created them. "Primeval" delivers that same feel.

*to segue completely, her character in that flick from 1993 could be argued as a proto-Buffy of sorts. Or a proto-Inca Mummy Girl.
KingofCretins, I don't agree with your politics. I would like to see any method of analysis that offers a way to make a practical distinction between "the nanny state" and promoting the common welfare.

The Libertarian position says that no state action for any purpose other than contract enforcement or prevention of violence is legitimate. Under a Libertarian government there would be only toll roads, no government postal service, no regulations requiring seat belts in cars, no public schools, no art in public buildings except by private donation, no required building codes, and so forth.

Once you agree that the state _may_ engage in other activity for a common purpose, deciding whether such activity creates a public good or a nanny state seems to come down to who is paying for it, personal morality, whether one thinks it will work, and other judgements that are either subjective or involve competing interests. "Nanny state" strikes me as simply a pejorative that gives no guidance as to where to draw the line.
The lesson of Miranda is that it's the ultimate and inextricable destination of the "Nanny State".

No, that's only the lesson if that's what you already believe KingofCretins. The lesson could also be (and IMO is) "Look what can happen if you go too far down that particular road [so be careful not to go too far]", it doesn't say anything at all about whether it's inextricable or as janef mentions, about the maximum safe amount of state intervention (if any). And as usual it seems worth pointing out that what Joss portrays isn't necessarily what he himself thinks to be true.

Once you agree that the state _may_ engage in other activity for a common purpose...

Like e.g. compulsory primary education. One counterexample is all that seems necessary to render the notion that it's always "unambiguously evil" to "make people better" just plain wrong (even if education isn't it, i'm pretty sure a majority of us could agree on one - given recent events, financial regulation maybe - which is why I think it's pretty self-evident that it's more complicated). I understand the urge to put it in absolute terms cos frankly, deciding where to draw the line is hard, its position must be constantly watched/re-evaluated and the consequences of getting it wrong are potentially disastrous but IMO reality in the human sphere usually doesn't lend itself to absolutes except in political systems that've never actually been tested by reality.


ETA clarity

[ edited by Saje on 2011-04-06 07:56 ]

You need to log in to be able to post comments.
About membership.



joss speaks back home back home back home back home back home