The Dystopian Future in Joss Whedon's Work

Erin Casey

In contrast to the utopian vision of the future found in sci-fi series like Star Trek, Joss Whedon's creations show a different vision of the future. And it isn't pretty.

The future is bleak.

That's what Joss Whedon thinks, anyway. Whenever his works show the future, and several of them do (namely Dollhouse, Fray, Firefly/Serenity, and Angel), it is always dystopic. Dystopian futures are not by any means an uncommon theme in science fiction, but usually the futures shown in fiction fall into two categories: post-apocalyptic wastelands or paradises. Joss Whedon often goes for the middle of the road, which is the more probable future. In the cases of Fray and Firefly/Serenity, overall human carelessness has led humanity to the future they now inhabit, and in Dollhouse and Angel, corrupt corporations have worked that change.

The future is something everyone thinks about. Joss Whedon just asks viewers and readers to think about it on a bigger scale than most people do. If people keep polluting the planet, we will have no choice but to desert to the planet, as in the world of Firefly and Serenity. If we let corporations do our thinking, humanity could be made something unrecognizable and fearsome, as in Dollhouse.

Whedon aims to make people think, rather than just to take in a show numbly as an escape or entertainment. Of all the themes Joss Whedon presents in his work, and there are many, the contemplation of a future worse off than the present is perhaps the most important for our race, and the scariest. Each of Joss Whedon's works portraying the future shows the future in a different way, but each shows us something we probably don't want to see.

The TV series Dollhouse portrays perhaps the most desperate future. A morally bankrupt corporation, Rossum, has created the technology to wipe completely a person’s memories and personality and then “imprint” them with new memories and traits. Rossum then takes this technology and uses cell phone calls and other signals to transmit it over the whole world. Only a few people have survived as themselves. The rest have either been “imprinted” with another personality or they are blank or they have become violent, mindless zombie-like creatures called butchers. The whole world is in ruin.

The few people left as themselves have to fight against Rossum and the “butchers” to keep their own personalities. All technology is dangerous as it can send out a signal that could wipe their minds of all their memories and personality traits. Since the signal was meant to go worldwide, it is wireless, and thus anyone can harness it and transfer their own consciousness to another body when they like. Nothing and no one is safe.

Rossum went from a company that was on shaky moral ground to destroying humanity. One corporation was all it took to bring down mankind. I think Joss Whedon sees this potential in our world. Why else would the symbol at the end of the opening credits (the five pod beds in a circle) resemble the logo of a company everyone in this country knows?

The comic book Fray doesn’t show any signs of a corporate takeover, but the world is definitely in bad shape. Pollution has allowed a lot of damage. The first page of the comic shows a red sky and a fizzling, darkened sun. Readers are very quickly introduced to the new human race: a mixture of people who bear the human form we are used to, and people called “radies,” who, from either their own exposure to the sun’s radiation or their parents’ have any number of deformities. Some people do not bear any resemblance to what we would call human.

Everything has gone downhill, from the environment to poverty. The government does not seem to be taking care of anyone who has been affected by the radiation, and many of them live in slums. Some of the technology has improved, but it doesn’t seem to be doing anybody much good.

Firefly and Serenity are further into the future than Dollhouse and possibly Fray (since Fray is set on earth while Firefly speaks of “Earth That Was”). Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of his spaceship live in another dystopian—and for us here and now, not unlikely—future. The Earth has been destroyed by human negligence (this is never stated implicitly in either Firefly or Serenity, but Whedon writes it in an afterword for the first compilation of Serenity comics) and people have had to spread to the skies...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

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