Once upon a time there was a yet undiscovered television writer that was plucked from obscurity by a science-fiction king and given a prestigious place in his royal court. And so began the magical television career of Jane Espenson.
Prior to joining the Whedonverse, Espenson worked sporadically during the mid-1990s here and there on such shows as Monty, Ellen, Dinosaurs, and Nowhere Man. It could be said that Ronald D. Moore (creator and writer of Battlestar Galactica) discovered Espenson when she was hired in 1996 to write an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. But, in truth, it was not until a decade later that Moore re-discovered Espensons incredible writing and producing talents.
The credit of discovery of this gem in the rough was actually Joss Whedon, who took notice of the fledgling writer and took her under his wing. Thus, began a tutelage that would encourage the dark, dramatic and distinctly individualized writing style of Espenson. For the past 11 years, she has lent her writing and producing skills to all four of Whedons signature series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse.
Astoundingly, right smack in the middle of all of this, Espenson has also found time to work with Ron Moore on Battlestar Galactica and Caprica, and to co-create her own TV series, Warehouse 13.
In reviewing Espensons professional resume, one wonders how on earth she ever found the time to do anything but work in the preceding decade. If she has not been tied to her typing chair, she surely must have found a way to clone herself!
This past year has been even more extraordinary as Espenson juggled the best shows of the sci-fi realm working on Battlestar Galactica, writing its tie-in The Plan, helping launch the prequel series, Caprica - and somehow finding the time to write for Whedons Dollhouse. Then, imagine my surprise when I tuned in this summer to catch the new Syfy series Warehouse 13 and there was Espensons name boldly splashed across the screen as co-creator.
At San Diego Comic-Con last July, Espenson was hailed as a sci-fi goddess, joining her former mentors, Whedon and Moore, as one of their rank. The days where she was merely in their shadow are long gone.
If there was any year that was truly Janes, this is it. How many other producers/writers can boast working on five of the hottest shows on television simultaneously? None I dare say. Yet here she is: the reigning queen of sci-fi, Jane Espenson.
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, Espenson has put her touch and influence on over half of the sci-fi realm. Give her time and I am sure she will find a way to consult for, write an episode for, or perhaps assist in breaking story for the rest of it.
Outstanding examples of her stylized and innovative writing style can be seen in the standout episodes Briar Rose from Dollhouse and Shindig from Firefly. Both offered an unusual look at the characters offered in each series.
In Briar Rose, Espenson presented the idea of: What if one could imprint a doll with the personality of a child, but advanced to an age where the doll could talk to the child with the wisdom of experience to share in hindsight with its younger self? This may sound convoluted and mind-bending, which it is, but in reality it played out beautifully in Briar Rose.
There was perhaps no other more touching storyline in the entire first season of Dollhouse than watching Echo tell the abused child (her younger self) that one day she will find a way to break free of her self-imposed bonds of silence and climb out of her shell of pain. It also served as perfect camouflage for what was really going on in the episode: Ballard unknowingly delivering both Echo and the Dollhouse to Alpha on a silver platter.
The episode was layered in complexities and each character was masked behind a brilliant faÃ§ade. Watching the masquerade end when the masks fell away was a jaw-dropping finale that no one saw coming.
In Shindig, Espenson embraced the roots of Firefly in order to make fun of and showcase the western space opera. She invited the Serenity crew to attend a good, old-fashioned shindig dance where Inara could be paraded on the arm of a brash and presumptuous beau, where Mal would bristle with jealousy and yet hide it behind bravado and chivalry, and where Kaylee could wear a big, frilly pink dress and look like the belle of the ball.
In a sneaky, subtle and delightful twist, Espenson found a way to incorporate a Jane Austen-type of charade and subtext in the Whedonverse. To this day, fans quickly cite Shindig as one of their favorite episodes recalling the sight of Kaylee in that wedding-cake pink frilly dress. For nothing resonates louder with a fan base than allowing the presumed ugly-duckling to turn into a swan.
Kaylees transformation from humble, grease-smudged mechanic into a gorgeous young woman parading in a ball gown remains the standout image imprinted in everyones mind. It also invokes nostalgia and awe in the simplicity of how the world bows before radiant beauty.
One of Espensons less notorious episodes is the The Passage from Battlestar Galactica. While not as widely-known, it is still a significant piece of storytelling that spotlights a peripheral character in order to tell a compelling story of, how in a universe populated with morally ambiguous characters, there is much to be learned from the saying, let he who is without sin cast the first the stone.
By letting the episode revolve around the hot-headed renegade Viper pilot Kat, we were given a harrowing glimpse into her world: Kat had stolen the identity of another woman after the Cylon attack on Caprica in order to erase her past as a human trafficker. Kat had always been a prickly pear, butting-heads with Starbuck and challenging authority at every turn. But Kat also wore her heart on her sleeve and was one of the first to jump into the foray when there was a battle at hand. She was both fearful and fearless in one breath.
But by shining a light through the prism of her soul we saw a woman torn between her duty, desire and struggle to do the right thing. Kat may not have been admired or even appealing, but due to Espensons ability to weave a compelling and mesmerizing story, Kat will not be forgotten. It takes an extraordinary writer to use such a delicate and tricky storytelling device to teach us the value of every human life, even that of those we would normally shoot on sight.
Espenson rises above the normal plateau of television writing by embracing the challenge of taking the smallest of pieces and finding a way to shine the light on it, examine it and then make it seem the most important part of the tapestry. She dances and weaves until the audience is so closely intertwined in the story that we feel the impact of the shock of betrayal, the bloom of love in a pink dress, and in making the everyman a hero when they should not be.
By embracing the most inconsequential and making it extraordinary, Espenson has captured the imagination of the sci-fi fans and has claimed the crown of queen of sci-fi. It is a wonder to behold in a genre in which kings typically rule.
So move over Joss Whedon and Ron Moore, Jane Espenson has arrived and she is eclipsing you on your own shows.
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