We feel honored not only to have been on Jane Espenson’s Blog Tour, not only to have had Jane as a judge for our Space Western Limerick Contest, and not only to have been visited twice by Jane during the entire event, but also to have been chosen as the final destination to round out her blog tour: with this interview. — ed. N.E. Lilly
Jane Espenson is a Hugo Award‑winning screen‑writer who has worked on several science fiction television series including Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica, among others. She has also edited two anthologies of essays — Finding Serenity and Serenity Found — about Joss Whedon’s ’verse as seen in the television series Firefly and the major motion picture Serenity.
You can discover even more about Jane Espenson and her work at www.janeespenson.com.
How did you get involved in writing for Television?
The first step was just getting involved with television — I loved it so much that I knew I wanted to write for TV from when I was a small child. Every now and then, as a kid, and then as an undergraduate in college, I’d try to write a spec script — a writing sample in the form of a script for an established show. I was in grad school when I learned you could submit scripts to Star Trek: The Next Generation without having to have an agent as intermediary. I submitted three spec episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and was invited in to pitch episode ideas. It was after this modest start that I learned of the Disney Writing Fellowship, which really launched my career.
How did you get involved with the Science Fiction genre?
It might sound random, since, after all, Trek was the only show with an open door policy, so I’d’ve been steered in that direction anyway. But I was already a huge fan of the show and of the genre in general. I love metaphorical storytelling, which is at the heart of Sci Fi — this is our world, but looked at through a lens. Love that.
What was your first introduction to Space Westerns?
Does that one ep of classic Trek count? Actually, I didn’t even know it was a subgenre until after I’d written for Firefly. To me, it was just the lens that Joss was putting on the modern world in order to be able to talk about it.
How would you define “Space Western”?
Hmm. I guess I’d say anything is a Space Western that maps space exploration as having parallels to the Western‑directed exploration of the U.S. Even just referring to space as a “frontier,” final or otherwise, is to see it with a Space Western POV.
What was your first introduction to Firefly?
Joss took me along with him when he ran an errand during the run of Buffy, and on the way he laid out an idea he had for a new show. It told me forever to really grok what he was talking about — I was so absolutely certain that the heart of the show was going to be about interactions with aliens that I simply couldn’t absorb what he was seeing for the longest time.
What do you think the attraction is to Space Westerns?
Space is so unimaginable, so unfathomably large and mysterious that I think tying it down to a kind of real historical framework helps make it more understandable. It makes it seem individually attainable, too. We can “see” ourselves, our tiny selves, pointing a wagon westward and heading out across a plain more easily than we can imagine blasting into outer space.
Let me take you way back: In 1996 you wrote a Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode entitled “Accession.” What inspired you to pitch to Star Trek?
That DS9 episode was something I did in the middle of my sitcom career during a scary year in which I was not hired by a show. I had met with some success and a warm welcome from Star Trek: The Next Generation years before (1990, 1991‑ish), so when I was in need, they were the ones I called. Someone there remembered me and got me back onto the pitching roster at the then‑current Trek incarnation. I was very fortunate that they liked an idea I suggested in which someone else steps forward as the “Emissary” and Sisko steps down in relief. That notion developed into Accession. The whole Trek experience, at TNG and DS9, was incredibly positive. Thank you, Star Trek!
In “Accession” Captain Sisko is initially uncomfortable with the Bajoran people declaring him as Emissary of the Prophets, but finally comes to terms with it and willingly assumes the duty. Why did you pitch this particular story?
When I’m helping young writers pick stories for their spec scripts, I suggest that they pick a story that speaks to the themes at the very center of the show, often with the dynamic that was set up in the show’s pilot. Sisko’s ambivalence about being called the Emissary was central to that show, so a story that directly addresses that status is going to resonate. One of my Buffy colleagues got his job with a Buffy spec in which she lost her Slayer powers — it’s the same as the Emissary story, in a way. Explore central themes and your story has weight. Of course, I’m sure I also pitched a lot of dumb stories at DS9, but it’s not random that this was the one they picked.
The story theme is of a man reluctant to perform his duty, but assuming the responsibility in the end. Were you conscious of the Western genre theme in this particular story?
Western genre theme? Ooh, is there? I suppose, now that you mention it, that Westerns has employed this story shape, but isn’t it more universal than that? You’ve made me curious now. I must think. Short answer: No. I was not conscious of it.
In 2002 you wrote the “Shindig” episode of Firefly. What were your objectives for the episode when you began writing “Shindig”?
This was a story that Joss had already worked out. As always with Joss, his vision is so thorough and thought‑through that the writer’s objective is just to turn in a script that reflects his internal script, with a few embroideries of your own put in along the way.
Did the completed episode do everything that you had set out to do?
Yes, I think so. Certainly, I was very happy with it. Perhaps the teaser should’ve made the themes of the episode more clear? I feel that the teaser feels a little disconnected from the rest of the ep. No one’s fault but my own.
Were there any deleted scenes in “Shindig” and if so, what did they reveal?
I don’t believe there were any deleted scenes. There were cuts within scenes — there was a much longer poker‑playing and party‑discussion sequence on Serenity than exists now, but no whole scenes were removed.
On the Firefly DVD Commentary for “Shindig” you mention that you like “the metaphor of the time period.” Can you elaborate on that?
Oh, I meant nothing deep. Just that the future was being viewed through the lens of the past. Just another way of saying “Space Western”!
You’re credited with another finished but un‑produced Firefly episode as of the cancellation of the series. Can you tell me about it?
You know, I see references to that all the time, and I don’t recall this mysterious finished script at all. Maybe I’m forgetting something, which isn’t unusual, but I don’t think there was any such script.
There’s a Firefly Massive Multiplayer Online game by Multiverse coming up. Have you been contacted about writing storylines, missions, or quests for it?
I have not been, which is probably good for all involved. I don’t really know much about these games — they may require storylines that have specific shapes and features that differ from television storytelling.
You’re currently a co‑executive producer for Battlestar Galactica: Razor. What can you tell me about Battlestar Galactica: Razor?
Well, at this point it has aired for all to see, so there are no secrets. I can tell you, though, that it was broken and the early drafts of it were written before I was brought on board full‑time, so I got to read each draft as a fan might — completely surprised by the story and by changes that happened as it evolved. It was the last bit of Battlestar that I got to experience purely as a fan (other than getting to read it before it was filmed, of course). The cool thing about Razor is the slow reveal of interesting facts about Cain, Pegasus, Adama, Kara... fab stuff. And, of course, the talking Cylons!
Aside from classic‑style Cylons, what does the Battlestar Galactica: Razor story add to the Battlestar Galactica story that couldn’t be told in a Battlestar Galactica episode?
The cool thing about our show is that we probably could’ve told that story as a mini‑arc of two or possible three regular episodes! The show is so good at resisting formularity that we probably could have told a story off our regular sets and timeline and away from a lot of our regular people for that long. In fact, our internal episode number system actually does count Razor as episodes one and two of season four. Of course, the luxury of having it all together under one director and one shooting schedule and what I assume was a more generous budget allowed Razor a certain extra lushness.
Have you found that Western genre themes have crept into your writing for Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and Battlestar Galactica?
If they have, they’ve probably done so either unconsciously or because of forces other than me. David Weddle, one of the other Battlestar writers is, like, the world’s expert on Sam Peckinpah, and many of the other writers are also fans of movie westerns to the point of having encyclopedic knowledge. They’re the ones who find a movie western parallel to almost every story we tell on Battlestar. If I use these themes as well it might just be because these themes have become so ingrained in all of our western story‑telling.
You’ve written for a variety of Space Westerns: Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica... There are two Star Wars television series coming up, would you consider writing for them?
Certainly I would. I never thought of it as defining a “complete set” of Sci Fi westerns, but... sure!
In your article on The New Republic entitled “The Secret to Selling Sci‑Fi” you speak of a specific type of Hero’s Journey: The Chosen One. How would you say that the archetype of The Chosen One — seen in Buffy, Star Wars, RoboTech — compares to other versions of the Hero’s Journey — such as the narrative structure that Will Wright in Six‑guns and Society calls The Professionals, that can be seen in popular series like Star Trek, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica?
My little essay was just the written‑down version of a little thought I had about why some Sci Fi stories seem to be able to reach beyond the core of Sci Fi fans and others don’t. I haven’t thought much about it beyond that. If I have time, I might come back to this idea, and lay my little thought against the thoughts of others, but I simply haven’t done my prep work on this yet.
Would you say The Chosen One narrative express itself better or more frequently in Science Fiction and Fantasy than in other genres?
I don’t know about that. Perhaps not. The little girl in The Little Princess, is a Chosen One, and there’s no hint of Sci Fi in that. I think it’s not something that is specific to Sci Fi, just something that *when it is present*, helps readers feel pulled into the story even if they don’t possess the Sci Fi gene.
How would you explain that for years Westerns were the most popular fiction on television and yet very few followed The Chosen One narrative structure?
Westerns don’t alienate people, I don’t think. Ordinary people who wouldn’t consider themselves “nerds” in any way are at the heart of Western fandom. The Chosen One structure is useful when you’ve got a genre like Sci Fi that sometimes seems to have a hard time finding new fans, perhaps because they shrink from the “nerd” perception.
Would you consider that it might not be that audiences prefer The Chosen One narrative, but that might be easier for audiences to accept a world introduced in the structure of The Chosen One narrative?
Yes. Exactly. They accept the world. Therefore, they can become fans.
Although the overall storyline didn’t focus on it before it was cancelled, would you say that the River Tam character from Firefly possesses the qualities of The Chosen One archetype?
Yes, I think she does. Very much so. It was no accident that she was plucked from her life and put in that “special program.” Girl was chosen.
You have a new book out called Serenity Found, which is an anthology of critical essays about the Firefly ’verse. It’s a follow‑up to 2005’s Finding Serenity. How did you gather the eclectic mix of writers who appear in both Finding Serenity and Serenity Found?
Some — most — were located by the publisher. Others were recommended and selected by me. At least one (the razor‑sharp Natalie Haynes) was found personally by Joss.
How did your criteria for selecting articles change between the time that Finding Serenity was published and the time that you began selecting articles for Serenity Found?
The second volume features more pieces from “insiders” like Loni Peristere and Nathan Fillion, and from higher profile writers like Orson Scott Card. I think the success of the first volume allowed us to go a bit more high‑pro with the second.
Have you depleted the mine, or do you think there’s yet another critical anthology about the Firefly ’verse waiting to be written? (and how would a third installment differ from the first two)
I think the fans will determine that. If they want a third volume, they can vote by buying the first two! I think a third volume would probably continue the arc set down by the others — we’d get more essays from inside the process — Tim Minear, anyone? Joss himself? And I like to think we’d get more feedback from established sci fi authors. It’s been demonstrated to me that there are as many interesting things to say about Firefly as there are interesting people to say them. I’m not sure we’ve run out yet.
Can you let me in on any exclusive information, unknown insights, or trade secrets?
Brads. The ones used to hold scripts together inside the industry are much stronger than the ones publicly available. They’re fantastic.
Seeing as this is the last stop on your blog tour, how’d it go?
I think it went really well! The questions have been great (none better than these, of course). I’ve heard it said that The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is the last stop on most star’s movie‑promotion tours, so consider yourself in good company!
What else can we expect to see from you in the near future?
Well, I’ve got a development deal, so there could be pilot scripts coming along... and Joss has that new show... and Ron probably has stuff he’s working on... I think I’ll keep busy!
You can visit the other stops on Jane Espenson’s Blog Tour at the following locations:
- Firefly Talk (Oct. 19)
#59, October 24th 2007 [audio]
- SerenityStuff (Oct. 24)
welcomes Jane Espenson
- Arghink.com (Oct. 30)
Guest Blogger: Jane Espenson
- A Slice of SciFi (Nov. 7)
Interview with Jane Espenson
- The Dragon Page (Nov. 16)
Cover to Cover #286B: Jane Espenson [audio]
- The Signal (Nov. 22)
Season 3, Show 22, November 22nd 2007 [audio]
- SpaceWesterns.com (Nov 25)
Space Western Limerick Contest
- USA Today: Pop Candy (Nov. 28)
A chat with ... TV writer Jane Espenson
- trashionista.com (Dec. 4)
INTERVIEW: Jane Espenson (interviewed by Shanna Swendson)
N.E. Lilly is the editor of SpaceWesterns.com. When he isn’t reading submissions or indulging his love of the Space Western sub-genre, he’s developing websites for Science Fiction professionals and organizations through GreenTentacles.
Jane Espenson is a former writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and has written episodes for shows including: Angel, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, Ellen, The O.C., Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Dinosaurs, Andy Barker PI and others. She is currently under a development deal with NBC/Universal television while working as Co-Executive Producer on Battlestar Galactica.