Sunday, June 26, 2016

June is Firefly Season

The decade of the naughties (2000-2009) was a rich one for science fiction on the small and large screens. There was so much, in fact, that even a lifelong scifi fan such as myself couldn’t possibly watch it all – at least not while maintaining a life beyond the screen. TV offerings alone included Star Trek: Enterprise, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Caprica, Andromeda, Lost, several Stargate SG1 spinoffs, Tripping the Rift, Eureka, Sanctuary, and Torchwood, among many others. Viewers had to pick and choose, and, if critics are to be believed, they didn’t always choose wisely. They kept alive mediocre entries while leaving well-written shows in the lurch. I was one of those viewers, and therefore through my inattention bear some small part of the blame for the cancellation of Joss Whedon’s critically acclaimed Firefly, which in 2002 lasted a mere 14 episodes including three unaired in the original run. A larger part of the blame belongs to Fox, which in fairness was also responsible for financing the show in the first place. Hot off his success with Buffy and Angel, Whedon was given a sizable budget to bring his offbeat science fiction vision to life.

Before video players became de rigueur home accessories, the philosophy of evening TV show producers was that each episode of a show should be stand-alone. A few nighttime soap operas were exceptions, but by and large the producers demanded this strategy. This is why it doesn’t matter in what order you watch Star Trek: The Original Series, Charlie’s Angels, or Columbo. There is no continuous story arc that develops from one episode to the next. The idea was that any new viewer who stumbled on the show wouldn’t be confused by arriving in the middle of a complex story he or she didn’t understand; winning over new viewers thereby would be easier. The artistic advantage of a multi-episode story arc, on the other hand, is that it allows scriptwriters to develop richer plots, themes, and characters; a commercial upside (long exploited by soap operas) is that regular viewers are enticed back to find out what happens. Until the 1990s the prospect of capturing new viewers outweighed the advantages of teasing old ones. In the 1990s, however, commercial considerations tilted toward continuous story arcs as technology made it easier for new viewers to catch up on previously aired episodes both online and offline. The order in which one watches episodes of a show made after 2000 almost always matters. So, it didn’t help that Fox chose to air Firefly out of sequence.

The Fox suits were not simply crazy. They reasoned (with some justice) that an audience had to be hooked with the first few shows or the ratings were doomed. Consequently, instead of beginning with the lengthy two-episode pilot that explains the setting and introduces us to the nine major characters, the first show that aired was an action/adventure episode involving a train heist. There are indeed more thrills and chills in the train job episode, but a lot of viewers must have asked themselves, “Who are these people and why should I care?” If those viewers returned the following week, they also must have wondered about the disjointed timeline. Maybe airing the pilot first would have helped. Maybe it wouldn’t. In any event a large enough audience to prevent cancellation never did show up, leading to Joss Whedon’s remark, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the road less traveled by and they CANCELLED MY FRIKKIN' SHOW. I totally shoulda took the road that had all those people on it.” Firefly’s audience might have been modest but it was enthusiastic – enthusiastic enough for Whedon to tie up the loose ends of the TV series with the sequel big screen movie Serenity and to make money doing it.

A couple weeks ago I decided it was long past time to see what the fuss was about. Firefly including the unaired episodes is available on DVD as is the movie Serenity. Amazon delivered both to me. OK, I’m impressed.

The setting for Firefly is a distant solar system where a substantial number of planets and moons have been terraformed. The humans who settled there from earth have a culture that is mostly an amalgam of American and Chinese. The core worlds of the system are rich, advanced, organized (some might say over-organized), and civilized. The outer worlds and moons are frontier areas that look much like the 19th century American West, albeit with anachronistic tech. In the outer worlds the rule of law is tenuous where it exists at all, though officially (despite a failed bid for independence) they are part of the Alliance that governs the whole system. There are no alien races. This a 100% human future although a crazed and terrifying faction of spacefaring humans called Reavers show off only their most horrid traits. The character Zoe explains the Reavers to a passenger from a core world: "If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And, if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order."

The crew of the Firefly-class space freighter Serenity are not the heroes of Star Trek or Star Wars. They are less high-minded folk and their ambitions are much smaller. While they hope to get rich they don’t expect it. They are satisfied to live their lives aboard the ship so long as it is in a manner independent of overweening outside authority. They work together but do so by choice: any one of them could leave at any port if he or she wishes. The captain/owner and crew take honest freight jobs but are just as likely to smuggle or even stage robberies. Yet, they have standards. They are no Robin Hoods – they rob to enrich themselves – but, like less competent versions of Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, they target those who can afford the loss. There is a superb cast (Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Ron Glass, Summer Glau) for nine characters with nine distinct personalities and motivations. The wild card is the passenger River (Summer Glau): Alliance doctors have tampered with her mind in some secret and nefarious way.

I was hooked midway through the pilot. The series ends with all the major questions unanswered, so seeing the follow-up movie Serenity (2005) was a necessity. Some of the reviews of Serenity suggest that watching Firefly isn’t a precondition for seeing the movie. Don’t believe them. Oh, the film contains enough exposition to make sense without exposure to the series, but a newbie will miss all the subtext: for example, that Captain Mal Reynolds is uncharacteristically harsh and hardnosed because Inara is not on the ship. Watch Firefly first. But then, definitely see the movie.

There is an anarchic streak in the politics of much scifi, and it is present here. Also commonplace within the genre is an expressed worry that the human impulse to reject authority might die out. Aldous Huxley warned in Brave New World Revisited (1958) that as propaganda becomes more nuanced, pervasive, and scientific (and unrecognized by the targets of it), “most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution…Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.” The Alliance political elite in the Firefly/Serenity universe behave just as Huxley would expect. For the populus’ own good they plan not only to run citizens’ lives in ever more minute detail but to alter the very natures of the governed to make them better people, even if achieving this beneficent end requires casualties in the meantime. The Serenity crew, very much against their unheroic inclinations, find themselves drawn into a seemingly futile resistance to the Alliance’s plans when they discover something about the Reavers.

Thumbs Up both to series and film.

Serenity (2005) trailer


  1. Yeah I was late to the "Firefly" boat too. I picked it up right after "Serenity" hit DVD. There was some kind of two pack that was priced affordably. I really enjoyed it, and we revisit it pretty often. Although my wife really doesn't like how Wash is treated in the movie and we rarely watch that one together.

    The main reason for me avoiding "Firefly" when it first aired was the simple fact that it looked like a combination of two very popular anime from the late 1990s - "Cowboy Bebop" and "Outlaw Star". It felt like Whedon was just ripping off those two anime and trying to pass it off as his own creation. I was still in my snobby "anime is superior to everything" phase, so as much as I enjoyed Buffy, I just couldn't bring myself to watch "Firefly" when it was on TV.

    That said, yeah Whedon does borrow heavily from "Cowboy Bebop" and "Outlaw Star", but he puts his own Whedon touch on everything. But if you ever get the chance, give the two anime series I mentioned a whirl. Most people really enjoy "Bebop" the most, and the animation and design are top notch. You may also recognize some of the characters tropes crossing over into "Firefly".

    "Outlaw Star" influenced the world Whedon created, with the Chinese overtones and the way Gene and his crew take odd jobs to make ends meet. But he did lift (and I'm talking shot for shot) River's first appearance, folded up in a crate. The same thing happened to Melfina the first time we see her in the first episode of "Outlaw Star".
    My review contains a screenshot of Melfina's first scene.

    1. Part of the fun of a broad exposure to screen and page is the way it allows you to see connections and derivations. While I’m aware of those anime productions’ existence, I’d never spot the specific borrowings in “Firefly.” Thanks for the link back to your review.

      Summer Glau seems to find herself in well-regarded commercial failures including the “Sarah Conner Chronicles” and “Dollhouse.” Her character in “Firefly” is the one who isn’t someone you’re likely to meet. I like that the others are, such as, for example, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship’s mechanic who would like to be more girly than she usually has a chance to be, or Jayne (Adam Balwin) a self-serving ruffian who is sometimes tempted to virtue.

  2. I enjoyed the series and the movie too. I watched a number of the episodes off TV, but I'm not sure if I've seen every one or not. Something that has been on my list to revisit.

    My only criticism of Firefly is the western drawl. I may be in the minority on that, but it still bugs me as I can't see an advance society whether on Earth or even one that's expanded to a newer settlement on the Moon or Mars or whatever reverting back to that type spoken behavior. It just seems more comic book-y than real.

    Other than that, I've enjoyed the series. Good cast, and well written episodes. I agree too that at that time there was just too many series to keep up with even if you had a VCR. Boy I couldn't and I tried, no less that some might move to a different time or day of airing.

    I'm not which came first, but I think Babylon 5 may have been one of the forerunners to that story arc type of storytelling, where it built sort of like a novel, so you wanted to get in early with the storytelling.

    1. Yes, Babylon 5 was very much a part of that 90s transition. Buffy was an odd hybrid with a story-arc for each season, but perhaps that is because Whedon was always worried each season would be the last. The finale of each season would have worked as a place to end the whole show.

      That is an interesting response to the accents. One might suppose that the frontier areas of the new solar system would draw westerners for various reasons, but I honestly hadn’t noticed it. Now if they spoke with a Sopranos-like Jersey accent…