Firefly: In which I am, and remain, wholly bowled over.

Firefly characters, l-r: Jayne, River, Simon, Mal, Inara, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Shepherd

By one measure, I’m now about half-way through the pop culture phenom that is Firefly (as first referenced here). I’ve watched the pilot and all the episodes, aired and non-, in the correct, Joss Whedon-approved order, and last night saw the movie (Serenity). All rank among the finest televised/cinematic entertainment I’ve ever seen.

But (you ask, with justifiable confusion) if you’ve seen it all, Emily, how is it that you’re only half-way through? I’ll tell you how: Special features.

I’ve watched a few already (oh, Alan Tudyk, you were born to be Wash!), but many others remain to be seen, not to mention the commentaries — and if you know me at all, you know that I plan to watch it all.

So by another measure (sheer number of minutes spent on the couch), I may not have even made the half-way mark yet — let’s not forget: I did actually watch all (or nearly all — I lost track at a certain point) 45 hours of extra material on my Lord of the Rings DVDs.

Ahem. In for a penny, obsessive geeks, in for a pound!

So (you ask, again, justifiably) what the hell is so great about Firefly?

As you may imagine, I’ve been thinkin’ on that a spell. Hereunder, but a few of the reasons (in addition to the writing, acting, and directing, which: Obvs!):

  1. It’s actually silent in space. I know I said this over at anibundel’s place, but given that this is the first time I’ve ever heard — you know — nothing in space, it feels like a kindness on the part of Joss Whedon, and bears repeating. Because there’s no motherloving noise in space.
  2. The characters are people we’ve never met before (with the exception of Captain Mal Reynolds, who is the-handsome-loner-who-is-tortured-and-gruff-but-also-funny-and-moral — but Nathan Fillion plays the part so well, that his tortured handsome funny guy feels like someone you could actually meet someday). I think the real trick is that Whedon treated all of these characters as people, not devices with which to tell a story. The incredibly sweet and emotionally generous young woman who paints flowers over the door to her bunk is also a miracle-working mechanic who thinks sex is a terrific thing and couldn’t sound bawdy about it if she tried. The wise-cracking pilot who can near-enough thread a needle with his mad skillz (sigh, Wash…) is a bona-fide coward who envies his wife’s war stories. For but two examples.
  3. The women get punched. Stick with me here. The women in this world set 500 years in the future are as fully warrior (or non-) as the men, with the same training and ability to save themselves and their comrades (or not) — and while such a thing has occasionally been seen on film or television, it is always (almost always) one woman and one woman only, and that woman is highlighted in some way as to make clear that She Is Special. In Firefly, if a woman starts a fist-fight, she will be punched, no matter who she’s up against. And believe it or not, to me, that spells advancement — because it means women are taken seriously as genuine threats, not treated as delicate flowers.
  4. There are no knobbly-headed creatures. I say this with some care, because I am (after all) a Trekker through-and-through, not to mention the whole Star Wars thing, and both of those universes are positively riddled with the knobbly-headed (and furry, and green, and shape-shifting, and so on). But that’s just What You Do In Sci-Fi — there’s no real reason for it, other than that some of us like the notion that we’re not alone. Whedon managed to make a compelling sci-fi story in which hucksters are still trying to sell the human race on the notion that we’re not alone. Bottom line, the Firefly universe genuinely feels like a place in which we might all wind up in 500 years’ time, based entirely on the knowledge-base we now have, and the personality strengths and weaknesses that humans have always evinced.
  5. The ship looks like a piece of crap. I mean, I know they love it and all, but if you’re a motley crew of smugglers attempting to, essentially, duck the government you once fought for the rest of your lives? Your ship is gonna look beat up. And Serenity does.
  6. The ship’s name. Now, this is a piece of information I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t watched the deleted scenes, and it’s so crucial, that I have to count that as a black mark against Whedon (gasp!). The battle we see in the pilot’s first moments is a horrific one in which (we learn in the movie) some two-thirds of all combatants died — and it’s the battle that decided the war between the Alliance and the Browncoats, with whom Mal and Zoe fought. We learn at some point in the course of the series that this battle took place in Serenity Valley and that’s treated as significant — a possible sign that Mal hasn’t really made his peace with the fact that the Alliance won — but that’s it. In the deleted scene, though, Zoe talks about the battle’s gruesome details with newly acquired passenger Dr. Simon Tam, and as she leaves his room, he asks: “If that battle was so horrible, why did he name his ship after it?” Zoe looks at him for a second (bonus points, Whedon, for always allowing your characters to hold a look for a second or two!), then looks toward his feet and says “Once you’ve been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there.” And that, my friends – that is some deep shit.

There are, of course, failings as well. The biggest one (pointed out to me in the comments at anibundel’s) is that we’re meant to believe that the shared universal culture is essentially a mix of American and Chinese — to the extent that the characters all curse copiously in the latter — but there’s not a single Asian speaking role in the whole thing. Not.one. So, yeah, room for improvement there.

Perhaps one day, the stars will align, and Whedon will get a chance to address that enormous lacuna….

Sigh. One lives in hope. I think I recently detected a certain yes-iness to Whedon….

27 Comments

  1. Firefly is indeed quite excellent. I had some issues with the big-screen adaptation Serenity, though Whedon probably adapted it into a feature film as well as possible. The show, though, is pretty consistently strong throughout, great music, good character variety, and even though there are suspenseful and heavy action moments my predominant memory is that it’s really just a great laid-back place to hang out with the characters. Which, for my money, is the hardest thing to pull off in fiction. It’s a Big Lebowski-type of accomplishment, in other words.

    This was circling the intertubes some time ago, but I still love it:

  2. Oh, I do love Firefly, so very, very much!

  3. Firefly, in it’s short time, is in my top 3 for TV series.
    1. West Wing
    2. Battlestar Galactica (the new, not the old)
    3. Firefly

    I have no doubt in my mind that FIrefly would have been 1 or 2 had Whedon been given 2 or 3 seasons to flesh out all the spectacular characters and ideas in his ‘verse.

    • 2. Battlestar Galactica (the new, not the old)

      This is because you are not an idiot. See why we picked each other out in that line to see Empire? Because we are both clever, is what we are!

      Other than that, by the end of West Wing, I had gotten a little weary of Aaron Sorkin’s quippiness coming through all the characters. It’s in my top 5, but as of this week, Firefly’s number one, baybee!

      • Yes, yes and yes (and I don’t think Sorkin was actually doing any of the writing by the time the last 2 seasons rolled around? And it showed…)

    • I watched one episode of the original BSG. I believe it was the pilot. What a giant piece of garbage–you can’t get away with both deep personal tragedy AND cartoonish whimsy within moments of each other unless you’re some kind of writing genius. And Glen Larson was, ahem, not one.

      Despite some later stumbles, the new BSG has easily superseded the old.

  4. Also, I can kill you with my brain!

  5. Darth Thulhu

     /  November 17, 2011

    Other things I loved, in no real order:

    * People use guns, not energy beams (except for super-high-end Alliance prototypes). Loved this about BSG, also.

    * Religion is recognizable and isn’t flipping Magic. People believe, or don’t, but believing doesn’t inherently make you more moral nor prevent you from being moral, and no one gets superpowers or 100% accurate prophecy out of it. No Force-powers, no Orbs of Plot Advancement, no Sacred Scrolls of the Season’s Script. But, given Whedon’s atheism, *also* no shitting all over people like Book who are trying to improve their moral station and sincerely investigate their Faith.

    * The Alliance worlds are corporatism cubed. Not mustache-twirling evil, just quietly order-obsessed and sterile and play-your-position, with everything that flows from that. Half the crew are Alliance background, and for all that they dislike and flee the excesses, they embody and exemplify its positive aspects (education, culture, discipline). The Independents aren’t all sunshine, and the Alliance isn’t all foul. Both are very human.

    * True ensemble cast. Mal is obviously first among equals, and River obviously the beloved Whedon badass wondergirl, but every character gets focus and develops relationships. And not necessarily the expected relationships (see: Book and Jayne as weightlifting buddies).

    * Backwater worlds are seriously poor, and seriously look it.

    One unending nerd gripe: The solar system of the Verse makes zero sense. Terraforming doesn’t work that way, and orbital mechanics would make most of those worlds utterly unlivable. But if you handwave away that detail with “terraforming is magic!”, it holds together.

    Smaller gripes: the oft-mentioned lack of Asians, and the sometimes uncomfortable ideology resonances of the space western’s War of Unification with the Civil War (the Alliance is the “evil and expanding” North taking away your freedom and guns, the Independents are the “pure and liberty-loving” South shorn of any slavery issues whatsoever).

    There is, of course, a poster sized Map of the Verse, and a decent roleplaying game adaptation (same people who did the BSG RPG … say that five times fast). Much fun nerdery abounds!

    • I agree with you on all of the above, except I totally just went “terraforming is magic!” without a second glance (I did mention that I’m a die-hard Trekker, right?) and don’t see the Civil War echoes, so they don’t bother me! Yay!

      However, I will say that the fact that nearly every planet/moon not in the Core Planets looks just like the one before began to tickle my Improbable Nerve.

      And I will add: I cannot tell you how powerfully I love it that the love relationships on that ship don’t all fall into the category of romance: a brother and sister, two soldiers who’ve seen everything together, these are love relationships that we don’t often get to visit in any detail.

  6. David Litvak

     /  November 17, 2011

    I’m in love with your love of Firefly, because a new love like this is a beautiful thing.

    The flipside, of course is that I interpreted your half-way through comment (before I read the rest as): I have experienced all the joy of Firefly, and have yet to experience the sorrowful frustration of realizing that FOX strangled this lovely, amazing little baby in its crib before it ever had a chance to become a real boy.

    Special features is a much less depressing interpretation of your statement, thankfully.

    My one quibble: Have you never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey before? Because Kubrick totally makes sure there’s no sound in space, to fantastic dramatic effect. Firefly is probably the first time they go full-mute for space in TV, but: Kubrick was there first.

    As an aside, this was one thing I loved about the new Battlestar Galactica. I think the story was that they wanted no sound in space and SyFy (then just SciFi) didn’t think people would understand/like it, so they insisted on a sound for the space stuff – but then Ronald Moore just made all the sounds as quiet as possible. It creates an interesting effect, such that the machine guns on the Vipers feel like you’re hearing them through several pillows, and you can almost justify it by thinking you’re just hearing it as it would sound in the cockpit. That and the realistic camera angles (my favorite: when the recreation ship is nuked in season 2, and a bit of the debris heads toward the camera – which spins wildly, cracked lens and everything, once hit), coupled with Bear McCreary’s phenomenal score, were easily 60% of my love for that show.

    • : )

      Oh my God how I hated 2001: A Space Odyssey in high school! I had apparently driven it from my brain. You’re quite right — but I’m not going to watch it again to re-educate myself.

      BG is one of those shows on the list of “I really should watch this” that I never got around to. As I said in that earlier post, it’s a long, long list. But! I did do research before writing that line! I went to YouTube and found battles from BG and from Babylon 5 (which I really loved back in the day) to confirm the noise-in-space anomaly. Research!

      • David Litvak

         /  November 17, 2011

        Ach, my bad (I thought you’d seen BSG). Ignore that exceedingly spoilery last sentence, if you please; I know statute of limitations is long past, but if you’ve not seen it yet, it deserves to be seen unspoiled.

        I doubt not your research skills! I would prod you to rewatch 2001 if you can stomach it. There are some works which require some maturity to consume; back in the day, it was Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter for me, which was foisted upon me in 8th grade but never became the beautiful, stirring work I now love until 11th grade. 2001 is super bizarre, but very imaginative and far, far ahead of its time.

        Most space films still avoid noiseless space, unfortunately. Several more recent films picked up on the psychologically isolating/terrifying feeling of utter silence – I believe the underrated Moon does this (with the moon, obviously), and I think Sunshine also plays with this trope. The new Star Trek even went there, in one surprisingly beautiful scene. But Firefly is the only TV series I can remember that bothered to go for a truly silent space.

        And thank you for name-dropping Babylon 5, another majorly underrated series.

        Also: have you seen Farscape? Four seasons of pure, unadulterated, low-cost production, high-value writing, Australian space crack. That show, BSG, Firefly, Babylon 5, Star Trek TNG… aw man, now I want to go troll for YouTube clips.

  7. First, know I adore you. Really. But what were you watching? It is, truly, as if there is a space/time disruption between those who get/love sci-fi tv — or fiction, I suspect — and those of us who have lead shoes down here on the ground. Because as much as I❤ West Wing, and Mad Men, and Rescue Me and The Tudors and The Shield and many other shows which I suspect we have in common, I Cannot Go There with Firefly, or BG, or really any sci-fi thing I've managed to force myself to get through more than an hour of.

    The punching — totally get and I'm totally with you, totally. But notice that it's only some women who are subject to being punched and ergo punching back. [ok, I could only get through 3 episodes, so maybe other women fight, maybe].

    The men in sci fi are all over the map: geeky and macho and fey and shy and effeminate and evil and strong and smart and every combination of all the above. But the women are smart and pseudo hot or just plain hot, in which case they have a super power related to their hotness.

    As far as disrupting our preconceptions, I think, maybe — this is ignorance talking –sci-fi is radical in upending our ideas about masculinity. But sci-fi seems retrograde with regard to our ideas about women — once you accept we can get shot up in rockets and Fuck In Space, anyway. Is that such a radical notion for women 10, 20, 30 years younger than I am? If that's true, I accept it, but it makes me sad and I find much more disruptive representations in much more down-to-earth fiction and video, fwiw.

    I don't get the love, I really don't. I say this in sadness, not in a "what the fuck is the matter with you" kinda way, truly, because I want to belong to The Club, I really do, But I can't get through the initiation hazing, apparently.

    And I would love if it we could meet when you come to DC, if you come Ms. Em.

    • I suspect the ability to appreciate sci-fi is not a learned skill. Some people either get it (i.e. all uber-smart wondergeeks seem to gravitate to to it) or they never get it.

      If the ‘What If?” question of humanity tickles your brain, Sci-Fi is for you…for it encompasses all the possibilities of what may become of our race.

      Firefly takes this one step further, in that it is strongly possessing well-honed and very-human characters, with their flaws and heroism; all naked for the viewer to see.

      • I will not cede my uper-smart nor my geek creds to someone who doesn’t even acknowledge the gender issues I’ve raised. I’m willing to admit –hell I’ve trumpeted — my sci-fi ignorance. But I’m disputing your assertion that sci-fi — Firefly in particular — has “very human characters.” It has “very human” male characters. It has caricatures of female characters, imnsho.

        • I don’t agree on the superficial female characters. I think the most superficial character of the group is Jane and the most complex is River.

        • @ Nora and SeussMD Please play very nice, for I❤ you both! But for what it's worth, I agree w/ SMD on Jayne (dude! Note the spelling!), and disagree on River. She's weird, but not necessarily complex. I think Kaylee is more surprising than all the other women on that ship, all of whom I find to be well-rounded.

          Nora – I would say that you should watch more Firefly before you stick to your guns on that. The women are very varied, and very human. In terms of SciFi upending male stereotypes, that actually hasn't been my personal experience with it. So, we are coming at this from entirely different perceptions! Or, just say "I don't like this stuff" and forget about it. That's been my entire approach to gaming, and mystery novels, a fact which puts me at odds with, in the first case, SMD himself, and in the second, my mother and sister.

          I will say this, in answer to the question "What were you watching?" – the truth is not a whole lot. As I said in my first Firefly opus, I've spent 12 years watching maybe 5-8 hours a week of TV. Eight on the absolute outside. So I've missed a LOT. I have for instance not watched a single episode of The Tudors or The Shield, and after about 2 episodes of Rescue Me, stopped caring so stopped watching. But oddly enough, I follow TV, by reading about various shows in various places, so I’m not entirely out of the loop. For whatever that’s worth, which isn’t much.

  8. Ah, Emily. I’m a mystery novel person, all the way down to my bones. Someday soon, no doubt, neuroscientists will be able to explain why some of us [uber-smart] are mystery fans and some of us are sci-fi fans and why never the twain shall meet, apparently. There’s still some sadness, as the Horde is so heavily weighted towards the sci-fi end of what I predict will turn out to be a spectrum. But I’ve always — ironically — fancied myself a Martian in most every realm, so being a notthenorm-loving person in a norm-loving world is nothing new to me.

    I would still love to meet you in RL if you come to DC.

    • … in spite of my non-mystery novel reading ways? : )

      Of course! I have half a plan in the back of my mind to come out. When it’s possible to make it a full plan, I most surely will.

  9. I am a female and I adore Firefly –just last night was chatting at dinner with folks my age (Baby Boomers) and some of our grown kids, and both generations were quite keen on the series.

    For me it was the Space Western flavor that sealed the deal for me. I grew up with westerns –different series on every week night and then there were more on Saturday morning cartoons. My kids missed all that growing up, so Firefly gave them a bit of the flavor, and then I added movies from the past to try and add to their knowledge.

    And I, too, thought that women were treated in a far more even handed way than they had been in all the westerns I saw growing up.

  10. Xenaclone

     /  November 25, 2011

    I think it would be very, very interesting if Jayne turned out to be complex. Oh wait; he does! His presenting persona is tough-merc-for-hire-who-loves-guns-and-sex. He sells out River to the Alliance, but almost instantly regrets it when he gets double crossed. Mal gives him the equivalent of a smack upside the head and he takes it and learns.

    He finds out that people will make up a whole song about him and even die for the image they think he is.

    He loves his mother to wear that hat.

    He watches secretly and with some caring when Kaylee is getting stitched up in the infirmary.

    He is amazingly tender with Helen the whore in ‘Heart of Gold’. If he was nothing but a rough, tough merc, he’d get his jollies and leave. But he stays and *snuggles*! Even trusts Helen with his guns.

    We get Jayne’s completed round of learning in the movie. He gets one of the best, if not the best lines. “Shepherd Book once told me, ‘If you can’t do something smart, do something right’.” Jayne has listened, learned and grown!

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