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….

Memorial Day – The loss of strangers.

Please also be sure to take a peek at my earlier post, where I also link to a really wonderful essay about the particular case of young veterans grappling with this nation’s holiday in memory of their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.

Listening to NPR as I stood cooking the holiday meal for my family just now, I heard a Vietnam vet talk about the need to remember the individual lives lost in our wars — not just the numbers, but the people, and what might have been had they not been lost to us. It made me think of the Jewish notion (one I think that we share with Islam) that when we kill one person, it’s as if we’ve killed an entire world.

This reminded me that I had meant to do just that: Remember individuals, by urging you to go to the Washington Post’s Faces of the Fallen, and just click on a face or two. Consider the ages (21 — had Lance. Cpl. Jose L. Maldonado celebrated that milestone with a beer or two? 31 — did Staff Sgt. Mark C. Wells leave behind a spouse and children?), look at their faces, imagine their families. For a moment or two, hold these strangers who died so far from home in your hearts.

Back in 2008, when the United States reached the milestone of 4,000 dead, I wrote something about those from my own state, Illinois, who had fallen in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. A slightly edited version of what I submitted ran, and some time ago, on Veterans Day, I ran the original here on the blog. It seems right and meet that I should run it again today.

In honor of the fallen from my home state — may their memories be for a blessing.

The loss of strangers

As of this writing, 141 servicemen and women from Illinois are confirmed to have died in the course of the Iraq War.

They came from big cities, mall-strewn suburbs, and places I’ve never heard of: Patoka, Gays, Blandinsville, Mahomet. More than 90 of Illinois’s casualties were 25 or younger when they died; thirteen were still teenagers. They were all, every last one of them, strangers to me, but they died in my name.

I don’t know how to truly honor them, any of these people who died so far from home, not the ones from Illinois, nor the 3,859 others. So I find pictures online and look at their faces, at least a few, and try to register the facts. Try to give them that, at least.

I’m pulled in by certain names, the occasional goofy grin, people who seem, somehow, familiar. Navy Petty Officer Regina Clark, 43 when she was killed, originally from Colona, mother of a teenage son; Sean Maher, a Marine from Grayslake, not much older than Clark’s son when he died at 19, two days before he was supposed to go home.

John Olson, 21, from Elk Grove Village, looks as if he’s trying on his father’s hat; Christopher Sisson, 20, might have once hung out at the North Riverside Mall. Illinois’ first casualty, Ryan Anthony Beaupre, was killed on the third day of the war. In his picture, the 30 year old Marine smiles as if on vacation.

Uday Singh. Twenty-one when he died, an Indian national. He enlisted while living with an aunt in Lake Forest, shared a name with one of Saddam Hussein’s despicable sons, and became a US citizen only upon death. Singh was the first Sikh to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and one of his last emails home read: “You guys have fun while I go save the whole world. P.S. Pray for me.”

Pray for me.

I  pray for him and for all the fallen soldiers, for all the living soldiers, for the families, for all of us in this country, for the Iraqis who also mourn their children. I have always opposed this war, but whatever I may think of the people who sent our men and women into Iraq’s unbearable heat, I know that those who went, did so for me. For me and my children, from a belief that it is right to offer your body as a sacrifice for the country you call home – even if it has not yet given you a passport.

I know that for many soldiers, the military offers an escape; for some, it’s the only way to make a living; others are answering family expectations, or social pressure. Many oppose the war; many support it whole-heartedly. Some do bad things; most, I suspect, just try to get through their days in one piece, with one heart.

But in death, I cannot sort them from each other. I cannot call this one my brother, that one my foe; the war they fought has in some way sanctified them, brought them to a place I cannot reach. I can only look into their faces and thank them, look into eyes that can no longer look back, and ask forgiveness.

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