Sunday, November 23, 2008
"If I ever kill you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed."
A few months back I finally addressed a monstrously huge hole in my science fiction, space opera loving resume: I watched all of Firefly, every bit of it, including the movie Serenity. I realize I'm very much late to the game on this, but hey, late to the game still means I'm a player. Or something like that.
Firefly, for those who haven't paid attention, is a show that Joss Whedon created back in 2002, after Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended. It's an SF show set something like five hundred years in the future where humanity has colonized a distant star system that consists of, well, lots of planets and whole ton of moons that have been terraformed for human colonization. The "Core Worlds" are the rich and powerful planets of the system, and these worlds form the basis of "the Alliance", which is the somewhat despotic government. The outlying worlds and moons are a mix of independent planets and moons and some dependent on the Alliance. The show takes place several years after the end of a civil war in which the "Independents" fought unsuccessfully against the encroaching Alliance; the spaceship that serves as the main location of the show, Serenity, is a Firefly-class freighter named for the deciding battle in the war, Serenity Valley, in which our lead character, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, fought on the side of the Independents. Got all that? (Yes, it's weird that the show is titled for the class of ship rather than the title ship itself. By that logic, Star Trek should have been titled Constitution, because the Enterprise is a Constitution-class vessel.)
So, when the show starts, Reynolds (often called "Mal" for short) is commanding his beat up old ship with its small crew as they go from job to job to pay their way, with many of these jobs being of the less-than-legal sort. This can mean smuggling illegal goods from one world to another, or salvaging valuable cargo from spacewrecked ships, or stealing valuable medicines from Alliance hospitals for sale on the challenged outer worlds. This also leads Mal and company into the employ and/or business association with all manner of unsavory characters, some of whom are very dangerous people indeed.
In looking about online for commentary about the show, much has been made about the show's atmosphere. I've often heard Star Wars described (at least A New Hope, not so much the rest of the series) as a Western set in space, but I've frankly never seen that as being a fair or accurate label. In the case of Firefly, it's entirely accurate, not only in the fact that everyone dresses like they're in a Western, Mal's preferred weapon is a six-shooter, everyone talks in that Western way (you'll know what I mean if you see the show), everyone dresses in a Western way (long coats, wide-brimmed hats, lots of facial hair all over the place), the main mode of transportation on many of the poor worlds the show visits is the horse, and many of the settlements on those worlds are exactly the kinds of dusty towns you'd see in any Western. This appears to be a problem for some viewers, but it never really bugged me all that much. I would have liked to have seen a little more variety in the kinds of settings on the show, but I there was some of that, after all (one world has rich people living in floating cities that hover above an ocean), and lodging such complaints about a show that was only around for fourteen episodes and a movie seems a bit churlish. The obvious rejoinder from Whedon and company is, "Yeah, yeah, we'd have got round to that if Fox hadn't canceled us after jerking us around for half a season."
OK, as to that last: FOX's shabby treatment of certain shows and not others is something of infamous legend in teevee fandom circles, but FOX's record in the case of Firefly is particularly bad. About the only thing they could have done to show less confidence in the show and to guarantee its eventual demise would have been to simply not have greenlighted it in the first place. FOX execs weren't overly enthusiastic about the show's two-hour pilot episode (which in itself is astonishing, as that pilot could have been transposed to the movie screen as-is for one hell of a SF movie), so they ordered the pilot shelved and another hastily shot, which is why the show's second episode, "The Train Job", was aired first. Then FOX continued to air the episodes in whatever screwy order they felt like airing them in, which in turn screwed the show because, while it wasn't exactly a serial, Whedon and company were creating quite a bit of continuity with recurring characters and storylines. The wonderful pilot episode wasn't aired until the show's fate was already sealed, and the show's timeslot was a disaster: FOX took a show that was heavy with continuity and in a genre that traditionally has to struggle to gain an audience and put it on Friday nights at 9:00. Now, maybe FOX was thinking back to the earlier days of the network when they had The X-Files in that timeslot and they kept it there since they didn't have much of anything else to air anyplace, but those days were long gone by the time Firefly came along. (Remember, NBC in the 60s was able to finally drive the final nails into Star Trek's coffin by giving it a Friday time slot.) In any case, FOX's treatment of Firefly makes ABC's treatment of Once and Again look like the very picture of network support. Again, I think of Jon Lovitz's bitter quip to David Letterman some years ago when FOX canceled his own critically-loved but ratings-challenged show The Critic: "FOX? They should spell it with a 'U'."
But back to the show. One claim I've heard is that lots of fans find Malcolm Reynolds compelling because he's what Han Solo might have been if he hadn't been "softened" in Return of the Jedi. I don't see that, actually. First, I never thought Solo was "softened" at all. But what happened is that Reynolds's character arc is pretty much Han Solo's character arc in reverse.
When we first meet Han Solo, he's a pirate and a smuggler, making his living by using his ship to transport the goods belonging to one criminal low-life or another. In fact, when we meet him, he's just earned himself the anger of one of his "clients" because he's lost cargo belonging to one of his criminal bosses. But as the Star Wars story progresses, Solo falls in with the Rebellion, hangs with them for a while, and while aching to return to his former life, eventually finds himself converting to their cause and becoming a true believer. The cynical criminal becomes an idealist. Mal Reynolds, however, started out as the idealist hero, fighting a losing fight with the side he believes in. (When an Alliance officer questions him about it, saying "You fought on the wrong side", Mal replies, "I fought on the losing side. I'm still not convinced it was the wrong side.") The opening scenes of the pilot show the last moments of the Battle of Serenity Valley, when Mal believes that his side in on the verge of victory, just as soon as his air support arrives – when word comes that his commanders have decided to throw in the towel and those fighting are ordered to lay down arms. Just like that, Mal's cause is defeated, and he becomes bitter and cynical. Han Solo is the criminal who finds something to believe in and fight for; Mal Reynolds loses the thing he had to believe in and fight for, and thus becomes a criminal.
(Now, when I say that Mal Reynolds is a "criminal", I'm saying that some of what he does is illegal. He's not afraid of doing things that are illegal, but he's not at heart a criminal in the sense that he lives to break the law. Robin Hood and Ernst Stavro Blofeld are both "criminals", if you take my meaning.)
This all changes a bit in the feature film Serenity that somehow managed to get made after the show's cancellation; the major theme of the film is everyone around Mal trying to figure out what, if anything, he actually believes. The film gives us an answer, but it's not an easy answer at all, and Mal's actions in the film are as consistent with one set of beliefs (that someone must stand up to the Alliance) as with another (that Mal's days as a fighter-for-something are over, and all he wants now is freedom).
But anyway. Firefly has become as beloved in SF fandom as anything I can remember, and it's truly a bummer to note that the lackluster box office of the follow-up Serenity movie likely means that we're unlikely to ever see another Firefly show or movie again. There have been a few comics series taking the story further, and that to me is probably the best format we can expect for continued Firefly goodness (if not actual novels; I'd read original Firefly novels if they existed). So, for the time being, what we've got is what we've got. That being the case, Firefly as it stands is a surprisingly complete body of work.
In just fourteen episodes, Firefly creates an SF universe that feels plausible and real, populates it with characters we can know and care about, and tells involving stories using all that in the mix. Watching the show's episodes in the correct order, via the DVD set, I noticed how fully-imagined the show was right from the beginning. Firefly stands in marked contrast to any of the Star Trek series, each of which required a season or two to really settle into a rhythm. The characters' voices are all established from the first moments, which is something you don't often see. Thus, there's nothing in Firefly that reminds people of, say, Mr. Spock in the early episodes of Star Trek emoting all over the place since it hadn't yet been decided that Vulcans suppress their emotions. This is a show that really learned the lessons of Star Wars in that it made all its technology look like it does something. I particularly appreciated the episode "Out of Gas", where Serenity is crippled by the failure of an engine part that's about the size of a can of coffee. That may have struck some as implausibly, but being a maintenance worker myself (but not quite up to the level of a Keylee or a Montgomery Scott), I've seen lots of big machines felled by comparatively tiny parts. Remember: the space shuttle Challenger was doomed by a piece of rubber that wasn't even part of the ship itself, and the Apollo 13 mission was nearly destroyed by a faulty wire.
Also of interest was the show's approach to establishing its universe. Lots of SF shows, like the Star Treks, insist on showing us one new world after another, and only start to use recurring characters when the show is established. (DS9, by virtue of its stationary setting, broke this habit, much to its credit; I still hold it as the best post-TOS incarnation of Trek.) Firefly, however, gives us recurring characters right off the bat: con-woman Saffron, criminal boss Niska, low-grade but ambitious hood Badger. This is more evidence of how well-designed the show was, and another reason to be annoyed at the show's ultimate failure.
In terms of casting, Firefly was, as far as I can tell, perfectly cast, at least in its leads. Everybody seems to not be playing their roles so much as inhabiting them, and the chemistry amongst this crew is established very early on. Other touches are equally pleasant: the swearing in Chinese (and the constant hints that China became the dominant culture of Earth before the diaspora), and it only took a few hearings before my ears accepted the word "Goram" as a surrogate for "goddamn". Fictional expletives are always tricky ("Felgercarb!" being a notable example, from BSG), and using Chinese and one made-up English one is a nifty way to solve that particular problem.
Was Firefly perfect? Of course not, but its general level of quality was astonishing for a show that never had the full backing of its network. What might have been! I can't believe that we've seen the last of this crew or heard the last of their stories. It's too promising a world, and its existing canon is too high-quality to languish forever. Or so I can hope.
(Image above via.)