Friday, September 30, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 11: Joss Whedon's Firefly: The Complete Series

In celebration of Joss Whedon’s Serenity, debuting today in movie theaters nationwide, I want to focus this 11th edition of my "Retro TV Friday Flashback series" on Firefly, the late lamented sci-fi TV series from 2002; the source material that spawned this forty-million dollar feature film. As all Browncoats (fans of the series...) are aware, Firefly ran for a mere fourteen episodes (fifteen hours in all) on Fox’s Friday night line-up in the fall of 2002; airing just before another short-lived genre series, John Doe starring Dominic Purcell.

Firefly is set in a world five hundred years hence, when a “unified” human government called The Alliance has terraformed a vast swath of planets and moons to resemble an Earth environment, and dropped off settlers everywhere...sometimes without adequate supplies. On the rich central planets of the Alliance, life is good and stable, but as you travel out into the frontier worlds, it becomes increasingly difficult and primitive. And at the edge of space itself is a horror called “The Reavers,” humans who gazed into the abyss of space and were forever transformed by what they saw there; turned into self-mutilating savages known to rape, murder and eat their victims (not always in that order).

In more human terms, Firefly is the saga of Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), formerly a sergeant in the Independent Army. His side lost the war against the Alliance six years ago, and now he captains a battered Firefly class transport vessel named Serenity (after the valley where the Alliance won the war...). His crew includes his former lieutenant, the beautiful - and deadly - Zoe (Gina Torres), her husband, the wisecracking ship’s pilot, named Wash (Alan Tudyk), and the “muscle” of the group, the obnoxious, boorish Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Young Kaylee (Jewel Staite) runs the ship’s systems and could probably fix any machine in the galaxy, and then there's my favorite character: Inara (Morena Baccarin). She's the Serenity’s foremost citizen, “an ambassador” of sorts called "a Companion.” This means she's a combination psychologist/courtesan.

In the first two-hour episode of Firefly, the crew makes a pitstop on the planet Persephone after a scavenge operation gone wrong, and picks up a few new passengers: the mysterious man of God, Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass), and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a once-promising young physician. Without the crew’s knowledge, Simon has also brought aboard his sister, River (Summer Glau), a genius and mind-reader who is slightly nutty. She's been held hostage by the Alliance at “the Academy.” Now, Serenity is a marked ship because the Alliance and its deadly operatives want River back. She knows something important about their plans for the citizenry, and they want to protect knowledge of it from the masses.

Each week on Firefly, the crew would attempt to make some money, often illegally (in episodes like “The Train Job”) while simultaneously evading the authorities. One of the best aspects of this unique series is its fashioning of a future world where the characters speak in (untranslated) Chinese idioms, and scrap and struggle just to survive. This ain't a universe of plenty, where "technology unchained" (the mantra of Star Trek: The Next Generation) has created a virtual utopia. On the contrary, the Firefly class ship is always just a few dollars shy from falling apart, and low on fuel, and so this is the opposite of romantic views of space adventuring we've come to expect in franchises like Star Wars.

also pioneered the use of the camera “zoom” in vast outer space-shots, a facet of the series that was promptly appropriated by the new Battlestar Galactica. Other nice touches to point out in Firefly? Aping 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s no sound in space. And there ain't no alien races either. No Vulcans, Narn, Peackeepers or other humanoid representatives. Whedons' series set-up reminds me of the tagline from that old Sean Connery space western, Outland: “Even in space, the ultimate enemy is man.”

Firefly has been called (by The New York Post), “very funny, very hip, very terrific,” but its qualities bear further examination. The setting and overall story serve as a metaphor for Reconstruction era, frontier America, only set far in the future. The war for “unification,” set six years before the events of the series (and seen in flashbacks in “Serenity,” the two-part opener) is like our much own Civil War, which began when the South seceded from the Union. Though "slavery" is one reason why that war occurred (and was certainly an abomination...) it should be noted too that the South wanted to see power less centralized, and didn't like seeing much of its tax money going to support the North. The South had its own culture (corrupt or not; that's up for debate...) and didn't want to be assimilated into the Federalized central govt.

And Firefly's Mal Reynolds, on the losing side of a noble war (not unlike Rhett Butler...), is pretty obviously a Confederate. In the opening scenes of “The Train Job,” a self-satisfied proponent of Unification, played by Tom Towles, insults Mal in words that any long-time Southerner would recognize from a "superior" Yankee, hammering home the comparison to our own history. Also, in another episode, Mal notes that the Independents only lost the war of unification because the Alliance had superior numbers. That is also a common argument about the Civil War; that the Union was victorious only because it was able to put more men in uniform and more quickly (often using immigrants right off the boat to stock their ranks...)

Firefly's Reavers - those murderous and bloody space savages existing on the frontier of space (an allegory for the American West...) - play essentially the same role as American Indians once did in the Western movie genre. They are “the other” that is feared by civilization and gossiped about it; known and feared for their strange, savage ways. Had the series lasted, one wonders if the Reavers might have been portrayed in a less villainous, more three-dimensional light, given their obvious inspiration in Native American culture. Also, fair is fair, it must be stated that the Reavers in design and execution very closely resemble the Martians of John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. Both races are self-mutilators, and both are berserkers.

It is interesting to note where Firefly diverges from American history. Slavery is indeed brought up in episodes such as “Shindig,” and it is clear that Mal doesn’t favor much the arrangement. In this universe, the Alliance - i.e. the United State's Federal Government - is turly an exploitative, fascist state out to squash all personal freedoms. It’s a police state, not the “shiny” democracy America dreamed of becoming at the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Of course, some social critics could cogently make the argument that the U.S. Government, with laws like “The Patriot Act,” is currently turning our country into an Alliance-like form of overreching government (and the series was produced post-September 11th...). So there's a lot to relate to here, but the references to our time and our history is not preachy or overdone.

As any review of the series' genetic structure indicates, Firefly as a drama has a great deal on its mind. But in its heart, the series is a meditation on personal freedom. Even the theme song, written by Joss Whedon strikes this note, observing that one can take a person's "land" but you can't take the "sky" from them. This is great stuff, a paean to the pioneer spirit; these settlers just want to be left alone to live how they choose. One actually gets the sense that Mal would hate any government (or religion) in power, because it would seek to control his destiny. And that control he will simply not tolerate. Critics have compared Mal to Han Solo from the Star Wars films, but I actually think he’s much closer to Avon in Blake’s 7, a hero (or anti-hero) with charisma, intelligence, and the wherewithal to do what is necessary, even if it isn’t pretty, nice, or heroic.

That wonderful Whedon aesthetic - snappy, Hawksian dialogue and outstanding, non-traditional roles for female characters - is on full display in Firefly. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the mechanics of language and the art of the put-down are primary considerations, and endlessly fascinating. Character (and personality) is exposed by the way these people speak; the very words they choose; how they express themselves. And that fact alone lands Firefly head-and-shoulders above most of its brethren on network TV.

And on the latter front of sex roles, it's interesting to note how important the women are here. Zoe is Mal's secret weapon (as we see from the stagecoach caper in "Our Ms. Reynolds"), the best fighter on the team. And it is the females of "The Academy" who dominate the sex trade in Firefly’s future, beautiful and intelligent “companions” who choose their customers on the basis of spiritual kinship, and who can (as seen in “Shindig”) blacklist those “clients” who step out of bounds. In truth, a companion is something like a therapist who you can have sex with, and this is an interesting idea that reminds me of an idea dropped quickly from the family friendly Battlestar Galactica in 1978, the concept of a “socialator.” Of course, Summer, is the series' most powerful character, and Kaylee - I believe - is the series' heart. As played by Jewel Staite, Kaylee expresses herself with total forthrightness and candor. The way she dresses down Simon Tam early in "Safe" is something to behold. She isn't sarcastic or mean, only charmingly blunt and open. Her candor and purity reveals Simon's foibles.

It is easy to enumerate Firefly’s best qualities: a coherent, believable mythology; a language all its own, fascinating, realistic characters whom we grow to love, and entertaining, rip-roaring adventures stories to boot. Many have offered the same sentiment, but it’s a terrible shame the series was cancelled after half-a-season. Like many fans, my wife and I have been conducting a Firefly marathon this week in anticipation of Serenity’s release, and have lamented at least twice the fact that we should by now be enjoying a series in its fourth season. Can you imagine that? We’d be 80 or 90 episodes into the saga if not for the short-sightedness of the same people who program shows such as “Nanny 911.”

Hopefully, Serenity will prove a huge success for Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed...). I know the masterplan is to continue with a movie franchise, but there’s that part of me that longs for a continuation of the TV series instead. If the movie is a hit, is there any chance the cast would return to a weekly series, or that a network would program it on their schedule?

I always get in trouble when I make comparisons, but hell, I'm going to do it anyway. I find Firefly about 1,000 times as entertaining and stimulating as the new Battlestar Galactica, and, unlike that program, Firefly makes relevant comments on the state of humanity without obvious, pedantic and trendy metaphors based on the latest headlines. (I’m still waiting for President Roslin to nominate a conservative judge on the Council’s Supreme Court...). TV needs Firefly, if - for no other reason - than to show the Sci Fi Channel how an artistic genre series is really forged.


  1. Howard Margolin, Host of Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction2:48 PM

    "If the movie is a hit, is there any chance the cast would return to a weekly series, or that a network would program it on their schedule?"

    I asked Jewel this in our press conference at I-Con 24 (which aired on Friday night). Part of the deal Universal worked with Fox to acquire the rights is that the show could not be revived as a TV series for 10 years. Joss' plan now is to do a trilogy of films.

    Of course it all depends on how well Serenity does at the box office. With a $40 mil budget and only $10 mil opening weekend, I don't know if it'll make its money back.

  2. Anonymous11:30 PM

    I discovered Firefly after a friend loaned me the movie Serenity. Having loved the movie, which she didn't understand, I sought out the series, and loved it just as much. It is almost five years since the series ran on television, and yet, given the choice between a Firefly rerun and a new episode of Numb3rs, CSI, or NCIS, I will invariably choose the Firefly rerun. What does that say for the series?

    While I am not a big fan of either Buffy or Angel (she annoys me, and he's depressing), there isn't a single character on Firefly that I don't like. I hope that someone, somewhere, will pull his head out of a certain dark hole and give us our sky back!

  3. Anonymous9:57 PM

    I love Firefly and agree 100%

  4. I came to the Firefly party pretty late. "Western in space" sorta describes the series, but also has the potential to turn someone off (esp. if he's not into Westerns!). Anywho...I have the series on DVD (after having rented it to view it all) and Serenity. I too wish it had been given a chance.

    While I didn't do any follow up research before posting my comment, I think perhaps any future movies are off?