Revisiting Firefly

In TV by Tanzi2 Comments

Tanzi: A few weeks ago Scott and I went back and rewatched the Battlestar Galactica pilot. We both enjoyed it so much we decided to revisit another great science fiction series: Firefly. I say revisit but the truth is I’ve never actually seen an episode. I know I risk losing some geek cred with that admission but it’s the truth. I have seen (and enjoyed) Serenity, the movie that followed the cancellation of the series. But of course I felt like I was missing a lot of back story so I’ve always wanted to go back and see what all the fuss was about. We’ll be reviewing the entire run of the series and joining us will be the newest Cheese Magneteer, ScottD. ScottD is a huge Firefly fan, I’m a rookie and just plain Scott is somewhere in the middle. The hope is that our varied viewpoints will make for some interesting discussion.

Episode 1: Serenity

The episode begins with a battle raging, the Battle of Serenity Valley in the Unification war, although we don’t know that while we’re watching. The battle shows the relationship between Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne, not a romantic relationship but comrades in arms. They lose the battle and we fast forward to six years later to find Mal, Zoe and Jayne in an illegal scavenger mission. An Alliance cruiser happens upon the scene and we’re off and running as Mal and crew escape and embark on a mission to sell the goods and eventually meet with some interesting characters.

Now that I’ve finally gone back and revisited the pilot I can see what all the fuss was about. Keep in mind Firefly premiered in 2003, when Star Trek: Enterprise was the big name in televised science fiction and Battlestar Galactica was still in early development. Firefly was first with the handheld camera style and silent outer space scenes that BSG later adopted. I’m one of the few who actually really liked Enterprise but I have to admit, Firefly was almost revolutionary by comparison. It focused on a small group of nobodies rather than the best and brightest of the Federation. Mal Reynolds is a flawed hero, someone not above shooting to kill if the situation warrants it. Even though the characters are broadly drawn, Joss Whedon’s dialogue and the actor’s performances imbue them with a life and a realism we aren’t used to in a show like Star Trek. These are truly flawed people, outlaws and outcasts who choose to operate outside the oppressive Alliance government. It’s fair to say the Alliance is the flip side of Star Trek‘s Federation: a huge bureaucracy that thinks it’s running a utopia. Here we see the dark side such a system must entail to keep people like Mal in line. It’s not surprising that Fox was uneasy with the episode and the series in general, it’s not the kind of thing that’s going to appeal to the suits in a monolithic entertainment corporation.

Since the show is above all about the characters I’ll close with some comments for each:

Mal Reynolds: Initially you think he’s going to be a Han Solo clone but it’s soon obvious he has a lot more going on beneath the surface. It’s made clear that he’s a hard-ass but only because he cares so much about his crew.

Zoe Washburne: Mal’s war buddy and most trusted crew member. Perhaps some nerd wish fulfillment here in that she’s married to the nebbishy pilot.

Wash: Zoe’s husband. A skilled pilot and probably the crew member we’re supposed to identify with. When we first see him he’s playing with his dinosaur toys and wearing a Hawaiian shirt, not exactly a dashing hero. He’s also prone to spouting the kind of nerdy wisecracks we’re used to hearing at our weekly D&D game.

Kaylee: Ship’s mechanic and cute as a button. Perhaps the only purely good character on the show. More nerd wish fulfillment, she’s the girl we all had a crush on in middle school, only in idealized form.

Jayne: the muscle of the crew. Adam Baldwin’s portrayal turns what could have been a one dimensional cliche into (for me) the most interesting character on the show. He’s always looking out for himself but he’s also found a family with this crew. Despite his crude teasing of Kaylee during the dinner scene he’s obviously very protective of her, as if she were his little sister.

Inara: It says something about the low status of the Serenity that the resident prostitute is on board to raise their reputation.

Shepherd Book: It was a pleasant surprise to see Ron Glass show up as Book. He hasn’t been in the public eye much since his role as Det. Harris on Barney Miller in the 1970s. Glass was terrific as the preening detective and he’s terrific here as the preacher with a mysterious past. Book obviously has some skeletons in the closet, I hope we get to learn more about them in the short series run.

Simon Tam: Another character that could have been a simple cliche. Sean Maher initially seems like an arrogant wimp but once we learn about his sister we see he’s actually quite tough, he just has a different motivation from the rest of the crew.

River Tam: The only character we don’t learn much about. She’s a basket case due to her abuse at the hands of the Alliance but I have a feeling she’s going to snap out of it at some key moment.

Other characters of note: Nerd favorite Mark Sheppard as Badger, the gang leader who refuses to do business with Mal. Badger is the kind of character Sheppard specializes in, the charismatic weirdo who pops up now and them.

Dobson, the Alliance agent. We don’t even see how he comes to be aboard Serenity, a sure sign he’s going to be the bad guy. The weakest character in the show, no one is really surprised at his end.

Whedon also nicely sets up the threats from the Alliance and the Reavers, two forces who will undoubtedly come into play in future episodes. He doesn’t even have to show the Reavers, it’s the crew’s reaction that provides all we need to know about them.

Watching this episode for the first time I’m actually excited to see how the series plays out but at the same time I’m disappointed to know that it doesn’t last. This is clearly a series that should have run for several seasons. The characters are more compelling, the writing is sharper and the effects are better than any recent sci fi series, at least until Battlestar Galactica came along. It’s a shame that a truly original franchise wasn’t given the same repeated chances that Enterprise and BSG received.

ScottD: Just to re-state the bias right up front, yup, I am a Firefly fan, a Browncoat true. There’s not many shows that I really get stirred up about; Firefly caught me in the first 20 minutes and never let me go.

Which doesn’t mean that I am unable to take a critical look at the series. When the guys asked me to participate in this roundtable discussion (thanks, guys!) I was pleased to have the opportunity to talk about a show I care about. But even beyond that, I am very interested to hear what y’all have to say. It’s a good range: me, the avowed fan who has chomped down everything Firefly-related he could find; Tanzi, new to the series but curious to see how it got to be Serenity and bringing the insight of fresh exposure (I envy you, Tanzi — first time through!); and that other Scott, who has watched the show but not dived into it as thoroughly as myself, and who has a solid handle on storytelling. (Yes, we really are two different Scotts, not some weird exercise in schizophrenia. And Tanzi and John exist too. I’ve eaten with them, can’t get more existential than that. Oh, and Don Adams exists too, though he seems to spend time in several dimensions.)

Something else I’ll say going in: if you can watch the show on a surround sound system, I encourage you to do so. And punch up the subwoofer. Firefly has a great ambient sonic thing going on — with the surround sound up, you can feel Serenity around you like a pulsing living presence. And that ambient “shipsound” is not just laid in throughout — it varies appropriately depending upon how far the action is from the engine room and the size of the chamber. This degree of care with the sound mix communicates to me that the people involved with the show really cared about the project.

I mentioned above that Firefly grabbed me within 20 minutes. That is not quite true. The 20-minute mark was when I realized that I was well and truly hooked, a Browncoat for life. The “grab” moment happened about 5 minutes in. Let’s see… Actually at exactly 5:06 in (I just started this episode up in splitscreen — geez, ain’t Netflix streaming great?) so a good guesstimate on my part. That is the ‘6 years later’ scene, in space and it is silent except for the radio dialogue. This may seem a small thing. But knowing that I was in the hands of people who cared enough to get it right, and what is more had the determination to go against convention and trust the viewer — well, that was the moment I relaxed my unconsciously-tensed mental muscles and just started to enjoy.

Another moment that told me that I was in good hands comes about 11 minutes in, when Jayne and Mal are hauling aboard the cargo they have just liberated from the derelict spaceship. Jayne, focused upon the moment, says, “As long as we got the goods, I call this a win.” Mal mutters, “Right. We win.” That little scene demonstrates in just a few words the great difference between the two characters: Mal is distressed to have to stoop to such scavenging to survive, for Jayne such bottom-feeding is just the normal order of things.

This scene cuts right to the opening credits. So in just 11 minutes we have had backstory for Mal and Zoe, and a good handle on what each of the others in the crew are like.   Not too shabby, Joss.

The credits sequence is a clever bit of work, visually reminding the viewer of the primary characteristics of each crewmember: Mal in warrior mode, but then smiling; Zoe, in warrior mode then snuggling with Wash; Wash goofy but masterfully flying Serenity; Inara, looking winsome; Jayne with a knife and a gun; Kaylee running toward her engine; Simon, doctoring and tenderly caring for his sister; River: naked, confused, psychotic; Book, with The Book.

Speaking of visuals: you could watch the whole “salvaging” sequence without sound and still have a pretty good idea of not only what’s going on but also the bigger picture of the antagonisms involved. The Alliance ship is a sharp-edged city-ship that resembles a block of office buildings, huge and dwarfing; Serenity looks like what she is: an aging tramp freighter, but human-scale. Inside the Alliance ship everything is evenly-illuminated shades of gray. There are many shadows within Serenity, but for all that she still feels more welcoming and human — colors stand out even more against the darkness.

Of course, if you watch this part without sound you get only half of the Beatles “cry baby cry — make your mother sigh” reference.

There’s an important bit earlier on, easy to miss in the heat of battle. Mal and Zoe are about to assault the anti-aircraft gun; in a well-practiced motion, Mal fishes out a sizable cross, closes his eyes in a moment of silent prayer, then kisses the cross and tucks it safely back inside his shirt. Before and after that he refers to air support as “angels”, and tells the fearful soldier Bendis that they are both “too pretty for God to let us die”. Contrast that with Mal’s later actions when he learns that Book is a preacher: he takes several jabs at him, then snubs Book when he offers to say Grace at dinner. We start to suspect that, as far as Mal is concerned, God caught a bullet at the Battle of Serenity Valley. Mal lost his faith with the surrender but not his devotion to the cause of independence, and the six years since have barely sufficed for him to figure out how to live with the two being separated.

There’s another brief bit early on that is worth mentioning. (I’ll admit that I had forgotten it, until watching the episode again just now.) It occurs just after Jayne and Mal and Zoe drift weightlessly into the airlock, towing the cargo crates in their wake. The hatch is closed, a button is pushed, air rushes in, and the crates clonk to the deck.  In this one deft tidy piece of business, we are shown in a few seconds an important element of this fictional universe:  they have control of gravity. It is shown so naturally that we accept it and move on without further thought.

If I have a lot to say about the pilot, it’s because the pilot contains so many indications as to just how carefully thought-out and crafted the whole series is. Tanzi, it’s interesting to hear you say that your first viewing convinces you that the series could have lasted several seasons.  And of course the loyal Browncoat in me says not just could have but should have and don’t get me started on that rant — put two Browncoats together and it won’t be long before we’re crying into our beers about What Might Have Been (in poignant parallel to how Mal feels about the surrender of the Independents). Many people have told me that when they first encountered the Firefly ‘verse they got a tingle that alerted them that they were present at the introduction of what would become a huge and lasting franchise. I’ve heard this so often that it makes even more remarkable how FOX managed to mishandle the franchise; they missed the boat because they were too busy screwin’ the pooch.

But Tanzi, you raise a point that I had never considered. (Dang, this sharing of viewpoints is interesting and thought-provoking.) While it was clear from the start that some major players at FOX did not understand the show, it had never occurred to me that they might actually have been afraid of it. Some of the grievous mismanagement of the show’s release — airing the episodes out of order, skipping broadcast weeks, not airing all of the filmed episodes — does seem almost hostile, almost designed to guarantee the poorest possible exposure.

One reason for this conscious or unconscious hostility may be that it is hard to neatly categorize Firefly. This is a problem for not only network execs, but many viewers and reviewers. “It’s a sci-fi show,” they said. “No, wait — it’s a western. Or are they pirates?” The lack of a convenient pigeonhole made many people give up almost before they started.

Which is really too bad, because the show is all of those things at once and much more. It is clear right from the pilot that Whedon crafted the show to allow an almost unlimited number of storylines; the show could go wherever it needed to. The carefully-undefined number of habitable worlds in the system, the mix of peoples from all of the cultures of Earth-That-Was, the great disparity between the rich lifestyle of the inner planets and the hardscrabble living on the border planets — Whedon set up this fictional ‘verse to support just about any script the writers could come up with. Heck, Gunsmoke basically took place in a saloon and on a street, and it ran for 20 years! Firefly could fly on forever.

Whedon handed FOX a well-thought-out, turn-key franchise that could have grown into the little brother of Star Trek or Star Wars, and it is almost unbelievable (as well as a cryin’ stinkin’ shame) that they didn’t realize the potential of what they had.

The lack of proper support and even possible fear of Firefly is especially ironic given the way the folks at FOX liked to present themselves as the scrappy independents going up against the monopolistic networks…

Tanzi mentions Star Trek above, and I have invoked it again so let’s do a little contrasting here. I can’t claim that Firefly could ever have gotten as big as Star Trek — this ‘verse does not teem with aliens like Roddenberry’s, which is one admitted limitation to storylines. But aliens could have started showing up later…  Anyway, Tanzi characterizes the Alliance as the Federation gone bad, an apt comparison. One of the key characteristics of Roddenberry’s vision was the perfectability of humanity. Later iterations of the show took this ball and, I think, ran too far past the goalpost with it. The last seasons of Next Generation were especially egregious about this: “We may not be perfect, but we are perfectable.  Just as we improve any culture we contact, by example. There’s no problem that can’t be solved with a bit of insight. Or some forced psychotherapy.” Enterprise went to the other extreme (in my opinion), exaggerating imperfections and emotionality and making the characters seem almost irrational by comparison with the earlier shows in the franchise.

Firefly is for me a healthy balance between these extremes. People are human, with human motivations. Our crew is motivated by survival, by a drive for security, by a search for family. The people of the Alliance are driven by a need for order as an indication of security. Which brings a new realization to me, right this moment: in the Firefly ‘verse, all humans are refugees. Driven from Earth-That-Was, forced to make over planets to make them habitable, all humans, Alliance and Independents alike, are seeking a sense of security, of homeplace, that was torn from them. And everyone is willing to do whatever they feel they must to preserve what they feel they have won… Which puts a sharper edge on all of their motivations and interactions. Nicely done, Joss — with that backstory, you’ve inherently dialed up all of the drama.

The bazaar around the Eavesdown Docks, where our folks interact with Badger and pick up passengers, presents some interesting insight into the social setup. The milling crowd is made up of members of many cultures from Earth, a dynamic and varied group including some Native Americans. (This setting is also, I am convinced, a tip of the hat to the street scenes in Blade Runner.)  But for all of the activity, there is a low-rent feel to the scene, and one has the distinct impression that there are unsavory things going on just offscreen, things far worse than the prostitution and sale of dog meat that we do see. This is a situation that would not be allowed in the Star Trek universe — there would be no poor or desperate people, or such open lawlessness. But in the Firefly ‘verse it is the Alliance/Federation that seems to actually be responsible for people having to live on “the raggedy edge.”

There is a wonderful moment later along in the pilot where Mal sees a situation, instantly assesses it, and just as instantly takes care of business.  (If you’ve seen it, you know the one I mean; if not, I’m not going to affect your experience of it by describing it.) Even after umpteen times of watching it the scene still makes me burst out in delighted laughter, just because it is so beautifully directed and edited and because it is the moment that nails down that Firefly is something we haven’t seen before. I call it the “This Ain’t Star Trek” moment — no namby-pamby deliberation or negotiation, just decisive action. Several people have told me that this is one of their favorite moments in the entire series.

==> There’s something we can’t let pass without mentioning, this is a Big Damn Point so y’all listen up out there. While we have been referring to this episode as “the pilot”, and so it was scripted, it was not the first episode to air. All of the character insights, careful world-building, and thoughtfully-thought-out details we’re talking about? “Boring,” said FOX. “Won’t grab ’em. We need more action.” So Joss Whedon and Tim Minear over a weekend wrote “The Train Job”, and that was the first episode broadcast. Which is why when we get to that episode next you will see many of the points from the pilot re-stated. The episode works pretty well, especially considering the challenge they faced in quickly writing what was essentially a new pilot. But there is some unavoidable compression on the key points, and seeing “The Train Job” right after the pilot gives one the sense of being in a warped echo chamber. This last-second wavering on FOX’s part is only one more thing to bring the word “mismanagement” to mind, but it shows clearly that right out of the gate they didn’t understand what they had.

Scott here: I have the unenviable task of following up ScottD and there’s no way I can bring as much insight to the table. I could go the other route and mention that I have a gigantic crush on Kaylee (Jewel Staite); when she bites into that strawberry it actually makes me feel a little faint.

But as true as that is, it would be a cop-out.

I never watched Firefly when it was on the air — I’ll be honest: while I had seen and enjoyed a handful of episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it never really grabbed me (and I never liked Angel in the least) so I wasn’t really aboard the Joss Whedon train. I am, however, the one guy who really likes Whedon’s script for Alien: Resurrection (well, to a point) — when I saw the flick on opening weekend and realized Whedon had basically written a space-bound remake of The Poseidon Adventure, I felt like we were kindred spirits. And then there was Toy Story, which was astonishingly good — but still, I just didn’t give a damn about Firefly, and then it was too late.

Then all of my friends started talking about how good the show was. So I borrowed the DVD set (from ScottD, if I remember right) and watched all 14 episodes in 14 days (I held myself to one a day in order to sustain the pleasure for as long as possible). I knew the show had me a moment sooner in the pilot than ScottD — I was hooked when I saw the expression on Mal’s face as the Alliance rains its might down on Serenity Valley in a massive onslaught of firepower. That was soon followed by a shot of an Alliance ship under a title card reading Alliance Cruiser: I.A.V. “Dortmunder,” and I knew me and Joss had to be best o’ pals — anyone who would reference the criminal hero of many a Donald Westlake novel was a-okay in my book. I also liked that we got to see what a space toilet and sink were like.

I’ve watched the entire series all the way through once, and since then I’ve seen a few of the episodes again — although I’ve seen “Our Mrs. Reynolds” about five times, but I assure you that has nothing to do with Christina Hendricks in the role of Saffron. No, really. Even though she was naked and all… articulate. At any rate, I’m excited (ahem) about watching the whole shebang start to finish again for these posts.

I won’t go over the characters again since Tanzi did a neat job of that, other than to agree with him that Jayne could’ve easily come off as a one-note character but both Adam Baldwin and the writers sneakily make him far more than he appears to be — a telling moment happens early in the pilot when Kaylee is in the infirmary in bad shape (why, I won’t say) and we see Jayne crouched outside, peering in, very obviously worried sick about the girl. A nice quiet bit that speaks volumes, and as ScottD pointed out, something Whedon is remarkably good at pulling off.

As for Serenity herself, while she only had 14 episodes and a movie to prove herself, I find her to be every bit as comfortable a ship as the NCC 1701 — and heck yeah, I realize how freaking nerdy that sounds. But who wouldn’t want to sit down to dinner at that battered wooden table with that crew?

One last note: I got the stink-eye from a hardcore Browncoat once when I mentioned that I dug the show partly because it’s a western. This person sneered and said “What are you talking about, it’s in space.” I guess they hadn’t noticed the western-style garb, guns and all those people on horseback wearing cowboy hats, not to mention the very obvious nod to post-Civil War-America what with Mal being rather unaccepting of the Alliance victory and turning to a life that ain’t exactly on the right side of the law. And for the record, I don’t judge all Browncoats by this person’s statement, I only mention it as a funny aside.

Looking back over what Tanzi and ScottD had to say, I realize what a colossal slacker I sound like with my meager contribution to this post. But that’s okay: I’m busy thinking about Kaylee, in those coveralls, with grease and a grin on her face… and I’ll be in my bunk.

ScottD: Scott, this one’s for you, pal.

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