Four Good Reasons to Hate Firefly

Posted on August 10, 2008

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Firefly – the tragically short-lived science fiction series from the wonderfully creative mind of Joss Whedon.

I used to watch a bit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not just because of the lovely Sarah Michelle Gellar [‘Liar!’ the missus just shouted at me]. It was more than the charms of Charisma Carpenter which drew me to Angel [‘Oh you bull***t artist]. But Firefly captured me in its spell to a much higher degree again.

First, a quick recap for those who may have blinked and missed the series or its movie sequel, Serenity. It is the far future. Humanity has left Earth to spread to the stars. Earth is dominated by a US-China alliance, leading to the formation of the Allied Planets. Outer planets and settlements objected to the rule of the Alliance, leading to a war that the Alliance won. This broadly brings us to the opening point of the series.

Mal Reynolds, a veteran of the Browncoats, the unsuccessful rebel forces, now captains an aging Firefly-class space ship, Serenity. His first mate is Zoe, a somewhat Amazonian fellow veteran. Quirky Wash is their gifted pilot. Jayne Cobb is a coarse brawler with a fondness for weapons, not blessed with an overabundance of brains but always ready for a fight, especially if anyone says that he has a girl’s name. Kaylee is a young, naturally gifted female mechanic managing to keep the Serenity flying. Rounding out the starting complement on board is Inara, a Registered Companion – sometimes called a whore by Reynolds, but is much, much more, not unlike the original geisha girl concept.

The crew of the Serenity is joined by a wandering Shepherd (a priest), called Shepherd Book. Dr Richard Tam has left a glowing career in the core planets to rescue his sister from the clutches of the Alliance, taking passage on Serenity. River Tam is a supremely gifted girl and the Alliance had been surgically messing with her brain to turn her into a weapon.

During the single series that was aired, followed by the film, Serenity, this mismatched group had a variety of adventures/encounters, usually living just on the wrong side of the law.

Where Whedon’s approach is quite clever, is the way that he has ‘civilization’ taking shape in the outer planets etc where much of the action occurs. Space opera generally tends to have largely uniform technology wherever humanity has spread. However the experience with expansion into places like North America and Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows a different scenario. The further away one went from the more civilized centers, the less access there was to more modern technology etc. Frontier settlers often made do with mixtures of old and new, and what they could cobble together. Whedon applies the same slant to the Firefly universe, giving it something of an Old West approach but avoiding things becoming silly or a trope. At times we see people on horseback in the company of powered vehicles. Weapons tend to be more easily maintained project weapons rather than the high tech favored by the Alliance. One scene has crewman Jayne Cobb attempt to shoot an Alliance hand weapon only to have it misfire. “Damn Alliance high-tech crap!”

This was much than believable – it was just so real.

When discussing Serenity in interview on the DVD edition of the film, Whedon stated that he had wanted to make a film about ordinary people that the likes of the Millennium Falcon would have flown over without noticing. That is just what he achieved. We have settlers and settlements, traders, shantytowns on far planets, small time criminals, the occasional crime lord and a simply amazing array of characters. Not a single galactic ruler is anywhere to be found.

One of the truly wonderful things about this creation is the depth of back-story and detail that Whedon pulled together. This is a valuable lesson for any aspiring writer in putting together a believable world or universe with accompanying back-story. I keep several works to hand as a valuable reminder of this concept of verisimilitude, such as Time Future by Maxine McArthur and The Memory Cathedral by Jack Dann. Firefly has joined that little collection. A small picture of Serenity sits with several other items on my desk as a constant visual reminder and source of inspiration.

The extent of this creation’s believability is emphasized by the fact that when the Fox network pulled the pin on the series, so many questions were left unanswered. One small one was addressed in the film – just who were the insanely cannibalistic Reavers and where did they come from? But that was considerably less than the tip of the iceberg. Apart from anything else, did Mal and Inara ever sought out their damned feelings for each other? Arrrggghhhh

Imagine that you are halfway through the second volume of a great trilogy. You can’t wait to get back home of an evening to dive back in for another read. And then some [expletive] steals the books from your place and from every bookstore in existence. You are left desperate to know how things turned out. The abrupt end to Firefly left that same feeling. Damn you Fox network! One would have thought that Whedon’s success rate in the past should have ensured greater network support.

There is another important lesson in Firefly for all we aspiring writers. The quality of the overall creation, the wonderful characterization and a simply wonderful cast, all provide an immense feeling of believability. Take the lovely Kaylee for example. Whenever I watch or read about a character that is some sort of young, technical genius, it usually rings false with me. I simply cannot suspend disbelief – remember Doogie Howser MD? Who didn’t want to vomit as he performed medical miracles as a sixteen year old? However, with the adorable Jewel Staite as Kaylee in carefully crafted storylines, I never had the slightest difficulty in believing in her character. Ms Staite was Kaylee; this naturally gifted savant genius with engines, keeping the old Serenity flying. The aspiring writer in me kicks my butt and shouts ‘yes – that’s the way you need to do it!’

One of the key things with Whedon’s work is his emphasis on good storytelling with interesting characters. With Firefly and Serenity, I believe he reached a new peak. We saw a return to wonderful, entertaining storytelling without trying to create some sort of artistic, cinematic masterpiece. Don’t get me wrong – the effects and technology are wonderful. The Serenity DVD included a wonderful tour of the set where most of the action took place. However it is the way that so many things and conflicts are skillfully blended, that makes me damned envious of Whedon’s creative instincts.

I obviously enjoyed watching the series and film. A little surprisingly, I am yet to see much in the way of a novel franchise set in the Firefly universe, or if such a thing has emerged, it must not have made it very far Down Under. But consider the ongoing success of the Star Wars franchise in novels. Or the number of Buffy and Angel novels one can see in bookstores. So why not a similar Firefly franchise?

Why the title about hating Firefly? It is quite simple. Consider the male cast – Nathan Fillion, Alan Tudyk, Ron Glass, Adam Baldwin and Sean Maher. They didn’t just go to work and play in the Joss Whedon’s wonderful creation. Going to work each day meant spending time with the best damn Female Foursome I’ve ever seen on the screen – Jewel Staite, Morena Baccarin, Gina Torres and Summer Glau. That would be heaven on a stick for the rest of we humble members of the male population. To slightly misquote Life of Brian – you lucky…lucky…bastards! Hey Jewel – how about I dump the missus out in Reaver territory so you and I can hook up? J [‘He’d do it too,’ grumbles She-Who-Will-Be-Obeyed-If-I-Wish-To-Avoid-Castration].

So for those four feminine reasons, I hate Firefly! [well not really, but it made for a catchy title and ending, dinnit?]

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