Guides | June 3, 2008 | Comments ()
It’s roughly the fall of 2001. We open on the office of a Fox TV executive. A phone rings. The executive picks up.
Joss Whedon: Hey, buddy, I’ve got a brilliant idea for a new TV show. It’s a sci-fi Western about a spaceship shaped like a bug!
Fox Executive: ….
Whedon: Your excitement is palpable. But check this out — the show features, among others, a petty thief, a priest, a high-class hooker and a possibly-psychotic psychic, all living together. On the bug-shaped ship!
Fox Exec: ….
Whedon: Are you there, Fox Executive? It’s me, Joss Whedon!
Fox Exec: …Yeah. I’m here.
Whedon: Did I mention the zombies. Zombies! Space zombies! Space zombies that fly their own space ships and rape and eat people.
Fox Exec: …. ….
Whedon: I know, right? And the kicker? The dialogue includes random Chinese phrases and sentences!
Fox Exec: ….Well, we’re about to cancel “Undeclared,” and this can’t be worse than “Pasadena,” so what the fuck.
Whedon: Jing tsai!
And with that, or events to that effect, “Firefly” was born.
Let me get this disclaimer out of the way right from the start. It’s safe to say that many of the regular Pajiba crowd are Browncoats who already love themselves some “Firefly.” This column isn’t for you. There are already plenty of smart, well written, in-depth articles about the wonderfulness of “Firefly,” pieces written by folks who are much more smart-like and gooder with the words than I. Instead, I’m writing this for folks who haven’t seen “Firefly” before. People who, much like myself until about a year ago, thought this was just another stupid sci-fi show.
Yup, I only discovered the joy of “Firefly” relatively recently. Even though I’m a TV whore, I don’t actually watch every single thing that hits the airwaves. And there are several reasons I never got around to catching “Firefly,” either when it originally aired or even after fan hype was strong enough to get a movie made. First, I hadn’t ever seen “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Angel,” so I didn’t have a perpetual Whedon hard-on. No disrespect to those of you with Joss chubbies — lord knows there are others whom I similarly fawn over — I just don’t happen to jump because Whedon says so. More importantly, while I love sci-fi, I also know that sci-fi shows are crap far more often than not, loaded with the kinds of crappy plots, worse acting and downright atrocious dialogue that Saturday morning syndicated television was made for. On top of that, I knew the show had Western themes, and I’ve just never been an over-the-top Western guy, so the idea of cross-pollinating the space and Western genres held little enticement for me. So I just didn’t care all that much.
And the trouble is, I’m an obstinate motherfucker. Once I form an opinion, even if it’s one of indifference based on an entirely unfounded prejudgment, I’m a tough nut to crack and I rarely soften, let alone do a full 180. Plus, over time, I had hardened even more to “Firefly” in a moment of “all the cool kids like it, so fuck the cool kids.” All of which is to say, I came into the show at least a little begrudgingly, which meant it had to work all the harder to win over my affections.
It took all of about 20 minutes.
When you boil “Firefly” down to its rawest essence, it’s an equally funny and dramatic character piece about a bunch of disparate personalities on a perpetual roadtrip. Yes, it has science fiction elements — they all live on a space ship after all, traveling from planet to planet, scavenging and thieving and taking whatever rogue jobs they can find to get by. And yes, it’s got a lot of Western to it, from Captain Malcom “Mal” Reynolds (as old-school a cowboy as they come) to the frontier settlements on various planets, where folks still travel by horse because they’re too poor to have the fancy technology available to the elite. But what Whedon and company managed to do is not make the show about these things — rather, these elements are deftly used to serve the nine characters that live on Serenity (the name of the Firefly-class ship which the show, itself, is named after).
Over the course of the series, for example, we watch the back and forth strained romantic tensions between Captain Reynolds and Inara. Mal (Nathan Fillion) is one of the great anti-heroes, a dark, brooding relatively closed-off dude with a knack for vicious sarcasm. Inara (Morena Baccarin), meanwhile, is a “companion” (a type of very high-high class escort) who rents out one of Serenity’s shuttles. The arrangement serves her well, giving her the ability to travel to different planets for work, and it’s good for Mal and Serenity, as her presence gives the ship a bit of class and access it otherwise wouldn’t have. While Inara’s profession of course plays into the plot of several episodes, the show always spins back around to Mal and Inara’s relationship, the unspoken romance between them that usually shows itself with the flinging of sarcasm and insults. For example, in the great “Heart of Gold,” the Serenity crew winds up helping a brothel run by a friend of Inara’s. And as much as I enjoy that episode’s storyline (particularly the amusing whoring of Jayne, the ship’s loutish hired-gun), my favorite moment comes when Inara breaks down after Mal spends the night with her companion friend. I’m not usually much for the sappy romantic crap, but the series had so carefully built up Mal and Inara’s relationship that we we were given this glimpse (though not the first such glimpse, it was the rawest) of Inara truly letting her feelings out … well, if I got a little misty the first time I saw it, I’m only human.
In fact, there’s actually quite a bit of romance underlying the series. On top of Mal and Inara’s relationship, you’ve got the ship’s number two, Zoe (Gina Torres), who’s married to the pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk). There’s actually a bit of role reversal between them, insofar as Zoe is by far the tougher of the two and, in a form that’s (sadly) a TV rarity, she’s unapologetically a badass without giving up the fact that she’s a she. Wash, meanwhile, is the more light-hearted softie who gets upset that they don’t get to spend enough time together, and who’s jealous of Zoe’s non-romantic history with Mal (she fought with Mal on the losing side of the Unification War, set six years before the show). More importantly, their marriage is treated with respect, something else that seems to be increasingly uncommon on the TV landscape.
And then there’s the wonderfully sweet yet slightly tomboyish Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship’s engineer, who has a terrible crush on the mostly oblivious and occasionally unintentionally cruel Simon (Sean Maher). Things start to slowly progress between the pair as the series moves on, but every time it looks like Kaylee is making a little headway, Simon invariable does something obliviously stupid. But the show doesn’t go the way you might expect, as Kaylee rarely holds the unintentional barbs against Simon (unless they’re particularly egregious), quickly brushing away her disappointment, returning to her bubbly self and getting back on the horse. Again, I’m not one for the sap, but it’s rare to see such an emphasis put on relationship dynamics in any show, let alone in a “genre” show, and yet “Firefly’s” got three of them.
Of course, the show also explores non-romantic relationships, most significantly the bond between Simon and his sister River (Summer Glau). Over the course of the series, we learn that the wicked smart River spent some time with the Alliance, which has left her brain a bit of a frazzled mess. Simon gave up his life as a fancy-schmancy doctor to rescue her, and the two are now on the lam, which is how they wound up on Serenity. As the season progresses, we see Simon start to grow a bit out of his anal repression both in the way he interacts with River but, more significantly, in the way he’s willing to do things in order to help her (such as in an episode where he makes a deal with the Serenity crew to help him break into an Alliance medical supply center so he can get access to a futuristic version of a CAT scan). The show also explores the relationship between Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and the others, particularly Mal. Jayne’s all about the money, and several times through the season he contemplates selling out some of the Serenity folks for a good pay day (and at least once goes a good bit further than contemplation). And yet, while Jayne may be “like a trained ape, without the training,” he’s actually a kinda/sorta/mostly decent guy at the bottom of it all.
For example, my favorite episode of the show, “Jaynestown,” comes about halfway through the series’ run, and the main storyline focuses on the crew’s visit to a planet for a quick smuggling job. But things get a bit complicated, largely because it turns out that the cruddy little town considers Jayne to be a local folk hero, much to the chagrin and at the expense of the town Magistrate. Of course, Jayne isn’t the Robin Hood the town thinks he is, though he amusingly bathes in their idolatry. Towards the end of the episode, we get to see a rare moment of decent humanity from Jayne as he tries to give the downtrodden town a pick-me-up speech. Things end up going south, however, as they often do on “Firefly,” and the town’s misinformed image of him leads to a kid getting shot. The episode’s final scene shows Jayne utterly dejected and confused by the whole thing, a quiet moment of introspection for a character who’s normally nothing more than a drinking, whoring, thieving brute. As with many “Firefly” episodes, the primary plot, while strong enough on its own, is really about servicing the characters, rather than the other way around. It would be easy to have made Jayne a one-note caricature, but an episode like this gives him depth, and that depth can then be read into later scenes through the show, making the whole series richer.
“Jaynestown” also gives us some some character-play between the shepherd Book (Ron Glass) and River, both of whom spend the episode hanging back on the ship. In a great early scene, for example, the two discuss science and faith — Book finds River working on “fixing” the Bible, using quantum mechanics, for example, to explain how so many animals fit on Noah’s ark. This leads to a brief conversation with the shepherd explaining that that the Bible isn’t about making sense, but believing in something (“you don’t fix faith — it fixes you”). It an honest scene that treats faith and religion respectfully, without trying to force a particular viewpoint down your throat. And while the scene really has little bearing on the larger plots of the episode, it’s one of the highlight (although it may be overshadowed by the next scene between River and Shepard, where his hair, uhm, scares the living hell out of her).
It’s these little moments when “Firefly” is at its best. Which isn’t to say, of course, that it’s without the bigger moments. There is certainly plenty of action, from robberies to shootouts to space shenanigans to fist fights to … more robberies. Not to mention the space zombie Reavers. And the episodes are all well-paced, offering just enough of the bigger action moments to avoid any chance of folks getting bogged down or bored by all the talking. Not that there would be much risk of that, as Whedon and Company do an excellent job with scripting throughout the series. Unlike many sci fi shows, there’s very little techno-babble or stilted exposition, and the dialogue itself is well paced, with a ton of comedic beats interspersed in even the most serious moments, keeping the whole thing from getting as dark as something like “Battlestar Galactica.”
In fact, as much as I love “Battlestar,” “Firefly” is probably a far more accessible show for the masses, as it’s much lighter in both tone and visual composition. And while the show is best taken in as a series from beginning to end, so that you can appreciate the small character moments, most of the episodes hold up well enough on their own as single hours of entertainment. Which makes Fox’s horrible treatment of the show all the more frustrating, because I think in the right circumstances, “Firefly” could have done quite well for itself — for those unfamiliar with the show’s history, Fox decided to poorly advertise the show, frequently preempt it and, worse of all, air episodes entirely out of order. But Fox’s treatment of the show is a thing of the past, as the DVD box set of the series’ short-lived run allows folks to experience the episodes in the order and manner that Whedon and Co. intended.
The show’s two-hour pilot, “Serinity,” ends with the following piece of conversation between new passenger Simon and Captain Reynolds and, as one might expect from the closing dialogue of a well-written premiere, it boils the show down to its essence:
Simon: How do i know you won’t kill me in my sleep?
Mal: You don’t know me son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.
Simon: Are you always this sentimental?
Mal: Had a good day.
Simon: You had the Alliance on you … criminals and savages. Half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded, including yourself. And you’re harboring known fugitives.
Mal: We’re still flying.
Simon: That’s not much.
Mal: It’s enough.
As I’ve said, at the end of the day, “Firefly” is about the small things. From Mal’s love of his ship to Simon’s love of his sister, from Jayne’s quest for money to Shepard’s quest for (we think) salvation, it’s about watching these characters explore themselves. Frankly, if you’ve never seen “Firefly,” you’re doing yourself a disservice. It doesn’t matter if you dig on sci-fi, if you love/hate serialized shows, if you prefer chick flick-type shows, etc. Whatever you like about TV, “Firefly’s” got. And the only problem with the show is that there absolutely isn’t enough.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. He didn’t even get into the fact that the cast is also sufficiently drool-worthy, no matter what type gets you all pruriently-minded. If he were so-inclined, that Malcolm Reynolds would have him thinking all sorts of nasty thoughts. But as it stands, it’s all about Inara and Kaylee for him. Especially Kaylee.