Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Firefly

This entry is neither related to Nosedive nor theatre. This is a full-on Geekspeak entry.

Okay, as I've mentioned before, I recently became hooked to Joss Whedon's short-lived show, Firefly (much to the dismay of my friend Dennis Hurley, writer and star of The Albino Code). Of course, the unfortunate thing about being addicted to a show that's been cancelled after only 14 episodes is that once you finish, and then rent the follow-up movie (in this case, Serenity), you got nothing left to satisfy your new appetite.

For the Fourth of July, my sister came over to my apartment and brought the Complete Series DVD collection of Firefly. I had seen Serenity and had liked it, but my sister informed me that I would appreciate the movie much more if I knew the complete back-story to the characters and the world.

So, before the fireworks took place, we had ourselves a little mini-marathon viewing session and, man. She was right.

To explain to those of you who are unfamiliar with the show what Firefly is about, here's my best shot: Firefly takes place about 500 years in the future, where Earth is no longer inhabitable and people are scattered throughout the galaxy. A civil war took place between those who wanted to unify the colonized planets under central control (The Alliance) and those who wanted independence (The "Browncoats"). The Alliance won and placed the losing planets under its regime.

The central character is Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), captain of a small space freighter (a "Firefly" class spaceship called "Serenity") and former Browncoat, who travels the galaxy with a ragtag crew taking odd shipping/smuggling/robbing jobs that come his way in order to evade a life under control of The Alliance.

On one trip, the Serenity crew picks up a traveler with some contraband cargo needing to evade The Alliance. The traveler is Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), and the cargo, his sister, River (Summer Glau), a psychic nutcase who's been experimented on by The Alliance. These two new additions to the crew add some unwanted risk to Serenity's jobs, since The Alliance is now in hot pursuit of Simon and River.

If this sounds contrived, it's not. Most of this exposition is doled out very slowly over the course of the series and film, and most of it is implied rather than overt. Mr. Whedon and his collaborators took time in allowing the characters' personalities, back-stories and relationships to grow organically and breathe. Details about the world unfold at a slow and natural pace.

(One particular detail I love, which isn't overtly explained, is that the two common tongues in the galaxy are English and Chinese, to the point that even the most redneck uneducated white guy is fluent in Mandarin. It's explained in the special features section - not in the series itself - that, when Earth became uninhabitable, the two superpowers that survived and terraformed the galaxy were, you guessed it, the U.S. and China. Little details that end up being self-evident [i.e., "Oh, right. If this scenario were to happen, U.S. and China would be the only superpowers still around."] like this one are what help make this show so much fun.)

Taking huge cues from Star Trek, including the main idea behind the show (outer space as a metaphor for frontier land in the American West, a.k.a. "Stagecoach in space"), Firefly got the concept right in a number of ways Gene Roddenberry's show didn't.

Yes, I will say this right now. Firefly was better than Star Trek.

Mr. Whedon's show is about all the worlds/planets that Mr. Roddenberry's show deliberately dismissed (i.e., indigenous and less civilized), which makes the metaphor/concept of exploring frontier land make sense. The crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise sought out new life and new civilizations. The crew of Serenity often went where there was little to no civilization (or at least, where civilizations were starting from scratch). Sure, there are ray guns in the show, but they're very rare; for the most part, the characters use old-fashioned six-shooters. Characters travel not only via spaceship, but also via horse and carriage.

(Okay, I'll just admit it. Another way Firefly is superior to Star Trek is that the ship's mechanic of the former, Kaylee [Jewel Staite] is much, much hotter than that of the latter, Scotty [James Doohan].)

It's also just plain fun and funny.

For any and all Star Trek fans reading this, I don't mean to be too disparaging towards your beloved show. The one very impressive and unique thing about the Star Trek universe is it's the only - and I mean only - major sci-fi creation that depicts a positive view of the future. Seriously, name one other sci-fi / fantasy world that portrays the idea of a "brave new world" and really means it.

Truth be told, I never got into Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the show Mr. Whedon is known for) the way a number of people I know did. I mean, I've seen a handful of episodes here and there and have (admittedly) enjoyed them, but I never found the need to start from Season One, Episode One and find out what I've been missing. My guess on this is because there was (is) a campy quality to that show that never quite sat right with me. It was just too...for lack of a better word...cheesy. Buffy fans will note that the campy quality is deliberate, and that Mr. Whedon was trying to emulate comic book dialogue with Buffy, and perhaps maybe I just didn't get that (or just got it too late). When the show started out I just couldn't get over the hokeyness of the dialogue, the fight scenes, the look of the vampires or the title itself.

It seemed that what didn't work for me with Buffy worked for me with Firefly. Where in Buffy I found the dialogue wincingly corny, in Firefly I found funny and witty. Where in Buffy I found the character development ham-handed, in Firefly I found subtle and fascinating. I can't say for sure if this is just because I didn't give Buffy a fair shake or if Firefly just takes place in two genres (science fiction and western) I have an affinity for, or if simply because I find Nathan Fillion a more compelling lead than Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Perhaps in the future I'll get over my mental blocks and give Buffy its fair shake.

I think it's truly a shame that Firefly did not get accepted into pop culture (and, since the movie tanked at the box office, it looks like it never will). It's also a shame that Fox (the network that aired the show) did everything they could to kill it (not all of the episodes were aired and those that were, were aired out of order). (It's also worth noting that Universal, not 20th Century Fox, was the studio that financed and distributed the film.) Still, you should all give this a shot. Or at the very least, give the movie Serenity a shot if watching 14 episodes is too much of a commitment.

Polishing his pocket protector,

James "Comic Book Guy" Comtois

9 Comments:

Blogger seraphimcharm said...

I know what killed Firefly.

The theme song. Sucked.

That sort of jokey, "Hey, look how clever we are," dialog so characteristic of Buffy and Firefly is I think just a matter of Joss' style. He can't help but that somebody says something clever and knowing - even in his recent X-Men work.

For example: After a wicked almost fight breaks out in the group, Beast looks around and says, "Is it just me, or is anybody else dying to see the new costumes?" A little too cute, right? But in Firefly he somehow makes it work. I agree that it might be slightly more charismatic leads.

Anyways, done geeking out now. Gotta go read the new installment of Marvel's "Civil War".

2:33 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I did, indeed, forget to mention that the theme song does suck. I sure HOPE that's not what killed it.

The good thing about it being on DVD now is that you can skip the opening title sequence.

I would agree that the corniness in the dialogue is Joss Whedon's style, it's just that for some reason it seemed far too cutesy and proud of itself in Buffy as opposed to Firefly.

All right, combined with this and Nervous Boy, I think any and all hopes of me ever getting a date with a real girl are completely quashed.

Ah, well.

2:42 PM  
Blogger parabasis said...

The theme song is the worst theme song in the history of television bar none, methinks.

But the show is one of the best. If only becuase we never had the opportunity of seeing them screw it up two seasons down the line...

James, I think what makes FIREFLY unique (And, perhaps, difficult to swallow) is that it really isn't a sci-fi TV show. It's a western that happens to be set in space. The movie, on the other hand, is a sci-fi film that happens to have some western touches.

FOr my money, the television show is far far far superior to the film. The film is unsatisfying because in order to deeply understand it, you must know the show, but if you know the show, the plot arc feels completely rushed (you know it would've taken them seasons to get anywhere near the lightning-revelations they get to in the film) and several of the revelations (particularly why the government is hunting River) you know don't have anything at all to do with where they were taking the series. IN other words, the film feels like they took the same characters to tell a very very different story set in a very different world that is a lot more ripped off from Star Wars.

Don't get me wrong, I like the film. But the series is f*ing brilliant.... put it up there with other great unpopular shows like HOMICIDE, THE WIRE and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Isaac, you’re right. The TV show really is a Western (that happens to have sci-fi elements). The movie, on the other hand, is really just straight-up Sci-Fi (that has almost no Western elements). The second episode was about a train robbery, fer God's sake. How much more Western can you get?

You do have some good points about the movie's flaws, although I think you’re being a tad too hard on Serenity. I saw the film before the TV series, and although I've watched it since watching the series (and found I liked it much, much moreso as a result), I did enjoy it a lot, and was curious to watch the series as a result. Overall, I was impressed at how well Whedon made Serenity fun and coherent for first-time viewers ignorant of Firefly as well as fun and resonant for the Firefly fans. This may be, of course, a matter of splitting hairs here.

And it seems we’re all in agreement about that shitty opening theme song.

3:27 PM  
Blogger parabasis said...

Take my love
Take my land
Take me where I cannot staaaaand

Skip this song
With your remote
Or you'll feel like
A Giant Scrooooooote

4:35 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

But Trek had TV's Chekhov (not to be confused with the playwright), and I note a disturbing lack of Monkees wigs throughout Firefly and Serenity. It's almost as if they're implying that look is downright silly, unworthy of hot, X-rated fanfic. Sheesh, Joss.

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Qui said...

Dude, you've hit me in the heart. I agree, FIREFLY was one of the best damn shows ever to air. But your comments on BUFFY? Man, it's like you kicked me in the gut. In the friggin' gut, man! I loves me that show.

It's all good, though.

(Cerebus sucks balls.)

But it's all good. We cool.

However, I do disagree with all you mofos . . . I like the theme song. Yeah, who wants to fist-fight about it?

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Ian W. Hill said...

I'm with Qui on the theme song/Buffy issues, and would be more than willing to join him in a tag team in a fight (and my ol' lady, who also loves the theme song as well as the show, has offered to be our cut man in the corner).

As for Buffy, it's still a better show than Firefly(as much as I love the latter), primarily because it got to go long enough to actually GO somewhere, and grow and expand, but the 14 episodes of Firefly do indeed kick the ass of the first two seasons (34 epidodes) of Buffy -- it took a little while for Whedon & Co. to find their actual groove, and they were able to build on it in Firefly. For some reason, they never quite got it in Angel, which feels more like a collection of inter-related short stories, some of which are amazing, but don't have the building power of the other, more "novel"-like series.

2:50 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Somehow, I always had the hunch that eventually I’d get beaten up by a large group of people not over my obnoxious behavior in bars, my seditious opinions about the nature of theatre or my tendency to impregnate underage farm girls, but because of my dislike for the Firefly theme song. (Which I still stick to: it sucks!)

And so far, all the Trekkies out there in cyberspace have been surprisingly mute on my stance that Firefly was (is) a superior work to Star Trek.

When Buffy was in its first season, my sister started watching it. I’d walk by the living room when it was on and would just think, “Too cheesy,” and move on. (I mean, this was a TV show based on that shitty movie with Donald Sutherland, right? Not exactly something that I thought required my attention.) It wasn’t until a few seasons in that I would meet people who were die-hard fans who said that, knowing me, it would be “up my alley.” (Most of the people in Nosedive are die-hards.) Unfortunately, the show was already in it’s, what, third or fourth season, so I thought it was too late to get into it.

Since then, my sister has shown me all the “good” episodes (the musical episode, “Hush,” and the one where Xander splits into to spring to mind), and I admit they’re good. I just never “jumped aboard” like many people I know, and have always felt perpetually late to the party with that particular bit of pop culture. Eventually, I’ll probably borrow the first few seasons on DVD from someone in Nosedive and go on a binge.

To me, the sadness about Firefly is that it never had the chance to go somewhere, and it’s very clear with those first few episodes that Joss Whedon planned for it to be going somewhere.

But still…I’m amazed you guys like that theme song. I’m so not crippled with grief that it’s not in Serenity.

Ready to be beaten up,

James “Rumblefish” Comtois

3:11 PM  

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