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Firefly & Serenity

By Philip Reeve

"This is the captain. We have a little problem with our engine sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence, and then explode."

When I started writing about Stuff I Like on the internet one of the first things on my 'To Do' list was Firefly.  Then I looked around and couldn't help noticing that the internet is pretty much made of Firefly: references to it, and sites about it, seem to be everywhere; surely everyone must know about it already, and wouldn't be the least bit interested in hearing what I had to say on the subject.

But lately I've encountered a surprising number of people who haven't seen it, and even some who, when you mention it, go "What's Firefly?"  So here's The Solitary Bee's guide to its fellow insect-named cultural phenemenon.

Firefly (Cert 12) is a 2002 sci-fi TV series created by Joss Whedon, probably best known for the wonderful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sometimes wonderful spin-off Angel (a show which didn't so much jump the shark as vault nimbly to and fro across the shark in the manner popularised by Cretan bull dancers).  When I first heard that Mr Whedon's new show would be a 'space western' I was unimpressed - aren't all space operas basically westerns?  But Firefly takes its conceit to the (il)logical extreme, dressing its space frontierspeople in braces, duster coats and fishtail trousers and arming them with souped-up six-shooters.  There are cows.  There are banjos.  There is a cowboy ballad theme song which mournfully celebrates the ultimate freedom of the final frontier - "You can't take the sky from me..."

Sadly it turned out that the powers that be at Fox TV actually could take the sky from us, and they proceeded to do so by canceling Firefly after 14 episodes, blaming poor viewing figures* (Boo!).  It then went on to become such a cult success on DVD that Joss Whedon was able to make a feature film, Serenity (Cert 15), which continues the story (Hurrah!).  Alas Serenity didn't do well enough at the box office to spawn a sequel (Boo again!)**.  Since then there have been several comics set in the Firefly universe (which I've not read), but all that the show's admirers are really left with is the movie and those original fourteen episodes.

Luckily, they were fourteen pretty good episodes.

Set 500 years in the future, Firefly takes place in a far-off solar system which has been settled by human colonists.  There are no monsters or aliens here (although the savage 'Reavers' who inhabit the system's fringes might as well be monsters, having lost all traces of humanity beyond an ability to maintain and fly ramshackle spacecraft ). These are far more down-to-earth alien worlds than we're used to visiting in the likes of Star Trek.  The frontier spirit prevails, and the production design is a witty mix of hi-tech and old west (the Serenity is surely the only film or TV spaceship that has wooden furniture in its mess hall).  The various planets have recently been unified following a civil war between the vaguely authoritarian Alliance and the freedom-lovin' Browncoats.  (The Browncoats, needless to say, got stomped on.)

Our hero, Mal Reynolds, is a former Browncoat who now captains the grimy old 'Firefly' class space freighter Serenity, running cargo and contraband and generally trying to keep one step ahead of the law.  As well as her small crew the Serenity carries some paying passengers; Book, a travelling preacher; space courtesan Inara***; and posh young doctor Simon Tam, who's on the run with his sister River (he has sprung her, as you do, from a top secret Alliance facility where attempts to turn her into a weapons-grade superhuman have left her talking in Whedonesque non sequiturs like Drusilla the Mockney Vampire).  Over the course of the truncated series we learn more about the characters' histories while they stage a couple of robberies, get involved in duels and tangle with space gangsters.  River is pursued by some scary, blue-gloved Alliance operatives, and That Christina Hendricks Off Madmen turns up as Mal's ex-wife.

All of which probably sounds a bit yawn if you haven't seen it,  because, like Buffy before it and Dollhouse after, Firefly is built entirely out of genre cliches.  What brings it alive, and lifts it above the competition, is hard to define.

 First there's the feel of it - the folksy music, the costumes that look as if there must be a branch of Old Town on most of these moons and planets, and the wobbly, uncertain 'hand-held' camerawork which takes the CGI sheen off the effects shots.

The backstory is slightly more subtle than I've made it sound, too.  The Alliance isn't exactly an evil empire (though some of its black ops have obviously crossed the line); it stands for order, security, and all the benefits of urban civilization; it's basically the sort of society that the heroes of shows like Star Trek belong to.   Mal and his comrades would probably be safer and cleaner and more prosperous living under its aegis, swapping the rusty earth-tones of the Serenity and all those backwater moons for the gleaming greys and whites of the Alliance worlds... but they wouldn't be free, and like many a good westernFirefly holds that freedom, with all its dangers and dilemmas, is more important than just about anything.

Then there's the language, packed with snappy one-liners and Whedon-y little asides, Deadwood-ish 19th Century-isms, space-slang (anything nice or good is "shiny") and scraps of Chinese (everyone in the 'verse swears in Chinese, although oddly enough nobody actually appears to be Chinese...).  When sci-fi cliches do appear, they're quickly undercut ("That sounds like something out of science fiction!" scoffs pilot Wash at some unlikely plot twist.  "We live on a spaceship, dear," his wife reminds him.)  Whedon's characters talk like no one else on telly: they falter; they make up words as they go along: they wander out into long convoluted sentences and can't work out how to get back; wobbly metaphors collapse beneath them, and rhetoric backfires.  It's hard to imagine a tense eve-of-battle argument in any other sci-fi thriller featuring an angry exchange like this one between Mal and his uppity crewman Jayne in Serenity:

Mal: (Rhetorically) "You wanna run this ship?!"
Jayne: "Yes!"
Mal: (Completely flummoxed) "Well... you can't!"

And most of all there are the characters themselves.  When I watched the pilot show I found it hard  to warm to Nathan Fillion as Mal: he just seemed tough, brooding, and bitter.  I assumed he was the 26th century's version of Clint Eastwood's Josey Wales; a burned out case who would slowly recover his humanity.  But as the series progressed it soon turned out that Mal was already far more human than your average sci-fi space captain; as well as the bitter and brooding thing he can be clumsy, funny, stubborn, shy, heroic - and sometimes just plain wrong.  It's a lovely, self-deprecating performance (and David Boreanaz as Angel managed something similar, so I suspect much of the credit must go to Joss Whedon's writing****).

Alan Tudyk as Serenity's pilot is equally endearing, playing one of Whedon's familiar uber-nerds, wistfully aware that he's not as tough and battle-hardened as his wife Zoe or crewmates Mal and Jayne.  ( "Hey, I've been in a firefight before! Well, I was in a fire...  Actually, I was fired...")  Zoe (Gina Torres) tends to act as Mal's conscience, she exudes strength and decency and we wish she had more time on screen.  Adam Baldwin's Jayne is a stupid, treacherous, bullying, loose cannon, but somehow quite loveable too, and the source of many of the show's best jokes (and best hat).   There's really no point listing the others, because they're all just as good (well Simon and River are a bit irritating, but I think they're meant to be) and the relationships between them, their rivalries and loyalties, smouldering resentments and undeclared loves, form the heart of Firefly.  That's what makes the series ultimately more enjoyable than the movie: Serenity packs a lot of plot into its two hours (and starts with the most elegant series of nested flashbacks I've ever seen to bring newcomers up to speed), but while it wraps up the story pretty well it hasn't time to explore the characters in the way that TV can.  If only they'd been allowed to develop over the course of three or four seasons...

Still, at least we have one series.  Well, two thirds of one series.  And a movie.  And a legion of loyal followers, who call themselves 'Browncoats', and whose cheerful devotion helps to keep the Firefly flame burning.  Whether it will last remains to be seen: a few years ago there seemed to be an idea around that if the fans were just vocal enough the show might be revived, but that seems unlikely now.  Maybe the story will continue in the comics.  Maybe Mr Whedon should commission, say, a little-known British children's sci-fi author to write some tie in novels.  Anyway, whatever happens, if you haven't joined the ranks of the Browncoats yet, you should buy, borrow, rent or download Firefly and Serenity (in that order).

They're shiny.

*Sci-fi shows have always suffered from being a)quite pricey to make and b)a bit of a minority interest - though weirdly the bleak War on Terror metaphor Battlestar Galactica which started around the same time as Firefly was popular enough to run to five joyless and increasingly confusing seasons...

**When Sarah and I went to see Serenity at the old Odeon in Plymouth there was a little speech by Joss Whedon tacked on to the beginning in which he thanked all the show's fans for making the movie possible.  It was thoroughly charming, and it felt as if he was talking just to us.  In fact, since we were the only people in the cinema, I guess technically he was....

***Joss Whedon seems to have something of a preoccupation with the Oldest Profession*.  It surfaces again in the much darker Dollhouse.  I expect feminists have something to say about that.

****Of course it takes quite a large team of writers to produce the scripts for a show like Firefly, and some of the dialogue I've quoted in this post may not be by Joss Whedon himself; but I'm assuming he's responsible for the creation of the character's characters.

*That's stonemasons, children.


Gilmoure said...

Thanks for the good write up. I'm not the greatest when it comes to explaining to my colleagues as to why they should give Firefly a chance. This will definitely help. And it's a very interesting look at it as well.

As well, thanks for the link to Old Town Clothes. While I have a predilection towards western wear (I live in the New Mexico countryside, just down the road from where my great, great grandmother's house, where she hid from Apache when they came by on a cattle raid), for fancier clothes, I'm a fan of British tweeds. I especially like the pre-war three piece suit I associate with English professors (no doubt due to Prof. T's photo on the back of the 70's Lord of the Rings books). I hope one day to make my way to London (or possibly Edinburgh (I know, but Scotland has very nice tweeds up there as well) and have a suit made.

cerebus660 said...

Hi Philip! Nice review of Firefly/Serenity! I was directed here by brother Cal at the Canadian Cave Of Cool and was pleasantly surprised to find you're *the* Philip Reeve. I read Mortal Engines a while ago and loved it. I'm currently waiting for my son to finish reading Fever Crumb so I can give it a go! Oh, and Firefly tie-in novels is a great idea...

Philip Reeve said...

@Gilmoure; I was wondering where you were based... I've tried having suits tailor-made before, but I far prefer Old Town's range; they don't look posh, more like good, sturdy working man's clothes which have fallen through a time-warp from 1910... although in tweed or serge they can be combined to make a very donnish three-piece. They're quite expensive (perhaps prohibitively so if you you live outside the UK), but they're basically indestructible, so I think it balances out.

@Cal, welcome, I often look at the Cave of Cool; my regards to Cal. I hope you enjoy Fever Crumb. Only in my dreams can I write dialogue sharp enough for Firefly, but *somebody* should be writing tie-in novels.

Niall.Watson said...

I am so glad to find out that my favourite author, likes firefly. WOW
Ive read all of the Mortal Engines series, I turned 20 in December and I grew up with a 16 year old Tom Natsworthy. I would just like to say Thank You from the top of Scotland in Aberdeen.

Awesome books and cannot wait to get my hands on Scriviners Moon.

Really Appreciate your work.

Lazarus Lupin said...

A good general overview of Firefly. The show is a little over rated but that's love for you. Folks have their blinders on.

Lazarus Lupin
art and review

Nathan L said...

Hi, Philip. Are you a Reever?

Philip Reeve said...

Oh, yes indeed. Grr! Arrgh!

Nathan L said...

Hi again.

I read Mortal Engines a few years back, borrowed from a friend’s shelf, not knowing that there were more in the series. A rare visitor to bookshops, I discovered only last Christmas that there were four in that series. So I got hold of the remaining three and devoured them.

What a great tale! I tore through the pages, eager to discover the fate of the characters. And, at the end, I felt that sense of loss that only comes when fictional people become real.

Look at what has happened to my grammar! I’m blaming it entirely on you. Beginning sentences with And? Whatever next? But I’ll get over it…
Those Ands and Buts really kept the pace moving.

Okay, so you got me hooked like a greedy fish. Fever Crumb and A Web of Air sit on my shelf waiting as patiently as they can. I’ve just read Here Lies Arthur and No Such Thing as Dragons is my 5-year-old son’s bedtime story.

In my classroom, I sometimes refer to you as the King of Sim’ (Similes) and examples from your books have come in useful, stimulating the children to create their own. Honestly, there must be more similes in your stories than the average poetry book! In just the first 6 pages of Here Lies Arthur, I found 11 similes! Please don’t take that as a criticism because they are powerfully evocative.

I love this metaphor from Here Lies Arthur: the sky was a wet slate, scratched all across by the hard voices of the gulls.

Thanks for the books; you’ve got me into reading again. And that’s an achievement. ; )

philip reeve said...

Thanks, Nathan! Actually Geraldine McCaughrean is the Queen of Similes and I just try in my small way to emulate her. But all the best people begin sentences with 'But'. And 'And'.

Anyway, I'm glad you liked the books. I hope 'No Such Thing...' doesn't give your son nightmares.

Nathan L said...

I think he'll be okay on the nightmare front. Although that depends what's to come in the story. He met Smaug last year when I read him The Hobbit and he's got lots of inventive (and impractical) suggestions of how he would deal with a dragon were he to meet one, such as jamming a stick between its jaws (similar to how Luke dealt with the rancor). Hmm, but the dragon could burn the stick...

Nothing is quite as scary as the screeching and yammering of his young sister when, in the wee small hours, she lets us know of the new teeth pushing through her gums.

It frightens me half to death!

Anonymous said...

I absolutely hated Firefly when I first saw it - the notion of a literal space Western was silly, and the budget was clearly low, and it all just seemed so forced. But I already owned the whole season so I watched it through, and by the end of it I loved it. The characters are the very definition of charming.

Love that you opened with my favourite Firefly quote ever, second only to:

"It wasn't entirely a disaster."
"...I got stabbed! Right here!"

philip reeve said...

One of the good things about the rise of the DVD boxed set is that it you do feel a certain compulsion to keep watching these things if you've already invested hard cash in them. If I'd watched the 'Firefly' pilot on conventional TV I might not have bothered watching more; it took a couple of episodes before it 'clicked'. The same goes for 'The Wire', 'The Sopranos', 'Deadwood', 'Mad Men', and 'Generation Kill', all of which turned out to be magnificent on closer acquaintance...

My other favourite quote is (from memory) 'It's the mark of a great man that he can show mercy' (Stabs his opponent) "I guess I'm just a good man." (Stabs him again) "Well, I'm all right..."

Nathan L said...

I saw Serenity first, having no knowledge of the series. It was enjoyable but didn't really get me.

My cousin kindly lent me the DVDs a few years later. As others have also said, it took a couple of episodes for me to warm to them but then I really liked them - the characters making it very enjoyable viewing. The series was way better than the film in my opinion, being rougher round the edges and less shiny. Keeping the Reavers hidden was a good move; the terror of the imagined monsters being scarier than the reality (seen in the film), although I wouldn't like to meet one on a dark night, or on a sunny day for that matter.

What was the name of that other US sci fi series that had the plug pulled a year or so ago? I was starting to get really into it and the series ended with no resolution.

Lee Moan said...

Nathan, was it The 4400? I've been watching it on DVD and am halfway through the final season. Don't know why I stuck with it as I know it ends on a cliffhanger. :(

Love the Firefly/Serenity review, Philip. I am also a huge fan of your books. I can't wait to introduce my kids to them once they're old enough. The ending of A Darkling Plain is one of the most beautiful endings of any series I've ever read.

Junk Monkey said...

It took me a few episodes for the show to click with me too. It was recommended (and lent) to me my my parents in law who have very different views of what constitutes a good SF show. (They like Stargate!) At first I was very dismissive of this cowboys in space nonsense. But somewhere along the way... The moment I realised I was watching true greatness was the moment when Mal (the captain) is pissed off with Jayne and doesn't let him in the airlock as the ship takes off. For a few minutes I really wasn't sure whether Jayne was going to get back on board. I was prepared to believe the show would kill off a central character in the middle of a season. How often does that happen? Never, but my disbelief was so well and truly suspended that I believed they just might.

Anonymous said...

Based on this review I checked out Firefly and absolutely loved it, so I have to say thank you for the write up! I had seen Serenity in theaters and really enjoyed it, but back then I was not nearly as interested in TV shows and films so I did not follow up and find out the back story.

I must say though, Firefly really reminded me of Cowboy Bebop, the acclaimed anime series. I would highly recommend Firefly fans check that show out. It has around 26 episodes as well as a movie. There's a great review written by Orson Scott Card floating around that will probably give the best idea of what to expect. It also acknowledges the Firefly parallels.

But Firefly definitely stands on its own. Such a wonderful show and it has gotten me really excited to see what Joss Whedon will do with the Avengers movie.

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