Firefly (review)

Take Me Out to the Black

My first exposure to Firefly came when I was assigned to review the DVD box set for Video Librarian, for which I review a lot of TV on DVD. Now, I don’t sit through 13 or 18 or 22 hours worth of Tru Calling or Silk Stalkings or whatever in order to write a 200-word overview — it’s not possible, and it’s not necessary, and even just a taste of most series is enough to prove that much of what appears on television is worse than instantly forgettable: it doesn’t even come close to distracting you while you’re actually watching it.

Firefly was exactly the opposite. The taste of the show I got dipping into it here and there in order to write that Video Librarian capsule was beyond tantalizing: It was haunting. It was intriguing in a way that so little TV is, throwing me into the middle of a story in the middle of a strange universe and explaining nothing — I was left to sink or swim, like I’d been dumped naked and ignorant into a new world, and that feeling was exhilarating. It didn’t just lend the series an aura of authenticity — it made it real and made me a part of it like no other mere TV show has ever done before.
That Firefly box set was one of the few Video Librarian assignments I watched all the way through. It’s the only one I’ve watched all the way through more than once. Way more than once. I never, ever get tired of these too-few episodes. There may only be 14 of ’em, but each is such a rich tapestry of story, character, and culture that I see something new in them with every single re-viewing (and there’s so much detail crammed into the backgrounds that you practically have to pause and rewind and pause again to get a look at some fascinating doodad or gadget or tidbit). Hell, I never even skip the opening credits: the lyrics of the theme song in itself are so evocative of the stubbornly independent mindset of the characters, particularly of the series’ hero, that I never get enough of hearing it.

Ah, that hero: Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion: Saving Private Ryan), owner and commander of the Firefly-class cargo and passenger ship Serenity, would scowl at the word, and indeed, it does not really suit him, not in the traditional sense of the word that usually gets assigned to the protagonist of escapist pulp fiction (the genre from which Firefly springs, even if it does leave skidmarks expanding its horizons). In Mal, series creator Joss Whedon gives us the embodiment of the attitude that sets Firefly apart: an expediency, a practicality that is recognizably, down-to-earth human in a way that simply doesn’t apply to the typical square-jawed saintly nobility of, say, a Jean-Luc Picard. It’s almost impossible not to compare Firefly to Star Trek, not when Trek was called by its own creator, Gene Roddenberry, “Wagon Train to the Stars” but it took 35 years and the intervention of Whedon to bring a genuine frontier flavor and a pragmatic hinterlands spirit to TV science fiction. And not when Firefly feels like the anti-Star Trek — it feels like Whedon’s take-that-so-there to Trek. I love Star Trek, but I never realized, until I starting living and breathing Firefly, that for Trek‘s vision of humanity’s future ever to happen would require a fundamental change in human nature — how likely is that to happen in only a few hundred years? The people of Firefly, separated from us by half a millennium, seem more like real people than the crew of the Enterprise 1701, only 300 years in our future.

Utopian fantasies may be pleasant, but the gritty, messy reality of the ‘verse of Firefly is dynamic and exciting and an extraordinary backdrop against which to tell stories that are unforgettable. Certainly there are plenty of other SF series that don’t buy into Star Trek‘s hopeless idealism, but none of them have combined that with such a fully realized invented world. Whedon’s human civilization 500 years into the future feels completely plausible, from the politically tangled climate of failed civil war and ascendant totalitarianism to the way people speak — one of the most astonishing aspects of the series is how the universally terrific cast managed to deliver not only all that Chinese slang so convincingly but also imbued their speech with a rhythm that is not like how we speak today, which is even more amazing when you consider how little rehearsal time is available when you’re shooting a weekly series. It often leaves the viewer to infer meaning from context, and that puts Firefly in a league all its own: it assumes a degree of intelligence on the part of the audience that few shows dare to try to get away with. Which is perhaps why it crashed and burned before it had a chance to find its audience: which isn’t to say that the mainstream audience is stupid (though it may be), but that network execs weren’t willing to take the chance that it wasn’t.

I haven’t yet called Whedon a genius, have I? Everything about Firefly defies convention with a recklessness that, well, Mal Reynolds himself might appreciate. And it’s a recklessness that redefines what TV can do… or would have done, if it hadn’t been killed off prematurely. Whedon takes what’s become a standard conceit for weekly SF — a bunch of guys and gals having adventures on a spaceship — and turns it into a smart, sophisticated drama, morally complicated, dryly funny. And like the show’s premise, its characters are SF stock only on the slimmest surface — the hotshot pilot, the brilliant mechanic — their underplayed, prickly relationships unfolding through interwoven, series-long storylines. It breaks my heart to think about how it takes even the best TV series a season or so to find its footing, for the writers to get in synch with the actors, for everyone creative, both in front of and behind the camera, to get their footing and really start to figure out what they’ve got their hands on. It breaks my heart to know that most series hit their stride in their second season. If Firefly was this damn abso-fucking-lutely superb off the bat, what could it have been two or three years later?

thoughts on individual episodes of Firefly
see also:
my review of Serenity

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