Science-Fiction

Kicking Ass, Literary Style

The cast is fabulous, a strong point in the show's favourI don’t have much patience for vampire stories, so I never felt much attraction to the Buffy and Angel universe. I could see how people would get pretty wrapped up in it: ongoing storylines, smart characterization, constant action, snappy one-liners, reportedly the whole bit. When Joss Whedon, Buffy creator, decided to do a science fiction show called Firefly, I was interested, but I could never find when it was on, and then the show got cancelled before even one season was completed.

Goodbye for good?

Not so fast. The same suits at Fox who scrapped the show turned around and packaged it on DVD. In a revenge of the geeks situation, sales of the DVD collection of Firefly were high enough to give Whedon the leverage to make a feature length version of the story. It’s called Serenity (which is the name of the ship on the show) and it’s due on the big screen some time in fall of 2005. I’m one of those people who got hooked on the show in its repackaged format and I’m anxious to see the movie… with a few reservations.

(One side note, consisting of an angry rant. What’s with Fox cancelling a series before it even gets to a complete season, then marketing “The Complete Series” to us on DVD? It happened with Firefly, and also recently happened with the live action version of The Tick. It’s only a complete series that fits on a mere 3 or 4 DVDs because you wankers cancelled it!

Ahem.)

One of the cliches about the field of science fiction: written science fiction, at least in its best examples, is sophisticated and cutting edge, while media SF (movies, TV, and related tie-ins) lags behind and lacks polish. Like any truism, it can be an excuse for not examining the evidence. To illustrate my point, I’ll refer back to China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh (see my Gutter article on the book, Sideways Storytelling), a book which has an artsy narrative structure and takes us into a future where China is the superpower. McHugh is one of the best writers of literary science fiction, and the strengths of her book would seem to be impossible to recreate onscreen.

The cast is fabulous, a strong point in the show's favourIn answer to “lack of elegant narrative,” Firefly has the episode “Out of Gas.” Whedon and his team create a storyline that has three distinct chronologies, all easily distinguished, and, best of all, there’s actually a point to the timeline-related trickery. One storyline in the present with enough peril to keep us on the edge of our seats, one storyline in the recent past to explain the current jam, and a series of flashbacks to show how each character chose to join the crew. This third storyline could have been the most worthless, but it’s memorable and funny and ends with a touching epiphany about the captain of the crew. Not every episode has this internal intensity, but another mark in the show’s favour is how the story develops across episodes, with people who change and grow, actions that have consequences, and so on. It starts to feel like a carefully thought-out novel.

Does Firefly also have an awareness of life and culture outside the borders of America? Indeed, the characters all speak in Chinese or English with equal fluency. Granted, this is American broadcast TV, and the only Chinese you hear on the show are expressions that are obvious from the situations. That is to say, mostly swear words or endearments. It could just be a clever way to get around the network censors; at the same time, it’s a pretty good way to show, as Whedon says in the background material, that two superpowers, one English, one Chinese, were the ones to colonize space. The point about the two languages is a small one, but it shows intelligence on the part of the show’s creative team.

These strengths of Firefly require some time to appreciate; the most obvious part of the show is the hybrid of western and science fiction. I’m not so hot about this part. The SF meets the western frontier thing has been done before, most notably in Roddenberry’s formulation of Star Trek as the wagon train to the stars. Stale, dated, and it’s enough to put people off the show. This is the aspect that I’m most worried about for the movie version that’s to come. If the good bits are too subtle, and the overall flavour is too heavily western-SF, then Serenity might not be the breakout hit that fans are looking for.

Ironically, if you poke at it a bit, it turns out that Whedon uses the western framework for an entirely opposite point. Star Trek had the enlightened Federation, while Firefly has the repressive Alliance… and our protagonists don’t care so much for Alliance hegemony. Firefly is the underbelly of Star Trek in another way: this is not diplomats in space, but ordinary people doing ordinary stuff. What is easier to relate to: an interstellar crisis or trying to get a job? Mind-eating aliens or relationship trouble? Combine the sympathetic, comprehensible characters with an easy excuse for lots of ass-kicking and gunfights, and the choice of a western flavour makes perfect sense.

* January 2009 update: A look back on Serenity *

17 replies »

  1. A fair amount has been made of internet-linked fandom inspiring appreciation of underrated shows. But while it boosts DVD sales, has it actually resurrected a show? I can’t think of any, and I wonder if it’s just too much of a hassle to get the original jilted creative crew back together or whether the network execs can’t bear to eat crow and admit they were wrong?

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  2. Farscape appeared to generate enough web-based interest to fire up the people involved to create a ‘grand finale’, after the show had been unceremoniously dropped — quite why they bothered is beyond this particular sci-fi fan, because the show disappeared up its own worm hole early on during its third series.

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  3. I vaguely remember seeing a commerical for a show with a ship floating in space. I was not interested in watching the show at the time because I am not a hard core SF fan. I was skeptical of my friend’s efforts to sell me on watching a DVD of a show which was cancelled after the first season. I felt like I was about as likely to enjoy the show as an elephant is likely to be sucked through a garden hose.
    Slurrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp. I was sucked in to a show with brilliant character development which portrayed the core of each character yet left enough mystery to the characters and their journey to know that a master storyteller was at work in this cancelled show. Wait…There is still the movie feature to look forward to. I know will enjoy it. I can’t help thinking that it will leave me with a feeling similar to connecting with a new friend before he/she moves away to a country that I will never visit.

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  4. Not really bringing anything new into a discussion, just looking for a place to bitch about the way the people at Fox seem to be making a habit out of decapitating some real gems before giving them a chance to really show off.
    Why can’t we hvae more Buffy the Vampire Slayers, that go on for a distressingly long time after almost everyone wants it to die so all the hardcore fans canget their fill.
    I’d also like to mention another show just recently axed by Fox called Point Pleasant, which, at the time of it’s construction, actually traded extras with Firefly.
    Please go to:
    http://www.savepointpleasant.com/default.htm
    To find out more if you wish to.

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  5. I don’t know if this has been wide spread knowledge. Firefly has been picked up by Sci Fi and is being shown by them.
    Thought I’d let you know if anyone here doesn’t already. Fridays 7/6c

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  6. Firefly is awesome, Serenity is awesome, its all AWESOME. Everyone go see the movie, and show your support, and even if you don’t support anything, go see it anyway cause its a f-in awesome movie! I have all the episodes on my computer and in the “Special Features” part one of the producers says they hope, and this is before they knew a movie was going to be made, that a feature flim would be made, which indeed happened, and then it would get such a reponse Josh would be asked to continue a show. Now its hard to say how they’d do the show becuase the movie leaves it kind of close ended, but i recently found out that there are 3 “comic” books out that are the link inbetween Firefly and the movie Serenity. I recently obtained them yet have not had the chance to read them, but i’m getting great reviews from them. Anyway, GO SEE THE MOVIE! 🙂

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  7. Uh, er, the British sci-fi show Doctor Who has been cancelled and un-cancelled too many times to count. It was most recently un-cancelled in 2003 after a 15-year hiatus (the 1996 Fox TV movie doesn’t count).
    Firefly was fun, and Serenity was better. But Rose, Captain Jack, and the Daleks get my vote for best sci-fi of 2005.
    And if you haven’t seen it yet, torrents abound.

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  8. Well hey fellow fans,
    You know, I remember seeing the ads for Firefly when it was coming out, and telling myself that I wanted to catch it sometime. I love all things sci-fi. Never got to it though, until, a co-worker raved about it and lent me the dvd set. Well, let me tell you right here and now, THIS IS THE BEST SHOW I HAVE SEEN IN AGES, the writing is nothing short of emotional, dramatic, compelling, action packed, funny, and endearing spectacularness!!!!! In only 15 episodes, you will fall in love with each and every character, even the guest stars, and of course the one recurring one, Mrs. Reynolds! I agree with all of you that it is such a shame a show gets canned before it even has a chance to stretch its wings, let alone finish one season! Just who the heck is in charge of that crap? You ALWAYS go one season and rethink your plans after that…someone or someones are stupid idiots to say the least! I could do a better job of their job. Anyways, could rant and rave forever on this one, GO SEE THE MOVIE, it was awesome in every way a good movie should be, whether you are a fan or not, and then lets all figure a way to bring back the show somehow….

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  9. Okay. Let me say this.
    My sister’s boyfriend got her hooked on Firefly. She, in turn, got my mum hooked on it, who then got ME hooked on it. I saw it yesterday and the day before – there are 4 episodes I haven’t seen yet. I can’t wait to visit home and see the rest of them and then rush off to the movie theatre for Serenity.
    But come on, guys. If a show can hook you this quickly (and let me add, I’m SO not into sci-fi. It usually makes me sleepy for some reason… action films too) you’ve got to realize there’s something special there.
    I recall being interested in seeing an episode of it sometime just to see what it was about – the ad I saw said absolutely nothing! And I never did get to. I always had it in the back of my mind to check it out if I could, though, and then I heard nothing about it. For, now obvious, reasons.
    I really do keep wishing there were more to it though. I’m thrilled that there are still things to look forward to on my next visit home, but also horrified that that’ll be it.
    Anyway, this is seriously a great, HILARIOUS show that has everything I could ever love in one wonderfully packaged bundle. Definitely support it. Okay. Let me say this.
    My sister’s boyfriend got her hooked on Firefly. She, in turn, got my mum hooked on it, who then got ME hooked on it. I saw it yesterday and the day before – there are 4 episodes I haven’t seen yet. I can’t wait to visit home and see the rest of them and then rush off to the movie theatre for Serenity.
    But come on, guys. If a show can hook you this quickly (and let me add, I’m SO not into sci-fi. It usually makes me sleepy for some reason… action films too) you’ve got to realize there’s something special there.
    I recall being interested in seeing an episode of it sometime just to see what it was about – the ad I saw said absolutely nothing! And I never did get to. I always had it in the back of my mind to check it out if I could, though, and then I heard nothing about it. For, now obvious, reasons.
    I really do keep wishing there were more to it though. I’m thrilled that there are still things to look forward to on my next visit home, but also horrified that that’ll be it.
    Anyway, this is seriously a great, HILARIOUS show that has everything I could ever love in one wonderfully packaged bundle. Definitely support it.

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  10. ah firefly an excellent show. i enjoyed this while it was still running on the air and i now own the dvd so that i can see a couple more episodes.
    unfortunately, the movie did not come to my nlocal theater and the closest town it did come to it only remained at for a wopping three days. so i guess i’ll have to wait till it comes out on dvd as well. cause the morons at fox wont be bringing this back anytime soon. the show is to intelligent, witty, and reflective of current events for this highly regulated network. but hey they can bring back low brow stuff like family guy. (dont get me wrong, i watch family guy from time to time and even find some of it humerous. but i can think of alot better shows to bring back)

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  11. Hello,
    Firefly is the best Television series I have ever seen. Hands down. The film, Serenity, is a part of that series.
    All the talk is that the DVD sales of the series have been tremendous, likely the movie will do the same. It is one of the great tragedies of entertainment that Firefly has ended. But its kind of good too, don’t you think?
    Like Bruce Lee, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe or Elvis, the series is dead before it ever achieved its full potential. Equally, before it had a chance to decline in quality. It is forever frozen in the prime of its entertaining capacity.
    As for the show getting axed… what happened over there (Australian fan, here)? Money talks, if the show was axed, must have been because it wasn’t covering costs. Why, oh why… did the US fans not watch the show when it was aired? Is a sad thing, a very sad thing.

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  12. Part of the reason Firefly was so great was because Joss and the rest knew that the axe might fall at any moment. It doesn’t make it less awesome, in fact, the constant pressure was what motivated them towards getting as much of the CORE and ESSENTIAL story/emotion as possible. It’s my very favorite everything right now. I also see Serenity merely an extention of the show . . . too bad the western feel was dampened so much . . .

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  13. Just saw the series and fell in love with the show. Got my friends from USA to buy me the DVD set, because I can’t get it from Romania :). This is the best, I just hope they’ll continue the show.

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  14. I saw the movie serenity before the actual series cause I don’t have cable and so I was a little confused when I saw an add for the firefly dvd and I told my friend that they were the exact same characters from the movie, he told me the movie was based on the series and then it all made sense! Then my dad got me the dvds by accident not knowing I had seen the movie and I have fallen in love! but I think they lie when they say it’s DVD of the COMPLETE series…bit hard to tell when it ends with ‘Objects In Space’…. but I’ve heard rumours that they are going to do more series then another movie. But like I said all rumours but one can keep their fingers crossed!!! 😀

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  15. awesome…i finally found a Serenity/Firefly forum….i just saw it last week for the first time and want the dvd (can’t splurge the money on it now though). I am a huge sci-fi fan and I can say this show was (is or should-be) the Star Trek of this generation. Seeing that one show hooked me…that and seeing Ron Glass on TV again. Well, i’ll see how active this site is before i get all hyped.

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