I 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!
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.
In 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 *