Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Wash: That sounds like science fiction.

Zoe: You live in a spaceship, dear.

Wash: So?
(Objects in Space)

Joss Whedon’s Firefly is just about the definition of a cult classic: a show beloved by fans but cruelly abused and then cancelled by network executives, a show whose history is filled with heroic fan attempts at revivals, and even, in recent history, dreams of a resurrection by the show’s star, Patrick Rothfuss, and boatloads of others. Is it worth all of that? Yes and more, even if what we do have isn't flawless.

In the show’s first aired episode (and the second episode on the DVD), The Train Job, we open with three of our main characters in a bar filled with dust, oriental decorations, and six shooters. It’s the anniversary of the Alliance’s victory, and the patrons are toasting the end of state’s – sorry, planet’s – rights and the awesomeness of a central authority that helpfully, as captain Mal Reynolds later puts it, That sounds like the Alliance. Unite the planets under one rule. Everyone can be interfered with or ignored. Equally. (The Train Job) Mal, never one for common sense, decides the best idea is to engage in a bar fight laden with underhand tricks. Humorous lines, however, prove to be not quite enough, and Mal’s thrown through the bar’s holographic window. Right there, you’ve got just about every element of Firefly: idealism, brawling, closely knit characters, witty dialogue, and a mixture of grit and grandeur.

Firefly is centered around the eight member crew of the smuggling ship, Serenity, and the relationships between them. Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds is the show’s soul. Part of the reason that Fox network executives disliked the original pilot episode – Serenity – was evidently that Mal was too “dour.” Because of this, Whedon made Fillion’s character more jocular in episodes like Train Job and others. But that makes the dour accusation so strange is that the two aspects of Mal’s personality aren’t separate at all. His downbeat humor gives the show its levity, and it’s his fierce loyalty to his crew and daredevil rage that give the show its tension.

There’s a feeling one gets at times while watching that Whedon is trying to portray Mal as some kind of antihero, a crook as ambiguous as he is honorable. None of this has much effect. Mal is a pure white character, someone who never goes against his moral code and has the viewer behind him from his first words on screen. Mal returns stolen medicine, protects the week, and has a strong aversion to murder, even when it would seem to be the most beneficial option for him and his own. Mal is, essentially, the perpetrator of a victimless brand of smuggling, where we never see so much as a single soul hurt by his actions that is not either, A. immediately recompensed by him and his crew, or B. the Alliance government.

But the character's goodness is certainly not a negative. Mal is charismatic beyond belief, and Fillion's performance is the kind that could carry a show alone (though it certainly doesn't have to). Mal is a character mired in our past and our future, a man obsessed with every man's ability to do what's right and for every state world to make its own choices. The rebellion he fought for is gone, and he can only find solace in space, constantly fleeing beyond the reach of corrupting civilization. Save a few friendships too warm and distrustful to be injured by anything as cheap and commonplace as mutual betrayals, Mal's crew is all that he has left, and, as the show and Whedon make very clear, they are his family, the last bastion of his perfect world, and the lengths that he goes to to protect those around him are both inspirational and horrifying.

One of the show’s more controversial aspects is its treatment of women and sexuality. Whedon’s world seems, for the most part, post-sexism. Women are shown performing just about every societal role from soldiers to leaders and back again. The best example of this is probably Kaylee, the honest, warm, and utterly open ship’s mechanic. The innocence of demeanor contrasts with her first chronological scene with the crew in episode six, a scene that is likely the show’s most explicit and least passionate sex scene. Kaylee is a character equally interested in engines and pretty dresses, and actress Jewel Staite brings enough charm to the role to make every one of the character’s contradictions a strength.

Gender roles get more complex, however, when the subject of paid sex comes up. Inara – played by Morena Baccarin – is a Companion, a position that consists of nothing but high class prostitution, yet is so prestigious that it can “bring respectability” to even a crew of beat up smugglers and spring people from prison. When we’re given glimpses of the elite, it’s clear that having a Companion for a date is a sign of status, not ineptitude. Furthermore, Companions are recruited from the highest echelons of society, from a group of women who evidently decide that living pampered lives has nothing on meaningless intercourse. Judging from what we know of Companions, it would seem safe to assume that Kaylee’s open attitude to sexuality is shared by the ‘verse at large, and that prostitution is a perfectly acceptable – and honorable – profession. Somewhat strange, but okay, it’s Whedon’s world and all.

But that viewing doesn’t hold up, because standard whores and doxies abound, and what we see and hear of them paints a picture disreputable and brutal. The episode Heart of Gold brings us to a house of standard whores, and finding the difference between them and Inara’s difficult once one moves past the superficial differences of their sets being dirty and hers clean. A distinction between prostitutes that can chose their clientele makes some degree of sense, I suppose, but the amount of honor that they’re given is rather bizarre and an avenue that Whedon never chooses to fully explore.

In addition to being post sexism, Whedon's Whedon's universe seems one devoid of racial discrimination, though it might have helped reinforce the combination of Western and Chinese cultures if there had been a single prominent Chinese character. Mal’s second command and former army buddy is Zoe, played by Gina Torres. Zoe’s well written and acted, but, while memories of her and Mal in the army or her marriage with Wash might be the center, she herself is never the emotional core of an episode. Alan Tudyk’s Wash, too, is memorable but rarely the center of attention. He takes a starring role in a select few episodes – War Stories, primarily – but is always enjoyable due to his goofiness and infective good humor. Jayne, meanwhile, is just as funny with none of Wash's charm. Jayne's a crass, rude, and often hilarious fighter character that isn't the deepest of the show's cast but is certainly one of the most fun.

Simon and River Tam are the catalyst that sets the pilot in motion and the cause of much of Mal and crew’s importance. River spent several years in an Alliance “Academy” where she experienced a hell that drove her insane and made her brilliant, a hell that she’s still unable to disclose. After realizing the horrors his sister was being subjected to, Simon left a prosperous career as a doctor in the Alliance Core to spring her from prison, and the two find themselves on the run aboard Serenity.

Simon and River don’t fit in with the crew of Serenity and the backwater worlds that the ship trades between. While Inara and Book chose exile from the Core, Sean Maher’s Simon was pushed into it, and his struggle to keep his propriety about him in an environment that views his kind as, at best, ludicrous and, at worse, devils, is the core of his character. It’s clear from the first few episodes that Kaylee finds Simon attractive, but their relationship struggles to survive his sense of culture. As he says to her: I mean, my way of being... polite, or however it's... Well, it's the only way I have of... showing you... that I like you... of showing respect. (Jaynestown)

His sister, Summer Glau’s River, is, after being torn apart again and again by Alliance scientists, a nervous wreck who also happens to be supremely competent at just about everything. Her character, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. Now, don’t get me wrong, Glau gets across just the right mix of vulnerability and terrifying otherworldliness, and River is often an interesting element. But she spends just as much time as a gibbering mess, petrified by dreams of “hands of blue” and other gloomy visions. This would be fine if it built to something, but, as the show never gets around to giving us the reason for her condition or the motivations of her oppressors (easy as the latter might be to guess), River often ends up an empty enigma rather than a fascinating secret.

The final character of note is Book, a Shepherd or priest. Ron Glass plays the character with a fantastic level of warmth, and the clashes and intersections of ideologies between Book and the captain are very well done, as are Book's interactions with the rest of the crew. Like so many of Firefly's characters, Book has a secretive and dark past, one connected with the Alliance and clearly far more violent in nature than one would think a Shepherd's. Like so many of the show's secrets, however, the revelations about Book are not forthcoming.

That brings me to perhaps the largest segment of Firefly’s plot: what goes unresolved. Now, I think that everyone’s aware about the show’s unpleasant history with Fox, and, as this review no doubt makes clear, I would love to have new seasons and would probably pay DVD price for each episode if I had to. But, when it comes to leaving huge aspects of the characters unexamined, I don’t think it’s fair to give Fox all of the blame. It’s true that, given more seasons, Whedon would have no doubt answered the various questions he’s posed, but there’s still no denying that the pacing of Firefly’s overall arc is very, very slow, even while each individual episode may zip along.

Clearly, Whedon viewed Firefly’s concept as more of a set up for numerous different plots and situations than as an urgent plot in its own right. This is fine and has obviously been used by a huge number of highly successful shows. A balance always needs to be made between the large and small scale, especially in a medium like television, and it’s the creators choice where their show falls in the spectrum. But, for Firefly, Whedon creates a dozen enigmas, each of which demands a revelation, and then, over the course of fourteen episodes, proceeds to not reveal a single thing. What was done to River? Who are the men with hands of blue? Who was Book? What role do the Reavers play in all this? What’s the fate of Mal’s relationship with Inara or Kaylee’s with Simon? These questions and more are left by the way side as the crew embarks on a multitude of different – albeit excellently executed – adventures.

The show's pilot, Serenity, introduces all of the characters and covers the first meeting between the crew, Simon, and Book. Whedon and co manage to bring in almost all of the show's central elements in just two hours, successfully exploring the relationships that make up the crew, the histories that drew them together, and the world that they find themselves in. When first shown the pilot, Fox balked at its bleakness, and the episode was only shown much later. The source of the darkness Fox saw is obvious, but it's missing the point to describe Serenity has a dark episode. The backdrop of the action is dark, and the characters often come from very dark places, but the nobility of the crew still shines through, and the jokes that are present have more impact coming, as they do, amidst so much tension.

The second episode, The Train Job, is a snappier, more colorful affair. Hired by jovial and menacing super criminal Niska, Mal and crew rob a train, only to discover that the goods they snatched were, in fact, much needed medicines. This is a fun episode through and through, but feels oversimplified compared to both the pilot and later episodes. All the elements are here – larger than life villains, criminals with a heart of gold, and so on – but they’re assembled, after the marketing fiasco of the pilot, in such a way that the connections are impossible to miss and the subtleties are often pushed out of sight.

Bushwhacked focuses on the Reavers. Each member of Serenity's crew has entered space and left who they were before behind, and they've each changed. The Reavers, too, changed, but their change was all a descent. The Reavers are those who, when confronted with the darkness of the infinite, snapped. Though we never get a full on glimpse from one, their mythos are so powerful when explained and explored through other characters and glimpses that the episode is often downright terrifying. The best part, however, may come later, when the crew is interviewed by an Alliance officer. The answers that they give are each hilarious and deeply revealing.

Shindig is one of the show's most focused episodes and perhaps the most successful to utilize the show's Western elements. Both Mal and Inara find themselves at a high class ball, Inara acting as a Companion and Mal attempting to arrange a smuggling deal. While there, however, Mal overhears what he takes as a slight on Inara's honor and ends up in a duel against a master swordsman. Mal, of course, has never fought with a sword in his life. This is one of the two or three episodes where Mal and Inara's relationship is really developed, and though it's difficult to figure out the totality of Mal's position – and, as discussed above, all of a Companion's role in society – it's an affecting and interesting arc.

Safe is the weakest episode of the show's life and exhibits almost every negative quality of Firefly, managing to take just about every part of the formula and failing at executing it. During a stopover, Simon and River are kidnapped by villagers in need of Simon's medical expertise while, back at the ship, Book is wounded. Missing his doctor, Mal is left with the decision of whether to look for Simon or to look for help. The dilemma with the crew, and the near direct clash of the show's Science Fiction and Western elements could have made a convincing episode, but the two are transitioned between with all the subtlety of a strobe light. Mal's decisions are grand and decisive, but constantly revoked. After his first decision to abandon Simon and River, the only thing that saves the episode from violating everything we know about the character is him reneging with nary a mention of his earlier fury. All of this gives the episode a half dozen feels of false finality and, ultimately, a feeling of extreme pointlessness. Back in the village, however, things are even worse, as the villagers prove themselves dumb hicks one and all and prepare to enact a clichéd witch burning.

Thankfully, things get back on track with Our Mrs. Reynolds, the episode that perhaps best expresses the show's attitude towards cliché. Firefly is not concerned with blazing wholly new paths but with, rather, twisting the old. After saving a backwater town from bandits, Mal finds himself given a wife as payment. The first half of the episode is a mixture of marital jokes and the classic Science Fiction concept of faux paus in an alien culture – though the faux paus does, admittedly, result in marriage as opposed to ritualistic combat in this case (the combat angle, of course, having just appeared in Shindig). After getting an enjoyable but not spectacular opening out of that set up, Whedon twists things about and the sweet and culture shocked wife turns out to be a sleeper agent out to slaughter them all and steal their ship. Simply put, Whedon is a master of having his cupcake and eating it too.

Jaynestown is an episode with an interesting concept that doesn't quite work. The crew returns to a planet where, long ago, Jayne made his mark as a thief. However, due to a heist went wrong – where the money ended up quite literally falling from the sky out of Jayne's damaged ship – the populace worships him as a hero. The premise is intriguing, and it could have been the grounds for a far deeper explanation of one of the show's most enjoyable but shallowest characters. Instead, it's mostly played for jokes. Each of the cast reacts in exactly the same way to this fact, and the whole thing is never mentioned again in later episodes. Apparently, being worshipped as a savior is something very easily forgotten. The climax is decently well done, but not incredible enough to redeem the faults.

Out of Gas, on the other hand, might just consist of the best forty odd minutes ever aired. This is one of the rare things that’s essentially pitch perfect, so taut and engaging that you can’t turn your head away. In a rare experimental move, the episode is divided among three timelines: Mal, stumbling around a deserted and crippled Serenity while the air runs out; the disaster that so damaged the ship; and the recruitment of the crew. The introductions contribute to the characters and often either highlight aspects of their personality or – as in Kaylee’s case, described paragraphs above – form interesting contrasts. While this is going on, the juxtaposition of plots keeps the tension almost painfully high.

The following episode, Ariel, is on par with its predecessor – which is to say fantastic from start to finish. Simon, desperate to help River, comes up with a plan to break into an Alliance hospital deep in the Core and gets the crew to go along with the promise of untold riches from the medicine that they can lift. The show’s justification of stealing medicine – Government run facility. They'd have it restocked in a matter of hours. – is too black and white to be particularly convincing, but the drama of the crew’s plan and its execution more than make up for the line. As things go wrong (who’s surprised?) we’re given our first – and, unfortunately, only – glimpse of the men with “hands of blue.” And god damn it, they’re terrifying. The best part, however, is the test that the potential catastrophe puts on the camaraderie of the crew and Mal’s dedication to each and every one of them. The final minutes are at once horrifying and passionate, something no viewer is likely to ever forget.

War Stories focuses on the relationship between Mal, Zoe, and Wash. Wash, jealous and hurt by the way that his wife seems to respect the captain more than him, challenges both of them on it and tries to take Zoe’s place on a mission. Wash is able to successfully mix concern with his usual goofiness without weakening either. Niska returns here, and the crews attempt to stop his abuse of their captain in the episode’s climax is powerfully done and filled with unsettling revelations about the combat prowess of several crewmembers.

Trash features the return of the villainess from Ours Mrs. Reynolds, now attempting to have the crew aid her in a big steal. The actual heist is well done, if not quite on Aerial's level, but the episode suffers from the gullibility of the crew. While they did have a backup plan, it's ludicrously dependant on things working out precisely as thought and seems about as reliable in a crisis as parachute pants.

The Message brings us back to form again. Mal and Zoe find themselves in the possession of the corpse of their old army buddy, a corpse desperately wanted by a group of alliance cops. The episode centers not only on the people and events of Mal's and Zoe's past but on the morals that they live by now and then. Though seemingly focused on the newcomer and the past, this is quite possibly the episode that delves deepest into Mal's psyche, exploring the differences between weakness and sentiment, strength and the willingness to harm others. Whedon and the cast found out about the cancelation during the filming of this episode, and, in lesser hands, the funeral that precedes the credits might come off as melodramatic – here, however, it's an emotional high that most works of art can only dream of attaining.

Heart of Gold delves into both the Firefly universe's treatment of prostitution and, also, Mal and Inara's relationship. The episode's plot climaxes in a battle between the crew of Serenity and a local warlord of sorts over a whore's child, but the real core of the show is the final minutes. Though nothing except the ending is particularly surprising, the conflict is well portrayed, and both Mal and Inara are depicted with enough dignity and flaws to make their interactions feel both human and doomed.

Objects in Space closes the season and the show. Outwardly, everyone seems far more open, far closer. Characters discuss their past lives, and even Simon seems relaxed. But, while River walks through the halls, she sees their inner thoughts and their hatred and resentment. Or does she? The divide between fantasy and quasi-psychic reality is never made clear, and her visions end with her holding a loaded pistol. As River's dementia worsens, the crew meets to discuss the problem  that she poses. Into this comes Jubal Early, a bounty hunter coming to capture Simon and River. Early is bizarrely and fantastically strange, a mixture of philosophical musing and sadistic violence. Though the plot doesn't advance far in this finale, the conflict on display is both fabulously depicted and thought provoking.

Firefly is the unfinished first chapter of a fantastic novel, a cliff hanger without even water to splash into below. This is a mature television show with fully realized characters, a fascinating world, and a writer capable of bringing both comedy and horror to the screen in the same breath. No, there isn't an ending, but what there is still demands to be watched.

Standouts: Serenity, Out of Gas, Aerial, and The Message


  1. Given the show's obsession with Asian influences, it's probably fair to say that Inara is more like a Geisha than a common whore.

    Man, I loved Jayne and that episode in particular. His constant sparking off just about everybody and the way River freaked him out made him my favourite character.

    If you stick with the Buffyverse you'll see a lot of the Firefly cast end up with at least cameos or even pivotal parts in Angel, kind of as token after Fox cancelled them. Gina Torres in particular, who was also in the wonderfully barmy Cleopatra 2525.

  2. Your point about a Geisha is a very good one. We don't see her doing anything more than straight up sex/romance - well besides tea, that is - but you're still probably closer than I was, there.

    And I don't want to give the impression that I disliked Jayne, as he had a great many fantastic lines. I think the first moment I laughed out loud in the show might have been the exchange in the pilot that ends with Mal saying Jayne's there for "public relations."

  3. Hmm. Much as it is no doubt bad form to spam one's own blog with comments, I thought of this while posting my first comment: Jayne's great moments, at least for me, all come with other characters. The one I mentioned, his terror at River's "I can kill you with my mind" line, and so on. All great stuff. But Jayne himself seems rather one note to me, so the interesting part is more how other characters react to that note than how he himself acts/thinks.

    Of course, that may or may not hold up at all for me when I next rewatch an episode, so we'll see...

  4. I only know Adam Baldwin from the Whedonverse (his part in Angel was pretty small) and Chuck - where he played a very similar character to Jayne and where most of the humour came from his snarky, menacing responses to other characters.

    I guess if you look the way he does it's going to be hard to avoid getting stereotyped.

  5. Jayne's also the Air Force major in Independence Day.

    The movie, Serenity does a really good job of wrapping up the loose threads of the season, if you haven't seen it yet, definitely check it out. There's a little bit of a retcon with River's escape, but its well worth it, in that in introduces a character as terrifying as Early, who also helps shed light on Book's past.

    I also think you are selling the Companion's a little short. Inara makes it clear that what she seeks to provide is a spiritual experience, though not all her clients are looking for that, so it's not just high class ladies looking to be pampered. Saffron was Companion trained as well, just took her skills in a different direction, as was the madam in Heart of Gold. She made the choice to give up the protection and prestige being a Companion gave her to make her own choices. I also approved in Shindig, how it's shown that the people who do the work, not the clients and not some third party, who have the power.