A couple years ago – to be truthful, probably a whole passle o' years ago now – I bought me the DVD of Joss Whedon’s Firefly. There was only one series made before it was shit-canned by Fox and I’d wanted to watch it when it first went to air. Whedon’s first outing post Buffy/Angel and spaced based sci-fi western to boot. What’s not to love?
The ratings, apparently.
That disc sat in my pile o’ shame for years, however, and it sits there still. Unopened. I was waiting for Jane to watch it with me, but gave up and caught the whole series on Netflix recently, finishing up with Serenity on the weekend. The step up in production values from TV to cinema was obvious, and very obviously established by Whedon in a cheeky tracking shot early in the film which flows through the entire body of the ship. Not a point of view you ever saw on the television show which made do with much more modest sets.
Bottom line. I came to love this series and would have happily paid good folding money to watch more. I enjoyed the transference of the Old West myths to an interplanetary canvas and did’t have to work too hard to suspend my disbelief at the idea that frontier cultural forms would reappear on this new frontier.
The framing of the wider narrative promised an expansive story world to explore over years, rather than the fourteen episodes Lord Rupert left us with. On the upside, the film was a fitting send off to a great concept. iO9 ran a long extract from a bio of Whedon, which devoted a chapter to Firefly. The extract came with some interesting background deets I didn’t know of. The series was apparently inspired by a Pulitzer Prize winning historical novel of the American Civil War, The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Whedon read it while on holiday in London and was taken by the minutiae of detail Shaara crammed into the work.
The director said he "wanted to play with that classic notion of the frontier. Not the people who made history, but the people history stepped on—the people for whom every act is the creation of civilization.” Firefly/Serenity is not the story of Jedi Council or the Federation’s celebrity starship captains, he said. It’s the story of the guys who cleaned out the trash compactor on the Death Star. Or the redshirts who jumped ship to escape their inevitable and anonymous fate as Klingon disruptor fodder.
There’s been a lot written about the debt it owes to John Ford’s Stage Coach, with some characters making the hyper space jump from old West to new almost intact. They’re archetypes too. however, with familiar character traits from Buffy, and possibly even the Avengers, finding fresh purchase here.
Firefly's cast of characters is filled with the archetypes that pop up in much of Joss's work: the loner with a distinct sense of justice, although his sense of right and wrong may not mesh with society's; the stalwart and dependable comrade, who may question the hero but will always have his back; the stuffy, book-learned one who finds that real life often does not adhere to the facts he was taught; the one with faith, who has left an organized group but still works to apply its tenets for the benefit of those around him; the mercenary who's always up for a fight; the confident one who is often just trying to get through the day in the most pleasant way possible; the well-trained one whose strength is not fully understood until she is pushed; and, of course, the young woman coming to terms with her new power and the responsibility that it entails.
The movie, Serenity, could be enjoyed without investing a dozen or so hours in the TV series, but you’d find it a much richer experience for that first investment. I don’t know whether Whedon was always heading towards the resolution he laid out on the big screen, especially as regards the origin of the Reavers, who do sterling narrative duty as space zombies. Fast space zombies. Given the lack of telegraphing I doubt it.
I won’t give away any spoilers in case there are other slackers, like me, who’ve gone the better part of decade without catching this series. But if you haven’t, and you’re inclined to sample Netflix’s free trial period, you could do worse than spend a wet weekend on the High Frontier with Captain Mal Reynolds.