More on Firefly

Ok, now that I’ve seen it all…


Ok. Last week I bulldozed through the entire season of Firefly all in a marathon viewing session.

I’ve re-watched a couple episodes since with the director’s commentary on.

So here’s my summary.

First, if you have not seen it, get your silly ass down to the shop and get these dvds. Don’t rent them, just go buy them.

It’s a clever, creative show, incredibly well written, and very inspired. None of this is a surprise when you realize it’s Joss Whedon; but it stands up to most anything he’s done.

The thing to remember is that Firefly only ran fourteen episodes. It had only started. They were still figuring out who the characters were. The actors were still learning; the writers were still getting to know that creature, the symbiosis of actor and character.

So we’re not seeing a mature product. We’re seeing something in infancy. If you watched Buffy you know what I mean, the first season was cool, but it wasn’t until the second and third where it all came together.

Firefly would have developed into something really special.

But we have to judge what it is, not what it could have been. The movie may develop that; we shall see.

So what is it? Well, read the summaries; that’s not what I wanted to talk about. That’s the nuts and bolts.

Firefly is one of those things, one of those artistic contraptions, made entirely of other things. It’s not new; it’s not made from scratch. Yet, it’s fresh, because the old, known ingredients are put together in such a way that they seem like a new thing.

Firefly is made up of a million well known elements and archetypes. There are obvious borrowings, from Star Trek and Star Wars, Farscape and Battlestar Galactica, and Alien. From many space-opera novels I can’t quite name off the top of my head, but I’ve read by the dozen. There are borrowings from Gunsmoke and Outlaw Josie Wales and the Wild Bunch and Deadwood.

Who knows which of these things Joss borrowed from, and which borrowed from the same library he visited? The bottom line is, the parts are well known.

The visual stye is part 70’s western, part reality TV, part documentary. Hand-held cameras, light reflected from camera lenses, low-tech lighting. Zooms and clumsy framing. It’s all done on purpose, all taken from somewhere else. Even the CGI scenes are filmed this way, as if by hand-held cameras.

And all of if comes together to be unlike any TV show I’ve ever seen. The ingredients are familiar; the flavor is brand new.

Now, before it seems like I’m giving it too much, it’s not in any way the best show I’ve ever seen. It never had a chance to build the depth, the sense of tragic destiny that Buffy had. Joss is a great script writer, but he’s not producing the kind of pure poetry of Deadwood. It might have gotten there, but it was cut off. But I would say it’s one of the best things I’ve seen on TV in a long time.

The best single comparison I can give is to Farscape. Farscape was, and still is, the best sci-fi TV series I’ve ever seen. And more than any other show, it compares easily to Firefly.

Both shows feature a small, misfit crew wandering through space; both face quasi-imperial forces who seem in some way ‘out to get them’. Both feature a strange ship that is, in effect, a character. Both are incredibly well cast, written, well made, well shot. Both look fantastic.

They differ in key ways. Farscape, obviously, features a cast of weird aliens, where Firefly is pure human. Farscape, the ship is literally a character, an intelligent organism where in Firefly the ship is your classic inanimate object, though envisioned as being ‘like a character’ by the creators.

In Farscape, the lone human protagonist is a fish-out-of-water, where Firefly features a ship captain, a fearlesss-leader, captain kirk type. Firefly’s characters are just people, where Farscape’s characters are exotic even when humanoid. Both feature a ship that isn’t some sort of warship, a cast who are not all fighters.

The bottom line? Farscape is the better show. But it’s better only in that it had a chance to develop; it had time to get through its growing pains, it had time to mature characters and storylines. It had time to run a number of complicated plots through a full arc. And in the end, it had enough time to jump the shark and start to suck.

Firefly never got there. So we’re left with a show that has some imbalance. Joss had a vision for his captain that the networks softened, so Mal Reynolds had maybe a little more nice-guy than he should have. The characters had back-stories we never got, so they remained a bit one-dimensional. Buffy and Angel, when they were at their peak, had a mythic, tragic quality. Farscape managed that, and I am reasonably certain Firefly would have. It didn’t; it could have. It should have.

Whedon’s scripts are fantastic. He’s a great writer. His dialog sparkles. But he was still working to build an audience, so a lot of Firefly has a light-weight quality; where Farscape was dark, and complicated, and hard to follow, Firefly was something you could drop into and watch without much background. You had to give Farscape three or four of five episodes to have clue what was going on, but you can watch one episode of Firefly and get a handle on who’s who and what they’re doing.

I think, if it’d had time, Firefly would have grown into the better show. It had the foundation, and it had the talent, behind the camera and in front. But its too-short run wasn’t anywhere near the top of the quality arc I see for it. It was just a fuckin’ taste.

The movie will make up for this in a lot of ways, particularly if they really make three movies. But it doesn’t change anything; those are movies, not a weekly show. The end result will be a weird cross-media story, like a comic-book jumping to a novel mid-story. The result may be brilliant, but it won’t be a TV show and can’t fairly be measured as one.

But I have high hopes for the movie. Joss at the helm, with a big budget, easier censorship rules (Firefly always felt like it should have been on cable, it needed more sex and more graphic violence), and two hours to play with? If Joss has a movie in him, as I think we all agree he does, this should kick some serious ass.

I can’t wait.

[made with ecto]

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