When I made the decision to rewatch Joss Whedon’s short-lived scifi/western series Firefly and its improbable film continuation, Serenity (both on Blu-ray this time) I originally set out to be objective and critical. I didn’t want to write yet another piece of fan advocacy, so I avoided using maudlin lines from the evocative theme song as a post title (the most popular one being “you can’t take the sky from me.”) Indeed, the first thoughts that I recorded as I watched the first Blu-ray disc were mostly critical (more in the sense of analysis than that of finding fault).
By the time I got to the last scene of the film, where, yes, I teared up a little bit thinking not just about the fate of the characters, but also about how their journeys continue regardless of whether or not the “suits” will facilitate us seeing any more of it. And then I felt a burning resentment against Battlestar Gallactica which is coming out with another damn direct-to-DVD sequel!!
Well, that aside, the truth about Firefly is that when people hear about it, they tend to scoff, but when someone sits them down and force them to watch it, they often become believers, or at least appreciative viewers, themselves. I can’t think of any other DVD that my parents have given as a gift to multiple relatives; not just that, but each relative has actually enjoyed it.
So, convincing you, the skeptical reader, is probably not something that can be done with words. I’m going to try anyway, of course.
1. It’s short. Of course this sucks, as we could have gotten a lot more, and we also could have gotten to some more “important” plot points in a more structured fashion if Whedon had known ahead of time that it was going to be short (of course, this isn’t how the TV business works here). But it also means that you can get through the whole thing quickly. It’s a lot more difficult to recommend a show with 144 episodes than one with 13. And luckily, Whedon hit the ground running here, unlike his previous, longer-running programs. In my opinion, there is only one completely bad episode, and that would be “Heart of Gold,” on the last disc. I didn’t actually watch it this time, though, so perhaps it’s not as bad as I remember.
2. You don’t have to like Buffy. I know more than a few people who really like Firefly, but whose feelings about Buffy the Vampire Slayer range from disinterest to hostility. Of course, others will find it blasphemy when I say that Firefly is simply better, but there are probably other factors. Buffy tends to whine more even though her problems are nothing compared to that of Mal Reynolds and his crew. Her problems are often more relationship-based, but romance trouble is not a major theme in Firefly. And maybe some have an unease with a female lead, but that’s another matter. I do think it would be hard to argue that Nathan Fillion is not a vastly superior lead actor to Sarah Michelle Gellar.
3. It’s well-balanced. Something that struck me when listening to the commentary is that as much as the Fox network ultimately screwed Whedon by not giving him a chance, they also probably improved the show with their constant meddling. Whedon intended to make Mal (Fillion) unlikeable from the beginning, but Fox wouldn’t really allow it. While Whedon had his pure vision, Fox executives recognized that, with television, you’ve got to give people a reason to keep tuning in (or keep requesting the discs from Netflix, in my case). I’ve enjoyed my share of grim films, but I believe that television needs to earn our interest with good, sympathetic characters, before it takes them down dark paths and puts us through the ringer. I can’t help but wonder if Whedon’s experience here (the DVDs sold a lot, making Fox look like idiots) allowed him too much leeway with the network, plod on with a thoroughly unlikable premise on his next show, Dollhouse, which I flatly refuse to watch.
4. Good characters. At least in the beginning, I can’t say that the acting is unanimously strong, but I can definitely say that there are no pointless, or boring, or annoying, or extraneous characters in the bunch. This in itself is a triumph in television, but especially so with a cast of this size. When the crew of the ship didn’t have money to actually visit a planet (which is to say, the show’s crew didn’t have money to go on location), the diverse, engaging personalities of the show’s cast can easily carry an entire episode. Most importantly, you care about what happens to them.
5. Come on, what’s so bad about westerns? Few genres are hated by as wide a variety of people as the western (most other hated genres have their constituencies; perhaps the elderly still like Westerns?), and so this seems to have been a stumbling block for many potential Firefly viewers (it’s something the network continually fought against). If you don’t like the thematic aspects of Westerns, I would say that this show mostly just retains the stylistic elements of the genre. If it’s the style that you don’t like, well… I would say that the nice thing about it is that it helps avoid a lot of the cliched depictions of starship life that we see on so many other shows, some of them my favorites, some of them, well, less so. In Firefly, the militaristic, clean spaceships belong to the bad guys (definitely a statement of purpose), which allows our heroes and their environments to be looser and freer. This is a show that actually strives not to repeat what came before (and its intiail commercial failiure ensured that it would not be imitated). Invention, when done properly, should be rewarded.
Hey, just give it a chance already! At least watch the pilot. You do have Netflix, right?
Okay, if you’ve made it thus far, my next post on the subject (yes, there’s more) will be a bit more critical. Of course the show is not perfect, and Whedon definitely missteps when it comes to some elements that don’t really affect the show’s quality, but do indicate some