As far as I am concerned, Joss Whedon is the walking definition of a big fish in a small pond. Many of the people of the U.S. who do not self-identify as geeks don’t even know his name, but among members of the geek subculture he inspires diehard fanaticism like few other artists. I’ve heard a Whedon fan toss out the phrase “In Joss We Trust” into casual conversation, comparing Whedon to God without a second thought.
After watching Firefly, I finally understand why my friend would talk like that.
I’ve seen other Whedon material – a little Buffy, a little Angel, his recent work on comic book blockbusters. I liked what I saw, it was good, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fervor of the fandom for it. It seemed to me like Whedon cashed in on tropes too often. It seemed to me like he was pandering. To me, that made it good, but not great.
But someone finally persuaded me to watch Firefly all the way to its premature end. And now I too say In Joss We Trust. When he worked on Firefly Whedon made the choice to stop turning to the easy answers and feel-good formulas. He showed his audience what he was capable of. He produced something true to an artistic vision, a world in which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. To lift a lyric from another favorite artist of mine, he took us where the drop contains the sea. For that, I owe him a debt of thanks as an artist, and a roll of the eyes to those who decided Whedon’s vision was not profitable enough to pursue to denouement. I look forward to watching whatever resolution the film Serenity provides – no spoilers, please!
Let’s explore why Firefly lifts Whedon from the realm of the good to the realm of the great.
Authenticity of Setting
When I created “authenticity of setting” as a review point tag, I had period pieces in mind. This is the review point to use to evaluate how well a period piece displays internal consistency with historical fact, vs. the extent to which it relies on anachronism. When DiCaprio’s character uses the work “malarkey”, which was not coined until the 20th century, in the film Django Unchained, set in the 1850s, we see Tarantino displaying a lack of authenticity of setting.
And yet I am now using this review point for a science fiction series set 500 years in the future. There is a measure of irony in this, I think, but I’m using it anyway, because one of Firefly‘s biggest selling points for me will always be the internal consistency it displays with (its self-created) history. Firefly blends elements of historical fiction found in classic Westerns such as True Grit with futuristic technology to explore the question of what is truly timeless. This pastiche of chronological elements is expressed perfectly in the closing image of the series’ title sequence, in which the flight of a spaceship scares a herd of horses. The reason Firefly feels so authentic is the work that was put into keeping this blend of elements in balance. Some episodes lean a bit more towards the Western genre while others would be absolutely impossible from a plot perspective without the futuristic side of the show, but really Whedon establishes the balance in the first episode and sticks with the ratios initially laid out, on the whole. By maintaining his balance so carefully and consistently, Whedon makes his story more believable. Because the show is about the degree to which “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” as long as Firefly‘s characters keep behaving like human beings, the audience continues to identify with their struggles, and the magic just builds as the scale of the show gets bigger and the characters shuttle from frontier planet to frontier planet.
Speaking of characters behaving like human beings. The crew of Serenity are people. Full and multi-dimensional. The show’s villains don’t get explored in as much detail, because there simply isn’t time (although Saffron is given a repeat performance, to my irritation – I would much have preferred more time be spent on an Alliance officer, to give a face to the hated entity, like we are given the characters of Servalan and Travis in Blake’s 7, to which I suspect Firefly deserves a nod). Whedon made the artistic choice to thoroughly establish and ground the characters of the crew in Firefly‘s first season, and it was a great choice. Mal doesn’t want to admit what type of honor he has. His best friend, Zoe, has a story to tell, hinted at in flashbacks and re-tellings of how stone-faced she used to be – somehow she fell for a jester – Wash, who I can’t watch on screen anymore without seeing my husband’s face, that’s how lovable he is. They’ve hired a mercenary, Jayne, who names his guns and loves his mother enough to wear her knitted hat. They’ve hired a female mechanic, Kaylee, who can’t decide how comfortably the tomboy role fits. They transport a “Companion” – a prostitute given honored social status by membership in a guild, the closest parallel I have been able to think of from history being a geisha – Inara, whose name I suspect to be a reference to Inanna, another name for the ancient love goddess Ishtar, though how I would go about proving the reference I’m not sure. And they transport a “Shepherd”, a missionary priest named Book (once again Whedon demonstrates his love for naming characters obvious references to concepts from the real world – I think back to Angel, Harmony/Harm, Willow, and Spike from Buffy days) with a past that never gets explored but referenced enough to clearly be a doozy. And then there are the star passengers – Dr. Simon, and his sister River, whose unusual mind and behavior hit a little close to home for me as someone who has experienced altered states of reality as a result of mental illness.
(Potential viewers should take note of this, River’s behavior and dialogue in episode 14, “Objects in Space”, were particularly disturbing to me and triggered a very strong reaction of hurt, guilt, and recognition. Viewers with a history of mental illness, especially if that history includes psychosis, should be warned that this material has the potential to be disturbing, and should recognize that there is no shame in employing the “pause” button to take a breather if they find their reaction becoming intense.)
While Mal is the show’s protagonist, Firefly employs ensemble cast techniques very elegantly. The only time that I noticed a character was missing was episode 11, “Trash” – the next time I sat down to watch, I asked my husband what had happened to Book in the previous episode. The sensation I had when I realized Book had not been present was that the writers had pulled a fast one on me, and I didn’t like it. Like a single dissonant note during a masterful piano performance, it stuck out all the more because the other episodes had employed the suite of characters so skillfully. Everyone’s likeable – even Jayne, which amazed me because he is clearly sadistic and I normally severely dislike sadistic characters. It is possible that Jayne is likeable due to a phenomenon I once heard a pastor refer to as the reason why Forrest Gump gained such popularity in the 1990s: “redemptive stupidity”. Of course, Gump is clearly labeled in his film as intellectually disabled, whereas Jayne would slit someone from nave to chops if they called him such.
So what’s eternal?
If Firefly is to be believed, the struggle for freedom against oppression is eternal.
Mal and Zoe lost a war with fronts against an oppressive government, the Alliance. So now they fight a war without a front, a very private, very guerrilla war. But they’re still fighting, and no matter what Mal says about Serenity being willing to take any job, their primary mission is still to free people from oppression. Sometimes the oppressor isn’t a political one; Whedon’s extremely laudable personal quest to explore gender oppression and the strength of character frequently demonstrated by women who don’t necessarily have combat ability is given ample play in Firefly. But sometimes it is. To what extent does Mal harbor River and Dr. Simon because he cares about them? To what extent does he harbor them simply to make an object lesson for the Alliance, still the enemy, always the enemy? Again, no time to explain. In the 14 episodes of Firefly‘s run, the can of worms is opened and dumped on the table. There’s enough time to get a good look at the worms and to see that they are alive and moving around. There is not, however, enough time to find the bigger can. And that is the biggest drawback to watching it and liking it. The only dramatic resolution fans are going to find is the resolution they can create for themselves. They are forced to create their own trajectory for the story’s arc. They are forced to decide for themselves where the bullet hits, even though they never fired it.
The show’s title is taken from the class of spaceship to which Serenity belongs. But that class was named after an insect that most of the show’s viewing base would be familiar with from personal experience. A creature that has been a source of ephemeral wonder from our childhoods til today. The firefly appears at dusk and leaves evidence of its existence for only a few hours of night, for only one season of the year. For its fragility, we value its glow all the more. Would Firefly have finished as strong as it started, if it had lived a full narrative life? Yeah, I think it would have. In Joss I trust.
Overall Rating: 4.5 out of 5.