TV Heaven – Firefly

July 21st, 2008

Following my self-indulgent ramblings on Battlestar Galactica I was advised by various posters to give Firefly a go. I’d heard good things about it in the past, have always been a cautious admirer of Joss Whedon’s approach to TV, and I’d watched the film adapted from the series, Serenity, and found it OK but been a bit nonplussed. Probably I’d been reluctant to watch the series just because I knew there was only the one, and somehow when you know there’s a limited quantity of something it does spoil your enjoyment. And after all, if it got canned after a season it can’t be that great, right? But I got round to it over the last few weeks and I must say, it really is very, very good indeed. Or might have become so, perhaps. What a shame there is no more.

It’s sparky, it’s funny, it’s original, it’s very well made and occasionally really quite clever, has a much darker edge than you expect when it needs one, and has some really great dialogue with a western twist. The surprising achievement for me is that it truly hits the ground running, even in this first season the characters – and the relationships between them – feel exceptionally well worked out and acted, like a cast that’s been working together and getting familiar with their roles for years. The Captain is at the axle of the show, holding it all together, and a great character he is, barn-stormingly performed by Nathan Fillion, who totally nails the loveable rogue trying to live by a code in a world without one. He’s one of the last nice guys left, but he ain’t that nice, and I like that a lot. He’ll shove a guy in an engine without blinking if it has to be done.

In fact all the characters have their surprises, their moments of unexpected compassion or unexpected effectiveness, their treacherous sides or their dark pasts. All of them can be heroes or, well, real shits on occasion. Stupid, treacherous thug Jayne with a wallful of guns behind a sheet in his bedroom is a particular delight. It can be light, but it never really feels soft-centred. Usually in these shows not every character fires on all cylinders. A good number, if not most, end up being rubbish, in fact, with episodes focusing on them a tiresome interruption. Yes, Counsellor Troi, I’m looking at you. In Firefly the central cast are all watchable, all have their roles to play. It’s quite the achievement.

For me it’s much the most consistent Whedon offering I’ve seen – Buffy and Angel could be great on occasion, but they could also be … not great. Firefly feels much more polished, much more grown up, some episodes are better than others, of course, but there were no howlers. It has the tongue firmly in its cheek but never so hard that its cheek is ripped open and its face explodes. If you see what I mean. There are laughs at the expense of the genre itself, and genuinely funny ones at that, it don’t take itself too seriously, but at the same time it doesn’t take the piss out of itself or the viewers, there can still be emotional moments, affecting moments, even surprisingly deep and thoughtful moments. The balance between funny and serious, between light and heavy, is pretty much spot-on, in fact, for my taste, and it doesn’t veer uncomfortably from one extreme to another as shows are sometimes prone to do, especially in a first season, being usually po-faced with occasional unconvincing humorous episodes based around a light relief character.

It’s also an interesting approach to sci-fi tv in which the sci is dialled down to the absolutely strictest minimum, then wierdly fused with a whole load of western conventions. I mean, it’s more western than sci-fi once you remove the surface dressing of, well, space ships and that. Shows like Star Trek, and most sci-fi tv since, seem to work with huge and, for me, rather misplaced earnestness to appropriate at least the trappings of science. Inverting the polarity. Quantum singularities. Phased tachyon pulses. When Data would spend whole episodes of Next Generation reciting this blather, the rest of the crew would nod sagely as though it all made perfect sense. Patrick Stewart, obviously, has the most majestic and convincing nod of any man alive, but still. “Ah, yes, invert the polarity of the phased tachyon pulse, I see what you mean, make it so.” A sparkly red beam will turn blue, and the universe will be saved. One was invited to suppose that it all made rational sense, that this was indeed hard sf, in spite of appearances. Firefly surely is the polar opposite of hard sf, and makes no apologies. No real attempt is made to explain how the universe works (its one huge solar-system, but with loads of habitable planets?). Such questions are barely asked, let alone answered. The ship on which the series is set is decidedly lo-tech and knackered at that, with few if any problems solved through technical gizmo-ry. Most of the characters wouldn’t know which end of a communicator to hold, let alone a tricorder. Problems are more likely solved with fast talk, lying, threats, or hitting someone in the face. People familiar with my own approach to worldbuilding will know that I’m a big fan of this type of thing. Characters, action, and plot are foregrounded, worldbuilding is barely touched on. Sweet for me.

I’m really at a loss as to why this series wasn’t a crashing success. Perhaps it was too sci-fi for the mainstream audiences that maybe hooked on to Buffy, but too mainstream for the sci-fi audiences that love Star Trek. Perhaps it was too witty for those who wanted brutality and too brutal for those after the wit. Or perhaps it was just a ball-fumbling over support, marketing, timing and all those other issues.

Ultimately, the only significant criticism of the show I have is that it’s all over far too soon. I was just really getting into it, and suddenly you’re in the special features. I guess some shows start well and lose their way, so there are no guarantees that Firefly would have continued to improve and become something really great, but judging by its first series it was a very strong possibility. It felt that in the characters and settings they had some rich seams of great material they’d barely started to mine. It’s a great shame that there isn’t even a decent double-episode to end on, or anything. It just stops, leaving one pondering on what might have been, and on what to watch next.

Truly, life is not fair…

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on July 21st, 2008. Tags:

23 comments so far

  • Susanne says:

    Squeeee! You liked it! It always makes me happy when someone discovers Firefly and likes it.

    I’m really at a loss as to why this series wasn’t a crashing success.

    You and everyone both. A huge shame.

    I seem to recall a friend in Canada saying that, when the series first aired, the pilot was “Train Job”. And she assumed that because that episode doesn’t establish the characters and their relationships like “Serenity” does, that’s why a lot of people didn’t tune back in? Makes sense, maybe…

    My favourite aspect of the whole series is the humour. It’s a fairly simple, in-your-face kind of humour but it has me rolling on the floor.

    “We will rule over all this land, and we will call it… ‘This Land’.”

  • I utterly love Firefly! (okay, and yes NF *has* something to do with that *g* but everything you’ve said is so true!)

    And now you’ve made me want to go and watch it again in a mad-marathon kind of way!

  • Susanne says:

    @ myself: when someone discovers Firefly

    Is it just me, or does that sound patronising? All apologies. That was not my intent. I was years late to the party myself.

    Also, what Suzanne McLeod said. I feel a marathon coming on…

  • Todd Moses says:

    Now that you have watched the tv episodes, try re-watching the movie. I think it makes a lot more sense when watched in the right order.

  • Elena says:

    Agreed. The movie IS the double-episode that brings the whole thing to enough conclusion for satisfaction. Even if it doesn’t really satiate the desire for more.

    Welcome to the club…Cap’n Tightpants.

  • The reason Firefly wasn’t a huge success when it ran rests squarely on the shoulders of the FOX network where it originally aired.

    First, the brainless suits at FOX looked at the 2 hour pilot – where all the character background stuff is – and decided it was too ‘complex’ and people wouldn’t understand it.

    So they aired episode 2 (The Train Job) first. They continued this daft line of thinking, airing subsequent episodes out of order. In the US and Canada the order went like this: 2-3, 6; 7-8, 4-5, 9; 10, 14, 1. Episodes 11-13 were not aired in the USA.

    Then they did great things like preempting the show for sporting events – a gun to the temple of a new show trying to find an audience.

    Of course, when ratings were low they canceled the show.

    This is why the buzz about Whedon’s new series (Dollhouse, coming in 2009) is cautiously optimistic.

    Its airing on FOX as well, but Whedon insists its a different crew running things over there and the people aren’t “the ones who did that to me.”

    With the success of Whedon’s internet project, “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” that aired last week (starring Nathan Fillion, Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day) we can only hope more direct-to-consumer stuff is in the works from Whedon.

  • Jared says:

    Firefly is one of my favorite shows as well – for all the reasons that you (and the other comments) have flagged up – the humor, the plotting, the terrific characters. And I really liked the way Serenity wrapped it up.

    Still, like all Whedon efforts, it wasn’t perfect. The Western conventions actually bugged me in Firefly. As plotting, it worked well – Joss Whedon successfully realized that the Western conventions/scenarios/setups/cinematography were all ripe for mining.

    But apparently he couldn’t stand just leaving it like that. Because what if we all didn’t realize how truly, unmistakably, painfully Western it was?

    So we get that godawful country western intro music, the slightly-politically-incorrect version of the Civil War, and the Random Insertion of Horses (that sounds a bit naughty).

    LOOK, he screams, I’M USING WESTERN CONVENTIONS! GET IT?!….Y’ALL?! (Puts on ten gallon hat, spits on the dusty street and curses at carpetbaggers)

    Anyway. Love the show. Still mixed on the director.

  • T.D. Newton says:

    I’m going to share this post with a friend of mine who actually introduced me to Firefly. It seems the general consensus with everyone I know who watched it is the same as yours – the show is fantastic, how could it have been taken off the air so quickly? It’s shocking that the show does better as a DVD than it did on television but, well, this is the world we live in. I enjoyed the show quite a bit and, like you, watched Serenity on a whim having heard nothing and saw nothing (quite a few years ago now, in fact) but I enjoyed it despite having no clue of what was happening or why.

  • melmoth says:

    “Ah, yes, invert the polarity of the phased tachyon pulse, I see what you mean, make it so.” A sparkly red beam will turn blue, and the universe will be saved.

    And no viewer was any the wiser.

    But everyone knows how to pull a Crazy Ivan in a Firefly class starship.

    Very glad you enjoyed the show!

  • Anonymous says:

    Told you so!!!

    There are two books containing Essays from all sorts of people who liked the show edited by Jane espenson – look them up on amazon, they are worth a read.


  • Ken says:

    I wish every programme was as confident and rich as Firefly.

    But, as Jayne says, if wishes were horses we’d all be eating steak.

    Would it have been able to fulfil its initial promise? Maybe we’ll never know but I would have liked to have found out.

  • Tim Stretton says:

    Just about as good as SF on film gets–the nearest thing to Jack Vance.

    It was a cert that such a witty, literate venture would be caned: “So wise so young, they say, do never live long”.

  • Wow, quite the response, clearly close to the hearts of many.

    susanne, suzanne,
    enjoy the marathon.

    icarus, elena
    I may have to rewatch the movie.

    Interesting, thanks for that. I have this feeling from what you say that the network were just in a rush to get something with that Whedon touch, left him alone to get on with it expecting Buffy mark 2, saw it when it was basically completed, and were like, “what the fuck is this wierd mutant western, what do we do with it? Bury it! Bury it!” Shame all round.

    I kind of dug the western elements of it, but perhaps the western style hats, guns, and horses was a step too far at times. The cattle made me laugh, though.

    Share away.

    I must admit I’m not sure I could pull a crazy Ivan on demand.

    I shall look…

    That is a top line. I think it’s a good point about the promise, though. Not everything gets better, and we do tend to be glassy eyed about those that die young, in their prime (james dean? river phoenix? now heath ledger, maybe?) compared to those that have a great early career than tail off and disappoint in some way.

    I guess some clever stuff does survive, at least a while (I’m thinking of the Wire, Deadwood, and so forth) but perhaps not in the supercharged context of network TV. Only on HBO, maybe, where they’re to some extent free of the constant meddling and demands of advertisers.

  • The current head of Fox said recently in an interview that with a Joss Whedon project, the correct course of action is to let it run a while, building up an audience, building up huge DVD sales and so forth, rather than constantly interfering with it and then pulling it.

    So Whedon’s next series, DOLLHOUSE, looks like it’s going to get at least a lot more of a chance than FIREFLY ever did. The most interesting thing is that FIREFLY has made a growing star out of Nathan Fillion despite being a failed TV series, which is some accomplishment.

    He, I think you’ll find this amusing. One of our regular BwB Londoners meeting Nathan Fillion on a box:

  • Anonymous says:

    In addition to the essays the first Jane Espenson book contains translations of the Mandarin spoke in the series.

    Now my wife is Chinese and she’s never been able to understand the language spoken by the cast as it is so badly pronounced. When I got the book that translates what they are trying to say,,, well I was over the moon, my wife had refused to teach me any Chinese swear/rude words, for instance Yin-Dow is vagina (-literally woman cave,) she nearly spat her tea out over her laptop when I said it to her- though she was speaking to her mother on skype.

    Anyway, she is also adamant that the curses in Firefly are written by Americans who speak a little mandarin, the Chinese don’t curse in that way. Whether they do or don’t, it’s a hoot to read!!!!


    Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers In Joss Whedon’s Firefly;=books&qid;=1216731865&sr;=8-5

    SERENITY FOUND: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s “Firefly” Universe;=books&qid;=1216731865&sr;=8-4

  • disrepdog says:

    Joe what took you so long??

    Firefly is excellent fun. Having grown up watching re runs of True Grit, moved on to star trek, Blakes Seven and then Red Dwarf how could I fail to like cowboys in space?

    I had heard a whisper that it was going to be taken up again, but maybe it was wishful thinking…

    Dr Horrible’s singalong blog is well worth the download if you missed it.

  • KatG says:

    One nitpicky, geeky note, Firefly did not take place in one solar system but several, and the planets — many of them moons — were terraformed. There were the older inner planets, where civilization reigned (East Coast) and the newer colonies out in further systems (the Western frontier.) The colonists, including the Captain, tried to revolt against government control and lost, which makes him rather bitter.

    And Firefly had its fare of techy babble — do you really understand what was wrong with that engine and how they fixed it? But their techy babble was often funny, which makes it a bit more engaging.

    My advice, if you haven’t done so already, is re-watch Serenity now that you’ve seen the series. It will make a lot more sense now.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have to disagree with you there Katg, branding myself a geek in the process….

    “Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new Solar system — dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed — a process taking decades, to support human life, to be new ‘Earths’. The Central Planets formed the Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating, but the Alliance’s victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe. And now everyone can enjoy the comfort, and enlightenment of true civilization.” — River Tam’s teacher, Serenity movie

    There are some large diagrams of the system on the screen behind the teacher as I recall. Also Joss Whedon has confirmed that there is no faster than light technology in the ‘verse.


  • fsmn36 says:

    I’m really at a loss as to why this series wasn’t a crashing success.

    Because it was on FOX. And FOX and NBC have this nasty habit of cancelling great shows. It’s not the case all the time (X-Files ran for 9 years on FOX, Heroes remains uncancelled on NBC), but quite often those two networks just give the axe.

    I remember when it first came out. I saw the first two eps and loved it…until FOX started messing with the scheduling and I never had time to track the episodes down. When it moved to Sci-Fi, I had no cable. Such is life. But recently I went through and watched all the eps and saw the movie, and I love it. It’s very unique and I think you’re right when you say it’s more polished than Buffy or Angel. Better special effects, less make up, too, so it doesn’t look as cheesy. I really wish it had stuck around longer.

    Ah, well. Let’s just hope Whedon’s new show, Dollhouse, can be as good. Especially since it has a BSG alum in it.

  • Stephen Aryan says:

    Glad to hear you enjoyed it. Firefly worked for me for so many reasons, including all those you and other people mentioned, but also because of the fantastic cast. When the promo photos first came out I thought it looked crap. In fact, mega crap. They were a weird mix of people, all different shapes and sizes and colours, and look, no uniforms!!! Where is the bald headed patriach or his beardy No 1??? And there are no aliens! Gah, what kind of crappy sci-fi is this!

    Turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. The cast were fantastic, they fit their roles like people wearing old gloves. Nathan Fillion was fantastic and is nice a bloke in real life as you might expect, as are the rest of the cast I’ve met. They felt like a family on screen and that’s because they became such good friends off screen. I could go on and on and on (and given half a chance I will) but I loved this show, I rate it as some of the best sci fi ever. Definitely in my top 5 alongside Babylon 5, the new BSG and of course old Baldy himself, JLP.

    Make it so.

  • Jostein says:

    Another author that loves Firefly is Steven Brust. I don’t know the whole story, but he was apparently approached to write a novel based on the Firefly ‘verse, but the deal fell through. Instead he decided to publish his ‘fan fiction’ online:

    I must say I rather liked it.

  • Leiali says:

    Bit late to the party but just a quick note to say I had every faith in your liking it Joe, what’s not to like? Plus the edgy humour sits well with your stamp of sarcasm. The Dr Horrible sing a long was great, worth a watch if you don’t mind musicals and think the Super hero genre needs a kick up the arse.

  • TheChubby41 says:

    Best show ever. EVER.
    Commentary on the DVDs/BluRays are worth listening to, btw (especially Objects in Space-the freaky black bounty hunter guy who sneaks on board).
    One of the things I love about Big Bang Theory is how the hammer FOX whenever they mentions Firefly (those effers!).

    Wash: “A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.”


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