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…