(Guest post by Greg Forster)
For years – six of them, to be exact – mankind has pondered the question: Just what is it that makes Firefly the greatest TV series of all time?
I think I have the answer.
The concept of Firefly in the conventional sense is as follows: It’s the future. Six years ago, there was a big horrible war and the good guys lost. A single central government called The Alliance, formed by the unification of the governments of the United States and China, decided to bring all humanity on all planets under its control. The Independents, who sought to resist annexation, fought back just hard enough to get a lot of people killed, but not hard enough to win. Now the remnants of the Independents – the “browncoats” – are adrift on the edges of civilization, forced to scavenge for work where they can get it and constantly hounded by a tyrannical government that’s always itching for an excuse to lock them up. One of the most bitter and disillusioned of these former soldiers, Mal Reynolds, has managed to scrape together a ship and a crew. To keep the ship fueled and flying, he takes on illegal salvage, smuggling, theft of government supplies, etc. The government is after him, and his business partners are all either betraying him or open to doing so if the opportunity arises. So every week there’s a fresh adventure waiting for him and his crew – daring heists, double and triple crosses, espionage, and always the constant struggle to keep fueled and keep flying.
The genius of Firefly is: that stuff isn’t what Firefly is really about.
I said I was giving you “the concept of Firefly in the conventional sense.” If the network suits ask for a precis of the show, that’s what you give them. But series creator Joss Whedon made up all that stuff strictly to provide a backdrop to the real story: the story of nine people thrown together by forces outside their control and forced to find a way to live with each other and with the choices that their need for intimate coexistence foists upon them.
Here’s the thing: if you watch the whole series from start to finish, afterwards you will not know much more about the show’s fictional universe and backstory than what I’ve already told you above. But you will know these nine extraordinary (and yet, in other ways, very ordinary) people as though you had lived with them.
The genius of Firefly is that the characters are at once so real as individuals, and yet at the same time so perfectly crafted to drive the necessary interactions between them that create the plot. It must be really difficult to make both of those happen at the same time, since the former requires their personalities to seem spontaneous and undesigned, but the latter requires that they really be calculated and artificial.
I mean this. On the one hand, you can easily imagine what it would be like to meet any of these characters in isolation from the rest of the show. If Simon Tam walked into my office right now, I can picture exactly how he would act. I would love to talk theology with Shepherd Book, but if Kaylee Frye came in I would introduce her to the engineers in my office and then find an excuse to slip away. On the other hand, all nine characters are perfectly designed such that if you put any two of them together, their personalities and backstories will immediately start generating plot opportunities. And if you stick any three of them together, you can just sit there and write a whole episode in five minutes based solely on how those three people would mesh or clash when forced to confront some difficult situation together.
In a sense, then, once Whedon had created these people, all he had to do was stick them together on a small ship where they’re always bumping into each other. And in fact, a lot of the really golden moments on the show arise without the need for any outside force like evil governments and backstabbing business partners (although those do keep things interesting).
The first time the crew has dinner together, it quickly becomes apparent that Kaylee has a crush on Simon, the ship’s doctor. She asks what kind of doctor he is and he says he’s a trauma surgeon. Jayne snorts, “Kaylee’s just sorry you ain’t a gynecologist.” Captain Mal: “Jayne, you will keep a civil tongue in that mouth or I will sew it shut, is that understood?” Jayne: “You don’t pay me to talk pretty. Just because Kaylee gets all…” Mal: “Walk away from this table. Right now.” Silence. Jayne is a violent man – that’s why he’s on the crew, because he likes to fight and he isn’t too scrupulous about the when, where and who – and no one is sure what he’ll do. But after a moment he gets up, slops an extra helping of potatoes onto his plate and stomps off to his quarters.
Simon: “What do you pay him for?” Mal: “What?” Simon: “I was just wondering what his job on the ship is.” Mal: “Public relations.”
These people haven’t known each other an hour, and already they’re off to the races.
Of course, I’m not saying this is the only reason Firefly is the greatest show ever. The dialogue is top-notch, the directors keep things pitched just right between comedy and drama, the cinemetography is boldly innovative (in a good way), and things are set up so that over time the crew is gradually being set on a collision course with that tyrannical government – adding just the right level of epic struggle to what is essentially an ensemble drama.
The Fox network infamously screwed everything up because some empty suit – or, more precisely, a suit that should have been empty – didn’t like the lack of lasers and explosions in the pilot. So the second episode was aired first and the pilot wasn’t aired until halfway through the season. Way to start the series off on the right foot! The show never found an audience beyond the Joss Whedon fan core, and was cancelled. But that’s the way things go in a spoiled world.
Fox retained the TV rights and wouldn’t let Whedon take the series elsewhere at a price that other networks were willing to pay. Great story: Somebody asked Whedon at a convention whether he had talked to the Sci-Fi network. This was just after Sci-Fi had cancelled the incomparable Farscape while retaining that show with the real-life “psychic” – not a fictional show about a psychic but an actual con artist playing his cruel hoax for a studio audience – and other, similarly un-sci-fi fare. Whedon responded that he had called the Sci-Fi Network about Firefly but they had told him it was too science-fictiony for them.
Whedon somehow managed to persuade Universal (bless them!) to make a movie, Serenity. The movie isn’t as good as the show – there are just too many difficult balancing acts going on, as Whedon tries to make things accessible to newcomers while providing big payoffs to fans of the show, and also tries to get through the entire epic confrontation with the government that he had planned for the show’s finale, and resolve all the interpersonal plotlines as well. But saying that it’s not as good as the greatest TV series of all time is not saying much against it – it’s still very good.
Unfortunately, the movie opened in the low-traffic month of September, opposite some trifle starring Jessica Alba – prominently featured in a bikini in all the publicity. (On opening day Whedon was telling interviewers: “I’ve seen that other movie. The ads are a total fraud. She wears a parka the whole time.”) Once again, Firefly just couldn’t find its audience.
Of course, as I’ve recently observed, artistic excellence isn’t subject to democracy. It’s just sad that the mass audience never got to experience the greatest TV show in history. But, like I said, it’s a spoiled world. And thanks to the miracle of technology, the show lives forever on DVD, or you can watch the whole series and the movie for free on Hulu. This is why God made the Internet.