Aug 12, 2012

All Things Firefly

Firefly cast

First of all, many thanks to everyone who responded to my call for help last week. Some of you apologised for the fact that your comments weren’t exactly questions, but there’s absolutely nothing to be sorry about – you gave me plenty to think about and helped me find an angle, which is exactly what I was hoping for. To make things easier, I divided your comments by topic and organised this post accordingly. Needless to say, there will be many spoilers for the series and movie.

  • Worldbuilding and genre mishmash

  • C.B. James: [Firefly] is really a western set in the future. I’m also a fan of westerns. One thing that sets it apart is that it’s openly a western while so many other space/future science fiction hides the fact that their plot is essentially a western.

    Yes, I did love the way the series unabashedly mixed elements of the western and science fiction. But I actually think this kind of thing has been around for a while – The Chaos Walking series and Blood Red Road are more recent than Firefly, but both Moira Young and Patrick Ness have cited Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, which was first published in the 80’s, as an influence. I’ve also heard that Stephen King’s Dark Tower series has a similar kind of feel, and the Wikipedia page on the science fiction western gives several examples dating back to the 1960’s.

    Of course, what each story does with the combination of genres is what makes it unique, and Firefly handles it really well. One thing I found particularly interesting was the absence of aliens in the Firefly universe. Wherever you go, the planets are inhabited by humans. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good aliens story, but the focus on humans makes for a different kind of dynamics – even the Reavers turn out to be entirely human (and I love that we got their backstory in Serenity, because I’m not too fond of the whole “they’re just bad, mmmkay?” explanations for scary villains). It would be very easy to tell a clumsy and heavy-handed final frontier story where the relationship between other sentient species and human beings was a stand-in for race dynamics (not that good stories with this premise can’t be told, but it’s very easy to mess them up). But Firefly went for something different, and I appreciate that.

    Other than the absence of non-human sentient species, what makes Firefly different is the fact that it’s set in a universe where Chinese and Western cultures have merged to create something unique. It’s also interesting that this is a universe where cultural fusion doesn’t replace multiculturalism, but rather coexists with it: the Sino-American influence is everywhere, but the planets Serenity visits still retain their own local identity. Complete uniformity is what the Alliance wants, and this is part of why we side with the people who resist them.

    So, I love the fact that the series didn’t present cultural fusion as a scary thing that results in chaos or as identity erasure, but xkcd’s Well of Uncomfortable Truths is of course spot on: there are huge problems with presenting an Asian-inspired universe but erasing actual Asian people from it. The Racebending post “Frustrations of an Asian-American Whedonite” addresses these issues much better than I ever could.

  • Female Representation, Sexuality, and the Companions

  • Clare: Well, obviously, there’s the race and worldbuilding issue, which I’m sure you have some thoughts on, but I would love to hear your thoughts on the representation of women in the series. Kaylee has always struck me as a particularly well-rounded female character; she’s a great engineer, the only time her expressions of sexual desire are looked at askance is when Mal thinks it’s a bit too personal for him to hear, and she’s nice. I’ve read a lot of dissection of River (especially in terms of Summer Glau’s career), but not much of Kaylee.

    I’m so glad you asked about Kaylee – she’s my absolute favourite character for many of the reasons you mention. She’s kind and considerate, fun to be around, excellent at her job (which is, interestingly, a traditionally masculine one), and allowed to be sexual being without there being any negative repercussion. And did I mention freaking adorable?

    I agree that the scene where she expresses her sexual frustration and Mal is all “Argh, don’t tell me that!” was about it being TMI rather than about any weirdness surrounding female sexuality. And I love, love, love the flashback scene in “Out of Gas” where we see how she first joined the crew. Mal overhears her having loud sex with their current mechanic in the engine room, and then look and behold, she turns out to be much more competent than he is and saves the day. The reason why I liked that scene so much is that we’ve seen countless scenes of the sort where the women involved in the loud and inappropriate workplace sex are complete nonentities – they have no name, no personality, no role in the narrative but to create an awkward/humorous situation for their male partner or to titillate viewers. But Kaylee turns out to be an actual person – it’s her male partner who exits the story at that point.

    Not only that, but she’s completely unfazed and unapologetic: she knows she’s an adult woman who has nothing to apologise for. I mentioned before that I was uncomfortable with the fact that Buffy often linked sexual forwardness with being “bad” and with deadly consequences, but Kaylee was a wonderful departure from that.

    Another Kaylee moment I adored: her “Hey you” when Inara first enters the scene in the pilot episode. That moment immediately told me that Firefly was going to be something special. The way they greet and smile at each other is so full of warmth – it signals that there’s a meaningful connection between these two women, that they matter to each other, that their relationship is as important as any relationship between men. I also love that Kaylee and River become friends, and that she is almost as important as Simon in bringing River back from the dark place where her traumatic experiences put her.

    Jeanne: I’d be interested in what you think of the whole companion issue. I think Inara is one of the most graceful characters ever, and her relationship with Mal is a rare (and wonderful) kind of stumbling upon.

    Jodie: Mal and Inara - feelings??! Also how do you feel about Whedon’s handling of Inara’s role as a Companion considering his dicey ideas on sexuality in earlier Buffy series? Improvements noted? Concerns?

    First of all: I absolutely loved Inara, and I love that Jeanne describes her as graceful – so well put. The fact that Companions (who, as we soon find out, are sex workers) are respectable in the Firefly universe was an interesting subversion. We’re told that they’re completely in control of their work, but I immediately wondered whether we should take this information at face value. In “Shindig”, we see Inara with an unpleasant client who treats her as a possession, but she does have the power to refuse to ever see him again. But what we later find out, specifically in “Heart of Gold”, is that although sex work is not stigmatised in itself, there’s a myriad of class issues surrounding it. When Mal wants to belittle Inara, he calls her a whore; as the series progressed I realised that this wasn’t a slur so much because being paid for sex was frowned upon, but because a “whore” is not a high-end sex worker in the same way a Companion is.

    I think there are definite improvements on how early Buffy presents sexuality, but there’s also so much the series didn’t have room to explore. I’d love to see the class/economic power angle they hint at in the second to last episode expanded upon; I’d love to see more on the potential limitations of the power Companions have; I’d love to learn if what’s at the heart of Mal’s ambiguity towards Inara’s occupation is simply jealousy or something more; I’d love to see the relationship between a Companion’s prestige and their connection with the Alliance and complicity in its policies addressed. Who knows how many of these things they’d have gotten around to if the series hadn’t been cancelled?

    One thing I was less than crazy about, though, was the way Inara’s time with a female client was used for titillation in “Trash”. It was very male gazey and the complete opposite of everything Tara and Willow were in Buffy. Definitely not an improvement in this case.

    On Mal and Inara: I loved their verbal sparring and the obvious (to everyone but them) affection behind it; I loved that there was no obvious power deferential between them; I love the way they slowly come to terms with their feelings for each other. I wish we could have actually seen them together, but the “I don’t know” at the end of Serenity (so charged with possibilities!) was actually really satisfying.

    Lastly, a few words on female representation in the series in general: I think that having many different women on the cast goes a long way towards averting any potential problems by ensuring that none of their individual traits can be read as representing all women. So hooray for Inara, Zoe, Kaylee, River, and even YoSaffBridge and Nandi. They’re all allowed to simply be themselves, and that’s a wonderful thing.

  • Other characters

  • Clare: Also, your feelings on the Washburnes, because oh, Wash and Zoe.

    Zoe! Wash! Why couldn’t they have been happy forever? (Because this is Joss “Kill Everyone!” Whedon we’re talking about, of course. Not that I have recently finished Angel and am extremely bitter about certain happenings or anything. Nope, not one bit.) I loved their relationship so much: again, Zoe is allowed to be unapologetically sexual (“I need this man to take all my clothes of”), but there’s more to them than that: they respect and appreciate each other, and they treat each other as equals.

    In the episode “War Stories”, it surfaces that Wash is actually jealous of Zoe’s relationship with Mal. This could have been a difficult episode, but I really liked how they handled it. I have a huge problem with how jealousy is usually portrayed in stories: I think it’s only human to feel insecure and to irrationally worry that your significant other’s bond with someone else lessens the bond they have with you, but I really dislike that jealousy is normally presented as righteous. The onus is rarely on the person dealing with those difficult feelings to talk through things and come to terms with them, but rather on the person they love to change their behaviour so that they have no cause to feel jealous any longer. It should go without saying that jealousy doesn’t necessarily signal that something bad is being done to you; only that you have some feelings you probably should talk to your partner about.

    “War Stories” ends with friendly mockery (Zoe’s “Take me, sir. Take me hard.” completely cracked me up), not with Zoe and Mal being forced to change the dynamics of their friendship to appease Wash. It’s Wash who has to do the work of processing his feelings, not his wife and mutual friend who have to limit their behaviour. That was a breath of fresh air, and it made me incredibly happy.

    Heather: I’d love your thoughts on religion and Shepherd Book, one of my favorite characters!

    I’m the worst possible person to discuss the representation of religion in the series – not because I think atheists should just shut up about religion, but because I personally am pretty ignorant about it. But I loved that the show showed believers and non-believers coexisting happily, and I really liked Shepherd Book as well. The fact that he didn’t judge Inara in the pilot immediately endeared him to me. One thing that makes me sad is that we never really found out what his backstory was. There are several hints that there’s more to him than meets the eye, and yet none of it was ever really resolved.

    Chris: River, go! :p I would just love to hear your thoughts on her.

    River was… not exactly my least favourite character, because I liked her just fine as an individual, but certainly the character I had the most problems with. I couldn’t always get behind how the narrative treated her: the child prodigy angle, the bodily invasion resulting in superpowers, the uncomfortable portrayal of her mental illness, the fact that she’s a cipher for so much of the series. When we learn about the Tams’ past, it’s almost always from Simon’s perspective. Except for one scene in the movie, we don’t know what River’s life was like for her before she was experimented on; we only know how her brother sees her. Of all the female characters in Firefly, she seems to me the one with the least agency and depth – she’s too much of a plot point to ever really become a person. Of course, I’d never argue that this is the only way to read her. If anyone has other thoughts they’d like to share, I’d really love to hear them.

    Jodie: No one has mentioned Jayne and he is one of my favourites so thoughts on his character would be great. He’s very much from the Spike character type tray, but I felt like because Spike had come before him he almost started off automatically darker.

    Ah, Jayne, or as I like to call him, the resident creep :P Jayne wasn’t as interesting as Spike, but then again they didn’t have anywhere near as much time to develop him. Jayne often creeped me out, but I realise that was pretty much the point. I thought he was a great character, actually: he’s often icky, but he’s also ultimately sympathetic. I really like how the series makes us confront the fact that guys who are sexist and say or do questionable things are not monsters or bogeymen, but complicated human beings. They’re not “them”, they’re us.

  • Firefly vs Buffy

  • Amy: does it compare with Buffy to you? Do you think if it had been allowed to continue you’d like it better?

    Argh, I don’t know! I kind of want to say “No, I could never love anything more than Buffy!”, but to be honest I liked it infinitely more than Buffy fourteen episodes in. The beginning was a lot stronger, and who knows where it would have gone given time? I’m much more attached to Buffy’s characters because I spent much longer with them, but I love the ones in Firefly more than I thought would be possible after a half season.

    Jenny: I would like to know the following: How do you feel about the way the Firefly ensemble makes a family together, and how that compares to the way the Buffy ensemble does? On Firefly they’re actually completely isolated from anything external to their spaceship, for most of the show’s run – do you think that has a significant impact on the ensemble dynamic?

    The fact that they’re stuck together definitely changes the dynamics. Buffy’s friends could have walked away at any point, but they chose to stay and fight by her side. Mal’s crew could technically leave too, but we’re shown again and again that it’s a pretty unpleasant universe out there and that none of them have much waiting for them outside. They’re all lost, and Mal gives them a home in Serenity. You’d think that the deliberate choice to stay would make the ties in Buffy more convincing, but I didn’t actually think that was the case. In Firefly they were thrown together, sure, but their affection for each other is convincing. Of course, there are exceptions like Jayne and… well, pretty much everyone, but the fact that they weren’t all “Wheee, we all love each other” like the Scoobies (I say this with great affection, of course) made things interesting. If the series hadn’t been cancelled, we’d probably have learned more about why each person chose to stay and what they had come to mean for each other, and I bet it would have been awesome. Insert big sigh here.

  • Favourite episodes

  • Alex: What was you favorite episode? Mine were Jaynestown for the laugh and Out of Gas for everything.

    Probably “War Stories” and “Heart of Gold”, for all the reasons I mentioned above. But the ones you picked were excellent too. There wasn’t a single episode I didn’t like, I don’t think.

  • Life after Firefly

  • Jodie: Are you making any headcanon predictions for where the program would have gone if it’d continued?

    Alex: Care to guess on the possible story arch of your favorite characters? Whedon hinted at Inara’s future, how she was sick and dying of it (we see her with a syringe at some point).

    Argh! This almost makes me glad (okay, not really) that the series ended when it did – I’d have been seriously angry if they’d killed Inara. Everything I was saying earlier about how sexual women aren’t killed or otherwise punished would have gone down the drain – and the pattern is especially troubling if we consider that Nandi dies.

    So, I’m just going to ignore Whedon completely and make up my own future for these characters:
    • Inara and Mal start a relationship, but that doesn’t mean it’s all puppies and butterflies – Inara doesn’t give up her work, we dig deeper into Mal’s ambiguity about it, and their storyline allows the series to explore themes of trust and intimacy.

    • River replaces Wash as a pilot and she and Zoe develop a friendship (to make up for their complete lack of interaction in the actual series).

    • Kaylee and Simon continue to be adorable together, and she helps him let go of his tendency to be an overprotective big brother.

    • The release of the video about Miranda at the end of Serenity weakens the Alliance’s political hold, but it doesn’t destroy it completely. They make up a cover story and some planets side with them. The universe becomes an even messier and politically complex place that the characters have to learn to navigate. There’s also a new surge in Browncoat activity, and we learn more about their political views and motivations.
    *Sigh* it would have been great, wouldn’t it?

  • Captain Swoony McTightpants

  • Jodie: Finally, is Nathan Fillion your type of guy *wink*? Eventually we will find common actor ground Ana, maybe it will be on this show :D

    Not really, no. Sorry! Simon was cute, though :P


    1. Firefly is just great! Glad you enjoyed it.

      I always found the relationship between Mal and Book a fascinating one. Here were two men, both who went through life changing events and were forced to re-evaluate their lives. Book left the world and became religous. Yes, we don't know exactly what he went through, but I would guess it was similar to the Operative's experiences.

      And Mal, he believed, hard, in God and the browncoat cause. And he lost everything when the war ended. Lost his faith. Lost his way in the world.

      And they end up together, and I just love their interactions.

      Okay, I love *all* the characters on Firefly and all their interactions :)

    2. Excellent post! I love the fact that it was framed as a discussion with readers and was so multi-faceted.

      I am not a religious person either, but I loved the fact that this series didn't shy away from the subject. And while it wasn't a big topic in the series, it was handled with some complexity. Like Mal's shunning his faith (in the opening battle scene we see him kiss the cross that hangs around his neck -- later "you're welcome on this ship, but your god ain't") and Book's pragmatic faith (the bible is clear about murder but rather fuzzy on the subject of kneecaps). I also enjoyed the conversation between the shepherd and River when River decided to "fix" his bible.

      Book was definitely one of my favorite characters, and -- like you -- one of my big disappointments was that we didn't get his back story. It was obviously an interesting one!

      My favorite thing about the show, along with the world building, was definitely the dynamics among the group.

      BTW, there are graphic novels based on this series and movie, and one of them kind of fills in the gap between the Firefly series and Serenity. My husband and I really enjoyed them.

    3. Ah, I love Kaylee too. My favorite flashback in "Out of Gas" is hers, for all the reasons you say. Well, those and that moment when Kaylee says she's never been up in a spaceship before and Mal says, "Wanna?", and just the way they look at each other in the little conversation that follows. Totally my favorite part of the whole series AND such a good piece of emotional backstory. No wonder those two are so crazy about each other.

      Also, I love what you say about the ensembles in this show vs. Buffy. Even Jayne is clearly very fond of people on the ship -- I always think of that part where you see him kneeling down watching Simon work on Kaylee in the operating room in the pilot. (That happened, right? I didn't imagine that.) But I do think that having the group not be all crazy about each other all the time creates a lot of interesting dynamics, and I so much regret the show's cancellation, because it would have been awesome to see some of those relationships explored further (or at all, in some cases).

    4. I'm exactly with you on Book. I soooooo wish we'd gotten to see his backstory, it's one of my biggest disappointments in the show's premature end.

      Like the previous commenters have mentioned, I'd love to know about his live before becoming a shepherd, but I'd also really like to see why he left the ... Abbey? (Maybe it's time for a re-watch.)

    5. This was so much fun to read, Ana! You've given a lot of thought to why you like Firefly so much. I love it for the cohesion in he characters, and the story-telling - always big for me, does the show move forward, is their direction in the stories, do the characters evolve or learn from their mistakes? And we do with Firefly. Because it's Joss at the wheel....

      I really like the points you make about the women and the various roles they are allowed to play here. This is a western that is futuristic just for that!

      I think one reason I have trouble with liking River is that she is seldom spontaneously warm or open and rarely smiles (if ever). It's difficult to like a character who is closed off from everything and everyone, even though I know she is damaged. I do find her terrifically fascinating, and desperately wish we could have seen her having to really function in the normal world. I agree - Kaylee is adorable, Zoe is awesome and loyal and smart, and Inara is warm and feminine and sexy and smart. All in all sex and women are used positively here, an amazing facet for a tv show.

      Most of all I like Mel.....he does appeal to me! Though Simon is also very cute and as honourable in his way as Mel is.

    6. Ok based on that I think we will have more hot guy interest in common in Dr Who (adorable quirky, but serious sometimes dudes with a lower body mass). Not that I am encouraging you to watch Dr Who (but c'mon you must be a little curious right?).

      'Inara doesn’t give up her work, we dig deeper into Mal’s ambiguity about it,' - this is excellent, want this.

      I realy enjoyed this post and it made me want to watch Firefly again, because there's so much I just didn't notice that you picked up on (did not get the Asian influences on the world buidling at all). Also you remnded me how much I love Kaylee, that flashback really is the best.

    7. About the Western influence -
      Heinlein's 1955 Tunnel in the Sky, still one of my favorites, makes the economic case for landing colonists on distant, rarely contacted planets with horses rather than automotive vehicles.
      Word is that Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as Wagon Train to the Stars. For you young uns, Wagon Train was a popular TV show in the days of black and white.)

    8. Fence: The cast's interactions were the best! I loved how Mal and Book obviously respected each other despite their differences.

      Stephanie Ward: I love your comment! I completely missed that about Mal kissing the cross in the pilot, but it adds so much to his relationship with religion and the way he and Book interact. And the scenes with Book and River are just wonderful. Thanks for the tip about the graphic novels! I knew they existed, but not that some were set between the series and the movies. That means we get more Wash, yay!

      Jenny: Yes, the "Wanna?" is so so wonderful too! And yes, that did happen! I was worried that Kaylee wasn't going to make it past the pilot for a second there, and also surprised at how much it upset me. I fell in love with her right away.

      Hannah: I know, right? I bet his story would have been awesome.

      Susan: Yes, I agree about River - it's hard for me to ever truly believe characters that are always solemn and humourless like that (I had trouble with Connor in Angel for the same reason). I mean, I get that she's traumatised, but I wish she wasn't solely her trauma. We get little glimpses of the person she is beyond it (I particulatly liked her interactions with Kaylee and Book), but they were never developed enough to satisfy me.

      Jodie: Yes, I like the dorky/adorable kind of guy the best :D I AM curious about Dr Who, but also wary because of the awfulness you and Phoebe North hinted at... maybe one day!

      Christy: I had a feeling someone well-versed in older science fiction would be able to come up with plenty of examples!

    9. I am so glad you enjoyed Firefly! I have only actually watched it all the way through once, but I really should get back to it...

      (Did you ever watch Teen Wolf? I am afraid you are done and I am still waiting to hear back from you on episode 1... Maybe I should have emailed this!)

    10. My favorite episode is Our Mrs. Reynolds. TV just doesn't get any better than that.

    11. Dr Who tangent time! If you don't mind skipping around I can guide you through some of the awfulness. I recommend you watch two very particuar parts with Tennant as the Dr and two different companions (Martha in S3 and Donna in Christmas special 'The Runaway Bride' then S4) unless you can handle tragedy and then you can start with the Rose episodes in S1/S2 (weeps). Then you stop before the program goes off the rails and messes with Donna (last 2 eps of S4).To avoid the largest awfulness avoid any Matt Smith as Dr eps (sad because he is lovely and the Ponds are lovely and River Song, but ugh so much awful I almost stopped watching).

    12. Ok first, I'm so sorry I didn't respond to your early post asking for questions. I got so behind on my commenting, but I love all the questions others asked!

      About the Reavers, I was thrilled that we got their back story. Like you said, I needed to know why they were bad and the answer was so profound!

      Kaylee was such a wonderful character. I love how Joss really creates women who can be both femine and powerful and intelligent. They don't have to be sexy and dumb OR smart and ugly. So many other shows think it has to be one or the other. Zoe and Inara were both such different women, but equally intelligent and strong in their own ways.

      Wash at the end of Serenity, broke my heart.

      I actually watched all of Firefly and Serenity beefore ever eatching Buffy, so I love it more. But I don't know how I would feel if I'd watched Buffy first.

      p.s. I adore Doctor Who and I have a feeling you would love it too. If you ever start I would recommend watching the Season 1 reboot that aired in 2005 and working through to the current season. They are brilliant!

    13. I find Firefly so easy to like. Like you, I immediately fell in love with the character of Kaylee - that moment where she persuades Shepherd Book that he wants to ride in Firefly stands out.

      Rewatching Firefly (and Serenity), I have come to believe that the show is as much about Simon's story arc as Mal's (who is ostensibly the main character if there is one). That is why Ariel is one of my favorite episodes. First, they actually have a successful heist and second, you get to see Simon at the top of his game.

      Like you, I wish River was less of a cipher but I do enjoy the glimpses we get of her humor and snarkiness, not only with Kaylee and Book, but with her brother. ("I threw up in your bed." "Yep, definitely my sister.")

      I have some problems with Serenity the movie, not the least of which is the killing off of major characters, but also because they reset the relationship between the Tams and the rest of the crew back to about what it was like in the beginning of the show. I get that this was for dramatic effect, especially for people unfamiliar with the show, but I was annoyed by it.

    14. Kelly: As I told you in my e-mail, Angel took over my life, but I'll get to it very soon.

      Jeanne: That was an excellent one too!

      Jodie: Thank you for the tips!

      Melissa: I love how Kaylee and Zoe and Inara challenge all those silly dichotomies. As for Doctor Who, I promise I'll get to it eventually!

      Christy: "They reset the relationship between the Tams and the rest of the crew back to about what it was like in the beginning of the show. " YES YES YES. My boyfriend and I had this exact same conversation. It bothered me too.

    15. I ve not long signed up to netflix so will be watching the series on there as I never seen it but did love buffy well the first few series ,all the best stu

    16. What a great post! I love Firefly, even more as I didn't expect to, and I agree that the starting of the series is so much stronger than Buffy's (or Angel's). And Im a huge Buffy and Angel fan (the two shows, not their relationship).
      Thanks for this great analysis - and yeah, Kaylee is just amazing. Now you made me want to watch it all again...


    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.