While I don’t watch television, I do love catching up on great shows I don’t see in their broadcast run. I was recently pointed at BBC’s Sherlock, a modern retelling of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes. While only three episodes appear per season, and only the first of two seasons is on Netflix, they are 90 minutes an episode. The long episodes and the short season has the effect of completely throwing you off from the conventional story arcs of television and film, and makes the experience of the show refreshingly novel-like. The show is brilliant, thoroughly engrossing. But this article isn’t about Sherlock, it’s about Joss Whedon’s all too brief science fiction show, Firefly.
As a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was very interested to see Firefly when it originally aired in the fall of 2002, back when I did watch broadcast television. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the first episode aired wasn’t the pilot. Instead, the TV network Fox chose to start with the second episode, about a train heist. I thought it was odd, why would people with a spaceship be robbing a train? It just didn’t make sense, and the odd juxtaposition of science fiction and western iconography just threw me off. I wanted hardcore science fiction. Which I later got with my lovely lovely Battlestar Galactica. I watched maybe a couple more episodes and didn’t think about it much.
Until I attended a Wondercon, and Whedon was giving a sneak peek at Serenity, a feature film continuation of the Firefly story. The clip looked interesting. The TV-budget jeep was replaced by a movie-budget hovercraft, and the crew had some Whedonesque, quippy dialogue in a tense robbery scene. But the crowd went apeshit. It was surreal. I wondered if I was missing something. I decided to see the movie, and catch up on the show via Netflix.
That’s when I realized how much of a bad hand the show was dealt by Fox. The pilot episode sets up the characters and setting, and it’s very well done. I’m not sure why Fox didn’t run this first, it would have anchored the show, giving people an understanding what it’s about. With that weird train heist episode, people just didn’t have much to latch onto. And so only 14 episodes were created, with a mere 11 actually airing. But setting all that detail aside, the thing that really surprised me was how well-written the characters are. Firefly isn’t a space western comedy, it’s about loyalty, meaning, compassion, and trust, and it just so happens to have pistols, spaceships, and humor.
The movie was big. Tied up most loose ends. And had an immense amount of action. And special effects. It did what big summer movies are supposed to do, which is show the money onscreen. I don’t recall having much of an opinion on it, other than it seemed off somehow.
Jumpcut to two months ago. I had a spare 2 hours, and wanted to watch something with big sci-fi effects. I had seen everything I had more than twice, although Serenity was still in the shrink-wrap. I took it out and watched it. I still felt it was off. Something not right. Still forgettable. Big and lavish yes, but something decidedly jarring. For science, I bought the Firefly Season 1 set this time, and re-watched it in spare moments. I just finished watching the last episode. And I have my dawning realization. The movie lacked heart. SPOILER. Plus it had unnecessary cast kill-offs, which didn’t seem at all necessary. It’s like everyone is trying to take a page from the Star Trek II handbook. Just let them live, we love them! It’s not Shakespeare.
Although it is a tragedy. The lack of heart is glaring. Sure, it’s great to see Malcolm Reynolds pull off an amazing battle sequence, but as a full-fledged Firefly fan, as of 30 minutes ago, I wanted more. The thing that was just not addressed well was the tense but obvious magnetic friction between Mal and Inara. That seemed to take a backseat to River going Terminator, and solving the Reaver riddle. Which are neat to see explained, but not the payoff this newly-minted Firefly fan wanted.
In the spirit of the Monday morning quarterbacking so popular these days, which is apparently a phrase that refers to second-guessing the hard work of others after they’ve done something nearly impossible but faltered slightly, here’s what I would have preferred. Instead of solving the River/Reaver subplots, the movie should have had Mal rescue Inara from a Reaver hidden fortress, having to use anything at his disposal to accomplish that. A love story was needed here. Perhaps not on a Titanic scale, but certainly more on an Abyss or an Avatar scale. And I’m a man saying this. I can only imagine how annoyed the more unisex Whedon fan base must have been seeing Inara firing a machine gun as one of the crew, instead of the driving tension from the show getting a huge payoff, front and center.
Hopefully Whedon will return to Firefly one day and try to make the rest of us saps happy.
SF: Sherlock is incredible. It also got me into Downton Abbey – I guess I have a thing for Brits. As for Firefly, I’m still too emotional to talk about it. Ending that show was a travesty and Murdoch will pay, in this life or the next.