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A Bright Center to the Universe : Taking a Second Look at Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Sunday 21 November 2010, by Webmaster

If you’re a regular reader here at Wonders and you’re familiar at all with any of the pieces I’ve written before, then you probably know a handful of things about me– that Heaven’s Gate is my second favorite film; that I consider game-design a valid form of criticism, cinematic or otherwise; that I’m a huge fan of Star Wars and George Lucas in general; and that I more or less can’t stand the works of Joss Whedon. It’s those two last points that come into stark relief when I chose to re-examine Firefly, his first abortive attempt at television sci-fi and a classic example of a show whose cult-popularity runs in direct proportion with the degree to which its network failed to understand it. Like Twin Peaks two decades ago and Jericho from the past ten years, Whedon’s tale of space-cowboys on the run from Johnny Law only lived and breathed on the air for a short while before an untimely cancellation, only to finally find its key demographic in its eventual DVD release and a resurrection of sorts in the form of a follow-up motion picture, Serenity.

I missed the program entirely during its ever-so-short stay on the Fox line-up (one could say the title Whedon chose was apt, as the series’ lifespan was only marginally longer than an actual lightning bug) and wasn’t too motivated to check it out later, after hearing it came from the guy who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a combination of comic-book camp and 90210-soap that just ain’t my thing). Furthermore, whenever I got into conversations with devoted fans of the show (who took to calling themselves “Browncoats”, after the rebel heroes of the series itself), I couldn’t help but feel that I was constantly being put on the spot to declare an affiliation in what they viewed was some kind of ongoing struggle against the monolithic corporation that had snuffed out the life of their beloved program. It didn’t help matters that the same corporation was also making billions for releasing Lucas’ new Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, a set of films that most Browncoats hated for any number of reasons, not the least of which being their creator’s long-known tin ear for dialogue, as opposed to the “gift” for talkative characters that Whedon has shown.That the same media conglomerate that had greenlit one ambitious, sprawling space-opera franchise in the movies had now decided to cancel another one on television barely into its first year only added insult to injury.

Considering that I was (and remain) a die-hard fan of the Prequels, it always turned into some kind of conflict between those two pieces of science-fiction, and between their creators in general. To this day, if you were to ask me which one I thought was better, I would say the newer Star Wars films without any hesitation. But I will admit that back then, I gave Firefly a dreadfully short shrift– when finally viewed outside of the polarizing discourse of internet fanaticism, it is not only a surprisingly good piece of science-fiction, but a number of other things as well. It’s evidence of Whedon’s growing talents both with the written word and behind the camera as director and showrunner for the series, proving that he can write dialogue that doesn’t have to be peppered with 20th century pop-culture references every other word and that he’s capable of just as much strong visual, even silent storytelling. It’s a breath of fresh air for a genre that has been more or less stagnant between the poles of gee-whiz science fantasy adventures and increasingly dark, bleak visions of dystopian futures. Most of all, however, it may just be the most interesting cinematic commentary of George Lucas’ Star Wars films, and those of the Prequel Trilogy especially (or at least the ones that came out during production). If Godard was right when he said that the best way to critique a film is to make one of your own, then Firefly extends it to a larger canvas of serial storytelling

But enough preamble. Here’s how it is: far into the future “after the Earth got used up” and humanity migrates to a new galaxy to terraform new planets for life, Malcolm Reynolds captains the Serenity, a small “Firefly” class starship whose outdated systems and nook-and-cranny bulk make it a perfect choice for the smuggling, robberies and other assorted illegal activities that make up Reynolds’ bread and butter. Crewed by veterans of a failed rebellion to keep all the new planets from centralizing under the federal government of the Alliance, the Serenity becomes home to pretty much any brand of wayfarer possible who needs to stay out of the powers-that-be– a rich doctor who freed his prodigy sister from an government laboratory where she was being turned into a psychic soldier; a kindly old preacher who seems to know just a little bit too much about crime for his profession; and a classy prostitute whose status in high society is far more respectable than any of them could ever hope to be. With enemies like Alliance agents, rival criminals and worst of all, the zombie-like Reavers– “men who went mad on the edge of space”– the crew and passengers of the Serenity aren’t out to start a revolution, get rich quick or carve out a chunk of the ‘Verse to conquer and rule as their own. All they want to do is stay alive, and stay one step ahead of everybody else, preferably in that order.

On the surface, it pretty much sounds like the plot of every single space-opera since the advent of Star Wars (or even before it, as well), but what Whedon does not simply regurgitate the same old dominant strains in science-fiction for the past thirty-odd years. Instead, he does something close to what Lucas managed back in ’77, resurrecting the substance and style of the originals and holding up its elements both to analyze them from an intellectual standpoint, and to provide some good old fashioned fun. It’s a trait that was present throughout Buffy, where at times wildly different, at times polar-opposite characters could sound as though they were mouthpieces for a single pop-culture addict, but here Whedon is able to express homage outside of mere dialogue and put it concretely into his story’s action and visualization. The world of Firefly is one that has fully digested the better part of three decades’ worth of science-fiction in films, television, comic-books, literature, and video-games. With its layered mis-en-scene, dystopian atmosphere and global-cultural mix (especially its blend of Mandarin dialect and profanity into everyday English) it evokes the neo-noir feeling of Blade Runner (indeed, if it weren’t for the lack of Replicants, this maybe what that film’s “off-world” civilization would look like). With its motley crew of offbeat criminals and escaped human lab-rats drifting in outer-space bouncing from heist to heist like a band on the road looking for gigs, it carries the jazzy, improvizational flavor of anime like Cowboy Bebop and Outlaw Star. With the lack of any alien life, strict adherence to scientific-fact (no sound in the vacuum, everybody wears space-suits outside), it recalls the work of hard sci-fi writers like Issac Asimov, Richard Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card (who would count himself among the show’s own fans).

Most of all, however, with its underdog rebels, oppressive government stormtroopers and charismatic cowboy in charge, it stands as an obvious, confident and sometimes defiant answer to the Star Wars saga, at times specifically responding to the Prequel Trilogy especially in its portrayal of a galaxy divided by class into two halves– a privileged few of central capital planets where civilization has blossomed with prosperity, luxury and ease, and the outer-rim systems where settlers struggle to make ends meet, with little or no help from a corrupt, bureaucratic government. Starting with 1999′s The Phantom Menace, Lucas charted the course of his new trilogy to detail the fall of his Galactic Republic as a slow, gradual decline into the dictatorial reign of the Evil Empire, illustrating how a politician like Palpatine could rise to absolute power through a series of carefully staged proxy-wars, an increasing erosion of civil-liberties in the names of security and military-industry and the betrayal and scapegoating of one-time heroes into a propaganda machine’s hated enemies. While that somewhat stale-sounding narrative managed to provide enough thrills, excitement and wonder for the majority of filmgoers who pushed TPM and the subsequent Prequels into the box-office stratosphere, there remained a vocal contingent of old-fans who longed for the simple good-and-evil Manichean conflict of the originals, and the uncomplicated charm of the actors they’d grown up with years before, and judging from the occasional joke on Buffy or the odd interview here and there, one might suspect that’s squarely where Whedon himself would’ve fallen.

What’s present in Firefly, however, shows us something else– instead of simply disdaining any and all artifacts from the newer Star Wars films and embracing the older films as a primary cinematic influence, Whedon picks up key aspects from both and holds them up as objects of inspection and inspiration alike. While his heroes are primarily tied to the characterizations of the Original Trilogy– hard hewn, plain speaking outlaws, rebels and team-oriented individualists– the world which they occupy bears more and more resemblance to the heavily stylized and socially mannered world of the Prequels. From the scrap-heap underclass look of its criminal sectors to the gleaming, elegant design of its posh uppercrust sectors, Whedon’s ‘Verse is one that borrows heavily from The Phantom Menace‘s peerless mix of art-deco cityscapes, belle epoque courtyards and classic Italianate architecture for a look of the future that bears striking similarity to fairy-tale visions of the past. Most of the time he associates the Prequel’s influence with the forces of the Alliance, which evokes the Original Trilogy’s heroic vanguard in name but resembles the Galactic Republic of the newer films in their casual inability, or unwillingness, to get anything done. Here, Whedon can be seen nodding his head in agreement to Lucas, who made the Republic’s bureaucratic laziness a key point in TPM, both in the larger plot of Naboo’s invasion by the capitalistic Trade Federation and in the smaller, more intimately scaled story of young Anakin’s childhood as a slave on Tatooine. “The Republic doesn’t exist out here,” is the only answer the boy’s virgin mother can muster up when asked about anti-slavery laws by the idealistic Padme (our Hidden Fortress-style Queen in disguise, slumming it with the Skywalkers), and the same could easily be said of the Alliance. It wasn’t evil, necessarily– it just put up too much red-tape to do any good.

If Whedon is sometime parroting Lucas’ anti-bureaucratic message throughout the series, however, it must be said that in absorbing the social and political content from the newer Star Wars trilogy, he is able to articulate their substance with a clearer, stronger brand of dramatic urgency than was present in the Prequels in all but their most epic moments of mythic iconicism. Instead of merely allowing so much of the essential intrigue express itself through stilted sequences of high-speech and production design, Whedon puts his class conflicts first and foremost in the narrative movement itself, allowing everything that Lucas was content to bubble subtly under the surface come surging out to the viewer, clear as day. Though blinded by conspiratorial wool pulled over their eyes, most of the Prequel’s heroes of priestly Jedi Knights and aristocratic Senators are fighting for a status-quo in the death throes of a transition into despotism; whereas the crew of the Serenity, more akin to the protagonists of the Original Trilogy, are more often than not fighting against the establishment, or at least doing their best to subvert it while not getting caught. But Lucas was playing a meta-game, comparing and contrasting the archetypes of his own cinematic impact from the 70′s and 80′s, expecting audiences to remember the paths taken by the heroes of future-past while while watching their history-yet-to-come unfold– a long-run gambit that certainly paid off in the final score, but not without a fair share of Monday morning quarterbacking in the meantime. Whedon, on the other hand, has a far simpler, yet by no means easier job of weaving a new serial tapestry with the stuff of his own borrowed yarns.

By following Lucas’ example and climbing up to stand on the shoulders of giants past, he’s able to make Firefly a narrative told with a great deal more immediate impact and quality, even if it is occasionally less ambitious in its own serial quality. A key question when reading the series, however, is whether or not Whedon is in open conflict with the newer Star Wars films, or in a more open dialogue with them. True, most of the Prequel-isms are associated with the dystopian Alliance throughout, but there’s more than enough wickedness to be found on the lower-income side of the spectrum as well. Beyond the mere threat of rival criminal factions and bounty hunters (another artifact lifted from Lucas), Whedon and his team of writers were willing to spread negative depictions amongst many of the same downtrodden settlers and workers that much of the series strove to sympathize. The simple, salt-of-the-terraformed-earth working class heroes who sweated to till the lands and mine the resources of their alien soils could often be a surprisingly ignorant lot, sometimes naive enough to turn a petty thief into a town hero or violent enough to try and burn a girl at the stake for fear of witchcraft. Furthermore, citizens from the Alliance like the Tam siblings, the civilized courtesan Inara (whose culture-clash courtship with Captain Mal sometimes resembled a fanfic romance between Han Solo and Padme Amidala) and the elusive Shepherd Book prove that you could come from the “bright center of the universe” and still wind up becoming a rebel along the way (just like the heroes of the Prequels, in macro-serial vision). “There are heroes on both sides,” as the opening crawl of Revenge of the Sith would eventually read. “Evil is everywhere”.

Indeed, with the florid visuals, political landscape and occasionally mild-mannered heroes, the strongest homages from the Star Wars films tended to arise from the more recent films than what Kevin Smith called the “Holy Trilogy” in Clerks. Truth be told, the main crew of the Serenity resembled less that of the Millennium Falcon and more the wisecracking blue-collar heroes of Ridley Scott and James Cameron’s Alien films (to say nothing of Whedon’s own contribution to that particular franchise in the Jean-Pierre Jeunet directed calamity Alien Resurrection). As such, Firefly can less be seen as a series in open opposition to the Prequels than it is in a heated, at times even passionate debate with it. It’s a creative endeavor that continued in the series’ feature-film continuation, Serenity, where at times Whedon appeared to be following Lucas’ cinematic footsteps so subtly it might well have been unconscious. Take the crucial plot-point of the Miranda, a planet which Captain Mal and his crew visit in order to investigate a settlement that became the birthplace of the Reavers and erased from all record by a shady Alliance cover-up. Not only does it mimic Attack of the Clone‘s plot device of the secret planet Kamino, the origin-world of the cloned Stormtroopers erased from the Jedi archives, but it helps to better illustrate a subtle allusion to the classics of drama and science-fiction in Lucas’ own work by way of extending the cinematic simile. AOTC’s Kamino is a watery planet continually rainswept by constant tempests, while Serenity‘s Miranda is named after the daughter of Prospero, the key role in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play that was famously adapted into a minor modern masterpiece in Forbidden Planet. Both planets are forbidden in sorts, and both feature their own brand of “Monsters From the Id”.

Thus is a powerful connection made between the two franchises by careful mining of science-fiction past and present, acting more in concert with the object of widespread fanboy-derision than against it, helping to dig deep where the Prequels merely scratched the surface and marked the spot with an “X”. In a way, Whedon is following a map of cinematic territory left by Lucas, much in the same way that he and contemporaries like Scorsese and Coppola did so with their own Godardian commentary-films. Just as The Conversation could said to be in dialogue with Antonioni’s Blow Up and Taxi Driver was primarily a response to The Searchers, Firefly was never merely a series made in response to Star Wars as a whole, but specifically to the Prequels, and like the Movie Brats’ own rearticulation of foreign and classic Hollywood fables, Whedon at times was able to express the content of his inspiration in a language far clearer and more direct than his forebear. When Coppola retold Antonioni, he managed to jetison the forced Mod stereotyping and dated spirit throughout to hone in on the universal spirit of paranoia; when Scorsese retold Ford, he threw out all of the nonsensical Western humor and focused on the big city’s own brand of savage sexual exploitation; likewise, when Whedon retold Lucas, he steered past the stilted high-speech and juvenile slapstick in order to hit the marks on their shared obsessions of truth, justice and the ways that business and government pervert both. That’s not to say that one was necessarily better than the other in any case, but rather that each brought out the best qualities in each other.

By viewing the Prequels in the prism of Whedon’s take on them, you can better see the involved socio-political commentary that Lucas intended and appreciate it without the distractions of their dramatic foibles, and by looking at Firefly through the lens of the Prequels it’s easier to look past that series’ own various weaknesses, most of which its Browncoat fans prefer to steadfastly ignore rather than confront head on. While the dialogue he and his team crafts can be entertaining (and thankfully reigned in from the run-on jokiness of Buffy), it is oftentimes rather strained in its combination of Chinese slang and overly quaint 19th century frontiersbabble. Indeed, most of the Western-isms of the show can come off as forced and rather boring after a while (though it does let the show live up to Star Trek‘s self-proclaimed label as “Wagon Train in Space” better than Gene Roddenberry’s program ever did), as does some of its libertarian/objectivist leanings throughout (part of being more plainspoken in its politics than Star Wars means you lose out on the inoffensiveness of allegory). And while the visual design, texture and direction of the show is probably the most beautiful stuff that Whedon has ever been involved in, he still clearly has little idea of how to concieve of, stage or shoot action without making it incomprehensible and unremarkable in any number of ways. He came close in some of the space-combat near the end of Serenity, setting a climactic showdown in the a planet’s cloudy upper-atmosphere, allowing the film to dodge the series’ rule against sound-in-space. But Whedon sabotaged the sequence by redesigning the look of the Alliance crafts into something rather generic compared to their inspired design from the series, a small miracle of sci-fi poetry with battle-ships that looked like clusters of skyscrapers.

Yet even if he quieted his visual voice at that moment, it does nothing to silence the moments of beauty peppered throughout the series at its best moments. Full of plenty of wit and wonder in its use of widescreen scope and genre archetypes, Firefly was a show too light on its zero-gravity feet to ever stand much of a chance on network television for very long. Even if it was guaranteed the briefest of tenures on the air, however, the show itself remains as one of the most eloquent pieces of science-fiction on the small-screen, once you got past its occasionally overwritten scripts. I may not hold Whedon’s show up as high personally as my own preferred canon of space-opera, but it is without a doubt a show worthy of the love and devotion its fans have awarded it for for the eight years since its debut and dismissal, and as a series in dialogue with my own favorite sci-fi adventure from the past decade, I can’t help but be swept up in the enthusiasm every now and again. For whatever qualms I have about its faults, I’ll choose to look at Whedon’s finest thirteen hours of television in the way that I first saw Captain Mal watching that Alliance cruiser in the pilot, its reflection curving over his helmet’s glass like a vision of Manhattan in the mirror of an approaching car’s windshield after passing the toll-booth at George Washington or the Brooklyn Bridge. At that moment, in the dead of space, there was all the same fruitful angst you might find in the bluest tranquilities of Michael Mann’s Los Angeles crime sagas, the barest essences of the most soulful film-noir transposed onto a gritty space-western. Bright lights, big city, and bold outlaws– the stuff that dreams are made of.