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Firefly - The End of the Whole Mess

Catherine Seipp

Monday 10 July 2006, by Webmaster

Stephen King, Dark Angel, and sci-fi-geek heaven.

“I always drink to world peace,” Andie MacDowell informs Bill Murray reproachfully in Groundhog Day, one of the many small moments that leads the Murray character to become a better man and escape his unexplained time-warp loop. But what if, unbeknownst to you, what you drank actually did lead to world peace? And what if the meddling genius who transformed the world into a nonviolent paradise by putting something in the water lived just long enough after this accomplishment to see the disastrous consequences?

Such is the premise of “The End of the Whole Mess,” a haunting episode in TNT’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes, based on eight Stephen King short stories and premiering July 12. I’m never been a big King fan, but this new series (which has exceptionally fine art direction and, at times, acting) is worth checking out. Not least because its anti-Utopian vision raises an interesting question: Is Stephen King a secret member of the vast-right-wing conspiracy? This cautionary tale about an earnest do-gooder who feels no qualms about removing human free will if it stops people from being “so mean” (a favorite liberal complaint) suggests he might be.

Certainly the story’s pessimism about those who believe this world can and should be made perfect indicates a rather conservative philosophy. The characters in "The End of the Whole Mess" are textbook liberals: The genius’s brother is a successful documentary filmmaker; Dad is a professor with a hobby of playing in a rock band; Mom worked as well as raised kids. They’re good, nice people. And as it turns out, more destructive than all the wars in history.

I’ve never been sympathetic to the fluoridated-water-is-a-Commie-plot crowd in real life, but in science fiction it can be a useful shortcut for exploring tensions between individual freedom and the greater good. Fans of the cancelled Fox TV series Firefly found out that government pharmaceutical meddling was indeed the root of all evil when Serenity, a terrific space cowboy movie based on the series, came out last year. The libertarian right loves Firefly - I remember how pleased Samizdata’s Perry De Havilland was when he visited Los Angeles and met Tim Minear, one of the show’s writers - but I should note that Firefly is also a great favorite of the lefty blog Crooks and Liars’ John Amato.

I missed the TV show’s twangy old western theme song in the movie, but in every other way the film was better and if you haven’t seen it I highly recommend you rent it this summer, always the perfect season to watch these things anyway. Writer-director Joss Whedon, who also created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, keeps his annoying weakness for nauseatingly adorable supporting female characters (possibly a result of his immersion in women’s studies while a college student at Wesleyan) more in check with the feature film than the series.

On the small screen, for instance, ship’s engineer Kaylee was almost as intolerable as Fred in Angel and Buffy’s awful Tara. But at least in Serenity, unlike Firefly, Kaylee never coos “That’s my good old girl” at the spaceship while patting a random wall in the engine room. Also, in the movie, unlike the TV show, weird psychic genius River is no longer traumatized from having her brother haul her around the galaxy, naked and cryonically frozen, in a big see-through box. She’s still traumatized, but not because of that.

Whedon got the idea for Firefly after reading The Killer Angels, a fictionalized account of Gettysburg. The Civil War inspiration explains why in the TV show representatives of the Alliance, the intergalactic governing body of the future, look like Union Troops, while Capt. Mal looks like a Noble Soldier of the Lost Cause... without that whole pesky slavery thing, of course.

The Serenity spaceship looks just like the old Firefly one, far from the sleek, impeccably clean spaceships of Star Trek and similar shows. I got to tour the set in its Firefly days, and noticed that funky ’70s kitsch combined with mid-century (mid-20th-century, that is) moderne. The books piled in the spaceship lounge included old Judith Krantz novels. Maybe the idea is that even 500 years in the future, garage-sale flotsam hasn’t changed that much.

I wish a movie version of another favorite cancelled Fox sci-fi drama, Dark Angel, were in the works. But in good news for geeks everywhere, the Sci Fi Channel will be airing the series (in three and four hour chunks) Monday evenings beginning July 10. Like Firefly/Serenity and The End of the Whole Mess, Dark Angel, which made a star of 19-year-old Jessica Alba when it premiered six years ago, takes a dim view of trying to improve human nature. In this case, though, only a few humans have been chosen (by a dystopian future government) to be improved. An elite cadre of military fighters have been created through genetic enhancement, and some are now on the run from their makers.

Alba plays Max, one of these avenging, genetically enhanced supergirls of the near future, with a particular habit of lounging moodily on the Space Needle in a Blade Runner-like, mesmerizingly cinematic Seattle. It looks like the Sci-Fi Channel is beginning this Dark Angel run with the two-hour pilot, which I recall was rather slow in its first 30 minutes. But stay tuned: It suddenly springs to life once we see how petite, reserved Max deals with a slutty glamazon about to get aggressive with some mean looking acrylic nails. Max calmly lifts the nasty girl up with one hand and dangles her out a high-rise window until she promises to behave.

The tattered Dark Angel landscape, by the way, seems to imply that society is recovering from some horrible war. But director James Cameron explained that this was actually strictly an economic apocalypse. “Can we confirm that Starbucks has been destroyed?” he said when I asked about this. “Well, their stock is trading at one cent.”

Oh, and for the record, Dark Angel does not “have a Matrix feel to it,” as one questioner foolishly suggested at that Fox press conference. “Matrix had a Terminator feel to it,” said Cameron, who of course created the Terminator franchise. “But maybe that’s just me.”