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Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 57 (Firefly)

Saturday 6 April 2013, by Webmaster

The argument for Firefly’s influence on Doctor Who is marginal at best. Moffat hadn’t seen the show until a year or two ago, and while Davies might well have, there’s nothing obvious about his Doctor Who that draws from Firefly in the same way that there is about, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance. Nor is there any particularly overt influence from Doctor Who on Firefly. I mean, nobody would be surprised to learn that Joss Whedon grew up watching Tom Baker on PBS or anything, but nobody rattling off Firefly’s major influences is going to hit on Doctor Who. Which is actually ever so slightly unfair, as one decent account of Firefly would be “if Robert Holmes had created Star Trek.” I mean, Holmes wrote two space westerns already…

But no. The truth is that the relationship between these two shows is not one of direct influence. Nevertheless, Firefly proves instructive in two regards. First, the history of Doctor Who is still in part a history of cult television, and Firefly provides an odd watershed moment in that history. Second, even if Firefly is not itself a direct influence, both it and contemporary Doctor Who share an aesthetic and structural similarity that is worth comment. There is, if you will, a standard manual for how to craft and structure good genre television these days, and Firefly is as good an example as any as to how it works.

Obviously there are huge differences. Firefly is a huge ensemble show that uses the multitude of relationships within its cast to generate a variety of perspectives on a focused topic. Conceptually, at least, the show is just “Star Trek where the Federation is evil but Captain Kirk isn’t,” or, as I said before, Star Trek if Robert Holmes had written it. It’s not a limited premise by any measure - “guys with a vehicle go to places” is, after all, pretty flexible. But still, when people talk about Firefly it’s not the flexibility of the premise they focus on, it’s the cast. Whereas Doctor Who works with a minimal regular cast and a the most ludicrously extensible premise imaginable.

But there’s a tightness of characterization that both shows share. What Firefly does is use its large cast to generate an even larger number of things it can do. There are thirty-six different two-person scenes that Firefly can do, and eighty-four three-person scenes, and that’s just with the regular cast. And unlike something like a soap opera where characters tend to stick to their own plotlines, Firefly throws characters in the mix regularly. Some are certainly more or less promising than others - I cannot, off the top of my head, think of any particularly memorable Wash/River scenes, for instance (Thanks to several readers at Whedonesque for finding a better example there than the first one I had), and some combinations like Jayne/Inara are god for little more than variations on a given comedic theme. But you have a lot of different combinations.

And more to the point, for almost every pair of characters you can pick you have a clear thing they have in common and a clear thing they differ on. So, for instance, Mal and Simon share an inability to be a part of society because of their single-minded devotion to something else, but Mal is a working class rebel and Simon is a child of privilege. Zoe and Wash share their marriage, but are in most regards chalk and cheese. This pretty much lets you set up any scene to run like clockwork: every set of characters has a reason they’d be loyal to one another and a reason why they’d get into a fistfight. And many of the series’ best episodes come from doing extended explorations of a given combination. “War Stories” is about exploring the Wash/Mal dyad. “Ariel” is at its core about the Simon/Jayne one. And all of them are structured around that basic system of compared/contrasted characters.

For three-person dynamics you just find ways to have the compare/contrasts form a chain such that one set of characters in the triad has a similarity that is the other set’s difference. So, for instance, in “Heart of Gold” you have Mal and Inara, who differ because Mal is a hardened and determined captain and Inara is a refined and elegant companion. Then you have Inara and Nandy, who share a background and profession. But then you also have the Mal/Nandy dynamic, where Nandy is tacitly portrayed as essentially being the captain of the brothel, thus setting up a similarity between her and Mal that corresponds well to the difference between Mal and Inara. Then you basically just wind it up and let it go with what is actually just a base under siege plot familiar to anyone who’s seen Troughton-era Doctor Who.

The other thing that Firefly does consistently relates to the general aesthetic preference towards narrative velocity that we talked about in passing with The West Wing. The short form is this: television has sped up appreciably over the last fifteen to twenty years as more and more writers realize that the appearance of coherence is more valuable than the actual thing, and that viewers are actually really good at filling in blanks in their knowledge. And so you have the high-speed dialogue of shows like The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or, for that matter, anything ever by Joss Whedon.

But different writers go for speed in different ways. Aaron Sorkin mostly adds in monologues about political issues, Amy Sherman-Palladino is fond of lots of pop culture jokes, but Joss Whedon basically goes for a tremendous density of events within a scene. If I may be forgiven for going full Aristotle here, the bulk of plotting is a matter of reversals. That is, someone who was previously doing well has something go wrong, or someone who was previously doing poorly has something go well. In drama reversals ratchet up tension and pathos, and take place over a large scale, whereas in comedy they tend to happen at an exaggerated rate and within a single scene. (This is the heart of almost all banter-based comedy.)

What’s interesting about Joss Whedon - and something that’s often commented on with his work - is that he’s very, very good at mixing the comedic and the dramatic. But Firefly highlights how he does this. Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Angel there aren’t a lot of outright “comedy” episodes of Firefly. You could maybe argue for “Jaynestown” or “Shindig” if you wanted, but neither comes anywhere close to, say, “Something Blue” in terms of being clearly written as a light and comedic episode. For the most part every episode of Firefly is distinctly dramatic. And yet the show is riotously funny. And the heart of this is that Whedon structures his plots like dramas, but his individual scenes like comedies. So an individual scene is jam-packed with reversals as characters one-up each other. Look at any Mal/Inara scene to illustrate this: the frequency with which who has power within a given scene changes is stunning. The result is an exciting hybrid form. It’s not just, as we talked about with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that Whedon is good at using melodrama to switch back and forth between registers. It’s that Whedon is actually blending structures in a compelling way.

Again, unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer there’s not an easy way to argue for how Firefly was an overt model for the new series. But this very much is “how things are done” these days, and the overall description and structure applies. Doctor Who’s basic structure of characters is similarly based on having a similarity/opposition structure, even though it introduces new characters each story. It gets a lot of mileage out of taking a single pair of characters and putting them in multiple situations instead of the use of an ensemble, but the underlying principle is the same. Similarly, the “structure scenes like a comedy, structure the story like a drama” approach has become all but second nature to Doctor Who. None of these are particularly Joss Whedon techniques. They’re just what good television does these days.

All of which is to say, if it wasn’t tacitly clear, that Firefly is very good television. It is also, famously, very cancelled television. In fact, it didn’t see out its first season. But what’s most unusual about Firefly is that it’s virtually the last show this is true of. Not the last one ever to be cancelled, obviously, but the last time you see an American show that only got one season still end up with a significant fandom. Which used to be not-entirely uncommon: Battlestar Galactica, Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, etc. But the well of those has really dried up for the most part - it’s difficult to think of an American show that has gotten cancelled after one season and yet still had a significant cultural impact.

Notably, it’s not hard to think of shows that have had cultural impacts similar to Firefly. It’s just that they all staggered through at least two seasons: Dollhouse, Chuck, Community, or Fringe, for instance. The difference seems to be less in the sorts of shows that are getting made and more in the tolerance with which networks are willing to treat low-rated critical darlings. Because unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which began to pioneer the idea of cult hits on extended channels, Firefly was on Fox, a proper major network. As were all the other shows we’ve talked about in the past two paragraphs.

Which is to say that the logic of funding a television show shifted after Firefly. And there’s a reason for that, because Firefly was, in hindsight, just about the stupidest cancellation ever. The show is still, a decade later, absolutely iconic and beloved. It still sells like gangbusters on DVD. It’s on a lovely sale on Amazon at the moment, but is the 6th best-selling sci-fi DVD on the site right now, and the 352nd best-selling thing in DVDs. The Blu-Ray is the 43rd best-selling Blu-Ray product. The show is a mainstay on Netflix and streaming video sites. Serenity, the film that wrapped the series up, does similarly well. The show keeps making money constantly, and in hindsight cancelling it has to go down as one of the most spectacular pieces of violence against one’s own foot ever committed.

The problem, of course, is that none of this was particularly understandable in the context of late 2002. In late 2002, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was actually wildly behind schedule on DVD releases - only the first two seasons were out as the show was airing its seventh season. In fact, the DVDs were more advanced in the UK - they had Season Five out, and would have the entire series out before the US got Season Six. Which is to say that the “TV shows on DVD” market wasn’t there yet. Netflix didn’t exist as a digital streaming service, nor, for that matter, did anything else. (Even YouTube was over two years from launch) All of which is to say that the technological innovations that made cancelling Firefly dumb were still in the future. Heck, even DVRs barely existed - I had a ReplayTV at the time, and it was still an utterly weird piece of technology. So the things that made Firefly able to work as a show weren’t there yet.

In that regard Firefly has an odd sort of status: it’s one of the last great niche shows to not get a chance, and the one that illustrates for everyone else why shows like this should get a chance. It pioneered an entirely new model of television distribution a few years before that model actually existed. And it was a hit show in the US in the same way that Doctor Who is, right down to the fact that Doctor Who’s real launch as a US hit came several seasons after it had actually premiered, with lots of fans catching up with Netflix binges. (Though this was in part down to the degree to which the first four seasons were how-to manuals on what not to do in importing a British television series to the US, prior to BBC America taking over and displaying some actual competence.) So while there’s not a creative influence, for US fandom at least Firefly is in many ways the model for the sort of show that Doctor Who is there, both in terms of what the show is like (the fandom overlaps are sizable) and in terms of how the show works financially. It’s just that one made its big US debut in 2010, after the technology needed to succeed there existed, and the other in 2002 when it didn’t yet.

That is, of course, just US fandom. In the UK the model that Doctor Who works under is entirely different, and far weirder. But as ever, I get ahead of myself.