Firefly Friday: Riding off into the sunset part 2

In part 1 I talked about some of the clear flaws with Firefly and some of the weaker aspects of the show. I also want to talk about some of the elements that either surprised me or, I believe, would have changed if the show had lasted longer. With a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (to pick on the near-contemporary Whedon show) neither the first season nor the final season are the best examples of what the show is like. If Firefly had lasted three or four seasons it would have evolved and advocates of the show would probably be pointing to the ‘best’ episodes as ones from season 2 or 3. Star Trek: The Next Generation really improved sharply from Season 3 onwards, the most Doctor-Whoey Doctor Who is arguably Tom Baker, the FOURTH iteration of the character and multiple years into the show.

I don’t know how the show would have evolved directly. The movie points toward the Reavers and the planet Miranda as a major plot arc but we also have unexplained hints at Book’s dark past. I’m confident though that season-long plot arcs would have shifted the show away from its more episodic first season. Firstly, this is the trajectory Buffy already took and secondly it was a direction TV genre shows were already heading. It’s easy to see strong continuity being a side-effect of binge streaming shows but a trend in 21st century TV, it predates the Netflix era. Firefly is unusually episodic in some ways, an issue further compounded by a disruptive broadcast history.

A second surprise is that show is not particularly quippy or humorous. There are some funny moments but the dialogue is more typically modelled on a faux-nineteenth century American correctness of speech. The added formality pushes verbal interactions away from irony and repression of emotion rather than avoidance or irony. That’s a really interesting choice and it is one of the most distinctive things about the show. It isn’t what I expected of a famously Whedonesque show. Would that have continued? Well…when the show goes the other way (e.g. when Saffron turns up) everything sparkles just a little bit more. We may have become tired of Whedonisms but there’s a reason why they spread everywhere. This takes me to another point.

Tudyk and Fillion. The show has a great central cast and add-in side characters like Badger and Saffron and it is a great ensemble. However, I’ll pick on Tudyk and Fillion in particular are very good at being funny and get surprisingly few opportunities to be funny. Aside from anything else, when either of them gets to play up those aspects (or, as in War Stories, they get to bounce off each other) it ends up being good TV. The show absolutely needed a screwball comedy episode with Mark Sheppard, Christina Hendricks, Tudyk and Fillion bouncing off each other for 40 minutes. That might not even have been the best direction for the show but there is an inevitability there when you have a funny cast in a show that tends toward crime-capers with writers/directors with a tendency to banter-dialogue.

Don’t shout at me or throw heavy objects but I sometimes wonder if Mal was miscast. Textually, he’s a man haunted by his past, sincere, ruthless, fiercely loyal to his crew but also on the border of being a bit of a tyrannical captain. Fillion (as he projects himself, how he is in reality I don’t know) as a charmer and a chancer. Those aspects bubble out in Mal’s character but the two elements don’t really work together. The way Mal speaks cruelly to Inara makes sense textually but really doesn’t in the way they are played. Fillion-Mal is too nice and by Serenity Mal is already more Fillionish and less textually-Malish. It’s like the evolution of Kirk into the hybrid Shatner-Kirk with the added layer of how we imagine Kirk to be as opposed to how Kirk (at least initially) is written.

Aside from plot arcs, I’d also contend that the show would have gravitated to the kinds of episodes that worked better. Roughly, I think of the show as having three rough kinds of stories:

  • TV Western episodes
  • Space mystery episodes
  • Crime caper episodes

There is an obvious overlap between the three. Serenity as a movie blends crime-caper with a Western setting for the initial act focused on the crew as they stage a bank robbery but that is mainly to get the ball rolling on the overall space mystery.

Now, maybe this is just me and there was a huge demand for the Western melodrama element (I suspect not). I suspect a longer running series would have fallen into a rhythm of episodes driven by a different trio:

  • Major plot arc episodes (Alliance, Reavers, River, Book’s past)
  • Crime caper episodes – the crew plan a thing, the thing goes wrong
  • Space mystery – the ship encounters a thing and weird stuff happens

But maybe not. After all, the show could have found a whole new direction.

Next time I want to focus on the core strengths of the show, why it remains popular and sum everything up.


21 responses to “Firefly Friday: Riding off into the sunset part 2”

    • Dr. Hooey would be a show about a mysterious genius whose explanations of unexplained phenomena are always completely wrong and useless.

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  1. The Western aspect was my least favorite part of the show. It did make for nice visuals but not enough to make up for the nonsensical-ness of it: just because people are on the frontier of space, why would they dress like they were on the 1800s Western frontier?

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  2. It’s fascinating reading your take of Firefly (time makes a difference). It’s been a while since I (re)watched it, but even when I first saw it, I had some reservations about the Civil War aspect; it never sat well with me. So though a fan, I was not as a big a fan as some.

    Since the revelations about Whedon & Baldwin’s behaviour, my desire to watch it again has decreased. I find it impossible to separate the artist from their art. I might watch them again at some point (I still have the DVDs of the series & movie), but it’s not high on my list.

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    • I could get past the Whedon*, but couldn’t stay focused any time Baldwin came on-screen (and Mr. LT would not appreciate the yelling), so… I should probably sell my DVDs and clear out a little space.

      *Didn’t bother me to watch Agents of SHIELD all the way to the end.

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  3. “Fillion” with two I’s. (If it had just been one or two I’d have left it alone, but you had a couple of paragraphs up there where you repeated the misspelling a half dozen times.)

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  4. Now the second “i” is missing; it’s “Fillon” everywhere instead of “Fillion”.

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  5. While I get that there was a U.S. civil war parallel that produced some problems when it was sometimes used (the lost cause), it really wasn’t meant to be the U.S. civil war. Just because Fillion used a soft Southern-Western accent for the western parallel, didn’t make him a defeated Confederate. Mal and Zoe weren’t fighting in the war to have slaver colonies out on the frontier. They were fighting to free the outer planets from the rule of a brutal corporate oligarchy that runs the Alliance. A favorite of 1960’s-1980’s SF was the idea that corporations would openly become governments out in space. (And it’s continued as an idea, such as in The Expanse.) In particular, the rise of Asian companies and 1980’s China created a lot of SF stories about Chinese corporations running things in the space future or a combo of Chinese-western cultures. The latter is what Whedon, who grew up in that era, and Minear and his writers referenced. (And I agree that the lack of Asian actors in the show with the use of Chinese culture and languages made little sense, but that was partly the problem of Fox, which did not like having the Chinese elements.)

    So Mal isn’t really a defeated Confederate captain. He’s a defeated communist labor organizer essentially. Or a cowboy defeated by the big ranching concerns taking over the Old West, etc. He’s the little guy who was outgunned and got stomped. Now he lives at the edges, keeping his nose out of trouble and off the radar but also leaning into criminality to try to rebuild something for himself. He is bitter, his dreams are dead, he tries to be ruthless and uncaring, looking out only for himself and maybe his crew. He tries to push people away. He tries to accept the equally nasty world under the oligarchy’s power as just how things have to be. He is supposed to be a jerk at the beginning. It’s a long time Western type — the guy trying to be a loner, to be uncaring and selfish, to be ruthless but instead gets dragged into caring and helping people on the frontier. (The Magnificent Seven, Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns, Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, etc.)

    That’s exactly why they needed Fillion. They needed someone who could play obnoxious (Captain Hammer in Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along, etc.) but also get the audience to warm up to him and root for him when he ends up not being ruthless and uncaring in spite of himself. The whole first season was Mal desperately trying to push away this found family and then gathering them up and protecting them in spite of himself. Zoe in particular knows what Mal was like before, which is why she sticks with him as his Doc Holiday, because she knows eventually he will go back to being Wyatt Earp. Kaylee knows it in how Mal let her have the ship and believes in her, and while he tries to keep her at a distance, he gets dragged into treating her like a little sister. Book also sees Mal’s underlying character (and knows a great deal of inside information) and reminds Mal about who he really is, which sometimes Mal takes to heart and sometimes he tries to reject. Jayne is what Mal is trying to be, but Mal can’t get fully away from his inner principles of the past and Jayne also gets dragged into becoming less ruthless and more caring, though he often slips back and forth.

    Mal is strongly attracted to Inara, the hooker with the heart of gold, but Inara is also going to be leaving at some point and works and belongs in that world of the corporate oligarchy elite that destroyed him and where he can’t go. She also spots the good side of Mal and keeps pushing him to lean back into that side. So when she or others get too close (though Zoe gets a pass since she doesn’t put up with it,) Mal puffs up like a puffer fish to be threatening and push others away. He tries to do that with River and Simon, but they are desperate and worm themselves in, changing the crew towards the better. Most of the episodes have Mal try to take a harsh, ruthless stance and then giving in and trying to save his crew members and/or others, complimenting them, being more vulnerable or noble while grumbling about it the whole way. The old Mal wars with the newer, damaged survivor Mal.

    This is again a standard Western story, but Fox did not like that Mal was harsh, threatening at times. They wanted more of a Bonanza/Robin Hood feel for Mal and straight space western adventures, rather than the darker and less episodic story Whedon and Minear were trying to do. That caused a lot of problems, grudging changes that made the show whip back and forth in tone too much and be more confusing and then there was the whole out of order thing that Fox did with broadcasting the show.

    If the show had been allowed to continue — and it was drawing a cult audience that likely would have burgeoned — then the slow transformation of Mal towards his older self would have probably continued as he was drawn into the conspiracy surrounding River and Simon. Instead, they had to try to pack it into the movie Serenity (and they did various comic books.) Summer had to speed advance River’s development in a two hour movie, etc. But they were able to attempt it because they had all the character material for developing the various redemption arcs set up. But Minear and Whedon were also doing Angel, Buffy was wrapping up and they just weren’t able to keep Fox from pulling the plug on what was an expensive special effects show for broadcast t.v. But the redemption theme is a standard in both men’s work and was the main focus in Firefly too.

    It’s been very hard when there are actors, directors, writers and producers who turn out to be uncaring and abusive of the rights and lives of others despite producing entertaining work about those very things. But I don’t think Mal’s damage is really a product of Whedon or Minear’s id. It’s more of a classical figure in storytelling that probably would have followed a standard arc if the show had continued and if Fox had stopped trying to mess with it. Fox has a habit of doing that — they frequently would take chances on strange or long shot concept shows, then start messing with those shows and insisting on changes, lose good cast members and eventually cancel them (unless they are animated.) So even if Firefly had stayed on, I would imagine it might not have gotten much past Season 3.

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    • Thanks for this! Speaking for myself (of course), I wasn’t at all bothered by the western affectations at the time, accepting them as kind of steampunkery and offering a fruitful contrast w the straight up sf elements.

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    • That is an excellent analysis.
      “They needed someone who could play obnoxious (Captain Hammer in Doctor Horrible’s Sing Along, etc.) but also get the audience to warm up to him and root for him when he ends up not being ruthless and uncaring in spite of himself. ” While I hadn’t thought of this in Firefly’s context I’ve often noticed that property elsewhere. Laura Dern, for instance, makes the selfish protagonist of Citizen Ruth tolerable to watch (I love Laura Dern).

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    • They were fighting to free the outer planets from the rule of a brutal corporate oligarchy that runs the Alliance.

      That’s not really that much different from what the Lost Causers said about the U.S. Civil War.

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      • My thought as well. I’ve never heard of a Lost Cause advocate claiming that they were protecting slavery. They generally claim that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War, in spite of historical evidence to the contrary.

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        • I’m not saying that there aren’t Civil War/Lost Cause tweaks that seem to have been deliberately put in, playing with the U.S. Western themes. And those aspects, where they might work and where they might be problematic, have been analyzed and discussed by many in the years since the show aired.

          But in the show, they build the universe as the Alliance as authoritarian and using and allowing slavery. Mal’s side was trying to break away from that to form an independent country. You can have a parallel that it’s like Confederate states rejecting federal oversight (in fear of slavery being banned by the federal government,) but you can just as easily make it Mexicans who wanted to end slavery in the Texas territory they controlled and fought with the Texans who were taking the territory over and wanted to have slavery, eventually losing Texas to the U.S. and its expansion. Or that Mal’s people were the Native Americans who are devastated by the strength of the U.S. government. Or that Mal’s people were Canada or the Chinese who built the railroads. Or that Mal’s people are the equivalent to the Rebels who lost their planets to the Star Wars’ Empire, etc. That Zoe, Mal’s fellow rebel who still believes in what they tried to achieve, is a black woman isn’t an accident either. (Though it’s a bit half-assed.)

          In the show, you have the Reavers, and that’s a disturbing parallel to the indigenous that Cam has already mentioned and also has been discussed by many before. And it’s obviously deliberate. But at the same time, the Reavers are also zombie space pirates, a parallel to the devolved humans in space opera and post-apocalypse SF stories (like Wells’ Time Machine.) And in the movie Serenity, we learn that the Alliance made the Reavers — symbolizing the destruction of the indigenous by colonists, etc. So Minear and Whedon basically played all sides with the symbolism, sometimes well and sometimes not very well.

          But in the show, Mal tries to be hardened and accepting to slavery that is allowed by the Alliance, because that’s the society that won and it would be dangerous to stick his neck out and fight it, but then he keeps reneging on it and saving people. So saying that he’s a Confederate captain equivalent who’s upset he lost his land and the slave economy they lived with to the more democratic Alliance doesn’t work as a straight parallel. The Alliance is made very deliberately authoritarian, corporate run and slavery and imprisonment friendly. And Mal is given the traditional role, in particular for Westerns, of the bitter, baggage laden loner who tries to stay detached and ruthless but then gets dragged into his better nature and saves people. He’s Robin Hood who went into the forest to hide and rob the tax collectors and ended up with a band of Merry Men who believe in him.

          They used a lot of Easter Eggs in the show to other works. In the famous Eastwood western A Fistful of Dollars, for instance, his Stranger character tries to profit off of warring smuggler groups in a town but then against his better instincts tries to save townspeople. When he’s wounded, he escapes his enemies by being transported in a coffin under their noses. In “The Messenger,” Zoe and Mal’s former comrade has his supposedly dead body transported in a coffin by Mal, but he’s actually drugged and alive, etc.

          The whole idea of “riding off into the sunset,” as Cam referenced for this essay, for Westerns was that the loner arrives, gets dragged into saving the community against his better judgement, and after doing so, then rides off into the sunset, a loner again. And Firefly basically used that story idea over and over again. Sometimes they save the community or parts of it and sometimes they don’t. So Mal is supposed to be an anti-hero — someone not heroic (or not anymore) who gets dragged into heroism, though one tinged with compromises, losses, and sometimes loot.

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  6. Regarding the casting of Mal: I agree with Kat that the warmer side of the character was really integral to what they were going for overall, so I can’t see Fillion as miscast. But I also don’t think casting Fillion would’ve been a mistake even if what they wanted was totally a mean cynical hardass, because I think his range is bigger than you’re giving him credit for. In something like his turn as a Buffy villain, he can totally be cold and scary and not charming at all. It’s just that when he is called upon to turn on the charm in a role, it’s so fun that he tends to be typecast as that.

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    • Before Firefly, Fillion’s big role was in the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place (with Ryan Reynolds, Traylor Howard and Richard Ruccolo as the leads,) where he played a cuddly love interest for several seasons. So there was apparently some concern by execs involved on casting him for Mal because it was a lead and an edgier, anti-hero-ish part, but they also wanted him to have roguish charm. And when Firefly got cancelled, making him Caleb on Buffy when everyone loved Mal was basically a fandom joke. But he seriously freaked everybody out doing it because of that. It actually got me interested in watching Firefly and my husband and I saw it on DVDs after it had already been cancelled.

      Firefly seems to have been much more of an experiment than other Whedon-Minear shows. And it was having a constant war with being a take on Star Trek with more western elements (what Fox wanted) and a western-space-spy-dystopia mash-up, which is what Whedon and Minear were trying to do. So it has a lot of rough spots I think Cam documented fairly well. But it had an amazing cast, even Baldwin, sigh.

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