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.