“Firefly,” WN Sci-Fi: reviewed by Stephen Clark
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“FIREFLY,” WN Sci-Fi
reviewed by Stephen Clark
‘Take my love/take my land/ take me where I cannot stand/
Burn the land/ boil the sea/ you cannot take the sky from me.’
This was the opening theme to FIREFLY, a boot camp/cowboy song with fiddles and guitars instead of electronic music. In 2002, FIREFLY was a sci-fi show that led a brief but exciting life, not even completing a full season. Centering around the adventures of Mal, a former soldier in a failed rebellion against the Alliance of inner planets, he and his crew on the SERENITY, a FIREFLY class of of obsolete ship, tried to make a living in the outer planets, which looks like the American west, with horses, six-shooters, and a code of survival that is more John Wayne than Captain Kirk. FIREFLY only lasted for fifteen episodes, three of them never aired. Its creator, Josh Whedon, had a good TV track record with BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and other shows. Why did it fail? Fans blamed the lack of showing the pilot first, of network TV’s dislike of sci-fi, but I think it had too many WN elements in it to get a chance.
In FIREFLY’s world, there are no bug-eyed monsters or wise Spocks. It is a world made of Earth-like colonies called the inner and outer planets. The outer planets look like the American west, both in landscape and populace. People ride horses. use shooting irons. Speak like good old boys. They also once fought a war against the Alliance and lost, so it feels like the western fringes of the Confederacy. Mal and Zoe, his second in command, ride the Serenity, a Firefly ship named after the last great battle of the war, a kind of Gettysburg for the rebels. Mal, still wearing bits of his brown rebel uniform which is a cross between GI and Johnny Reb, is on the edge of the law and there is still an uneasy sense the war wasn’t settled.
The Serenity picked up four passengers. One is Book, a ‘Shepard’ from a monastery. The second is Inara, a ‘companion’, a sort of geisha who makes rounds to her clients. She is Miss Kitty to Mal’s Marshal, and they have fireworks between them. She is cultured, Mal isn’t. She supported the Alliance because unity is a good thing. Inara also is attracted to Mal’s feral masculinity, although she doesn’t like to admit it.
The most problematic passengers are Simon Tam and River, his sister. They are Alliance people who got mugged. River was rescued from the labs of the Alliance, where her mind was being adapted for their purposes. There is a hefty reward for her.
Firefly’s dialogue sounded western/good-old-boy. As Jayne, one of the crew explains the chain of command: ‘It’s the rutting chain I beat you with until you understand who’s in command here.’ Or Mal to a robber: ‘You best seek opportunity elsewhere, or my iron will make an end to you.’ Or Kaylee, Mal’s cocky and earthy female mechanic: ‘I ain’t had nothing betwixt my nethers weren’t run on a battery in it for as long as I can tell.’ There is an unapologetic view of life from the redneck angle, and it’s clear the outer planets have a freedom and vibrancy not yet totally put down by the Alliance, which comes across as a corporate, PC world.
Whedon emphasized he got the idea for FIREFLY both from the old west, the Civil War, and Jewish resistance groups in WWII. I doubt the last. If anything, the language, style, and Mal’s feral masculinity remind me of the movie RIDE WITH THE DEVIL and its guerilla fighter Pitt Mackeson. Alex Linder’s wonderful review of this (Feb. 04) recalls when Mackeson is warned not to go to his hometown, now a yankee bastion:
“They’ll kill you sure.” Mackeson laughs. “What a horrible fate. Oh, what a horrible fate.”
Compare this when Mal is warned if he takes on the Alliance, he’ll die.
“Oh, terrible shame.”
Language is also unique when spoken by River. She moves, catlike throughout Serenity, having flashes of what the future brings, but still an enigmatic logician. When Book discovers her cutting long passages out of his Bible, he asks why. “Because it’s broken,” River says, still snipping, “it’s full of illogical sections and irrational explanations. I’m mending it.” I thought this alone should have gotten it a second season.
But FIREFLY was subversive. Where shows like STAR TREK always show its Federation uniting worlds and bringing peoples together, FIREFLY’S Alliance is creepy, and the folk in the outer planets just want to be left alone. One enemy of Mal from the inner planets was Vasik, a gangster with a Jewish accent and appearance. He wants Mal to rob a shipment of drugs that can be sold on the black market. “Dis is our doink business, Mal,” Vasik cheerfully warns. Mal does the heist, changes his mind when he finds a planet in need of medicine to fight sickness caused by hazardous wastes. He returns the money he took to Vasik, but no good. Mal must be taught a lesson. “Chew must obey, Mal.”
There is Jubal Early, a black bounty hunter who is after River. He captures the crew one by one, and threatens Kaylee with rape if she tries to escape, and meaning it. Wow. A black man threatening to rape a white woman. When does Televitz ever show THAT?
There were too many cases of FIREFLY being un PC, and I’m sure someone in the network looked at Vasik and Jubal and decided this had to go. Plus all of those good old boys gettin’ on with life. In TV, a southern accent is verboten unless it’s evil, or stupid (like the series MY NAME IS EARL…whose ex-wife married a black…let’s rub it in, huh?). Likewise, westerns are simply dropped now. Too American. Nonurban.
SERENITY was a movie that fans demanded after the series was cancelled, and cleared up some loose ends. Mal is still on the semi-run, and when he pulls off a hold-up, Reivers appear…a kind of space Apache, savage cannibals who come out of nowhere.
At a colonial bar, River sees a TV commercial. She mutters ‘Miranda’, and attacks everyone in the bar, killing and maiming until Simon gives a code word that knocks her out. Mal deduces that the commercial is a subliminal message. It implies that while we may watch TV, TV is also watching us and sends out signals to trigger a response.
This was preceded by an earlier flashback where River is a child in an Alliance school. Everyone is multicultural, dressed semi-oriental (in the series, Chinese culture seems predominant; everyone swears in Chinese), in a lush park the black teacher extolls the virtues of the Alliance, and can’t understand why the outer planets resist. “Because we meddle,” River replies, “we try to change their minds. We shouldn’t meddle.” Flash forward to River being tortured and programmed.
Mal visits Mr. Universe, a webmaster, who is logged into everywhere, a wise-cracking Jew with his Lovbot, a blonde robot (his wedding shows him stomping on the wine glass…Mazoltov!…while the Lovbot is propped against the wall…the ultimate Schiksa.) As Mr. Universe says, ‘there is no news…there is the truth of the signal.’ A nice comment on media culture.
They find that there was a planet called Miranda, now erased from memory, and it was a colony. Mal goes to it, passing Reivers who circle the planet. There, he discovers dead bodies everywhere. The colonists didn’t die violently. They simply willed themselves into death, refusing to survive. Mal discovers that Miranda was used for drug experimentation and mind control. It went wrong. One part of reaction made colonists simply give up and die. The other part made colonists into Reivers. Mind control is a well-known sci-fi theme, even going beyond that. In Charles Brockden Brown’s novel ORMOND (1800), he describes Ormond, member of the Illuminati who comes to A young
‘Ormond aspired to nothing more ardently than to
hold the reins of opinion,-to exercise absolute power
over the conduct of others…in a way of which his
subjects should be scarcely conscious. He desired
that his guidance should control their steps, but
that his agency, when most effectual, should be
A very prescient view of media culture and who controls it, and is a familiar theme from H.G. Well’s THE TIME MACHINE and its Morlocks and Eloi to the WIZARD OF OZ. I also think Whedon borrowed from the movie FORBIDDEN PLANET, a retelling of Shakespeare’s THE TEMPEST, where the Id is made into invisible monsters that tear men to pieces. It’s interesting that on Miranda, the section where the revealing disc is found is called C-57-D…the name of the cruiser in the film.
Mal fights to get this information to the planets. “I mean to confound these buggers,” he says of the Alliance, “They think that they can make people better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running away. I am to misbehave.”
Again, another reminder of RIDE WITH THE DEVIL. When Mal does this, the assassin sent to kill him and collect River sees the disc and refuses to hunt them any longer. He tells Mal the Alliance was damaged by this information,but the fight will obviously continue.
I think FIREFLY’s subversiveness made it a classic. I was surprised Maltin’s movie review book called it ‘a watered-down STAR WARS”, since STAR WARS is to me the ultimate brain-dead movie. For a WN, FIREFLY offers suggestions of our cause and a racial and national struggle. More especially in the down-to-earth, southern nature of the crew and the outer planets. Certainly the mind control efforts of the Alliance reminded me of RIDE WITH THE DEVIL, where A southerner tells the Missouri guerillas the point of the yankee’s schooling:
“…They rounded up every pup-pup into that schoolhouse because they fancied that everyone should think and talk the same freethinking way they do, with no regard to station, custom, or propriety.”
As for as pop entertainment, you can do worse than FIREFLY.