SFC12: Firefly & Serenity

Welcome to this, the second of my critical film essays, and more importantly the long overdue conclusion to the Summer Film Challenge 2012!  It has been a year and a half now since that Challenge ended, time rampant with some great movies and a few clunkers.  For this second article of my new year’s series, I am throwing out the rules established last time in order to complete the SFC12, and I must admit I am sorry to see it draw to a close.

To any lover of cinema, but particularly for those attending university to learn the craft of the cinema, I want to heartily and with all my sincerity suggest you start up your own Summer Film Challenge with a friend.  For Ryan and I, this has become more than just fun between cohorts. Each Summer Film Challenge gave us opportunity to expand our cinematic vocabulary, taught us incalculable knowledge about the arts of filmmaking and storytelling, and brought us closer as friends.  Ryan was Best Man in my wedding and a large part of the relationship we have today I owe to this thing we started four years ago in the Cougar’s Den over cheap pizza and pop.  Thus, I pass on the mission to you to keep this alive – start your own clubs or partnerships over a shared cinematic passion, and see what it can do for you.

Now, I turn to what will no doubt be the most difficult review I have ever had to write, SFC or otherwise. I have prepared for this critique, more than all the others, because I knew it would be the most demanding.  In this review – my last of the SFC12 – I have to take a show that my friends adore, and declare it not the marvelous pinnacle of quality they claim it to be.  It is not my intention to do this with disrespect; the friends who love this show are those whose opinions I respect the most.  However, in this case my stance differs and I must stick to it.  So, without further ado, let the Flame War begin as I commence my argument AGAINST Joss Whedon’s Firefly.

Animated Cast

1.  A Treatise against Whedon-ism

Let me begin with by far the least direct method of critiquing the show, and the most likely argument to win me a comment section full of nasty indictments.  One of the things which made me most hesitant going into the show and subsequent movie, and loathe to hastily put out this review, is the fierce loyalty of its fans to the creator, Joss Whedon.  One is considered almost remiss to speak of it as only Firefly, forgetting the all important personal moniker – “Joss Whedon’s Firefly“.

When I sat down to watch the show, the only Whedon work I had ever seen was his recent blockbuster, The Avengers, which I found fun and well-handled, more so than expected.  Many of my friends were infatuated with Whedon’s writing and direction, and put him on the same pedestal that culture places Christopher Nolan – as the phenomenally underrated cinematic Bard of our time.  And this worried me.

Before I go further, please hear me when I say this:  I too champion directors.  Without hesitation I would expound the brilliance of Terrence Malick, Darren Aronofsky, Rian Johnson, or Jim Jarmusch.  I believe promoting artists and their work is the only way to spread good examples of a medium and enhance the overall quality therein.

However, I have a problem with the over-eagerness I find when people discuss his work.  Friends or acquaintances speaking of Firefly or any of Whedon’s cinema carry a sort of mindless wonder of it.  Conversations about the show usually take on the following form:

P1:  “OMG!  Firefly!”
P2:  “I know, Right!?”
P1:  “It is SO good!”
P2: “I KNOW, RIGHT!?!?!?”

And usually this dissolves into both parties staring off into space, reminiscing about the grandeur of the show (mind you these conversations are held by the most learned of my film friends).

I do not want to linger on this point, but I am concerned about the Carte Blanche that fans seem to give the show.  Rarely do I hear an argument for why the show is good and rarer still do I hear a developed argument behind that “why”.  For proof, see this article of journalistic bumbler Hypable, which I offer as typifying the kinds of uncited and simplistic arguments made in defense of the show.  While this is one of the worse offenders, it does demonstrate the focus on generalities people use when speaking of the popular show.

I do not think Whedon a bad director, or that his work is bad.  Until I see the rest of his work, I feel it impertinent to make such a claim, particularly when I enjoyed Avengers so much.  What I will stick to is the fact that I have been put off by the fan/addicts of the show.  Liking a show is one thing.  Starting a fundraising campaign when lead actor Nathan Fillion quipped that, were he to win the lottery, he would buy the rights to Firefly – this demonstrates an unhealthy obsession.

Simply put, I am deeply concerned by the extremism they go to spreading their love of the show, resembling Scientology – spreading a “gospel” of the Western/Space Opera and silencing any opposition – far too powerful for an aging fandom.  I feel like a Union scab going up against the picket line by saying I do not like the show, and fear for the safety of my nice glass windows from hurtled bricks, but I cannot stand by people whose judgment of quality begins and ends with “Well it’s Joss Whedon, so how could it be bad!?”


2.  I really THOUGHT I would like this show

Before turning to the review, let me pacify the reader with the acknowledgment that I had every expectation of loving the show.  My friends were enamored with it; my professors extolled it; critics seemed to like it (before I did my research); and coming off of Battlestar Galactica, I had high hopes of falling in love with another ragtag crew of space survivors, and finding one more malnourished puppy on the side of TV Avenue with whom I could share love and attention.

The blending of two seemingly antithetical genres genuinely fascinated me, and was my primary motivation to watch.  In viewing, there were some elements of the show that I thoroughly did enjoy.  And however much I am not a fan of some things, I think I would agree most closely with Matthew Gilbert of the Boston Globe, who described the show as “a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility“.

I will leave the criticisms for the next section; suffice it to say, I do see why people like the show and certainly enjoyed the story universe.  The difference, I believe, between myself and the fan is that I was left adequately satisfied with what is, whereas others are left wanting.

Before proceeding, let me assuage some of your concerns and clarify that I was very aware going in that the original run of the show on Fox was marred by power struggles and narrative discombobulation.  Ryan did a fantastic job filling me in on the troubled history of Firefly and made sure that I was able to watch it the way it was intended to be seen.  Thus, I came at the show with the perfect set of circumstances to enjoy it, and to judge the narrative equitably.

How could Fox not like this!?
How could Fox not like this!?

3.  Overarching Issues

Now, at long last, comes the review.  Please understand that I will do my best to remove any subjectivity from my analysis to and focus on only that which is valid.  My issues with the series fall into four distinct, pervasive categories which I will detail below, followed by a brief examination of how these carried over into the subsequent film.

A.  The series grandiosely lacked the development needed to properly tell the story.

My overarching issue with the series is that it introduced a number of interesting elements, and then failed to develop them to the narratively demanded point – something I blame primarily on the oft-touted “seven year” plan of the show.

The narrative world of the story is a blending of two polar opposite genres.  First, one has the Sci Fi universe in which the story plays out.  This genre is one built on longer narrative arcs, demanding some plan or goal which the protagonists strive to achieve (or thwart) throughout the season or series.  Look no further than Battlestar to see what I mean: the surviving humans must outrun the Cylons in a desperate race for safety and their origin.  And while some would point to Star Trek as the counter-example of Sci Fi offering episodic delights, the show was founded on, and introduced each week by, Starfleet’s mission statement – the “five year mission” – which dictated every adventure the crew of the Enterprise ever had (not to mention the ongoing Klingon drama).

Though the show did rely on its second genre – the Western – for most of its procedural and serialized plot structure, the writers seemed to entirely ignore the needs of its partner Macro when designing the story.  The characters have no logical endgame (though a Star Wars-esque “overthrow the empire” theme is carefully teased in the subtext) and more importantly face no genuine antagonist throughout the series.  Thus, the creators set up the element of the overbearing Alliance as the watchful eye of the law these criminals must carefully skirt in order to stay in business – as well as the chaotic Reavers who, until the movie, do little more than show up as a scary ship in the pilot – before allowing them to settle far back into the unseen parts of the background where they no longer matter to the narrative at all.  These elements go undeveloped and stand as useless baggage weighing the scripts down.

Most prominently though (and this is the part that will get me in trouble), the showrunners failed to develop much characterization for the supposedly magnificent cast of characters – THE element of the show that causes most to label Firefly as tragically cut-short.

As evidence, I offer up the following list of snippets about the characters and narrative pulled directly from the wikipedia article on the show, as well as a few other commentaries, the sum of which reveals the general lack of clarity and direct characterization by the show of its narrative.

“The film Serenity makes clear…”  [Used far too often]
“DVD commentary suggests…justifying the series’…”
“It is later revealed that…”
“According to the DVD commentary…”
“The DVD set’s “making-of” documentary explains…”
“…referred to in the DVD commentary…”
“As Whedon states several times…”
[about Shepard] “His hidden backstory would have been gradually revealed…”
[Cited as a source] Whedon, Firefly Companion, Vol 1, 12

According to a post series comic, Shepherd Book is operating under the name of a man he killed.

Only by clues from the DVD Commentary, and the much later announcement at DragonCon 2008, do we learn that Inara is dying of a terminal illness.

Overall, I found myself often wondering when I would learn anything meaningful about the characters, or if they would progress during the brief run of the show on television.  Only with Jayne did I find that desire satisfied.  Set up as a simple brute archetype, common to almost any genre, he is taken on a journey of softening, learning to care deeply about others which makes him a wonderful character to root for.  However, the remaining characters stood stagnant in their roles, not straying too far from the very light introduction we received them with – even the “will they/won’t they” of Mal and Inara was painfully slow and each time left both as emotionally unaffected as House, MD.

And before the uproar begins, I again acknowledge that the season was cut short and horribly mismanaged by the network distributing them.  However, my point is this:  Firefly, like any other show trying to find market on a network, failed to capitalize on the short start-up it was given and deliver a promise of longstanding narrative possibility for the audience.  One cannot judge the show on what it could have been, but rather must see how it used the opportunity it was given.  The story world was interesting if unexplored and the narrative arcs were potentially fantastic had they been developed more properly.   What I am left with is a story which left me adequately filled and wanting of no more.

B.  Firefly is a blending of two genres that do not work together by their natures.

I have already spoken at length about the requirements of the Sci Fi tropes established as the sandbox in which the narrative sits, so I will now turn to the Micro level of the story and examine the wants of the Western.

According to Frank Gruber’s 1967 work The Pulp Jungle, the Western genre can be broken up into seven basic narratives:  the Union Pacific, Ranch, Empire, Revenge, Cavalry and Indian, Outlaw, and Marshall stories.  Each of these plots centers around an immediate problem faced by a small band, and overcoming it expediently.  This kind of narrative structure lends itself well to the procedural series, and honestly would have stood fine on its own as the story of Firefly.

However, as mentioned above, Sci Fi focuses on epic, large scale confrontations with major arc plots for characters and arc plots for the franchise. Thus, the show tries to marry something demanding longstanding melodramas with one built on simple, solve-by-the-end, action pieces.  Certainly I am not saying they could not fit together but here they do so poorly.

No episode married the two together well.  For example, “Heart of Gold” demonstrates admirably the tropes and narrative structure of a Western, yet lacks completely the Sci Fi themes.  On the other hand, my favorite episode, “Out of Gas”, relies on none of the frontier story devices and focuses on an excellently paced, tense Sci Fi problem.  The other episodes seem lost in the juggling of the two genre’s demands which ultimately leads them in muddied directions and shortened arcs.

One final note on this mismanagement of genre: it did not take long before I became frustrated with the filmmakers cramming “IT IS A SPACE WESTERN!!!!!” down my throat.  From bar brawls breaking out over Space billiards, to the Space horses riding off into the Space Sunset, I quickly grew tired of the laughably blunt ways the show would try and convince me of the awesomeness of this world.  The Road Warrior tells an apocalyptic western tale without constantly calling attention to the minor things which make it so.  Perhaps a little more tact and subtlety when crafting the world-building elements would have left me with less of a browbeaten feeling.

C.  Firefly’s dramatis personae is blanched by underdevelopment and fan misconceptions.

Seek any review of the series, any critique of it, and all one will find is a fount of never-ending praise for the characters Joss Whedon crafted.  From Variety: “Firefly’s wide spectrum of characters is its greatest asset, since any of its ensemble could take center stage from week to week”.

However, the characters are not left out of the underdevelopment aforementioned.  People extol the rich fullness of each character and the forward-thinking writing for the female roles.  Yet after viewing the series in entirety, I found myself with far more questions about the characters than  answers.

For example, the rigid immobility of protagonist Mal Reynolds, both in his personal and relational development, left me searching through the secondary characters for someone to follow.  I found what I wanted in the simple setup and unexpected transformation of Jayne Cobb from pigheaded muscle to devoted and loyal crewman.  Also, I thoroughly loved the topsy-turvy casting of the typically gruff “Scotty” mechanic character with the adorable and highly competent Kaylee.

On the other hand, some characters operated throughout the series as practical non-entities – showing up only when needed, abandoned a dark corner of the Mystery Box never to be opened.  Paramount is the distressing Deus Ex Machina provided by Shepherd Book.  A man swathed in obfuscation, Book acts as the moral compass (swayed by the occasional “magnet”) for the crew.  He stands in as the sage character, offering them advice out of a lifetime of presupposed “Having been there”.   Yet, when the crew needs a good shot to hold down the ship in “War Stories”, Book suddenly reveals he is a master gunslinger.  When the crew needs access to Alliance medical care in “Safe”, Book provides the clearance necessary to get them aboard.  He knows far more than he should and, though posing as the pseudo-Christian pastor, has a morality that flexes as the needs of the narrative change [read – “Kneecaps”].

I know some are intrigued by this purposeful ambiguity, but I found it frustrating.  Book’s character never grows because he has all things already under his command, and the highly interesting story behind this jack-of-all-trades is entirely ignored – abandoned to be exposited far later in the planning of the story – to the detriment of the character’s introduction.

Further, if one could say anything about the show having the necessary Sci Fi arc, it would be about the stowing away by Dr. Simon Tam of his sister River.  This does lead to a majority of the Serenity crew’s problems, and yet it is done with disregard for that element’s development.  I would count the good Doctor as one of the few characters who has a clear definition to begin with, a driven goal to strive for, and change, which occurs once he is introduced to the characters and circumstances of the plot.  His relationship with Kaylee is one of the better narratives that developed in the short 14 episode run of the show.

Nevertheless, the plot really centers on his mentally fazed sister River, whom people champion both as a wonderful character and as a model of an excellent female character in television.  However, I contend that fans have come to confuse the image of her tacked on by the film with that projected by the original story.

In the show her role is relegated primarily to the standard tropes of a damsel needing rescue by the larger male company surrounding her.  At the beginning she is physically incapable of providing for herself, exiting a coma only to wander in torpid stupor.  As she becomes more aware of herself and the crew, she remains emotionally needy – only providing the random and sporadic Deus Ex assistance.  “War Stories” seems to be her burgeoning as a strong independent character.  However, she only provides a brief moment of intensity before retreating into the protected womb of the script which does not see her develop further until the ridiculous, rapid hyper-growth in Serenity.  She has a very interesting past which ultimately would have been fun to see revealed over time, but there was a needed unveiling at the start which would have made her someone to care about.

Further, though other women in the show are touted as heroes for feminist ideals, they exemplify an interesting potential to be so, but again are confused by fans as already having them.  Most point to Inara as anything but a “Hooker with a Heart of Gold” and perhaps she would have been, had the narrative continued to its endpoint.  However, that is exactly the role she plays for the series.

An unabashed “companion”, Inara provides sexual, as well as emotional, favors for her clientele and is very clearly tied to a brothel in the blatantly titled “Heart of Gold”.  She offers counsel to the protagonist, Mal, and acts both as his moral guide and as his love interest.  She does run her operation independently and seems to have the ability to come and go as she desires, and yet is always placed in the protective arms of Mal and the crew.  She exemplifies to a T the traits and tropes of a “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”.  As a final indictment for anyone who doubts my read of the character, look no further than TVtropes.org – an online encyclopedia of stereotypes – which lists her among the examples of the trope.

Finally, one comes to Zoe Washburn.  Admittedly, she is the best example of a strong and independent woman I have seen in a series.  On top of that, I have to point out that she does not do so from a place of singleness, which is a beautiful thing.  I love that she exists as an interesting, confident, and competent character in a relationship with the other sex.

However, I think the fact that she is placed in a love triangle does diminish the effect slightly.  Addressed directly in “Safe”, she is placed in balance between Mal and her husband, Wash.  The captain uses his history with her to frustrate his pilot (and save his life), and Wash fights strongly to assert his right to his wife’s love.  I do not think this entirely devalues the work done elsewhere, but it does add a minor blemish to an otherwise fantastic character.

The characters were fun and a great blend for an ensemble piece.  I loved the mixing up of a few roles, such as having the girly-girl be the chief mechanic.  And ultimately, I do see elements of each character that pique my interest and that would have been interested in following throughout.  However, the lax development of these elements in the show’s beginning led me to a point of being only decently satisfied.  I have seen enough of a fun cast of characters and left without a burning desire to see more – the most vital thing a blooming show needs to establish.

Before we go further, I will again recognize that many will argue that all of these issues would have been addressed had the show been allowed to continue.  However, that model simply does not apply to any televised show and thus I cannot fathom why this is considered a valid defense.  If a show fails in its early days to capture the audience’s attention and provide satisfactory promise that excellent development of plot and character are on the way, the networks would be foolish to keep it around.  Firefly is no exception to this law of Hollywood and thus its poor ratings led to its demise.  It did not provide me proof that the show would suddenly pick up in its development and engage all of the intriguing plot threads it had weakly established.  It remains only “a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility“.

D.  The show is fraught with Technical Issues.

Finally, I took issue with a number of technical flounderings which both took me out of the story and made me question the creator’s decisions as a whole.

Namely, the fight choreography was atrocious.  My experiences on set with the designing and executing of a proper action scene, though not as numbered as possible, taught me enough to know a missed hit when I see one and I could not have been blind to the number of poorly executed brawls and battles throughout the series.  Missed connections, bad sound effects, and a general feeling of “Student Film” stunts work pervade.  Contrastingly, I found this video of the rehearsal for the big bar fight scene in the film Serenity which as designed by Ryan Watson – also known for his work on V for Vendetta and the upcoming 300: Rise of an Empire.

What did not surprise me greatly was this: when I searched for the Fight Choreographer of the show Firefly, my search did not turn up anyone with that title.  Instead, I found Nick Brandon, a Stunt Coordinator who apparently organized the scenes and is most responsible for the brawls.  Simply put, it seems as though the creators failed to shell out the money to hire an expert whose sole focus was designing and crafting the fight scenes for the series, and instead left it to the 11th hour with a crew of competent, but not concentrated, stunt men.

Second, the cinematography was acceptably interesting but I consistently found myself looking at shots with soft focus.  Every few minutes I caught a slight fuzziness to a characters face or to the subject of the shot and, according to Wikipedia, this was planned to mimic documentary-style filmmaking.  I understand the purpose of trying to make the show seem more real, rough-and-tumble, but when the motif is not consistent, the viewer finds his or her self pulled from the movie to note an odd stylistic deviance.  It worked against the show to have a camera technique pop in only occasionally.

Further, a constant problem was the sound editing and mix of the show.  Namely, the sound effects were very out of place and oddly chosen.  When looking at a magnum revolver, I expect some kind of violent, explosive sound – something that captures the metal of the piece.  So when Mal’s six-shooter emits a “PEW PEW PEW” sound, I stop believing in the reality of the moment.  When a brute gets thrown through the horribly impractical holo-window in a bar fight, I expect something with more pop and break to it – at least the breaking of an electrical field – but instead I get a sort of swoop sound which makes the whole thing seem ridiculous (and not the humorous “I see what you did there” way).  Overall, my attention was constantly being diverted from the narrative of the series by bizarrely out of place snippets of audio.

Finally, it meant nothing to me when the actors and actresses suddenly started into a vernacular for which I have no precedent.  I know people love the stylized quasi-western speak of the Serenity’s crew, but “shiny” does not mean anything to me.  Calling it the “‘Verse” seems like an over-colloquialism by Hollywood people, much like when Californian’s try to write what Southerners sound like (I admit I take this rather personally, as I am from the South).  But as much as I like the narrative inclusion of a merger between the USA and China, and though I like the idea of mixing the languages, I found myself entirely lost every time they launched into Chinese in the middle of a sentence.  Unlike Battlestar Galactica, which messed with the story world’s jargon in very clear and obvious replacements and which taught me how to understand these new terms, Firefly throws it at you and expects that it will just make sense.  Simply put, the words and phrases mean nothing to me and thus do nothing to build the world of the story, but rather drew me out wondering what they were talking about.

I know some will say that the low budget of the series led to all of these problems, or that they are excusable because they are stylistic (like Dr. Who).  And I recognize that each one of these issues is a series of nitpicks which alone would not challenge the quality of the show.  However, when viewed as a collective, one can see that the number of elements collect to distract from what the show is trying to do and disables the astute viewer from overlooking them for the good in the show.

4.  Serenity — Too Little, Too Late

Before wrapping all this up, let me speak specifically about the movie and how it did little more than prove what went wrong in the show.

First and foremost, understand that I liked the movie much more than I liked the show.  It fundamentally abandoned the Western motifs the series had leaned on in favor of focusing on the Sci Fi elements.  For the first time in the series, we saw an actual antagonism arise from both the overbearing Alliance and the terrifying Reavers.  However, as amazing as the tense camouflaged journey through Reaver territory and back was, it again proved to be something well suited for the long arc story of Sci Fi, not something that was well-implemented in the series.

Further, the Alliance finally shows up but in the form of a bizarre X-files rip off.  Again, it was nice to finally see the oppression by the hegemony, but it came in a form that was off-putting and which failed to capture the larger scope of what was essentially set up as a “Han and Chewie versus the Empire” story.  I am aware that it was mainly Fox’s decision to incorporate the odd G-men characters, but a bad idea is a bad idea, regardless of what individual or large media corporation made it.  What worked well was giving us a face to despise in a character that they finally got right: Jubal Early.

As I said earlier, the characters were left undeveloped, or taken to bizarre extremes that undid what the show had built up.  Once again, Shepherd Book stays entirely in the shadows, bringing us no closer to an understanding of who he is or was.  Some accept this as the mythos of the character.  However, I cannot allow the justification of poor characterization in the show to be covered by burying it in “Well, he’s just mysterious”.  That is how we got to the nonsensical and ridiculous ending of Lost. 

On the opposite spectrum, River transforms from a meek and frail damsel to a barbaric and methodical executioner – entirely dismantling her character in favor of one to which audiences and fans around the world could drink the Kool-Aid.  As intense and impressive as the “River Prime” had become, I couldn’t help noting the lack of connection to the original River, and I am frustrated that this last image of her seems to have switched itself in the viewer’s minds and rooted itself as the true nature of her character.

As I titled the section, the film comes in with an opportunity to deal with a number of poorly developed elements from the show, but ultimately proves too little, too late.  It changed very little of my perspective on the series and only worked to add more things I wished had been handled better.  Admittedly, some of my qualms come because of network decisions, but Whedon and Co. failed to address the development problems and instead focused on shifting the story in other directions.

5.  Concluding thoughts

All of this adds up to a show and a movie which people trumpet as one of the greatest endeavors of television, ruthlessly euthanized by a short-sighted network, and yet which seems to exhibit a multitude of problems.  Of course I admit there are elements that I really like about the series, and further confess that some of my issues with the show are based on subjective dislikes.  However, as I have shown, there are a number of objective, narrative issues which would and have sunk other shows and films.

Firefly is NOT awful.  Far from it.  However, it is not as great as fans purport it to be.  Ultimately my opinion of the show remains as Matthew Gilbert says: “a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility“.  I had fun with parts of it and enjoyed the creative effort.  However, overall I found it a hodgepodge of innovative ideas only decently executed at best.  Though I feel the wrath of the Browncoats amassing against me, I hope they can see that I gave the show its best shot and it simply did not enrapture me as it does others.  I saw through the fandom and found a cornucopia of errors and underdeveloped elements, which proved it not to be the masterpiece people seem to think it is.

Rating  5//10

That’s it!  I am done!  Please light up my comment section with your yelling and threats.  I welcome them gladly and look forward to the many angry conversations to come. 🙂  Below I am adding a section of other reviews which agree with me that Firefly is not the greatest thing in TV history, for your viewing pleasure.


Additional Sources

http://jam.canoe.ca/Television/TV_Shows/F/Firefly/2002/07/22/734323.html —> “In space, no one can hear you yawn.”

http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Sci-fi-Firefly-is-a-bonanza-of-miscues-from-2768434.php —>  “Firefly” feels like a forced hodgepodge of two alarmingly opposite genres just for the sake of being different.”

http://www.ign.com/articles/2003/12/09/firefly-the-complete-series —>  Firefly took the whole western thing very seriously.”

http://www.metacritic.com/tv/firefly/user-reviews —> SeInAdams:  “The cast and crew should be fortunate that there are loyal fans out that will fall on to the sword for their success, because honestly, they would be dead and forgotten without them.”