I’m about to commit fandom suicide here, but I suppose if you’re gonna go… death by Browncoat isn’t too bad?
Look, Firefly is great. I would never dispute that—in fact, I consider myself a fan of the show overall. But it’s not The Best, and I’m still really confused about how it is constantly touted as such. Incredibly confused. And I can’t help but think that shimmery gossamer cloaking it has so much to do with it’s early death.
Here’s the deal: whenever I see a top ten list of practically anything concerning sci-fi television on the internet, if Firefly is not mentioned somewhere, there are lots of angry people insisting at its inclusion. Because the show has touched a lot of people and features some really fun, excellent talent, and because we just love Joss Whedon’s quippy dialogue and no one can tell us we’re wrong. But can we talk about the show as an entity critically? Just for a moment? I keep wanting to, but most people are not so keen to have this conversation with me.
Part the first—No matter how you slice it, this show has 14 episodes and a movie.
Yeah, there are some comics, but in the medium it was intended, it’s about a season’s worth of material these days. More importantly, it’s not a complete story; it was intended to be a television show that ran for years, the same way Buffy and Angel did. So the show is a lot of fun, yes, and the opening episodes showed loads of potential. But when someone tells me it’s one of their favorite television shows in the whole world, my brain immediately goes: That would be like if I handed you the first three chapters of The Sound and the Fury and told you it was one of my favorite ever books. What would I be asking you to enjoy? To consider?
There is plenty of fiction out there that never really “ends” in a proper sense of the word. Buffy will be the Slayer until she is dead, and that means that she gets to have many adventures that fans will never be privy to. But the show still had a finale. A place to pause, where an arc of her main journey was complete and everyone could feel free to walk away. Firefly doesn’t have that. If your final experience in the universe is Serenity, it effectively ends with a call to action—which is the exact opposite of an ending.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that there is any problem with calling Firefly your favorite television show. But I do take issue with then insisting that the show be held up as one of the great staples everyone else should marvel at and adore. Because this has to do with my next problem…
Part the Second—The show’s premature demise casts it in a fine glow that comes from a lack of maturation.
Endings can kill things, especially where series are concerned. How many people love to rip on the epilogue of Harry Potter? How terribly has Battlestar Galactica fared in the genre zeitgeist for its abysmal final episodes? How many people still wish that island in Lost had been a metaphor for purgatory, like they’d guessed all along? The pressure to stick the landing in fiction is higher than ever, and it’s worse in television because when you take a bow is usually not up to you; studios can choose not to renew a show for countless reasons, and it’s rare to get enough time to wrap up.
But ending a season ahead of where you expected is not the same as being halted on your first lap through the pool. That is what happened to Firefly—it had barely cleared the gate before it was cut off. That the characters managed to resonate so quickly and steal the hearts of fans is a testament to the writing and the cast, but even so, Firefly garners the praise it does for another important reason: it’s just a great big basket of potential that will remain untapped.
You love the show, yes, but what hurts are all those episodes you missed. We’re stuck forever wondering what Firefly was going to become, where those characters were going, what they would accomplish together, who they would admit into their ragtag thieving band, who else they would lose along the way. And because the show had such a promising start, the tragedy is more keen. Firefly only had thirteen episodes when it was cancelled, but the dysfunctional family dynamic of Serenity’s crew made us feel at home with them. They were folks that fans wanted to grow with, specifically because they spoke to how downtrodden many of us feel in that desire to live the kind of lives we’re wishing for. There’s a little bit of Robin Hood there, a little bit of frontier magic, a little bit of ‘screw the man, fight the power!’
This ignores, of course, the fact that the longer the series went on, the more it would have occasionally disappointed. Most long-running shows have seasons or spates of episodes that we find groan-worthy. Most shows handle a topic, a character, a progression in a way that grates fans and causes strife among the diehard and dedicated. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this—television is a complex medium that is ever-changing, and hitting rough patches in creative projects is basically par for the course. But it is a sure part of the reason why Firefly exists on a gilded pedestal; we never had a chance to grow tired of it. We didn’t have enough hours logged to get irritated and confused, to mull over plotholes and missed opportunities. We never got to find out if there was some way to take the sky back, and what that would do to the ’verse.
We were just left with a Serenity ship-shaped hole and a mountain of what-ifs. Which brings me to…
Part the Third—Not all the what-ifs were good ones.
Firefly was wonderfully unique in many aspects and a heck of a lot of fun. The show presented a different outline for the future than most science fiction television; a place that was not a shining bastion of humanity’s achievements, but rather where our problems remained just the same. No fun aliens for distraction, no great missions to far reaches of the universe, no science-y science. Though an oversimplification, it was basically cowboys in space.
More specifically, it’s… southern restoration in space?
The initial inspiration for Firefly was Joss Whedon reading a book about the Civil War, and considering what it must have been like for the side who lost. That’s what Mal Reynolds embodies, the Confederate soldier who has to surrender to the powers that have beaten him, his friends, his loved ones. Who has to rebuild his world now that his way of life is no longer supported by the government in charge (except the Browncoats don’t seem to be for slavery for obvious, not okay reasons). That gets combined with a frontier narrative as Mal and his crew attempt to eke out lives for themselves, further and further away from the Alliance’s watchful eye.
The frontier part of Firefly’s tale seems like it should be the easiest sell because it’s a timely hot button for western and American fiction in particular; we “ran out” of frontier, which had in turn been the foundation for so many stories. And now with the space program mostly canned and a general lack of new country to explore, it’s harder to find that ever. So let’s do it on new planets! Ones that we terraformed, so we’re not displacing native populations in our search for new horizons! This is the right way to do this, yes?
Well… sure. In some ways, Mal’s tale is incredibly topical for a current audience. His journey is bound up in the realization that the sky is getting cluttered, there’s very little road left on the grand proverbial highway. People with wanderlust, who want to explore, who belong in the wind, are getting policed more and more with every foothold the Alliance gains. The same could be said for many of us. Manifest Destiny seems so quaint these days.
So what’s the problem? Perhaps the fact that Whedon decided that the final worldly superpowers of Earth-that-was were going to be America and China… and then gave us a ’verse full of those cues and not one main Asian cast member. As a result, most of the Chinese flourishes in the show are just that—flourishes. A Chinese curse word! Markets populated by Asian characters we never see anyone interact with! An oiran-like system that is full of predominantly white women! (By the way, oirans are Japanese, but that doesn’t seem to be an important designation that is ever made on screen. Even though China and Japan are two very different countries and cultures.)
The companion side of culture was always going to be a problem any way you cut it, but specifically using the underpinnings of a faux-geisha system is just… awkward? I want to believe that it would have been handled better and better down the line, but nothing that I saw or heard about Inara’s guild led me to believe that. Firefly was in a position to make some scathing commentary about the “frail, demure, obedient” stereotypes constantly leveled at Asian women, if only we’d seen one as a companion who blew those adjectives out of the water. And that would have been difficult ground to tread, yes—but it’s the least that should have been done in a show that spent so much time using the trappings of Chinese and Asian cultures.
This is all without mentioning the fact that even though the Companion Guild is government sanctioned and has self-protections woven throughout, the system is aggravatingly same-same for something that is set centuries in the future. Sure, Mal claims that he respects Inara even if he doesn’t respect her profession. But that’s pretty much having it both ways. “No, I respect you as a person, totally! I just think the way you chose to live your life is completely bonkers and will never be okay with it!” Fine from a distance to feel that way, I guess—pretty awful for someone living under your roof. (Also, Inara was supposed to be dying from a terminal illness, according to Whedon. Because the easiest way to deal with the fact that Mal can’t get over her job is to rip her away from them all?)
Add to that another example of the glorification of cowboy culture—something that really doesn’t deserve much glorification and certainly doesn’t require more of it—and the show falls on pretty uneven terms in its representation. In many ways, Malcolm Reynolds is an update of the Lone Ranger myth; a man who decides to make his own word of law where there is none, who protects the helpless on the edge of the wilds with help from his friends, all while the actual powers that be ignore the suffering of common folk. Is that really a myth that needed a retrofit? We all want to believe in big damn heroes like that, but they often fall short when they continually allow their personal brand of justice to dictate the day. Would Firefly have addressed that roundly? Would Serenity’s crew have made moral mistakes that they couldn’t shoot their way out of? One hopes the answer would have been yes, but yet again, we will never find out.
And I do understand that we can’t choose the things that inspire us. They either hit us where we live or they don’t. Firefly did that for a lot of people. It has spawned charities and friendships and one of the most dedicated fan bases that sci-fi has ever seen. For what it is, that’s incredible. But I do think that some distance is needed. It’s great to love Firefly—but in terms of its place amongst SF royalty, it’s more honest to say that we all love Firefly’s potential. That we love what we believed it would achieve, that we wanted to make a home out there.
So contrary to popular dogma, I’d argue that burning brightly and snuffing out quick isn’t really the best way to go—even if it has kept Firefly fandom together for over a decade. All it leaves behind are more questions and lots of cute quotes. I’d rather have watched the show stumble and occasionally fall. I’d have rather watched it try to charm its way out of gaping plotholes and infuriating season finales. As is, I loved it lots… but I can’t call it “the best” anything without knowing what it was trying to achieve.