Firefly: Quality and Ratings

Written by Dan

Published February 15, 2004

What is it about high-quality, well-written, well-acted science fiction shows and the television industry, anyway? Is there some unwritten rule that says there are not allowed to be any good sci-fi shows around?

First, Babylon 5 had to struggle each year for renewal, barely managing to last its planned five-year run. Then TNT killed Crusade in the crib before it even had a chance to develop some popularity, making it a victim of inter-office politics. Then, the Sci-Fi Channel axed Farscape unexpectedly, claiming its ratings had slumped while at the same time shuffling its time slot and failing to adequately promote the series.

And finally, there’s Firefly. Ah, Firefly... I’m not a professional critic, but I could clearly see a beautiful gem of a show amid the general muck that is the television network called Fox. I had extreme doubts about the series premise at first— a combination of the science fiction and western drama genres? Sure, Roddenberry loved to espouse Star Trek as the “Wagon Train to the stars”, but literally creating a sci-fi western? How corny would this get?

As it turned out, it would hardly get corny at all, with the sole exception, ironically, being the second pilot episode that Fox insisted on airing first. Yet despite the prominence of the classical (even stereotypical) western motif, Firefly clearly developed its own tone, its own goals, and its own message.

Last month I bought the Firefly DVD collection with my Christmas money, desperately seeking a fix of quality sci-fi to supplement the mediocre-but-improving episodes of Enterprise. Watching the show let me fall in love with the crew of the good ship Serenity all over again.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds. On paper, this guy is about as stiff a cardboard character as you can get. A stiff-lipped captain straddling the edge of the law yet carrying inside a heart of gold, fond of running rob-from-the-rich-to-give-to-the-poor operations; how stereotypical can you get? Yet actor Nathan Fillion really brings this character alive, and creates a strong emotional depth and a very believable, down-to-earth realism. His conduct delightfully toes the line of morality and legality on many occasions, inspiring some good introspection concerning beliefs of right, wrong, and acceptable action.

Zoe and Wash. Although the very use of a love triangle is becoming way overdone in most television drama, here, it’s handled exceptionally well, and has a twist to it as well. The fact that Zoe has known the Captain for longer, yet both she and her husband serve under him, immediately offers the potential for conflict— and the characters deliver it in spades.... but only at the appropriate times. (That’s another great thing about Firefly: the way it knows when to address certain issues, and when not to.) The episode “War Stories” is a great example of the potential for resentment, angst, and conflict on all sides. Also, Zoe’s choices in facing Niska (the twisted rat-bastard kingpin) is both coldly logical and incredibly touching— knowing Niska was only going to let one person go, she immediately chose Wash over Mal.

Rounding out the “brawn” category of Serenity’s crew is good ol’ Jayne Cobb, the tough-guy with the unlikeliest of tough-guy names. Yet somehow, actor Adam Baldwin pulls off this role with the kind of flare that is so common on Firefly, and makes the cast so believable. He may be the stereotypical “I’m in it for the money” kind of guy, but at least, every once in a while, he shows a glimmer of civility underneath. It makes his occasional acts of betrayal against Mal and the crew all the more interesting, because each time afterwards, you can see he regrets it in some way— either through fear or genuine understanding.

If Jayne was the brawn of Serenity, then Simon and River Tam were its heart and soul. Bringing aboard the ongoing quasi-political/mystery arc concerning the totalitarian Alliance of Planets, these two take an overwhelming story of conspiracy and make it personal and heart-rending. Actress Summer Glau was regularly stunning in her incoherent-yet-insightful performances as River, the victim of some sort of cruel brain surgery ordered by the Alliance that has distorted her psyche and given her unknown mental capabilities.

Even after watching several of the episodes two or three times, I’m still not sure I can say I know what exactly might have happened to River, or what she’s capable of. I still remember that split second in “Objects in Space,” when I actually believed that River had “melted away” and become part of Serenity. I still remember the scene when she shot three mercenaries with her eyes closed in “War Stories.” And her chilling screams in “Bushwhacked” make me think that she’s got some kind of telepathic sense. (Brief aside: Those two gloved gentlemen in neat business suits and piercing eyes who were chasing after River never failed to scare the crap out of me. “Two by two, hands of blue,” indeed...)

River’s performances would be hollow, though, if there weren’t someone there to react to her fears, and to comfort her. Simon represents the perfect big brother— smart, caring, and protective. His aristocratic ways amusingly clash with the laid-back, down-to-earth mannerisms of most of the rest of the crew. And although his frequent foot-in-mouth scenes with Kaylee (the cute, lovable engineer-genius) got a little tiring by the end, they never failed to entertain.

Kaylee herself was a very uncomplicated character— very straightforward, wearing her heart on her sleeve. Yet even without a lot of complex motives, she nevertheless had some opportunity for some very deep interactions with the rest of the crew— especially Simon.

I remember first reading about the character of Inara, the Companion (a “space prostitute”). Initially dismissing her role simply as a lame attempt at eye candy, I very quickly discovered that she was actually a very good attempt at adding eye candy. Morena Baccarin brought an incredibly complex character to the screen, one who always exuded respectability, decorum, and virtue— hardly adjectives to describe the common picture of a prostitute.

I’ve left the greatest enigma of all for last, mainly because I have no idea what to make of him. From practically the very start, Shepherd Book is very clearly not your average cloistered priest without a clue of the rules of life on the Rim Worlds. His knowledge of smugglers, of weapons, of machines and electronics— not to mention the fact that his identity earned him first-class medical treatment on an Alliance cruiser... whatever this man’s purpose, it seems clear he’s not there for preaching. At least, not in the usual sense.

My personal theory is that Book is a retired Alliance officer, probably either dissatisfied at the sinister nature of the Alliance’s totalitarian society in the Core worlds, or else haunted by some terrible actions during the Civil War some years earlier. (If I were to speculate even further, my guess would be that Book actually fought against Mal and Zoe at some point during the war... possibly even at the Battle of Serenity, the namesake of the series’ ship.)

The story of these nine characters, each apparently relatively simple yet incredibly complex in their own way, creates an intriguing tapestry that was only beginning to be explored in the first fourteen episodes of Firefly. Although it was more episodic than arc-driven, it had very clear elements of ongoing storylines in it (most notably River’s worsening condition and developing talents).

I still find it very hard to believe that such a well-conceived and -written series like Firefly (created by Joss Whedon, one of the masters of the television business if there ever was one) could be ignored and ultimately killed by Fox. It seems lately as if so many networks don’t want to take responsibility for promoting their own series in order to make themselves money— they’d rather keep pumping out crappy reality shows like My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancé.

There are rumors milling about that Joss Whedon is negotiating for a new Firefly feature film. I’m not sure if I’d approve of something like that— although any new material would most certainly be welcome, I’m not sure if Firefly would transfer well to a single big-screen release. After all, one of the series’ strengths was the week-to-week trials and tribulations of the crew; in a feature movie, there is no week-to-week.

At any rate, I’m going to go off now and watch another episode of this excellent series, one of my all-time favorites— Firefly.