Rambling ...

I'm an Irish Girl, A Dubliner, with the 'Gift of the Gab' ... I like to talk & to tell you things. In Celtic times news, views and comment were carried from place to place by wandering Seanachaí ~ Storytellers ~ who relied on their host's hospitality and appreciation. I will need that from you too, as I venture to share Politics, Poetry, Laughter, Love, Life & everything in-between ... from Bog to Blog!!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Firefly ... The Final Frontier!!!

Monday Movie Review  ..... except it's not Monday ~ although, I did start this on Monday!?! ~   &  it's not really a movie review either ~ well, it is a movie review, but it is much more that that ~ it is also a review of the tv series on which that movie is based.  And a Story .... of the Stupidity which led to it's cancellation after less than a Season.  Per a personal request & quite the project ....  a review of the bestest tv series ever to grace the 'Verse.  The Movie is Serenity & the Series is Firefly.   This Blog posting is dedicated to a Special Someone .... you know who you are!!

I grew up in Ireland, in a land where all American tv shows were not always available to view.  Firefly was not shown anywhere across the Atlantic. And I missed it.  An American friend insisted that it was not to be missed & so,  one Friday lunchtime I bought the dvd box set for the one & only season,  intending to watch a couple of episodes that weekend.   It was more than unmissable, it was haunting ..... intriguing in a way that so little TV is, throwing me into a story in a strange universe peopled by Real people, not Klingons or Cylons, or hybrids or aliens, but real recognisable people with real relationships ~  for the people of Firefly, separated from us by half a millennium, are real people in a new world, new worlds in fact,  & this didn't just lend the series an aura of authenticity ~ it made it real and made me a part of it like no other mere TV show has ever done before.  

I watched it all the way through that weekend.   I've watched it all the way through more than once since. Way more than once. Again & again & again.  I never, ever get tired of these too-few episodes. There may only be 14 of them, but each is such a rich tapestry of story, character, and culture that I see something new in them with every single re-viewing (and there's so much detail crammed into the backgrounds that I practically have to pause and rewind and pause again to get a look at some fascinating gadget or other ~ thinks 'Vera' here!!!!).  I never even skip the opening credits ... the lyrics of the theme song in itself are so evocative of the stubbornly independent mindset of the characters,  particularly of the series' hero, that I never get enough of hearing it or singing along!  And, that hero Captain Malcom Reynolds, who would cringe at that description .... well, I just went & fell headlong in love with him ....

The Captain

In Mal,  (Nathan Fillion),  owner and Captain of the Firefly-class cargo and passenger ship Serenity,  series creator Joss Whedon gives us the embodiment of the attitude that sets Firefly apart ~  an expediency, a practicality that is recognizably, down-to-earth human in a way that  brings a genuine frontier flavour and a pragmatic hinterlands spirit to TV science fiction.   The beauty of Firefly IS its original take on the science fiction genre, coupled with  Joss Whedon's unique brand of quirky, cliché-overturning storytelling.    Most si-fi,  from Star Trek  to  Star Wars,  tends to be a stately,  grandiose affair,  dealing with galaxy-shaking matters and led by noble, heroic figures  full of honour and high ideals ..... in the words of Mozart in Amadeus .... "People so lofty, you'd think they shit marble!"   

Firefly  flies in the face of that tradition,  giving us characters who aren't so much heroes as survivors.  They're not seeking out new worlds, or saving the galaxy from alien hordes. (In fact, the closest Firefly comes to featuring aliens is Space-Pirate Reavers,  and even they're human beings!).   Instead, the crew of  Serenity spend most of their time making shady deals and scrabbling for cash.  In other words, this isn't so much about epic adventure as it is about everyday lives.   Utopian fantasies may be pleasant, but the gritty, messy reality of the Whedon 'verse  is dynamic and exciting, an extraordinary backdrop against which to tell stories that are unforgettable.  

 As with all of Whedon's series,   Firefly is really about family, & that is what the crew of Firefly is .... Family,  and that's the most compelling aspect of this ensemble-driven show.  Some of its most effective moments are simply shots of the crew eating supper or playing basketball together, engaging in easy banter and just hanging out.  Whedon has created great roles, peopled them with awesome actors, and put them into episodes that aren't notable for their storylines so much as their opportunities for character interaction and growth.   Not that the stories themselves are lacking.  Far from it!   If you've seen even one episode of  Buffy  or Angel (sigh!),   you'll know much of what to expect in Firefly.     Whedon loves to usurp expectations and deflate self-importance, and that subversive attitude provides some of Firefly's most memorable moments,  like when Mal deals with a hostage-taker villian in a way that's not just surprising but shocking,  swiftly switching the advantage to himself,  breathlessly catching me completely off guard.   But,  Firefly isn't just about surprise or snarkiness or humourous anticlimax either,  Whedon knows when to play it straight too.  He obviously feels deeply about his characters,  and this passion brings every moment of the show to life. 


And Firefly is 90% character driven.  The Plot with it's twists and functional narrative are above all quality,  but it's the characters that hook you.  How about this for a mix ....

an irascible self-styled captain who fought on the right but losing side of an interstellar war. He served his time WITH;
his right hand woman, a fighter, fiercely loyal to her captain who nonetheless is MARRIED to;
the Pilot who is Whedon's Witty alter ego (has to be). The pilot is reliant on his Scotty;
a sweet pretty girl who hears engines talking to her (metaphorically of course);
and last and outwardly least (but even he grows on you & you learn to love him) there's the brutish mercenary who's in to nothing without personal gain attached. Hell, he even screws over his crew-mates on a regular basis.

Captain Malcolm ReynoldsZoëWash, Kaylee and Jayne form the crew of Serenity.  The passengers are a wonderfully mixed bag,  in short, a doctor with his bag, a paranoid schizophrenic, a whore and a preacher. Ain't TV grand?

  Aside from the pilot, a wonderful scene at the start of the episode Our Mrs Reynolds (all nine crew members faced with an accidental marriage) is Firefly character writing at its most sublime.  There is subtext at every line and it's heartbreakingly funny. The Captain says as an aside "How drunk was I last night?"  Helpfully, his soldier crew-mate Jayne makes the situation better with "I dunno. I passed out."

A marriage in a prime time TV show?   They have sex.  They have good sex.  My, my, my. They are happy.  Now we know we're in fantasy land.  Firefly is for grown ups!   Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoë (Gina Torres) work so well together, it's heartbreaking to know this show is no more. Wash's off the wall surreal banter beautifully dovetails with Zoë's down to earth soldierly attitude.

 Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is the resident shifty mercenary who plays Shakespere's Cordelia role in Firefly.  He blossoms against stereotype because Whedon never lets him lose his Jayne-ness.   He's a mercenary bastard and throughout the series he stays a mercenary bastard.   He's just Jayne!   And, Jayne couldn't be anything other than himself & we love him for himself.   He's a bastard and that's a bastard of a coup to pull off ~ creator, writer and actor-wise.  Baldwin is a consistent joy. He only has to react to anything and it's priceless.

'The brilliant engineer' is a scifi staple (a cliché even) so Whedon's subverted that by casting Kaylee (Jewel Staite) as a bright eyed innocent girl, buffeted this way and that by the rough edges of everyone else but she holds her own being  Serenity's   bubbling,  beating heart!!   Her introduction to the ship (in Out of Gas) is memorable if only because it's during a sex scene behind ajarred machinery that speaks to her!!

 By far one of the more interesting & beautiful characters is River (Summer Glau), the Alliance-operated-on, mind reading paranoid schizophrenic fugitive.  It's all go on Serenity, isn't it?  I identified with & adored River when she told the preacher man (appropriately named 'Book')  that the Bible was 'broken'.  Perfect Goodness!!!!   She also steals a scene in Safe in which she suddenly hones in on a hoe down and dances free of care ~ she is a dancer ~ we saw this in Buffy too!

 Looking after River is the doctor,  her brother Simon Tam (Sean Maher). His privileged background makes him the outsider on the ship and his knack of saying exactly the wrong thing keeps Kaylee at a distance when she really wants to be close.  It's a tough role to pull off. He has to be aloof, superior, inordinately caring and also carrying the psychology of a man on the run (as he has ripped his very important sister free from the Alliance's scalpels and lasers).  Simon's Ivy League looks underline the character. He's the moneyed crewmember, the only one with no dirt under his fingernails.

Mal & Inara
And now we come to my personal favourite, I think,  ... Inara (Morena Baccarin)  a taboo character,  a  respectable 'companion' or as Mal more accurately terms it at least once an episode  .... a 'whore'!   Repackaged morality for the 25th century!!!   I believe she is the first prostitute with a reccurring role on a prime time TV show.  Fancy that?  Everyone does because she is gorgeous,  but her heart belongs to the only man who doesn't know that yet (who else but the Captain),  who disparages her 'whoring' because he can't bear to think of her loving another man.  Inara is a very hard part to play.  She has to exude the confidence of a woman who choses her own clientele & is perfectly at ease with her career,  but at absolute unease with her emotions,  especially whenever the Captain is around.  At this she is completely convincing.

Finally, there's the preacher, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass).  Religion out on the fringe may be unrealistic (after all, Firefly's playground is the heavens itself) but the gravitas that Glass brings to his role is admirable and never less than entertaining.  If we have to have a man of G-d, then Book fits the bill.  And you've got to love the Einsteinian hair & intellect!!

Wheedon's human civilization 500 years into the future feels completely plausible, from the politically tangled climate of failed civil war and ascendant totalitarianism to the way people speak ~ one of the most astonishing aspects of the series is how the universally magnificent cast managed to deliver not only Chinese slang so convincingly but have also imbued their speech with a rhythm that is not like how we speak today,  which is even more amazing when you consider how little rehearsal time is available when you're shooting a weekly series.  Chinese??!?!?!  

The future history of Firefly imagines that the U.S. and China formed an alliance and colonized space.  Thus the future is bilingual ~ including all nine of the main characters, no matter how little education they have ("If I wanted schooling, I'd have gone to school." ~ Jayne!).    Chinese writing is all over ~  signs, the name of the ship,  art in the captain's cabin.  A danger message the ship broadcasts in one episode is given in both English and Chinese.  It's not that a big deal is made of it .... the world created by this triumphant alliance is simply bilingual ~ being bilingual is just standard in the culture (which is historically quite reasonable, given that Mandarin & English are now the two most spoken languages on the planet in 2011!).     

The show also, to its credit, tries to mix a Chinese aesthetic with a western one ("western" in two senses ~  broadly in the sense of Western Civilization, but specifically in the sense of the old U.S. Wild West ~ remember the show is envisioned as a space western  (a notion which, before I'd watched it, would have turned me off but which Whedon makes work very well.) This is noticeable in the visuals of the show ~ the costumes and sets ~ as well as the show's music, for example.   And, think of 'Persephone',  that Planet is a melange of  East/West stirred & shaken about.  The show tries to be deeply bicultural,  albeit extrapolated into the future and mixed with other things as well.   It leaves the viewer to infer meaning from context, and that puts Firefly in a league all of its own .... it assumes a degree of intelligence on the part of the audience that few shows dare to try to get away with.  
Another distinctive element of Firefly is its visual style. Whedon made a point of instructing his cameramen and visual effects crew to make their work a little messy, to lend a realistic quality to the show. As a result, instead of the clean visuals that typify the science fiction genre, we see lens flares, shaky handheld cameras, zooms, and sloppy rack focuses even in CGI shots. While initially the handheld stuff is a little distancing,  these artless, vérité techniques give Firefly an immediacy and realism you'll almost never see on a Space show utilising clean lines.  The show feels raw and lived-in,  and that rough quality really sells the frontier premise.

 Everything about Firefly defies convention with a recklessness that, well,   Mal Reynolds himself might appreciate.  And it's a recklessness that redefines what TV can do... or could have done,  if it hadn't been axed prematurely!!  Whedon takes what's become a standard  for the Scifi series  .... a bunch of guys and gals having adventures on a spaceship ~  and turns it into a smart, sophisticated drama, morally complicated, dryly funny.    Watching this Firefly collection with the knowledge that this is all there is, I found myself becoming angrier with each successive episode.  the show just gets better and better. The characters deepen and the identity of the crew, individually and as a group, becomes more defined, their stories more appealing the better we get to know them. The overall story begins to emerge, and it's a fascinating one, filled with possibilities under the direction of this sharp creative team. And then it just ends, with all those tantalizing threads left dangling. This was clearly a deeply personal labour of love for Whedon, and as special as these episodes are, they only point to the huge potential of the series. 

In the Fall of 2002, Fox premiered Firefly ... Fox had an instant classic on its hands, a show that not only brought something fresh and original to television, but enjoyed an eager, loyal fan base ready to turn Firefly into the next Buffy.  So the Fox powers-that-be,  holding this golden goose in their laps, took the next logical step ~ they cancelled it!!

It breaks my heart to think about how it takes even the best TV series a season or so to find its footing, for the writers to get in synch with the actors, for everyone creative, both in front of and behind the camera, to find their footing and really start to figure out what they've got their hands on.    It breaks my heart even more to know that if Firefly was this damn abso-fucking-lutely superb off the bat, what could it have been six or seven seasons later???

And, tomorrow will see Part II of this review ..... A Starship called Serenity!

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