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A History of Television Space Opera, Part 3: Firefly – The End of Utopia

Whilst the final Trek series was still on air the Fox Network commissioned the most dystopian space opera to date: Firefly (USA 2002), created by Joss Whedon, one of a growing number of show-runners who can reasonably claim the title of ‘autuer’, having produced the hugely successful Buffy the Vampire Slayer (USA 1997-2001) and spin-off Angel (USA 1999-2004). Firefly was one of several shows commissioned and then cancelled mid-run by Fox in a sustained bid to find a replacement for the massively successful The X-Files (USA 1993-2002) in the 8pm Friday night slot. Other genre shows Harsh Realm, Brimstone and John Doe had all fallen foul of cancellation in quick succession as Fox executives tried to recapture the elusive formula that made The X-Files such a success.

Like Star Trek, Firefly was conceived as a space western, but whilst the western influence on the adventures of Kirk and co. is vague at best, Firefly’s inspiration is obvious from its credit sequence where the Serenity is shown swooping low over a stampeding herd of mustangs. Stories consistently feature such western conventions as six-shooters, bounty hunters and cattle rustling and characters speak a mixture of colloquial frontier English peppered with Mandarin obscenities.

The basic elements of the series were set out in the pilot Serenity. Five hundred years in the future, mankind has migrated to a new solar system, terraforming its many moons and leaving Earth behind, referred to as ‘Earth that was’. This society is split between the prosperous and technologically advanced ‘core planets’ and the poverty stricken, crime ridden ‘outer worlds’ where freelance Captain Mal Reynolds (Castle star Nathan Fillion) commands the aged Firefly-class freighter Serenity. The western theme continues in the form of the Reavers, a cannibalistic Comanche like race of “men gone mad on the fringes of space” who prey on vulnerable ships. This is a society where life is cheap and criminality a necessary part of daily survival, summed up by series writer Jane Espenson as “a world where no obvious rewards await the virtuous.”

Series pilot Serenity is a two hour space-based chase thriller where Mal and crew discover two fugitives in their midst: Simon and River Tam. Simon, a doctor, has rescued his sister River, an apparently mad teenager with a genius IQ, from a mysterious Alliance institution where she has been subject to damaging medical experiments. The crew successfully elude both Reavers and Alliance agents, Mal allowing Simon and River to stay as the ship is in dire need of a doctor; at least one member of the crew is shot or stabbed in every episode.

Although the Fox network rejected Serenity on the grounds that “they wanted the captain to be more accessible as a fellow; a little less closed off from the crew and funnier”, the characters and continuity it established would remain for the rest of the series, albeit with a slightly lightened tone. Unlike the wholesale recasting after the rejection of Star Trek’s pilot, Firefly’s varied crew remained unchanged, featuring first mate and warrior woman Zoe, her husband and pilot Wash, perky engineer Kaylee, thuggish mercenary Jayne, high-class courtesan Inara and enigmatic holy man Shepherd Book, now joined by Simon and River. Whilst Star Trek had a regular cast of three leads Firefly had an ensemble of nine, Whedon later explaining “It’s honestly about nine different people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things. The simpler version is that it’s ‘Stagecoach in Space’”.

Where Kirk is a heroic officer in a quasi military organisation, Mal is an embittered, disillusioned veteran of a civil war which has united humanity under a single superpower: the Alliance. He has no mission beyond preserving his own independence. “Freedom,” he explains to Zoe in flashback episode Out of Gas when she asks his reasons for buying Serenity, “live like real people… never have to be under the heel of nobody again no matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.”

The depiction of the Alliance tends to recall the conspiracy theories and ‘big government’ paranoia of the 1990s, most famously expressed in The X-Files, as Shepherd Book says: “A government is a body of people, usually ungoverned.” The X-Files influence is also plain in the emotionless black-suited, blue-handed men who occasionally show up in search of River.

Whereas Star Trek was allegorical and issue driven, Firefly is based firmly on plot and character. Over the course of 14 episodes the attitudes of the characters and their relationships change according to experience, with River the main focus for plot development and the centre of the series arc. Her role in early episodes is both Maguffin and damsel in distress; an enigmatic and fragile innocent that must be protected from the grasp of the monolithic Alliance. However, River is later revealed as both powerful and dangerous; shooting three henchmen with her eyes closed in War Stories. This love of narrative revelation is a consistent theme in Whedon’s work, featuring prominently in both Buffy and Angel: “I make a certain kind of TV […] I believe in […] the principle of the continuing story, the character building, the idea of change and of surprising the viewer…”

This focus on plot rather than situation shows up in the general lack of scientific exposition in Firefly. Whilst the execrable techno-babble of Star Trek provided a scientific explanation for its plots, in Firefly ships travel vast distances, planets are terraformed and artificial gravity generated with no effort made to explain how. Although, as Star Trek scriptwriter and SF author David Gerrold points out: “the stories they have to tell are more important than answering the questions that only the astronomers will be asking… Television isn’t about science lessons.”

Firefly’s attitude to gender and sexuality also sets it apart from Star Trek. In Kirk’s world everyone, including nebulous, energy based aliens, is heterosexual, because: “Male and female are universal constants.” In Firefly Inara’s clients include both men and women and her status as “a respectable business woman” makes her the ship’s ambassador, acceptable to the higher echelons of society. The oldest profession is still with us but no longer attracts quite the same stigma, although we discover in Heart of Gold that in a frontier society women can be subject to a high degree of victimisation.

The design and special effects employed in Firefly is another point of departure from traditional space opera. The clean lines and cruise liner ship design of the Trek-verse is ignored in favour of a deliberately deglamourised notion of space travel. Artist and illustrator Larry Dixon describes Serenity’s “design flaws… from exposed sharp corners to inadequate railings […] Welded steel, bolts, rivets, suggest that a Firefly was a lowest- bidder, low-rent utilitarian work-horse.” Additionally, Firefly’s special effects team made a conscious effort to mimic the directorial style of the live-action sequences in its digital shots; incorporating simulated hand-held camera movements, crash zooms and out-of focus lenses to convey a sense of realism. This commitment to realism is carried over into the absence of sound effects: in space there is no sound and explosions and passing spacecraft are all depicted in an eerie silence.

Various reasons have been advanced for Firefly’s cancellation due to poor ratings, from the scheduling decisions of Fox executives who aired episodes out of order and didn’t show the pilot until after the final episode, to its mix of genres; one obsolete the other with a niche audience. However, writer Ginjer Buchannan makes a convincing case for Star Trek’s culpability in Firefly’s demise: “Roddenberry […] creat[ed] a science fictional future that has so much emotional power and longevity that for many genre television viewers, it (or a variant of it) is the future.” Firefly, a space western with no aliens, was simply not what audiences expected from a space opera.

However, the fortunes of television space opera were about to be rekindled by the reimagining of a mis-fire from the 1970s: Battlestar Galactica was spooling up its FTL drive for another go-around with the Cylons, and this time, it’s religious.


A History of Television Space Opera – Part 2: Generations and Universes

The post-Trek 1970s saw a dearth of notable SF TV series but did produce the first incarnation of Battlestar Galactica (USA 1978-79), a Star Wars inspired tale of conflict between a dispossessed fleet of refugees and the robotic Cylons in a mash-up of Mormon and Greek mythology.  Largely, some might say justly, overshadowed by its hugely popular reincarnation beginning in 2004, this first foray for the Colonial battlestar is, despite some hackneyed plotting, unreconstructed gender attitudes and occasionally appalling dialogue, a creditable attempt to bring something new in science-fiction to a mass audience. The series also benefits from the use of motion-control camera techniques, pioneered by Lucasfilm for Star Wars, which brought a fresh dynamism to the (oft-reused) effect shots.

1979 also saw the return of Buck Rogers to television, about which I have nothing more to say other than ugh! (Maybe it wasn’t really all that bad. I liked Hawk, he had a really cool ship, and feathers for hair. No, I stand corrected, it was awful).

In Britain the only notable space opera was the distinctly dystopian Blake’s 7 (UK 1978-81). Conceived as an anti-Star Trek by its creator, Dr Who writer Terry Nation, Blake’s 7 charted the ultimately doomed efforts of a group of freedom fighters to bring down a tyrannical Terran Federation and features one of the bleakest endings of any television series: everyone dies except the villain, and no, they don’t miraculously get resurrected later on. They died, the bad guys won, that’s it. Whilst Blake’s 7 was popular, running for three years and attracting a considerable cult following, it suffers from the fault common to most British SF TV; a basic lack of money needed to produce impressive visual effects, only overcome with the advent of the resurrected Dr Who in 2005.

The 1980s saw a resurgence in the fortunes of space opera with the coming of the first Trek continuation series Star Trek: The Next Generation (USA 1987-94) which in turn spawned Deep Space 9 (USA 1993-99), Voyager (USA 1995-2001) and Enterprise (USA 2001-05). The advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation engendered an upsurge in sci-fi fandom which eventually reached an as yet unseen, and oft derided pitch. The utopian ethos of Roddenberry hadn’t been lost to the Trek-verse in its latest incarnation but, after a somewhat uneven first season, TNG brought a new depth and complexity in both plot and character in which continuity and cohesive world-building became much more important. Picard and co were on the whole a more cerebral lot than Kirk’s cosmopolitan space-sailors, although they still found plenty of opportunity to let rip with the odd photon torpedo or engage in hand-to-hand combat, a form of conflict that somehow continued into the ultra-advanced 23rd century.

Deep Space 9 proved to be the darkest Trek series to date, drawing inspiration from the political uncertainties prevalent at the end of the Cold War and eventually featuring a huge interstellar conflict between the Federation, now allied with the Klingons and Romulans, and the invading Dominion. Even darker in tone was the non-Trek television epic Babylon 5 (USA 1994-98), the story of a space station destined to play a central role in a cataclysmic galactic conflict. Created and mostly written by J. Michael Stracynski, the future envisioned in Babylon 5 was far removed from Roddenberry’s optimism; future earth is as poverty stricken and socially divided as ever and humanity is but one of several competing cultures, none of which are engaged in a grand mission to civilise the galaxy. Babylon 5 also stands as a landmark in television history as it was the first regular series to feature entirely digital effects, allowing for a new level of visual spectacle and obliging other series to follow suit. The last two seasons of Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 feature space battles the equal of any SF cinema offering to date.

Star Trek, in common with most genre TV shows of the period, was almost entirely episodic in nature; each episode is a self-contained story and the audience needs minimal knowledge of the background scenario of the series to understand the plot. Later shows were to incorporate an ‘arc storyline’; an underlying plot that is revealed gradually over the course of the series until a dramatic resolution in the ‘season finale’, a trait apparent in space opera and other genre series since the 1990s. However, network pressures tend to ensure most shows lend themselves more easily to casual viewing than the “televisual novel” offered by Babylon 5 over the course of 110 episodes which, by its final season, was often baffling to audiences unfamiliar with its ‘universe’.

The series ‘universe’ is a convention of the space opera which has become more important with the growth of arc storylines; the concept of the show taking place within its own world of characters, societal conventions, history and technology. This development has been key to the enduring popularity of the genre with fans documenting the various details of each universe published via a plethora of unofficial fanzines and websites. Fan interest in the wider setting of each show was also a considerable marketing boon, as shown in the success of numerous tie-in novels and text books like the Klingon Dictionary and Enterprise Technical Manual as well as several computer games.

However, the comparative success of the Star Trek spin-offs, and a universe expanding further with every episode, eventually proved to be the series’ undoing. By the time Star Trek: Voyager (mainly notable for featuring a female captain and standing as a testament to the power of fan loyalty which can keep even mediocre television on air longer than it rightly deserves) had come to the end of its run, script-writers had so exhausted the creative potential of the Trek-verse they felt obliged to go back in time for Star Trek: Enterprise, effectively a period drama set within the Trek-verse charting the early days of human space exploration. Enterprise struggled on for four seasons, covering 98 episodes, but consistently poor ratings eventually forced its cancellation in 2005, despite a vociferous fan-led campaign to save the show. Star Trek as a television phenomena was over, confined now to tie-in novels and fan-fiction, but TV space opera was about to receive a welcome, if sadly short-lived, shot in the arm courtesy of Buffy-maestro Joss Whedon. Firefly was about to take off, and it was, indeed, shiny.