Tag Archives: serenity

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.