A Flash In The Pan Or Just A FIREFLY?

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Gail Williams puts on her Browncoat, and looks back at Firefly.


In 2002 Firefly landed on our screens only to be swatted away 11 episodes later, with 3 more still unaired.

There has been plenty said about why Firefly was cancelled - ratings basically, and the majority of the blame for that has been laid at Fox's door for constantly moving it around in the schedules and showing it out of order. But was that the only reason?  If Fox hadn't cancelled the show, could it have gone much farther?

When I first heard that the show was coming up, I heard "Cowboys in space", it rang with that same over-the-top voice-over-man tone as the Muppets "Pigs in Space!"  In other words, I wasn't impressed.  Which might explain why it took me nine years to go out and buy the DVD to watch it.  But when I did watch it I was hooked.

I loved Firefly from episode one, but I'm not so into it that I can't see the flaws. 

What it did do well, was the character mix and the strength of each individual, that's why the ensemble cast worked.  Each character was portrayed as a real person for good and bad, and none of them were paragons.  The programme had a great start, the battered, disillusioned hero in Mal, the lovers with the Washburnes, the desperation of the Tams, not to mention the mystery of Sheppard Book.


The cowboy angle only kind of works for me, I can see why it was appealing, but come on - is a Colt 45 really the technology that would sit alongside interstellar space craft?  If medical scanners can give a 3D image of River Tam's brain without the need for incision or heavy machinery, how hasn't someone built a blaster to burn a hole through flesh and bone, or evaporate the enemy and leave no trace? 

Then there's the background story of the rebellion against the ruling power.  Well it worked for Star Wars, and for Blake's 7, so we know that line has potential.  Only Star Wars had an organised rebellion, an army waiting to fight, the Rebel Alliance was an uprising just waiting to hit the Empire long before Luke Skywalker left Tatooine.  And Roj Blake was a political dissident from the very start, he was the one raising the army against the Federation.  But the Browncoats had already lost to the Alliance before Firefly started.  Malcolm Reynolds wasn't a freedom fighter or a leader of men, this guy was never going to be a figurehead, he was more like a Confederate impotently railing against Union victory.  He'd already lost and until Miranda he didn't have a hope of rekindling the flames of independence. 


One thing that Firefly did that was rather unique, is it that it faced the reality that adults have sex.  Granted it was all 12 rated sex, the occasional sweaty back, some post-coital heavy breathing, and one naked butt bouncing up in "Out of Gas".  But it was there and it wasn't shied away from, how could it be with a Registered Companion on board?  But this wasn't going to carry the show, not this kind of show anyway.

Another theme in the piece as love, real love, and again, Firefly was a bit of a winner here.  Love in all its varieties was on display.  Love within a committed relationship (Zoe and Wash), forbidden love (Mal and Inara), unrequited love (Kaylee to Simon), sibling love (Simon and River), religious love (Sheppard Book to God) and selfish love (let’s face it, the only things Jayne loved was money and his weapon Vera). 


But there is a limit to where such love stories can go.  The Washburnes have they happy ending, they’re already married.  The will-they-won't-they story is at best a side line, and Mal and Inara don't do it with the restraint or class of Picard and Crusher.  The unrequited love story can turn into a pain to watch, especially when you realise it's not so unrequited (see Jaynestown).  At best sibling affection and the love of God are great motivations, but neither is really a standalone story arc, unless Sheppard Book was about to lead a crusade.  In short, love gives depth and reason to the journey, but not the destination.

After that I struggled to find anything else the show had to offer. The CGI is good, very good in fact.  The Firefly looks as realistic as these things get, especially compared to Andromeda (2000) where the ship is so sleek and smooth, that it has to be CGI.

The other comparison with Andromeda’s success, is the fan base.  Now Joss Whedon has a big following, all us Buffy and Angel devotees will give his stuff a go, and who doesn't love Toy Story?  But maybe Toy Story is where Mr Whedon should have stopped when it comes to mixing Cowboys and Spacemen.  However good I think Joss Whedon’s writing is, and I do, he cannot hold a candle to Gene Roddenberry when it comes to an established and loyal fan base.  Perhaps that is why Andromeda made it to five seasons and Firefly died within one.


No Firefly discussion is complete without mentioning Serenity, and the Miranda storyline.  Serenity has done its job in tying up most of the loose ends from the series, and has done it well.  River's past is explained, as are Simon's actions in getting her onto Serenity.  Mal and Inara get it together, Kaylee and Simon sort themselves out, and Jayne finally gets to be a real hero.  It’s sad that both Book and Wash are lost by the end of the movie, but somehow even these losses seem fitting to the circumstance.  For story arc though, this is the first time there is a possibility of these Browncoats actually making a contribution to overthrowing the Alliance.

The Miranda storyline works through Serenity as it is an encapsulated and coherent tie up.  It leaves the viewer satisfied that the heroes won and all could be right with the verse.  Yet I can't help but wonder, would it have happened if the series hadn't been cancelled?  Probably not, this was after all written years after the show was axed.  Would this storyline have worked so well if it had been done in an episodic manner?  Again, probably not.  Film and TV work in very different ways and producers forget that to their peril.

If Firefly had continued, it may have drifted into disjointed unsatisfactory shorts of bodged crimes with little purpose, or it could have become rabble rousing on the outer rim.  Perhaps Jayne would have gone down shooting over the bodies of his roughly dispatched colleagues as the Alliance finally crushed them, a la Avon in the swan song of Blake's 7.

So in short, Firefly burned bright and well, but not for long.  Yet I for one am glad of that, instead of drifting into the abyss of disappointment and the over-milking so prone to US series, Firefly has been preserved in complete oddball perfection, and remains forever one of those sweet treats we can indulge in without the bitter after taste of knowing it lingered too long at the party.

Gail Williams lives in her own private dungeon populated with all the weird and the wonderful she can imagine.  Some of it’s very weird, and the odd bits and pieces are a bit wonderful.  Well okay, she lives in Swansea with her husband and daughter.  And the world’s most demanding cat. To find out more about Gail, check out www.gailbwilliams.co.uk - Dare you!
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