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Firefly & Serenity

By Philip Reeve

"This is the captain. We have a little problem with our engine sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence, and then explode."

When I started writing about Stuff I Like on the internet one of the first things on my 'To Do' list was Firefly.  Then I looked around and couldn't help noticing that the internet is pretty much made of Firefly: references to it, and sites about it, seem to be everywhere; surely everyone must know about it already, and wouldn't be the least bit interested in hearing what I had to say on the subject.

But lately I've encountered a surprising number of people who haven't seen it, and even some who, when you mention it, go "What's Firefly?"  So here's The Solitary Bee's guide to its fellow insect-named cultural phenemenon.

Firefly (Cert 12) is a 2002 sci-fi TV series created by Joss Whedon, probably best known for the wonderful Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sometimes wonderful spin-off Angel (a show which didn't so much jump the shark as vault nimbly to and fro across the shark in the manner popularised by Cretan bull dancers).  When I first heard that Mr Whedon's new show would be a 'space western' I was unimpressed - aren't all space operas basically westerns?  But Firefly takes its conceit to the (il)logical extreme, dressing its space frontierspeople in braces, duster coats and fishtail trousers and arming them with souped-up six-shooters.  There are cows.  There are banjos.  There is a cowboy ballad theme song which mournfully celebrates the ultimate freedom of the final frontier - "You can't take the sky from me..."

Sadly it turned out that the powers that be at Fox TV actually could take the sky from us, and they proceeded to do so by canceling Firefly after 14 episodes, blaming poor viewing figures* (Boo!).  It then went on to become such a cult success on DVD that Joss Whedon was able to make a feature film, Serenity (Cert 15), which continues the story (Hurrah!).  Alas Serenity didn't do well enough at the box office to spawn a sequel (Boo again!)**.  Since then there have been several comics set in the Firefly universe (which I've not read), but all that the show's admirers are really left with is the movie and those original fourteen episodes.

Luckily, they were fourteen pretty good episodes.

Set 500 years in the future, Firefly takes place in a far-off solar system which has been settled by human colonists.  There are no monsters or aliens here (although the savage 'Reavers' who inhabit the system's fringes might as well be monsters, having lost all traces of humanity beyond an ability to maintain and fly ramshackle spacecraft ). These are far more down-to-earth alien worlds than we're used to visiting in the likes of Star Trek.  The frontier spirit prevails, and the production design is a witty mix of hi-tech and old west (the Serenity is surely the only film or TV spaceship that has wooden furniture in its mess hall).  The various planets have recently been unified following a civil war between the vaguely authoritarian Alliance and the freedom-lovin' Browncoats.  (The Browncoats, needless to say, got stomped on.)

Our hero, Mal Reynolds, is a former Browncoat who now captains the grimy old 'Firefly' class space freighter Serenity, running cargo and contraband and generally trying to keep one step ahead of the law.  As well as her small crew the Serenity carries some paying passengers; Book, a travelling preacher; space courtesan Inara***; and posh young doctor Simon Tam, who's on the run with his sister River (he has sprung her, as you do, from a top secret Alliance facility where attempts to turn her into a weapons-grade superhuman have left her talking in Whedonesque non sequiturs like Drusilla the Mockney Vampire).  Over the course of the truncated series we learn more about the characters' histories while they stage a couple of robberies, get involved in duels and tangle with space gangsters.  River is pursued by some scary, blue-gloved Alliance operatives, and That Christina Hendricks Off Madmen turns up as Mal's ex-wife.

All of which probably sounds a bit yawn if you haven't seen it,  because, like Buffy before it and Dollhouse after, Firefly is built entirely out of genre cliches.  What brings it alive, and lifts it above the competition, is hard to define.

 First there's the feel of it - the folksy music, the costumes that look as if there must be a branch of Old Town on most of these moons and planets, and the wobbly, uncertain 'hand-held' camerawork which takes the CGI sheen off the effects shots.

The backstory is slightly more subtle than I've made it sound, too.  The Alliance isn't exactly an evil empire (though some of its black ops have obviously crossed the line); it stands for order, security, and all the benefits of urban civilization; it's basically the sort of society that the heroes of shows like Star Trek belong to.   Mal and his comrades would probably be safer and cleaner and more prosperous living under its aegis, swapping the rusty earth-tones of the Serenity and all those backwater moons for the gleaming greys and whites of the Alliance worlds... but they wouldn't be free, and like many a good westernFirefly holds that freedom, with all its dangers and dilemmas, is more important than just about anything.

Then there's the language, packed with snappy one-liners and Whedon-y little asides, Deadwood-ish 19th Century-isms, space-slang (anything nice or good is "shiny") and scraps of Chinese (everyone in the 'verse swears in Chinese, although oddly enough nobody actually appears to be Chinese...).  When sci-fi cliches do appear, they're quickly undercut ("That sounds like something out of science fiction!" scoffs pilot Wash at some unlikely plot twist.  "We live on a spaceship, dear," his wife reminds him.)  Whedon's characters talk like no one else on telly: they falter; they make up words as they go along: they wander out into long convoluted sentences and can't work out how to get back; wobbly metaphors collapse beneath them, and rhetoric backfires.  It's hard to imagine a tense eve-of-battle argument in any other sci-fi thriller featuring an angry exchange like this one between Mal and his uppity crewman Jayne in Serenity:

Mal: (Rhetorically) "You wanna run this ship?!"
Jayne: "Yes!"
Mal: (Completely flummoxed) "Well... you can't!"

And most of all there are the characters themselves.  When I watched the pilot show I found it hard  to warm to Nathan Fillion as Mal: he just seemed tough, brooding, and bitter.  I assumed he was the 26th century's version of Clint Eastwood's Josey Wales; a burned out case who would slowly recover his humanity.  But as the series progressed it soon turned out that Mal was already far more human than your average sci-fi space captain; as well as the bitter and brooding thing he can be clumsy, funny, stubborn, shy, heroic - and sometimes just plain wrong.  It's a lovely, self-deprecating performance (and David Boreanaz as Angel managed something similar, so I suspect much of the credit must go to Joss Whedon's writing****).

Alan Tudyk as Serenity's pilot is equally endearing, playing one of Whedon's familiar uber-nerds, wistfully aware that he's not as tough and battle-hardened as his wife Zoe or crewmates Mal and Jayne.  ( "Hey, I've been in a firefight before! Well, I was in a fire...  Actually, I was fired...")  Zoe (Gina Torres) tends to act as Mal's conscience, she exudes strength and decency and we wish she had more time on screen.  Adam Baldwin's Jayne is a stupid, treacherous, bullying, loose cannon, but somehow quite loveable too, and the source of many of the show's best jokes (and best hat).   There's really no point listing the others, because they're all just as good (well Simon and River are a bit irritating, but I think they're meant to be) and the relationships between them, their rivalries and loyalties, smouldering resentments and undeclared loves, form the heart of Firefly.  That's what makes the series ultimately more enjoyable than the movie: Serenity packs a lot of plot into its two hours (and starts with the most elegant series of nested flashbacks I've ever seen to bring newcomers up to speed), but while it wraps up the story pretty well it hasn't time to explore the characters in the way that TV can.  If only they'd been allowed to develop over the course of three or four seasons...

Still, at least we have one series.  Well, two thirds of one series.  And a movie.  And a legion of loyal followers, who call themselves 'Browncoats', and whose cheerful devotion helps to keep the Firefly flame burning.  Whether it will last remains to be seen: a few years ago there seemed to be an idea around that if the fans were just vocal enough the show might be revived, but that seems unlikely now.  Maybe the story will continue in the comics.  Maybe Mr Whedon should commission, say, a little-known British children's sci-fi author to write some tie in novels.  Anyway, whatever happens, if you haven't joined the ranks of the Browncoats yet, you should buy, borrow, rent or download Firefly and Serenity (in that order).

They're shiny.

*Sci-fi shows have always suffered from being a)quite pricey to make and b)a bit of a minority interest - though weirdly the bleak War on Terror metaphor Battlestar Galactica which started around the same time as Firefly was popular enough to run to five joyless and increasingly confusing seasons...

**When Sarah and I went to see Serenity at the old Odeon in Plymouth there was a little speech by Joss Whedon tacked on to the beginning in which he thanked all the show's fans for making the movie possible.  It was thoroughly charming, and it felt as if he was talking just to us.  In fact, since we were the only people in the cinema, I guess technically he was....

***Joss Whedon seems to have something of a preoccupation with the Oldest Profession*.  It surfaces again in the much darker Dollhouse.  I expect feminists have something to say about that.

****Of course it takes quite a large team of writers to produce the scripts for a show like Firefly, and some of the dialogue I've quoted in this post may not be by Joss Whedon himself; but I'm assuming he's responsible for the creation of the character's characters.

*That's stonemasons, children.

Excalibur Pre-Fabs

It turns out that Excalibur isn't just the name of King Arthur's sword, and my favourite movie; it's also an estate of 1940s pre-fab bungalows in South London, which Lewisham Council (Boo!  Hiss!) is currently planning to demolish.  This short video was made by Sarah McIntyre, who has written about it on her own highly esteemed blog.  It's a great introduction to a place - and a cause - that I did not know about.  I particularly like the way that all the streets on the estate seem to be named after Arthurian characters...  though who'd want to live on  Morded Road?


By Philip Reeve

Living in the country: being a parent: going to the cinema.  It's possible to combine any two of these activities but not, I've found, all three.  Since my son was born in 2002 I've barely been to the pictures at all, except to take him to see the occasional Pixar movie.  But last night he was staying with one of his friends, so Sarah and I ventured down to the Barn cinema at Dartington to watch Monsters, an ambitious low-budget sci-fi road movie by the young British director Gareth Edwards.  (In my day, young British directors only did cheesy mockney gangster flicks, so whatever you think of his film you have to admit that ambitious sci-fi road movies are a step in the right direction.)

Monsters is cut from similar (but cheaper) cloth to Neil Bloemenkamp's District 9.  It follows a couple of stranded Americans as they try to make it back to the US border through a spreading 'infected zone' in northern Mexico which has been seeded with alien life brought back by a ill-advised NASA space probe (did Quatermass teach them nothing?)  Unlike your average Hollywood catastophe flick, Monsters doesn't show us the end of civilisation happening overnight, but presents it as something slow and rather humdrum.  Unfortunately the film itself is also slow and humdrum in places, with the central characters flanning around picturesque Mexican barrios like hipsters on a gap-year, barely bothering to mention the giant space octopi which are such a fixture on the rolling news channels.  The aliens - whose motives and intelligence remain obscure - seem to have been infected by the same ennui and just stomp listlessly about knocking down buildings and scoffing pick-up tricks because, you know, that's what monsters do...  It's obviously aiming to be a bit more existential than your average creature feature, but I did find myself yearning for the days when monster movies always came complete with a Scientist and his Beautiful Daughter who could explain a bit about the critters' life cycles.

Still, mustn't grumble; the film is beautifully shot and edited, and the background is nicely sketched in, with hovering gunships and flights of jets giving the impression of some huge, secret and probably doomed military operation going on just beyond the edges of the story, and signs everywhere which look like the Mexican equivalent of those wartime 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters that trendhounds nowadays find so hugely ironic.   There are a couple of very well done monster encounters, and slightly too many scenes which build up a huge amount of tension and then fizzle out in some sort of false alarm.  There is also a very good journey up a river clearly twinned with one in Apocalypse Now.

In the old days, monsters were always a metaphor for The Bomb; these modern ones were definitely a metaphor for something, but I couldn't quite work out what.  The gringos' carpet bombing and chemical weapons seemed to be causing more damage than the creatures themselves, and a lot was made of a huge anti-alien wall which the US authorities were building all along their southern border.  There was a bit of talk about how the U.S was 'imprisoning itself'.  I suspect the message we were supposed to come away with was that the Third World, despite all its poverty, violence, and scary viruses, is actually no more of a threat to us than a swarm of aggressive walking squid the size of office buildings.  Or something.