Review: Firefly and Serenity

Kevin Killian


“Take Me Where I Cannot Stand”

When we hurried to the Metreon to see Serenity on its opening night, we were but pawns in a big marketing game, I suppose, though knowing such a thing, eating that knowledge, has never really put me off my feed. We’d been primed to pay our admission, by every trick in the book. When it originally appeared on TV, I never watched Firefly—a “space Western” sounded stupid to me, plus it was on Friday night—some night I was never home. But at parties, or more intimately, I kept meeting people who swore it was good, plus we had finally watched every episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then its spinoff, Angel on DVD, and we were hungry for more—even the crumbs—of Joss Whedon, the affable megalomaniac who created all three shows. Buffy and Angel were excellent, so how awful could Firefly actually be, even though it was in a different genre than the shows that had made him famous? I had gotten hooked on sci-fi shows before – oh no, in fact I hadn’t. I should have known that, entering into this realm, was really crossing over into the dark side in terms of, what, fandom.

The DVD boxed set had some rough spots, a perilous sort of Donner’s Pass of the imagination. In the beginning I couldn’t tell what precisely was going on, the editing too brisk on the opening episodes and the characters were on the one hand too numerous and on the other, they seemed like pale shades of the characters we’d adored on Buffy and Angel. Kaylee, the competent, nervous mechanic of the airship Serenity, was pretty much Willow of the early days of Buffy, except in outer space and with a suggestion of a Texas accent to complicate her wry quips and self-mocking jokes. The credits say she’s played by Jewel Staite, so she has that soulful “Jewel” thing going on, but her storyline is tired (like Ethel Merman, she’s in love with a man who doesn’t seem to know she’s alive.) Straite’s good at it, but we’ve seen Willow already throw similar longing gazes at Xander and then Oz. She should just jump ahead several squares and become a lesbian already, it’s in the cards for Kaylie, as it was for Willow, and as it was I suppose for Ethel Merman even if it didn’t happen to her in real life, just in Jacqueline Susann’s mind.

Every character in Firefly (and subsequently, in Serenity) seems to have an antecedent in some other Joss Whedon production. Mal (Nathan Fillion, the Canadian actor who plays the lead “Captain” role) carries himself just like Angel and has the same ways of speaking and making little wisecracks out of the right hand corner of his mouth. And what about River—could she have been any more like “Fred” from Seasons 3, 4 and 5 of Angel? Well, let’s just keep watching and maybe it will get better, we said to ourselves. That’s what happened with Angel. It too had an unlikely premise. If one of you were ever going to make a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, would any of you have thought of hiring away Angel and Cordelia and Wesley and then expecting anyone to watch the darn thing? Maybe that was Joss Whedon’s forte, finding a basis for narrative interest where none was ordinarily available. We were willing to give Firefly a chance, clicking on episode three I suppose. Somewhere in there the Appalachian theme song became engraved on our hearts, its rinky dink little melody and its cowboy blues. Cryptic and melancholy, like something Greil Marcus might write a whole book about. “Burn the land, and boil the sea; you can’t take the sky from me.” All of a sudden it was under my skin. When I was a boy, tripping on acid, we used to stare at the cover of the Grateful Dead LP American Beauty, and watch the way the San Francisco poster artists had drawn the liquidy characters “Beauty” so that you might also read it as “Reality.” This insight of trompe d’oeil struck us as one of the original mysteries of the universe. Were the Dead saying that reality and beauty were somehow the same thing? Or that they were the same thing here in America? We couldn’t wrap our minds around the concept. Perhaps it was something about the ambiguity of language itself. If one word could look like its own antonym, what price identity? I could feel my soul caving in on itself, for I was seventeen and fueled by the light of a thousand suns. The lap steel guitar and the resolutely minor chords and sentiments of the “Ballad of Serenity” reminded me of the Dead, like some viscous force from out of the past that was going to swallow me whole if I wanted to let it. Like that awful “Teach Your Children” with its nauseatingly ironic pedal steel.

I have a very good friend who’s something of a guru for me, and one thing he said a few years back has remained with me ever since, —that everybody should have at least one show. One TV show that is, a show you followed with the religiosity of the fan. He didn’t explain why, but it rung a chord with me. I guess I’ve always had ‘shows,’ even though I don’t think of myself as a big TV person. Everyone should follow their own show because it teaches you something—loyalty?—and at the same time gives back the pleasures of an inexhaustible narrative. All the talk you hear about “jumping the shark” is a smokescreen that covers our real fears, that we have given our heart to something that has turned bad and we don’t even know it. Even when that happens, my friend avowed, there’s no sense giving up on your show. The oldest words in English are “once upon a time” and the second oldest are, “Upcoming, scenes from next week’s very special ER.” I’d like to be able to give my heart to a show that will still keep going after my death, thus guaranteeing impartiality in a limited way, to the viewing experience if nothing else. Anyhow Firefly was cancelled after only a few airings, by the evil network Fox, and whole episodes had been shot and edited, yet never aired, like the ‘buried Caesar’ of Omar Khayham, to be left undisturbed until the DVD box appeared in December 2003.

Then it sold 750,000 copies or some huge figure, and a rival studio—Universal—began thinking of capturing that cult energy and making it into a movie. The question is, how can you satisfy your core audience, those of us who have seen all precious 13 episodes, and still amuse people who are virgins to the whole experience? How are you going to keep the first group from getting bored while you re-spin all the basic exposition for the second, larger bunch of lame-os? Didn’t they try this with The X Files already? What happened with that? I never saw either.

Who was going to buy a space Western? For that’s what it was on TV, every time the spaceship would land on a distant planet the people down below would be riding horses, running the range, fighting the railroad, going to brothels, everyone wearing old time Western garb like Major Dundee. The conceit was that a great war of conquest had been fought some years before, and that Mal and his grizzled crew were vets of that war who had fought on the wrong side and now they still refused to grant authority to the linked powers that now rule the solar system. They’re “independents” to the end, just as the classic Hollywood Western was populated by burnt out Civil War veterans who, too, fought for the losing side. Firefly is a pirate vessel, ripping off goods from the big conglomerate and selling them on the black market to fringe criminals and the poor. And it’s like the Stagecoach of John Ford, carrying an ill-assorted band of brigands and fugitives, and even a courtesan (the way John Wayne, as the Ringo Kid, extended exquisite courtesy to the fallen woman Claire Trevor played). A doctor signs on, a doctor prevented by a past indiscretion from serving anywhere with status. In the Ford film, it’s drunk old Thomas Mitchell; in Firefly, it’s incredibly hunky Sean Maher, playing the virginal Simon Tam with a tip of his other hat to the British medic Dirk Bogarde played in all those 50s “Doctor” films—Dr. Simon Sparrow. If you put Dirk Bogarde into a blender and gave him a little bit softer visage, you’d have Sean Maher who can pull out his stethoscope on me any old time. In any case, if you’ve ever seen Stagecoach (1939) you’ve seen Firefly; but not as a continuing show you’d look forward to week after week.

The poet Peter Gizzi reminds me also that Nicolas Roeg’s Bicentennial thriller, The Man Who Fell To Earth, seeds the sci-fi mode with the Western in a quirky, distinctive fashion; I wonder if perhaps Joss Whedon stole more than a glance at this epochal David Bowie film from 1976. That was so long ago that Stagecoach isn’t much further, just adding more about gender and identity and the “crime” of the alien.

So we get to the theater and right in the line in front of us are three geeks—wear the name with pride!—with replicas of Jayne’s famous hat on their heads. The geeks are all glowing in the wonderful feeling you get when everyone is staring at you and at least ten per cent of those people are kicking themselves in envy, muttering, “Shit, why didn’t I think of that?” (The other ninety per cent are in the dark or just don’t remember the show well enough.) “Look at those hats!” my companion cries out, involuntarily, because truly they are garish. I’m staring at her as if to say, are you retarded, don’t you remember Jayne’s hat? The joke is that this big tough guy, Jayne Cobb, a) not only sports a woman’s name but b) would make allow himself to look ridiculous by wearing a fantastically ugly hat his mother had knit for him in some inbred red state of the future. The hat, which featured in “The Message,” is a wool cap knitted in layers of color which range from orange to yellow to a gross mulberry/tawny port mud color, with obscene flaps more like pieces of a neck brace than ear warmers. Two demure strings tie it up under your chin if you so desire, and on top, a pompom combines all three colors into a natty ball of fluff. I look around in the different rows of the theater, spot more hats. They’re cute. They say something. They add interactivity, don’t they?

Some fans say that, with a man called “Jayne” and a woman called “River,” Joss was running down the list of Hollywood’s tragic deaths and flipping their genders just to get our dander up—our unconscious chowing down, mulching on these facts as soon as they penetrate the cerebellum. Our curiosity, perhaps shock, stirred up, we sit back and wait for more stimulation. It’s true I did love Jayne Mansfield, and as for River Phoenix, he is a marker of the generations.

What about Stagecoach? Claire Trevor, the frontier whore, was called “Dallas” in that film; many of the women of Hawks and Ford (and thus of the classic Western) wore men’s names with an androgynous, Jean Arthur flair. It was as if to say, in the old West, sexuality was a toss-up. It was sometimes not even human (how about Angie Dickinson, as “Feathers,” in Rio Bravo)? Joss pushes some buttons but not as many as he might. I know, it’s early yet. When Firefly was cancelled, he had, it is said, written the ‘bible’ for another six seasons. Based on my knowledge of his mind, and my intimacy with his other shows, I bet one of the storylines would have involved developing the lost humanity of a Reaver. (The “Reavers” are these outer space revenants who rapaciously, murderously, tear their way through the solar system like a race of Hannibal Lecters. Long exile from the comforts of home have turned them into id-alpha animals, like savages, but ten times worse.) Just as Angel showed that vampires aren’t so awful, Firefly Season Three, would have brought us a Reaver called, oh, I don’t know, “Genghis,” and shown him getting back in touch with his crypto-human roots. Maybe picking a flower by the stream’s edge and smelling it? Then next thing you know, staring wistfully at a Vermeer interior? Tearing himself away from bloody rapine to watch a sunset? Then, sniffing a purloined handkerchief, I can’t decide of whom—Inara? River? Jewel? Zoe? Oh, romance, it blooms even when no one can hear you scream!

But now the flop of Serenity has dashed my hopes the way…when you’re angry with yourself and throw a china dish at the wall, it flies to pieces and you start sobbing, insides a-churn, as though you will never stop feeling that all is desolation.