Firefly & Serenity

I have finally joined the rest of the Cool Kids and watched all of Firefly and Serenity. It’s a good series with a great cast. I’m not sure why it didn’t do better, unless it just had too much substance. The setting was excellent, the special effects were solid, the dialogue was intelligent and crisp. The characters were likable, believable (mostly), and had a reasonable amount of depth. They had a tendency to lose even while winning, of course, and that did get a little old. You wanted them to be able to win and enjoy it for awhile at least now and then.

I know I’m far from alone in saying I would have appreciated having at least that many more episodes, though I can’t say I’d have stayed interested in the series indefinitely. I think that was the one place the series suffered–no ongoing plot to move things forward. There were threads all around them, but they didn’t really pick them up. The series was adrift. Each week was interesting and fun, but largely unrelated, and seldom did the consequences extend beyond that week.

Am I expecting too much? Perhaps. I may have been hoping Firefly would be the next Babylon 5, where nearly every episode advances the larger plot arc. But I’ve enjoyed other series with less forward motion (I liked Star Trek: The Next Generation just fine in its day). I think Firefly’s problem was that the setup cried out “Plot Arc!”, but the episode progression was largely self-contained and unrelated. You could re-arrange them in most any order and you’d have a hard time telling they were out of sequence if you didn’t already know.

It was a fun show, though, and I probably could have handled several seasons before getting bored, just like I did with Star Trek: Voyager. I just would have liked to have seen them do something more with it.

On the other hand, Serenity tried to do too much. I found it rather unsatisfying. Joss Whedon fell into the Hollywood trap of “Bigger Screen+Bigger Length+Bigger Budget=Bigger Plot”. In the process he forgot part of what made Firefly fun.

The entire story reeked of desperation. They weren’t having fun anymore. The crew fought, and they seemed on the edge of mutiny continually. They were running out of options even before the plot turned the heat up on them. And then the plot kicks in and really kicked everyone in the teeth. It would have been more fun to watch our favorite characters go through it all if they’d retained the usual sense of wry fun that they usually faced trouble with, but that was gone.

The climax was overdone. It was as if they were determined to see how hopeless they could make the situation. They killed Wash in a meaningless death. They crashed the ship in the middle of swarms of Reavers. Pretty much everyone still remaining was wounded and dying. At that point I was thinking that even if they managed to survive they were in such a dead end at that point there was nothing left to live for.

As a result the ending seemed rather heavy-handed and contrived. Everyone lived (who wasn’t already established to be dead). The ship was repaired. They even hinted at the government no longer chasing River and Simon. And all this because the evil operative guy who had been killing his way through the galaxy to get to them suddenly had a change of heart and decided to help them out, even though he’d shown no interest in the truth previously.

They bury their dead and go back to life as usual. Except they seemed to forget that “life as usual” before the main plot kicked in was desperately miserable. They couldn’t get enough work to keep the ship repaired and pay the crew, and now it’s in even worse shape. They lost friends. There was no happily-ever-after to go back to. Not even indifferently-ever-after. No, it’s back to regular misery. It was, as I said before, very unsatisfying: Life stinks, then pushes you to the very brink, and even the god-in-the-machine will only put you back onto your original slow decent into hell.

Ugh. So….unsatisfying.

More specific peeves: Just how much damage can Capt. Mal take? He gets shot, impaled, and beaten to a pulp, but he just keeps going. Perhaps he didn’t just get his nerve cluster moved, but had all of his internal organs removed. The guy won’t die. Yet Simon takes a single gunshot and he’s out. Zoey gets cut up and she’s mostly out. But River, who can’t weigh much more than 100 lbs., can kick everyone’s butt and stop a Reaver twice her size and mass cold in its tracks with a punch. I don’t think they’re using the same physics we’re using (or biology).

Then there’s the Reavers/Miranda plot point. The Reavers supposedly came from Miranda, but they must have either gone nuts after everyone else had died, or left the planet immediately. Why was the planet completely intact and untouched if the Reavers had lived there too? Why didn’t they slaughter the other 90% of the population first? And why weren’t they still living there?

How did they stay alive for ten years eating only what people they could capture? Why do they cooperate with one another enough to fly dangerously radioactive ships to other planets to attack people instead of just attacking each other? They hinted at 10 million reavers. Keeping that many alive and fed from only what they could capture would require raids of enormous size. There is no way the Alliance could keep that a secret.

In short, as deeply as Whedon thought other aspects through, it’s like the Reavers were an afterthought; a convenient bogeyman, but not to be examined too closely. We never got to see that much of them in the series, which was fortunate for the series. We never had to question too deeply. But Serenity made them the main plot, and they weren’t ready for their close-up.

One thing I thought they handled right, though, was River’s progression. She finally came to accept what she was, and by so doing seemed to learn to control it–something of a psychopathic-killer version of “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade”. Knowing she can control it would make the rest of the crew much more comfortable with her being around, even knowing what she’s capable of. Of course this also would make things difficult if they were to continue the series. Anytime they get into danger they just wind up River and turn her loose. Too easy to keep going back to that well.

In hindsight I should have stopped with the last episode of Firefly. The plot was largely the same, anyway: Mal is considering kicking the Tams off the ship when a big-bad tracker-dude catches up with the Tams and is going to bring them back no matter who gets in his way. Everyone gets the crap beat out of them. River and Mal save the day.

I liked Firefly. I think it had potential. I think that potential was under-realized. Most sci-fi series are in their first season. It just never got a second season to show us what it could have been. Instead they tried to make up for it in the movie, and overshot the mark while forgetting part of what made Firefly fun in the first place.

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