Serenity Now!

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The
short-lived TV series Firefly
may be named for an insect, but it will soon resemble a mythological
bird. It is about to rise from the ashes of television obscurity
and be reborn in a theater near you as the motion picture Serenity.

Firefly
was just beginning to catch the attention of the public before
it was cast into TV purgatory by inept programmers at the Fox network.
Yet this show was simply too good to die. Sales of the
show’s 14 episodes on DVD
nurtured a cult following so strong
that it sparked the theatrical resurrection scheduled for a September
30th release.

Science
fiction may not be your preferred genre, but suspend judgment for
the moment. Firefly is actually a western – a western set
in space. The timeframe for Firefly is 500 years in the future.
Human beings have colonized other worlds thanks to terra-forming,
the ability to transform lifeless planets into earthlike habitats.
The oldest worlds are united by a federal government called the
Alliance, while the newer worlds comprise a mostly open frontier
like the American West of yesteryear.

The
eponymous Firefly refers to a class of transport ship that
resembles the glowing insect. The series follows the adventures
of Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew aboard the Firefly
class ship, Serenity. Reynolds is a veteran of a separatist
movement that was crushed in a war with the Alliance years before.
Having lost his land and his religious faith, Reynolds bitterly
resolves to live on his own terms by means legal or illegal. His
prime directive, so to speak, is to stay clear of the Alliance.

Reynolds
has managed to draw around him a crew of misfits, each with secrets
and reasons for avoiding the Alliance. Among the crew is first-mate
Zoe (Gina Torres), also a veteran of the separatist war, and Wash
(Alan Tudyk), Zoe’s wisecracking husband and ship’s pilot. Kaylee
(Jewel Staite) is the sweet and wholesome engineer (think Mary Ann
from Gilligan’s
Island
, if she were an ace mechanic). The menacing but hilarious
Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is a macho roustabout that inexplicably has
a girl’s name. The ship’s medic is Simon (Sean Maher), once a doctor
in the most prestigious Alliance hospital. Simon is a fugitive for
having rescued his sister, River (Summer Glau), from a malevolent
Alliance school. River was formerly a brilliant and gifted student,
but has been reduced to an incoherent basket case by medical procedures
performed on her brain at the school. (If this isn’t a metaphor
for public education, I don’t know what is.)

Also
sharing the ride is Inara Serra (stunning Brazilian actress Morena
Baccarin). Inara is a Companion, a cross between a high-class “lady
of the evening,” and a unionized Geisha. On the frontier of space,
Companions enjoy a considerably higher social respectability than
might their equivalents today. Inara has a love/hate relationship
with Reynolds, who disparages her profession but doesn’t refuse
the rent she pays, nor mind the air of respectability she gives
to the ship.

Finally
there is Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass, best known from the sitcom
Barney
Miller
). Book is a traveling preacher who hopes to bring
religion to the frontier in general, and the Serenity crew
in particular. While Book serves as the crew’s conscience, he finds
his own faith tested by the situations he confronts.

The
settings of Firefly bear an obvious resemblance to the post-Lincoln
American West. The Alliance is roughly analogous to the Union, the
separatists to the Southern secessionists, and Reynolds to a far-flung
Outlaw
Jose Wales
. If the idea of a western set in space sounds
absurd, then it bears explaining that the show is fashioned around
the adages that history tends to repeat, and that everything old
becomes new again. Add to this mix the observation made by Gerritt
Blaauw: “Established technology tends to persist despite new technology.”
What this means in the universe of Firefly is that on the
frontier of space, far from the centers of civilization and industry,
the high tech mingles with the primitive. Futuristic vehicles share
the same roads with combustion engines and horse-driven wagons.
Sophisticated laser weapons exist, but are less seen than a reliable
six-shooter. Fashions and dcor take inspiration from hundreds of
cultures spanning eight centuries.

Firefly
is now set to follow the path of Star Trek, another show
that began as a low-rated TV series but found new life on the big
screen and in ubiquitous spin-offs. Indeed, creator Joss Whedon
(best known for Buffy
the Vampire Slayer
) hopes the upcoming movie will prompt
some network executives to consider reviving the show for television.
In most other respects though, Firefly is the anti-Star
Trek. For one thing, there are no extraterrestrials in Firefly,
no actors in body makeup or rubber prosthetics. The scariest thing
the Serenity crew is likely to encounter isn’t alien monsters,
but human ones.

As
Paul Cantor has noted in his brilliant Gilligan
Unbound
, the universe of Star Trek embodies
the Kennedy idealism of the 60′s. The United Federation of Planets
is Fukayama writ galactic. Ideological debates are settled on Earth,
so all that’s left to do is spread the liberal democratic gospel
through the universe. The Enterprise seeks out new life and
civilizations, and if these civilizations are liberal democracies
too, they get invited to join the Federation. If not, Kirk and company
pay some lip service to the Prime Directive and then go in with
the phasers blasting. The Federation actually has much in common
with its later archenemy, the Borg. Resistance is futile.

In
contrast, the Alliance of the Firefly universe is not New
Camelot forging a path to the New Frontier. It is like most real
governments: brutal and oppressive at its worst, annoying or indifferent
at its best. Rather than a vehicle for uniting diverse cultures,
it is a force for vested interests to maintain their status of privilege.

One
more important note about Firefly: more than a little dialogue
is in Chinese. In the background history of the series, two Earth
cultures have come to dominate: Anglo-American and Chinese. This
is reflected by the mix of Asian and Western fashions, and in the
fact that virtually everyone is fluent in both Mandarin and English.
In developing this history for Firefly, creator Joss Whedon
has presaged the possibility of a post-communist China that becomes
an economic powerhouse to rival the US. As China has one of the
fastest growing economies in the world at present, and is beginning
to compete for oil and other resources, this is a real possibility.
When Chinese communism inevitably folds, Whedon may prove to be
more prescient than many politicians or pundits.

Beyond
its explicit libertarian theme, Firefly is simply well written
and produced. The special effects that depict exteriors in space
cleverly imitate the movements and rack focusing of a hand held
camera. The dialogue is sparkling, imitating a folksy frontier style
that is infectious. (And speaking of infectious, I challenge you
to get the haunting theme song out of your head after watching an
episode or two.)

Serenity
the movie, though based on the TV show, has been crafted to stand
on its own so that audiences need not have seen the series to enjoy
it. It would be no surprise if, like Star Trek, it inspires
sequels or a return to TV. After all, as in the Firefly universe,
history tends to repeat.

September
17, 2005

J.E.
Crosby [send him mail] writes
from Mobile, Alabama where he works as a television director. His
opinions are his own and do not reflect those of his employers,
who are grateful not to be mentioned by name.

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