Previous Contents Next

Some Thoughts On Firefly

I've been watching Firefly, because everybody told me I should and I always do what I'm told. It's a TV programme produced and directed by Joss Whedon, of Buffy and Angel fame.

Whedon wrote some of the episodes and the whole thing is his baby. He talks a lot about the show in the commentaries on the DVD. In one of the lowlights of the special features, he even sings the song that blares out over the opening titles. (He wrote the song as well). I really wish that he hadn't done any of these things. They add nothing to his image. There is absolutely no doubt that Joss Whedon is extremely good at the things he does well. Firefly has moments of absolute brilliance. Unfortunately there are also many things that Whedon is extremely bad at, and with Firefly he has spent far too much time concentrating on areas in which he has minimal skills.

With the exception of the pilot show, the episodes that Whedon wrote himself are by far and away the weakest. At least one of them (The Message) is so abysmally bad that I'd have been willing to cancel the series on the basis of that episode alone. Who knows – perhaps that's what happened? It's almost embarrassing, listening to all the hard men and women emoting like Captain Kirk on a bad toupee day. You can always tell when a TV show is going down the tubes. The characters stop having conversations and they start making speeches.

Whedon was the overall script supervisor and he did the final spit and polish on all the scripts from the whole writing team. In practice this meant he put in a lot of jokes. He is brilliant at that and even his own appallingly plotted scripts have lots of wonderful gags in them. But he ought to stick to the one liners that he does so well. When it comes to serious plotting and serious conversation, he simply hasn't got a clue.

This becomes quite apparent when you hear the commentaries provided on the DVD. After I wasted an embarrassing couple of hours listening to Whedon blurting puerile, egotistical inanities, I realised exactly why The Message was so bad. Whedon is a naïve and trivial thinker, a man without subtlety who wears his heart on his sleeve. He's a genius when he interprets other people's scripts and puts the jokes in all the right places, but as a serious writer he makes a good bedside lamp. He can't write his way out of a wet paper bag when the jokes aren't there because he is far too obvious and unsubtle in his choice of words. The evidence strongly suggests that he's turning into George Lucas.

In addition, the title song proves, if proof were needed, that Joss Whedon would also like to turn himself into Jimi Hendrix. Both men are recognized as being a genius in their chosen field. Hendrix as a musician and guitar player, Whedon as a producer and director of vision. But neither can sing a note, and both have terrible diction.

Whedon murders the title song in one of the DVD special features. I suggest you listen to it with earplugs firmly inserted so that no sound sneaks through your eardrums. Given the final result that oozes out of the speakers as the opening titles roll, it is quite clear that having recorded the song himself, Whedon then scoured the world from top to bottom to find the one professional singer whose voice and style most closely matched his own. Since Jimi Hendrix is dead, he chose Sonny Rhodes, an obscure Blues singer.

"…'scuse me while I kiss this guy!" Hendrix mumbled into his microphone, to the utter bewilderment of a generation. "You can't take this guy from me!" mumbles Rhodes in the same semi-literate manner as the title sequence hits the screen. Poof! All credibility vanishes in a purple haze!

If Sonny Rhodes based his performance on Whedon's demo tape, it is more than likely that he thought those really were the words, for that is exactly what Whedon himself "sings". I'd love to know whether or not Sonny Rhodes had a score and printed words to work from, or if he just reproduced what he heard from Joss Whedon. After all, I might be doing Sonny Rhodes an injustice by insulting his singing style so much. (But I doubt it).

Whedon is a living example of the Peter Principle. He has been so successful at the things he does well that he has managed to get himself promoted into a position where he now has the power to indulge himself in the many things that he does badly. I predict that he'll crash and burn. Indeed, it's already started. The Greeks had a word for it – they called it hubris, an excess of pride. And, to steal a phrase from Brian Aldiss, the cancellation of Firefly as a TV show, and the commercial failure of the movie Serenity is a perfect example of hubris being clobbered by nemesis. As indeed it always has to be, of course. Deuced clever, these Greeks.

Make no mistake about it, Whedon has huge talent as a producer and director. He's brim full of good ideas and he is enormously skilful, not to say inspired, in bringing strong scripts to brilliant life. Firefly as a whole is very, very good indeed; though it certainly isn't nearly as good as some of its more rabid fans would have you believe. All TV SF seems to attract more than its fair share of weirdoes on the lunatic fringe. I think we can safely ignore them.

Serenity is a Firefly-class spaceship. She's an old ship, a dirty, grungy ship, a tramp steamer of the spaceways. Her crew are scum – society's dregs, political refugees and criminal fugitives. Serenity makes a vaguely illegal living on the frontiers of the galaxy carrying dubious cargo and even more dubious passengers to dangerous, lawless worlds. The stories are wild west clichés transported into space and they are direct descendants of Bertram Chandler's stories of the Galactic Rim and Mike Resnick's Birthright Universe novels. And that's no bad thing – Whedon is leading from strength here. Chandler, Resnick and Whedon all know that when your stories are utter rubbish, you need extreme verisimilitude in your settings and extra strong characters to make your audience willingly suspend its disbelief. This is where Whedon's genius truly comes in to its own.

Firefly is stuffed full of beautifully envisaged things – when I saw the ships fly silently through space I got a warm glow. When I saw bombs explode without a sound, I cheered. The crew of Serenity are utter bastards (though, disturbingly, they start getting nicer towards the end of the series – I think that's a mistake). Serenity herself is a dirty and very lived in vessel. You can smell her, and she doesn't smell of roses; she smells of shit. The dialogue is full of humour and is genuinely witty and sometimes it even has pretensions to profundity. It's wonderful stuff, and it's wonderfully done.

There are a few logical glitches – the society is full of Chinese influences. The characters swear in Chinese when under stress, they eat with chopsticks and there are Chinese hieroglyphs painted throughout Serenity. But not one oriental face ever appears in any scene at all. Where are all the Chinese people who have influenced the society so strongly? Has the Alliance absorbed their culture and then committed genocide?

Also, some of the slang that the characters use grates on the ear. Atmo instead of atmosphere, 'verse (or possibly verse) instead of universe. It's ugly and I hate it. Unfortunately I strongly suspect the writers (and/or Whedon) may be on to something here. Even today there is a distressing tendency to strip syllables out of longer words. I am becoming heartily sick of people who refer to computers as 'puters (or worse, just puters). Can I have a puter made of pewter? Just what English needs; another homonym! Firefly may well have got this trend exactly right. That's a depressing thought.

Because the series was cancelled before it was barely begun there are a lot of plot threads that have been left dangling. We don't know what was done to River or why it was done. The few clues that we have suggest that invasive brain surgery was used, probably in an attempt to turn her into some sort of Campbellian psionic superbeing. Another hoary old idea, but not necessarily a bad one. Campbell's manias produced a lot of good stories and his psionic biases provided inspiration for many of the golden age writers. It's an easy area in which to descend into predictability and cliché, as many have found to their cost. But with a bit of self-discipline, I'm sure there are still a lot of good stories waiting to be written.

The blue-handed agents are also intriguing. Are they part of the Alliance or are they operating outside its influence, burrowing from within? It's very hard to tell, and I don't think we'll ever find out now.

Also the Shepherd. He certainly isn't all that he seems to be. And I honestly have no clue as to what he is, or why he has manoeuvred himself on board the ship (for it seems obvious to me that he has deliberately placed himself there). There's a serious plot hole here – Mal (Serenity's captain) knows that the Shepherd has a secret agenda. When Mal takes him aboard an Alliance vessel seeking medical help for him, the Alliance isn't interested. They reject the Shepherd and are about to send him back to Serenity when he produces some sort of identity card or badge that causes the Alliance official to reverse his decision and take the Shepherd away for immediate urgent medical attention. What was that card? Why is the Shepherd so important to the Alliance? Mal sees all of this but he pays no attention. He never investigates any further at all. That's a big oversight. Mal isn't that stupid. I suspect that it was intended that a later episode would show that he did investigate and that sooner or later (probably later when it is to his advantage to do so) he will confront the Shepherd with his knowledge and "blackmail" him into doing something that, under other circumstances, he would probably not have contemplated doing.

But that's all unsubstantiated guesswork. I am told that Serenity (the movie that follows on from the series) provides answers to some, though not all, of these questions. I have not seen the movie yet. When I do, I will be very interested to see how closely my guesswork matches the real thing.

Firefly is a first-class drama. I'm sorry it got cancelled – it had a lot of promise. Certainly it stands head and shoulders above any other television SF that I've ever seen. There are several episodes I can easily imagine watching and enjoying again. And even Joss Whedon managed to pull one truly brilliant script out of the manure pile in which he keeps his word processor. The two hour pilot that he wrote to introduce the series is just sublime, as indeed it had to be if he wanted to get the funding to proceed with the series. The pilot proves that when Whedon works hard at what he's doing there's nobody to touch him. When he gets lazy he's just like everybody else and he can't hold his head above the water. Unfortunately, he's as human as the rest of us, and most of the time he is lazy; just like you and me.

Joss Whedon has turned some very dull and very ordinary material into something quite extraordinary. To that extent, Firefly is definitely a success and a work of genius. But the series was cancelled before it was complete, and it will not be seen again in any recognisable form. To that extent it is a failure (though whether the failure is artistic or commercial is a very moot point). There is no doubt that Whedon has the talent to succeed on a high and rarefied level. But so far he has wasted his talent on the mundane. That he has succeeded so well with such extremely poor source material is a tribute to his genius, but nevertheless there is no doubt that something is holding him back.

One day (I hope) he will get his hands on a story line that is genuinely clever and innovative. And on that day when he goes into his studio and does his usual extraordinary things with that extraordinary material he will truly have scaled the artistic summit and proved himself worthy of his calling. At that point he will be able properly to take his place in the hall of fame, and have his work regarded as being classic and definitive.

I'm not sure that he is capable of envisaging such material himself. His imagination seems to be too plodding and pedestrian for that. He sorely needs a collaborator, an ideas person. One day he'll find that person; one day he'll find that glittering idea and when he does, he'll be unstoppable.

But that day is not today and Firefly is not that material. We're still waiting; and I for one hope that we don't have to wait too long.

Previous Contents Next