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BLUE SUN ROOM FAN FICTION - GENERAL
This is an essay by "jarredspekter."
The original was published tonight at http://jarredspekter.deviantart.com/art/Analyzing-Firefly-289291556
There is one place in the essay where Jayne is called a "hired good." I vehemently disagree! Jayne is a goon! I had to fix that. There are other disagreements. You are encouraged to disagree with your own comments.
I posted the essay under fiction, instead of community, because www.fireflyfans.net will automatically put a blank line between paragraphs. I think that improves readability.
CATEGORY: FICTION TIMES READ: 1161 RATING: SERIES: FIREFLY
Analyzing and Improving: Firefly by "jarredspekter"
Everything about the guy should seem tailor-made to become my idol. He's intelligent, well read, likes wordplay and has a huge command of obscure movie and geek culture trivia. His major complaint about television and movies is that they don't have enough story and character development. He purposefully writes out story arcs and the rules behind his worlds before he makes his shows and he favors complex plots with high stakes. He has smaller, condensed casts of vibrant characters, each with their own personalities and histories. He hires great actors, like subtle atmospheric music. He's not a bad director and his interests sway to inventive science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
And yet I do not love anything he's done.
I did apparently have a Firefly phase once where I praised the show and I guess from the offset it has much going for it. It has a unique 'used future' vibe, which is rarely present in sci-fi, it can be humorous, the action is fun and there's an attempt to flesh out an original world. But as time went on I mellowed into toleration of the show, to abject hatred of it. Even Farscape I went from liking to merely recalling pieces of it fondly, but Firefly has in my experience not only cooled in my appreciation for it but soured as well.
Now this might partially be to Joss overexposure. For awhile my family was heavily into Buffy and Angel (both shows that I could bring myself to chuckle at sometimes) and maybe this is coloring my opinion. Largely however the same reasons I don't remember Buffy or Angel fondly are the same niggling flaws that drove me to dislike Firefly, so this might come across as my collective appraisal of the work of Joss in general.
But I have concrete objective reasons for disliking Firefly I feel and I'd like to share them, along with the balanced addition of what the show did well.
Whedon is like the little girl with the little curl in the poem.
When he's good, he's very very good.
When he's bad…
1: Focus on Character
You can have plot without location, without overt action, without a definite time period, without dialogue, without music, and without even being able to see things on screen all the time…but you CANNOT have a plot without characters. Joss seems to know this and each episode of Firefly revolves around chiefly the principal cast, their idiosyncrasies, their pasts, and their attitudes. Character is king for the most part in any Joss production and it's a welcome departure from impersonal shows with no consistent characters to follow, just sweeping events, which tend to lose their meaning without someone to care about being involved. These characters did develop (if along fixed paths) and did sometimes surprise with their decisions. The cast is also colorful and each personality of the Serenity Crew is distinct. I appreciated that some episodes would focus on only one character and allow them to confront who they really were, learning about themselves as we learned more about them. Even if the story was simple or the genre conventions became silly you could count on Firefly episodes solidly bunkered in interpersonal relationships, questions of loyalty, and conflicting ideals: the best kind of television in my opinion. Each character also had direct ties to the rest of the cast even if they weren't in a romantic relationship with them. Simon was River's guardian, a contrasting urbane influence to Malcolm Reynolds' rustic crudity, a love interest for Kaylee, and an object of suspicion to Wash. He wasn't just 'the doctor' he was a person who formed and held to his connections with others, even as characters like Jayne who seemed from the first to be pretty two dimensional blossomed into compelling characters through these same varied connections with others. At times in the show there would be quiet scenes that just allowed the characters to be, and it spoke well of the actors and the writer/director that often these people were entertaining just to be with even if nothing else was happening around them.
2: Intriguing Premise
Another trademark of Joss is his deliberate and methodical subversion of genre conventions. He had a cheerleader blonde, usually the victim in horror films, be the hero of his horror series and in his sci-fi production he focuses not on the overarching empire or an efficiently staffed and disciplined science vessel, but instead on a bickering family by necessity adrift on a derelict smuggler ship. It was actually a stroke of brilliance to do this as Firefly weaves together several different ideas before (Red Dwarf, Cowboy Bebop, and of course Hans Solo from Star Wars) but makes the whole an original entity. Firefly is the culmination of a thousand isolated fan fictions about the other parts of the galaxy during the Imperial/Rebel wars in any given sci-fi epic: the traders, the settlers, and the pirates who live off the land while dodging the law and their own ruthless criminal ilk. I love the 'used future' motif and see it very rarely, but Firefly capitalized on it. The ship Serenity was constantly breaking down, food was as precious as money, and the crew used jury-rigged relics of society to lighten their lives, manifest in Kaylee's broken parasol that she can't repair because she's too poor to afford a new one. It gave the continuous sense of being isolated, the cast having to use their wits to survive and made the situations they got into all the more dire as even a small misstep could prove fatal without access to supplies, allies, or high tech support which the crew forfeited in splitting from The Alliance. I liked the blending of western aesthetic with high sci-fi and there was much care made to ensure that most of the time the western look had come about naturally, not just because the show was a western/sci-fi genre production. On the fringes of society people really do wear broad brimmed hats, farm, carry personal side arms, and use low technology because of its efficiency and availability. When it worked Firefly was both a whole new world to explore and the logical follow-up to many worlds that had come before it.
3: Great Overall Production
Firefly was a constantly shifting rainbow of settings and ideas, all of which were given fervent and beautiful treatment. The episode taking place at a ritzy noble's house came across less as an out of place costume drama and more as a story about how a privileged official had stylized his domain around the look and feel of period royalty. This distinction is subtle but it made a lot of difference when it came to making Mal sword fighting ultimately be at home in a show about spaceships. Little details abounded, almost all of which tied into the main narrative. Listening to the commentary Joss even planned on a story arc based on the 'Blue Sun' corporate logo you can only half see in the first episode behind some crates. Refreshing there wasn't many moments that reminded you with a blow to the head that this was a SCI-FI show. People played regular instruments, used actual guns, ate real food, wore real looking clothing. The religions were our religions (in name at least) the languages were our languages and the history centered around our planet. There weren't any aliens, no magic, no unbelievable future technology as a rule. Even what would be commonplace in other science fiction like laser guns were actually clunky, unreliable prototypes and this grounded Firefly as more of an alternate future vision then an idealized fantasy future. I appreciated that what the characters wore and used had been designed from the ground up to be practical. Nobody carried weapons just to look 'cool', nobody wore ridiculous outfits to the same empty purpose unless said outfits had something to do with an episode's plot. The blending of Chinese and American culture was inventive as well.
Action scenes were fast paced but brutal, decisive, and continued the sense of harsh realism. Bullets left bleeding wounds. A single wayward strike to a spacecraft spelled danger if said shots destroyed the cockpit window and sucked you into space. I liked that characters cringed after they punched someone because hitting anything with your fists without training actually really hurts. It was another detail that indicated true attention was paid to all aspects of the show's immersion.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK
1: Too Self-Referential
This happens so often in Joss Whedon productions and I wince every time it does. Logic is too often ignored in favor of pandering to the audience.
2: Too Simplistic
Despite its pretense at shades of moral gray, Firefly plays favorites. Villains and heroes also seem arbitrary.
3: Wild Tonal Shifts
Another Whedon trademark: he refers to these as episodic 'earnings'. After doing a 'comedy' episode he feels justified in making a 'horror' one. The problem is that with this disjointed approach to storytelling the show never has a consistent emotional sensibility.
THE RESULTS OF THESE PROBLEMS
1: In one of the first episodes the pilot, Wash, is musing about River Tam having revealed herself to essentially be a telepath.
"I dunno. Telepathy. Kind of sounds like science fiction to me." He says.
"Dear, we live in a space ship." His wife replies.
"Oh yeah." He responds, raising an eyebrow.
This just annoys me and is the primary reason I dislike this show. Science fiction changes with each new generation and I would have hoped a fan of the genre would know this. This is like nowadays someone saying 'I dunno. Sounds like science fiction' and being rebutted by someone saying 'But we have toasters'. Yes, in earlier centuries that might have seemed like sci-fi and there is a point in there somewhere, but the real reason this statement was made is because being on a space ship will be associated with science fiction by the VIEWER.
Not by the characters but by the people watching the show.
At one point Jayne says in a genuinely funny and spontaneous way 'Do you know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I beat you with until you put me in rutting command!"
This is something a person might conceivably say in his situation so it rings true.
However in one episode Shepherd Book begins a seemingly random conversation with Simon the doctor about an ancient Warlord named Sun Yu, and just before the titles of the episode another person with not immediate connection to the previous scene asks another guy if he's familiar with the same warlord. There's no reason for this other then so the audience can get the sense of a bridge.
This is why I rarely find the humor funny. Wash tells Mal 'I want to learn about how to help'. Cut to a scene of the two of them dragging boxes and he quips 'So now I'm learning about carrying'. Not only is this an awkward and unrealistic line, but also did he really wait for at least fifteen minutes to finish up his joke while he collected and dragged a box? During a torture scene Mal is zapped just before he swears. That's juvenilely convenient and ruins suspension of disbelief.
Characters are just too gorram clever for their own good or my enjoyment. Every line seems tailored to make the audience admire Joss then to tell a story as they reference things they wouldn't know, say things no one would say, or just outright make clichés just so they can break them. In one scene Mal is fighting a bad guy and Zoe stops the others from just shooting him by saying 'No. He has to do this on his own!'
When Mal screams 'No I don't!' Zoe replies 'Oh.' And the team opens fire.
Get it? Because is cheesy sci-fi usually characters say that line.
But it doesn't work at all. Zoe is too smart to say anything like this, Mal has nothing personal against the man he's fighting beyond his trying to kill him with a knife. There is no reason at all for this scene to exist except for a forced in joke that isn't all that funny.
Except to Joss. He laughs crazily at this scene on the commentary.
So Joss…who did you make this show for again?
2: The Alliance is evil. No ambiguity. All Alliance personnel are either incompetent, corrupt, or both. In the first episode we're meant to cheer as Mal guns down an entire troop transport ship of Alliance soldiers and the first Alliance loyalist we meet is psychotic. Oddly for a show which claims to be based on the civil war there's no indication of Alliance and the Brown Coats having any common ground. Once you wear the steely gray costume of The Alliance you lose your soul. Conversely, if you're part of the Serenity crew you can do anything underhanded including murder but the show will forgive you. Mal claims have a code at one point, but over the course of the series he breaks it several times. It doesn't matter. He's the hero so whatever he does will be for the best intentions and have the best consequences. Even his failings and mistakes wind up being moral victories, which is odd as the show endlessly claims there is no true morality, just survival.
This is most clearly demonstrated when Mal attempts to hijack a drifting transport vessel so he can salvage it and claims the right to because he discovered it. Later an Alliance ship comes along (the same guys who own the company the ship came from) and capture the ship while the crew stares in horror at the injustice of…the original owners overriding their right by discovery.
Even more annoyingly the Alliance doesn't even loot the ship. They blow it up.
Just like Mal demanded them too after he discovered a psychotic reaver on board!
So the Alliance has full rights, isn't gaining anything except the safety of the galaxy, AND is doing what Mal asked them to do…but they're still the bad guys.
"Wouldn't want to leave without their profit. Wouldn't be civilized." Snarls Mal.
That was really the episode I started to hate Mal. Nothing was good enough for him and, by extension, nothing seemed good enough for Joss. It's a deal breaker for me when I start associating character actions with the whim of the writer rather then any internal logic, but I knew that the kindly but religious settlers would turn out to be evil and I knew that the seemingly well supplied and staffed hospital would turn out to be run by idiots.
Why? Because Joss hates the establishment and religion so everyone associated with either is by default greedy, ignorant, and evil.
Sure, the main cast tends to do exactly the same things they complain about The Alliance, but when they do them the show always has an excuse for their actions, none for The Alliance ever. The deck is stacked and so it wasn't watching an evolving situation of two opposed but independently rational forces, it was the evil empire versus the noble rebellion…again.
All those subversions of sci-fi conventions and Firefly plays the biggest and most tired cliché absolutely straight.
3: In one episode Mal wears a dress. He he.
In another episode it begins with him sitting naked on a rock. Har har.
In yet another few episodes however a bounty hunter threatens to rape Kaylee, Mal and Wash are tortured in agonizing and bloody ways, and the mangled corpses of men woman and children are clearly seen hanging from the ceiling by a meat hook.
This kind of tonal darting around becomes schizophrenic and it really put me off the show in general. In the same show where Mal practices his 'war face' and plays with his six-shooter like a child there is a weapon that graphically melts people so that blood gushes from their eyes, noses, and mouths.
Buffy and Angel had this same problem of consistency, but at least they existed in a 'horror' subtype universe and it was conceivable that after having a little witty exchange Buffy might have to go and slay a blood sucking monster. Here it's off-putting to see a lot of uncomfortable and needless focus on atrocity. Why does it matter if we know that reavers 'rape people to death' (in fact so important the beginning of the Firefly movie 'Serenity' has this as one of the opening lines)? Why is there so much focus on the lewd, the exploitative, the graphic and the unpleasant?
I am unfortunately of the increasing opinion that Joss himself never left childhood. This might seem like the right mindset for a fantasy/fiction storyteller, but not when he's an overgrown ADHD teen who thinks young woman with swords are 'so cool', piles on horror movie gore because it makes him laugh, and continuously spouts sex jokes because he thinks it makes him sound mature.
'I don't know why I have a thing for teenaged ass-kicking girls' Joss said in an interview.
I know why, Joss. It's because you never got beyond adolescence in terms of taste.
FIXING THESE PROBLEMS
1: Make references, if they must be there, subtle and logical.
2: Make the moral issue people and decisions, not stances.
3: Keep a consistent tone despite changes of venue.
1: In the original Star Wars an indigent admiral says the following, which I still consider one of the cleverest in jokes of all time…and it's written by George Lucas.
"Your sad devotion to that ancient religion hasn't given you the foresight to end this war, or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebel's hidden fort…"
Vader cuts him off by force choking him into silence, uttering the immoral line 'I find your lack of faith disturbing.'
And there, right in the middle, is a movie reference joke! The Hidden Fortress is a Japanese movie that Star Wars is practically a sci-fi version of. In one scene Lucas acknowledged the film's influence, cut off the title of the movie like a joke about him not wanting others to know he was basing his film on another classic movie, and all the while tied it seamlessly into the story. Even if The Hidden Fortress hadn't existed the scene would have worked.
If no one in history had ever said 'don't help him. He needs to do this on his own!' then the scene where Zoe does it would make no sense and almost seem like she'd gone crazy.
This is the difference between a joke telling the story, and the story telling the joke.
There needed to be much more care at least to make Firefly less annoying to me personally. Maybe a lot of people laughed when random thing and pointless references were made, but to me it did the show a disservice by shattering the unwritten agreement between author and viewer: let me tell you a story.
Imagine if someone was reading you a book and stopped to say 'Oh, and that reminds me of that one time…'. You'd be annoyed. You'd want to hear the book, not the joke which will ultimately do nothing to advance the story in that book.
If, however, the person reading to you wove into his reading a personal experience so that it felt like part of the story you wouldn't even notice it was personal at all. You'd believe it was part of the story and you'd stay invested in the story despite it.
Destroying logic also takes away from suspension of disbelief, especially if that logic is ruined just for a cheap gag. When Mal and Jayne seem aroused and conflicted about the prostitute 'companion' on their crew for me it raised too many questions. Why, in a galaxy where apparently sex is a religion, do people still react like modern people would in the presence of its discussion? Why, if Mal is a soldier and Jayne is a hired goon and both have told stories about their exploits with prostitutes in the past do both continually seem cowed by woman in revealing clothing? The logic has to be internal as well as external. Yes, we need logical grounding in the real world to imagine he world of the show properly, but the show itself should have its own rules. Mal isn't a guy from now, he's a man from the future. He's a soldier, rogue, and smuggler. His attitudes and reactions should not be entirely comparable to a twenty first century personal without his history and his experiences. A lot of the time Firefly strove to make the definition between people living in Firefly times and our own sensibilities, but when the two crossed it was galling. Just because the audience, or Joss, would react in some way does not mean the crew of The Serenity would and by trying to further enforce those parameters the glaring issue of self-reference destroying credibility might have been reigned in.
Make things clearly derived from the show, not for the audience's perceived benefit.
Perhaps Zoe could have said 'Dear, years ago people would have called living on a space ship science fiction'. Its not a joke anymore, but it makes sense and it sounds like something someone would actually say. Also, why would Zoe want to purposefully make a joke no one would think was funny except maybe people who were watching them talk?
You can even keep a joke and logic intact while adding to the humor of a situation. Wash might in a revised version say 'So now I'm learning about carrying' only for Mal to roll his eyes and fire back 'You're still going on about this? I was done with this conversation hours ago!' Now the joke is calling attention to the time gap, not ignoring it, but also telling us something about Wash. He's been badgering Mal about the same subject for hours without even realizing it. Now it's his folly, not the script's, that's center stage.
I wish there was someone to tell Joss after he'd written an initial draft 'Go back and make sure the jokes make sense in context.'
If his reply was 'Nobody will care if they're funny' mine would be 'Someone will.'
2: Firefly needed to settle on whether it was a wholly amoral show or a show about how having a code was moral or a show about the extremes of morality. The subject of morals and right and wrong is bandied about all the time, but there's no commitment to any aspect of it. Killing is wrong…unless a hero does it. Stealing is wrong…unless a hero does it. Revenge is wrong…unless a hero does it. Discrimination and hatred is wrong…unless a hero does it.
When it came down to it Firefly had no more depth or complexity then Captain Planet. Those on the side of good were good, even when they did wrong, and those on the side of bad could never do any good at all. On top of this the villains never even reasoned their way into their positions. They're motivations and beliefs are so transparently evil it's cartoonish.
But the irony arises that, since Joss seems to have no faith in people at all, there's nothing the villains do the heroes won't also do without regret. Every villainous action, in the show and movie, is mirrored by a hero's action and despite random scenes invented so these actions and decisions aren't really the heroes' fault, I could never reconcile with the crew as decent people. I lose interest when the conflict becomes dull and when the divide was wholly determinable by something as basic as whether a character worked for the 'good guys' or the 'bad guys,' I stopped caring about Firefly.
Now if there had been consideration put into people rather then stances this show would not only have been saved from smug didactic rambling, but also opened up a new world of opportunity.
Imagine if The Alliance actually had legitimate things going for it and honestly considerate and thoughtful people involved. Imagine if The Browncoats were not all uniformly just and pleasant people. Without drawing so firm a line the indication would be that factional distinction is not identity. The decisions people make are the arbiters of their own moral stances. Instead of The Alliance being uniformly stodgy, secretive, vindictive and unfeeling, maybe some are even more compassionate then the Serenity's pragmatic crew, giving rise to questions about who is in the right. Imagine an episode ending and, instead of Mal grumbling some kind of blatant moral, you were left to wonder if the 'heroes' did the right thing and if the 'villains' deserved the title.
Now you could conceivably take the popular root and just make both sides equally shady, but to me this is dull. I want people to try. I want there to be a struggle of conscience, difficult decisions, and true personal ordeals.
Perhaps I'm not alone?
3: The opening theme of Firefly is tragically beautiful in its strains: flavored by country and western but the simple arrangement and single singer almost make it seem like something a rebel might belt out to recall battles long lost. Throughout the series there was haunting violins, sprightly pastoral guitars, and warbling flues. The ultimate expression of this for me was the theme from the movie Serenity by David Newman, which is a droning, heartbreakingly earnest string theme followed by an energetic percussion accompaniment which wouldn't be out of place in a classic western. It's a blending of East and West, of action and poignancy.
Why is so little of this in the show?
This kind of powerful, multifaceted, driving and dramatic music has no place in the midst of inept childish japery, unsophisticated and contradictory moralizing, clumsy pop culture references, and a self-indulgent fixation of sex and violence.
Firefly is too good a concept for Joss Whedon to do it justice, and that is ultimately my biggest problem. Not the show but the man behind it.
Joss is fine if you want a big dumb exciting Summer movie (like The Avengers) and he's fine if you want a goofy self-referential horror gore film (like Cabin in the Woods) but he is a lousy hand at drama, he has no subtlety for characterization and he doesn't seem to care about attempting to improve.
In his own words 'I always felt subtlety was for smaller men.'
No. Subtlety is for people who want to create something for the ages, not just a flash in the cultural pan. Subtlety is for people who can lay aside their egos to create an experience that challenges and entertains others.
We used to call these people 'artists'.
There really need to be a through line, a constant Firefly feel. If the show is primarily a dramatic space opera about fugitives struggling to live in a hostile galaxy, start there. Then even if you move into humor, tie it into the main theme. The impression would be a continuous sense of being lost and hunted even when the characters are laughing during a moment of respite. Jokes would feel like an episode in their overall lives, not an aside that breaks the flow. We might come to care more about these people if they weren't just figures of fun, pontificating drama queens, or some kind of rapidly switching back and forth of the two. If these were people first, quirky characters second, if their personalities guided their actions and decisions rather then their stereotypical set of impulses, I might recall Firefly with fewer groans for what could have been.
Firefly is the best show I despise.
It has everything going for it and is clearly a work of love and care, but those irritating inconsistencies and rupturing bouts of smug asides coupled with the worn out and one-dimensional themes utterly ruins it for me.
I don't watch Firefly if I can help it, not because the show was a terrible idea, not because the acting is bad, not because I don't like the concepts at play or even the characters for the most part.
I don't watch it because all that potential is thrown away in favor of using the promising backdrop for nothing so complex as one of Wash's make believe plays with his plastic dinosaurs on the Serenity's control panels. Because of all that wasted potential and insulting degree this show sinks into mediocrity and thoughtlessness I've never quite forgiven it, or Joss, especially with so many imitators who believe snark equals cleverness and blood equals drama.
The Firefly may never sail through The Black again and to be brutally honest I hope it never does. To restart the series would bring with it the same problems disguised as 'features' of the show.
And if the comics following unused storylines from Firefly, co-written by Joss Whedon himself, are any indication, all the storylines he never finished weren't worth telling anyway.
Not that Joss or his fans will care but I think subtlety is for bigger men than he.
Thursday, March 8, 2012 6:05 PM
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