The Cult I Just Joined

Best sci-fi television drama ever, or damn near to it: Firefly. I have a confession to make: I have recently become one of the many obsessive fans of this prematurely-killed Fox series, probably the only unsuccessful television show ever to be reincarnated as a big time movie (the recently released Serenity).

I completely agree with all the other junkies out there that what makes this story so great is the characters and their interactions. It's kind of like Friends set onboard the Millennium Falcon, but with a lot more action thrown in (and much smarter humor).

But what's probably best about Firefly, in my view, is the intelligence of its vision of the future. There are plenty of inhabited planets in this particular sci-fi saga, but no implausibly human-looking aliens and no silly misunderstandings of the theory of evolution to justify their existence. In fact, the show pokes fun at those who hawk alien stories. On one of the planets the characters visit, a street crier claims, Roswell-like, to have a dead alien carcass on display that you can see if you pony up $$. Simon Tam, the doctor of the ship, checks it out and finds that it's just an upside-down cow fetus.

Instead of Klingons, in Firefly the only bad guys in in the universe are our fellow humans who have gone bad in some way, becoming totalitarians on the one hand (the Alliance), or savages on the other (the Reavers).

Indeed, Firefly achieves a perceptive depiction of cultural difference: On each planet visited, people have different customs, some ridiculous, some superstitious, some sublime. The characters, meanwhile, speak both English and Chinese, because those were the languages of two superpowers that had merged to control of Earth at the time when many people left it.

Firefly is also open-minded about religion: The hero, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, is an apparent atheist, and in one episode there's a hilarious scene in which River Tam (the brilliant and crazy prodigy) tries to "fix" the Bible because it doesn't make any sense. And the show is gutsy: The plot-line of one episode, for example, featured a sultry combination of lesbian lovemaking and brutal torture.

Anyway, enough reveling in my new obsession. Since we're all geeks here at ScienceBlogs, I hope you will forgive me. Moreover, considering that I've done quite a lot of bitching about crappy sci-fi and fantasy lately, it's about time I tried to be positive. To that end, I encourage you to check out both Firefly and (afterwards) Serenity, if you haven't already.

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I couldn't agree more. Although, I don't know about the Friends analogy.

What Jase said. Also, Chris left out the single greatest thing about Firefly - it teaches you how to swear creatively in Mandarin.

The Serenity DVD just came out in Britain this week, so I've been revisiting the 'verse.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

I'm still trying to figure out how to terraform that many planets in one solar system. I haven't plugged the DVD of Serenity into my computer to find the schematic and get a better look.

One might need non-orbiting solar sail/ powersats to redirect light onto some of the further planets and shield the inner ones. There's a cute trick where you can tack the solar sail to maintain a particular stationary position near a planet.

Anyway, welcome to the Browncoats! [g]

I am *not* buying the Firefly DVD set, because watching it, knowing the franchise is dead, would be too damn sad.

That fact that it was as good as it was, and that there are other smart SF&F shows out there, is a sign of a sea change:

While Hollywood game board is not ruled by geeks, they have managed to buy several lots and built a few houses.

What has happened, I believe, is that the old generation of guys (mostly) who wrote fantastic stuff for TV have finally died off. *They* grew up listening to radio serials and maybe reading Bradbury and a few pulps; the stories they wrote were heavy on twist endings and ironic justice and awful warning tales.

This new generation grew up watching those shows, and both loved them and scoffed at them. They played D&D. They are far more scientifically literate. They are more TV literate too.

The upside of this: Smart and engrossing TV shows.

The downside: Smart and engrossing TV shows require attention. You have to think about them. But they're still just damn TV shows, and maybe we should be outside getting some fresh air.

By Stefan Jones (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Cool! I just added it to my Netflix queue.

By Jon Winsor (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

What Jase said. I wish Fox hadn't mismanaged that show so badly as they did. It would have been nice to have it around for a while (at least.)

Chris, did you catch how Jaynestown (the episode in which the abovementioned bible-fixing takes place) is, beyond the River/Book scenes, all about religion/idolatry? Jayne has become Jesus to them, and no amount of evidence that he was just a mean bastard trying to pull off a heist can change their minds.

And of course the "believer" theme in Serenity, in which the worst evil is perpetrated by those who believe without thinking.

Joss is nothing if not subtle.

By Johnny Vector (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Oh, and while we're on the subject, this seems as good a place as any to put this (apologies to Joss Whedon and Barenaked Ladies):

(to the tune of "Jane")
The man works with a band of thugs and thieves
Seven percent seems kinda low to me
It wasn't long before he took my dare.
I wouldn't want us to have died out there.

Jayne, the hero of the mudders down in Canton town.
Jayne and Vera, pay them more they'll never let you down.
Jayne

He brings in gold, it doesn't quell my doubt.
I knew that someday he would sell me out.
On Ariel we nearly bought the farm.
That's why I thought the airlock would not do him harm.

Jayne, is bringing hope but knows he has to leave on time
Jayne is singing lines with rhymes that sound like Steve Sondheim.
Jayne

They built a statue, he knocked it over yesterday.
In his knitted hat you know he's comin' at you
There's no one more insane than Jayne.

A mudder's life was his last gift today.
Still troubled by their smiles as we lift away.
No heaven that can't be built up again
No poison apple next to my Adam.

Jayne, messiah even though his mask has come undone
Jayne is higher cause everybody needs to love someone
Jayne

(Yeah, that's my fault)

By Johnny Vector (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

You said it! Amazon.com had a sale this morning on the DVD set for $20, so I grabbed one. Firefly was excellent, and I certainly hope that it can be relit.

probably the only unsuccessful television show ever to be reincarnated as a big time movie

Depends on your definition of failed, but Star Trek was cancelled after three lackluster seasons before undergoing an unprecedented revival in syndication.

By LilLeaguer (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Firefly and Serenity are AWESOME!

I was on a panel at a science fiction convention recently, where the topic was basically "which was better, Serenity or Revenge of the Sith?" Serenity was the huge winner. Most people are routinely amazed by how stupid Sith is.

I saw the show only in fragments when it was broadcast, and didn't quite get the appeal. When I got the DVDs, though, and my daughter and I started watching it together, we were hooked: strong characters, ambiguity and complexity, weird ideas. The "cowboys in space" theme wasn't such a great selling point, but the rest was good.

Just to add a little controversy, though, there's another series I've heard a lot about...the SciFi channel version of Battlestar Galactica. I saw one episode of that, and I have to say -- it gakked. Maybe it's another one that needs more thorough acquaintance before it grows on you, but I don't know. That one has the double whammy of an annoying premise and that I hated the original show.

Do you guys actually watch a lot of sci-fi TV?

There have been a few good sci-fi series in the Firefly time frame -- one example, the best in my opinion, the new "Battlestar Galactica." It's not the old kiddie show -- it's very dark, sexy and adult.

I saw Firefly on TV, watched it regularly. It seemed disjointed, the episodes didn't flow from week to week and it took me awhile to figure out Fox showed them out of sequence. But it held my interest.

I think Battlestar is actually better and darker and goes much deeper into the mythic realms of the human psyche.

By Norman Doering (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Serenity is awesome. I would like to add that it is also reminiscent of Cowboy Beebop, the anime series. That one also ended after one season, and still got to do a movie.

One of the things I like about Firefly, besides what everyone else has already mentioned, is their realistic depictions of space travel. NO SOUND! Granted, you could use the 'well the sound you hear is really plasma waves like those that Physicist Don Gurnett at the University of Iowa records. http://www-pw.physics.uiowa.edu/space-audio/

They were very careful in the series to only play sound from within the ship during space scenes, or play sounds of the ship itself only in an atmosphere. In the climax of the movie Serenity, they had all the sounds of the battle scene, which could be seen as a compromise between the regular movie fans and the nitpicky nerds. It was kind-of in an atmosphere.

Although they killed off a few good characters, maybe something may come out of Firefly just like with Star Trek.

Most people are routinely amazed by how stupid Sith is.

That's the one thing it's got going for it. While I was angry at Phantom Menace and bored to tears by Attack of the Clones, I spent most of Revenge of the Sith laughing my head off at the ridiculous acting, dialogue, make-up, plot holes, and direction. It's staggeringly, gloriously bad. The comparison with Serenity is just embarrassing.

By Ginger Yellow (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Thank you all for commenting, and Robin, thanks for pulling out what's probably my favorite quote from the series. (Is it just me, or is the Jaynestown episode exponentially more funny than all the others [which are already pretty funny]?) I haven't seen Battlestar, so I probably ought to. As soon as I stop watching Firefly over and over and over....

I only managed to watch one and a half episodes despite really trying hard. I hated (ok, despised) the whole western in space theme - perhaps because of not being american. Is that theme strong throughout the series or is the whole "johnny-reb" thing toned down in later episodes? If so I would probably give it another go.

The science still isn't great.
The system the series is set in has some odd physics. The luminosity of the sun is the same for all the planets or rather terraformed moons they visit. You never see multiple moon sunsets or large planets hovering in the sky. It is also odd that all the moons they visit have the same gravity earth that was like. The most likely place to find moons is around gas giants, but they dont appear to feature in the firefly system. The planets that have the largest moons in our system are the gas giants and earth, earth is more of a binary planet and probably a bit unusual. The gas giants are well outside the Goldilocks zone of habitability, way too cold. So they couldnt feasibly walk on those systems. There just is not enough space in the Goldilocks zone of a solar system for as many planets large enough to have moons unless they are all in Lagrange orbits. Any way, nuf sed, av phun.

Steve

Welcome to the best gorram 'verse every created! Watch the pilot double-episode and "War Stories" with the commentary some time. The comments by Nathan and Joss on the former and Nathan and Alan on the latter are sometimes almost as fun as the dialogue. :-)

"...I hated (ok, despised) the whole western in space theme ..."

That only bothered me the first couple times I watched Firefly because I feared it would be a way to rip off old westerns and not actually be creative and deal with real science fictional concepts. Those fears were not justified after further viewing. Still, there are over tones of some very old black and white TV Westerns, one, I think it was called "The Rebel," about this guy who never takes off his old confederate uniform. There were strong parallels to the Serenity crew being like confederates after the Yanks had won. Their costumes looked a little too wild west also and it looked like they had six shooters in their holsters. Didn't they even herd cows once?

It's one thing I don't really like about a lot of TV sci-fi: the art direction. As a fan of Michael Whelan, Kelly Freas, Richard M. Powers and other artists who did (and some still do) science fiction book covers the worlds of TV sci-fi seem a little sterile and uncreative in comparison to the best cover art in sci-fi.

By Norman Doering (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Although I do think Firefly was great - especially the way they understood that in space no one can hear you shoot - I agree with the above that Battlestar Galactica is better.

That said, you have to turn off your mind every time they mention Earth as the lost colony, rather than the planet on which Man evolved.

Although there is still a chance that this will be discovered in future episodes. I sure hope so.

Speaking of which, they seem to be taking their own sweet time in getting to Earth, now that they have found a map. I understand why; a hit show doesn't want to bring itself to conclusion too quickly. But they seem to be losing the plot a bit here in the second part of the second season.

Still, it's damn good TV.

By Ick of the East (not verified) on 02 Mar 2006 #permalink

Steve,

It might be possible to terraform that many planets in one system. I made a reference to power sats/ shade umbrellas/ solar concentrators in my earlier post. With that, you could regulate the size of the sun (make it bigger for some planets, smaller for others). You'd have to use the solar sail aspect (along with gravity and possibly ion propulsion from the energy generated by the power sat aspect) to keep the lens/shade in place relative to the planet and the star.

Gravity would be a problem, depending on how much mass your technology can move around and how long you can wait for a newly molten planet to cool after impactors. Under a certain size, and you have trouble terraforming anyway.

Given the budget for the show, they did the best they reasonably could. Right now I'm reading through volume 4 of Straczynski's Babylon 5 scripts, and I'm learning about the tradeoffs that have to be made for budgets. Even in a show that pioneered inexpensive CGI over models, budgets are still a constraint.

Regarding your comment: "probably the only unsuccessful television show ever to be reincarnated as a big time movie." I too have seen and enjoyed Serenity and have also looked at some of the "bonus" material on the DVD, which is where I first heard the above claim. However, it is difficult to believe that Firefly/Serenity will ever approach the Star Trek phenomena (a three year TV stint deemed "unsuccessful" by Paramont) which ultimately spawned multiple movies and TV series, only because of a dedicated fan base that saw and loved what the original TV show was able to slip under the TV censors radar shielded by the protective disguise of science fiction. Having said this, I fully appreciate the sentiment of Firefly's fan base.

I'd like to put out a shout for Battlestar too. Great series.

Cowboy Bebop is also great, even for those who aren't normally anime fans (although I am one.) Bebop was only intended to be one season, however, and it is quite normal for an anime series to end and then feature a movie afterward.

The only other failed TV series (less than one season) I can remember making it to the big screen is Police Squad, which, of course, was the basis for The Naked Gun.

Alternate title for "Serenity": "River the Riever-Slayer".

(Truly enjoyed it, by the way. Especially the female mechanic.)

By James Acker (not verified) on 03 Mar 2006 #permalink

Oh, no, Firefly is much better than Battlestar. BG is good, no doubt, but Firefly is ultimately character-driven while BG is story-driven.

I will follow Joss Whedon anywhere. Chris, welcome to the Browncoats!

You gotta get a Joss Whedon is my Master tshirt.....

I just started watching the new BSG on DVD and it is pretty amazing although all its "godism" ought to blow a gasket.

Great to have you on board, Chris. Joss Whedon is an atheist, you know, and a lot of similar themes are explored in some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. For instance, through the course of several seasons, "Buffy" introduces two "good" vampire characters. One is good because he has a soul, and the other is good because he has a microchip implanted in his head that hurts him if he has bad thoughts. The characters consider the question: is there any real moral difference between them?

Anyway, Firefly was a great series, undoubtedly Whedon's finest hour. Damn shame about its premature death.

unique_stephen, I agree that it has too much unnecessary and insulting Hollywood physics (Zoë trying to explain away the gravity issue in the episode Serenity, River's woowoo powers); they do however show multiple moons and a large planet hovering in the sky outside the bar in The train job, and I think it is possible to find a system with many terraformable planets/moons.

By Jeandré (not verified) on 04 Mar 2006 #permalink

The "Joss Whedon is my Master Now" shirt is particularly popular among British SF fans. This also goes back to a villain on Buffy, Joss's earlier show, called The Master...

If you'd like to see a photo of the shirt, here it is:

http://216.92.255.170/sf/inter05/photo11.html#top

I've also become a pretty big Battlestar Galactica fan, though I adore the humor and character interplay of Firefly/Serenity. Yeah, the planetary science is probably a little off in Firefly/Serenity, but still!

Is it just me, or is the Jaynestown episode exponentially more funny than all the others [which are already pretty funny]?

No, it's not just you. "Jaynestown" was written by Ben Edlund, the comic mastermind responsible for The Tick comic book.

"You guys had a riot for me?"

By Sean Foley (not verified) on 04 Mar 2006 #permalink

The Firefly universe includes artificial gravity control. Most of those "moons" are small planetoids that were either found or constructed out of loose debris, which the system was extremely rich in.

All of the inhabited planets exist in the relatively fairly narrow habitable zone around their central star.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 04 Mar 2006 #permalink