It seems like only a few years back that Joss Whedon gave us a new way to look at future fiction that resonated with a lot of people, weirded out a small but influential group of people, and was unseen by most people.
I am, of course, referring to Firefly, the futuristic retelling of America’s post-Civil-War period… cowboys in space. At least, that was the prominent outer skin of the series; but as fans discovered, Firefly had more layers underneath than an onion from the seventh dimension.
Firefly presented us with a future that sounded more workable and believable than any future depicted by Star Trek, Stargate, Galactica or almost any other space-faring TV society: The future of the human race, having abandoned the used-up Earth of their ancestors, had discovered a single system of multiple-multiple planets and moons, giving them the chance to settle on and terraform each of them into worlds of their desire. Like the development of the United States, some planets benefited from their available resources better than others, resulting in rich and beautiful cities on one planet, and desolate no-collar existence on another. And after their own war of unification, the planets were settling into an uneasy alliance, while those who didn’t like the new order tried to eke out an existence on their own, away from authority figures and politics they didn’t appreciate.
We were introduced to the crew of Serenity: Captain Malcolm Reynolds, survivor of the losing side of the war and adamant about his right to live as he chooses; Zoe, his second-in-command in the war and faithful second aboard Serenity, and her happy-go-lucky husband Wash, Serenity’s crack pilot; Jayne, hired brute; Kaylee, Serenity’s lovable mechanic; Inara, a registered companion (read: Legal prostitute) using Serenity as her home base, and with a soft-spot for Mal; Shepherd Book, a preacher with a secret past; and the Tams, Dr. Simon who rescued sister River from Alliance experiments aimed at making her some kind of super-weapon, and now uses Serenity to hide from the Alliance in return for offering his doctoring skills to the crew.
And then there was the “ninth member of the cast,” Serenity, a Firefly-class freighter capable of travel to and landing on any of the planets in the system. It wasn’t a glistening gigantic showpiece like a Star Fleet ship, housing thousands or crew or jaunting about the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds (though it was equipped with an “overdrive” that will kick them into a high-speed mode capable of outrunning many ships). It was home and office for the crew, crusty but reliable, a mobile home on the range.
And if this diverse cast weren’t enough, we were then treated to stories showing the challenges of living on frontier worlds that seemed so familiar, because they were so totally like the challenges of living in our own frontiers, with familiar capitalists, white collar workers, blue-collar workers, poor workers, con men, policemen, drifters and scoundrels everywhere. Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is a master-storyteller, and his team jam-packed the characters with layers and histories that made them more well-rounded than many people I know in real life.
And these people weren’t dealing with existential issues like parallel dimensions or the cosmic impact of life; they were trying to make a living, find love, recover from failure and help their friends. It featured a down-home ethic and a way of life that transcended nationality… pure blue-collar “living my life and sticking it to the Man” values.
And maybe that’s why the Fox network, renowned for its right-wing leanings, couldn’t get into the show; shuffled its time slot for a few weeks, then canceled it before airing all of the purchased episodes. Probably, if the show had featured the Tams, living in one of the sprawling future Metropolises of the Alliance, with Simon treating all kinds of beautiful men and women and occasional trash (like the crew of Serenity), while River fought crime in a dazzling leotard and a pet telepathic falcon, Fox would’ve optioned that show for a decade. Oh, well.
To be honest, a lot of people didn’t “get” Firefly when it was introduced. The blue-collar space show with horses and western-style broken English was nothing like the scientific and military space dramas we were used to, with intelligent and articulate geniuses dealing daily with their conflicts with aliens (of which Firefly had none—absolutely none) or struggles with time-warp bubbles, parallel dimensions, cosmic strings, warring robots, black holes, sentient spacecraft, accidental jaunts into distant galaxies, etc, etc…
The one thing that Firefly had that every other SF show had was a frightening enemy: The Reavers. But they weren’t aliens or robots; they were ordinary people, like our heroes, who had apparently gone insane and turned into gangs of mindless sociopaths… a concept familiar to anyone who’s lived in a big, scary city for long enough.
Yes, as futuristic as Firefly might have been, its elements were more familiar to us on a personal level than those of any other SF show… it was much easier to imagine the daily struggles living amongst them than having phaser firefights with Romulans and trying to outsmart pan-dimensional beings.
This must be why Firefly has maintained a hold on the consciousness of SF TV fans for the decade since its cancellation. Despite its incredibly short and largely-invisible initial run, sales of its one short season of episodes sold well enough to inspire a feature film, Serenity, and fans still beg Joss Whedon to do anything he can to reassemble the original cast and resurrect the show. Firefly had a formula that was unique and delicious, and in the last decade we have yet to see anything else like it (with the possible exception of Outcasts, which was similarly canceled due to lack of appreciation and support).
The show spoke to me… or, rather, it managed to echo me, as it shared many similarities with the Kestral series I’d created at about the same time. I, too, had tired of massive ships full of geniuses and war heroes and kid sidekicks and holodecks, and wanted to depict the lives of ordinary people in an extraordinary environment. Firefly did that in spades, complete with its central theme—You can’t take the sky from me—and helped inspire me to continue my Kestral stories after their initial well-received adventure.
And so we toast the crew of Serenity, now ten years young, for providing us with such brief but fulfilling entertainment, and hope we will someday see more of its ilk, on TV, in books, on film, and wherever else we can find it.