Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Oater space

When I wrote about Joss Whedon’s 2005 movie Serenity a fortnight and a half ago, I mentioned that, in preparation, I had watched the entire TV series Firefly, on which it is based. That amounted to 15 hours of viewing, which is way more time than I put in preparing for most films I watch. (As with most people, my usual preparation for watching a movie consists of two steps: 1) go to cinema, 2) buy ticket.)

But I had wanted to see what all the fuss was about since I was aware of the story of how the series was cut off before it could really get going but not before it had developed a rabid fan base. This, of course, is something that would be right up my alley. The fact that Whedon was able to get one studio (Universal) to back a feature film based on a quickly cancelled TV series from another studio (Fox) seemed like some kind of miracle. Even though J. Michael Straczynski’s sci-fi series Babylon 5 managed to complete five entire seasons, exactly as envisioned by the creator, for years fans of the show begged and agitated and hoped for a theatrical movie version but (despite some preliminary discussions that ultimately fell short of a green light) to no avail. B5 fans can certainly sympathize with Firefly fans (the two groups may well overlap) because Straczynski’s spinoff series Crusade suffered pretty much the same fate as Firefly—but with no prospect of a feature film windup. Its many plot strands and mysteries remain dangling to this day.

I don’t easily or quickly extend my loyalty from one sci-fi show to another. Take Babylon 5, for example. During its first season, I found it derivative of Star Trek and wasn’t that impressed. Yet something kept me watching to the extent that I did not miss a single episode. Only when it got into its second season and its overall plot arc began revealing itself more clearly, did I become hooked and then rabid. In this way, Firefly is similar. It seemed to be one more sci-fi series about a group of people on a ship. The gimmick of these space travelers having a culture inspired by the old American West seemed a bit artificial and the actors seemed a bit too young and attractive for the supposedly rugged post-war environment. But as hints as to where the overall story was going emerged, it became more interesting.

As it happened, Firefly’s storyline had enough parallels to B5’s to make a fan of the latter, depending on his or her bent, inclined either to love it or to dismiss it as derivative. The main characters of both series are veterans of a recent great war and find themselves at odds with a sinister government. But there are some striking differences with both the Star Trek and B5 universes. For one thing, in Whedon’s future mankind has not broken the light barrier. While space ships travel at a pretty good clip between planets, there is no warp drive or jump gates. Humans have arrived at this far-flung system the hard and slow way and there is no going back to earth. For another thing (and this is something that didn’t strike me until I was more or less on the last episode), in Whedon’s future there are no extraterrestrials. As a species we are on our own. No Vulcans or Klingons or Narn or Centauri. The closest we come is the dreaded Reavers, a breed of humans who have gone savage and cannibal.

To its credit, Firefly was different enough from B5 (or for that matter, Star Trek) that it didn’t come off as anything other than original. And like B5 before it, the more I saw the more I got interested. In a strange way—and this is a comparison I bet has occurred to few (if any) other people—it kept reminding me a bit of the 1980s show Miami Vice. This is partly because the star, Nathan Fillion, kept reminding me a bit of the young Don Johnson: boyish with a mischievous twinkle in the eye but with an air of world weary cynicism underneath. Like Sonny Crockett, Capt. Malcolm Reynolds is a veteran of a disillusioning war whose nobler instincts are frustrated by a rotten power structure. And if Reynolds is Crockett, that makes his second-in-command Zoë (played by Gina Torres) the cool, efficient and loyal Rico Tubbs. Furthermore, that makes Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass) the Edward James Olmos character. Like Lt. Martin Castillo, the shepherd is cryptic and wise and has a fantastic backstory, mostly just hinted at, in which he is clearly much more important in the grand scheme of things than his current position would suggest. Indeed, one of the main regrets of the demise of Firefly is the missed opportunity to learn the shepherd’s full story—although it is at least implied in the movie Serenity.

The story that is resolved in Serenity is that of the young doctor Simon Tam and his fugitive teenage sister River. But reportedly Whedon had planned to draw out his saga over seven years, so clearly he had much more in mind. Whether he had it all mapped out as definitively and in as much detail as JMS did with B5 is something I don’t know. But I am sure it would have been worth following, just as legions of fans happily followed his series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff Angel. As it happens, I never saw a single complete episode of either of those series, although now I wonder if perhaps I should have.

I am, however, an admirer of Fran Rubel Kuzui’s 1992 feature film which inspired the Buffy series and which was written by Whedon. But in hindsight I have some concern that that was the point that vampires became trivialized. By combining the vampire and high school genres, something changed. Now, the vampires in the original Buffy movie were of the traditional evil variety. But like a disease that jumps from one species to another, it was only a short hop from that concept to the idea of vampires as teenage heroes. And that is a development that has entertained many (including my own kid), but it has done nothing but annoy me personally. But that’s my problem, not necessarily yours.

Could Whedon’s similar melding of different genres in Firefly have similar unintended consequences? Well, it’s been half a decade since the demise of Firefly and, as far as I can tell, there has been no flood of young adult novels or WB TV shows about cowboys in outer space. Wait, maybe I’m being prematurely optimistic. Firefly was fairly quickly followed by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens, which has been adapted into a movie by Jon Favreau that will be released this summer. Hmmmm.

-S.L., 3 February 2011

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