Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Rhapsody in the Black: "Firefly" and "Serenity."

I was visiting friends and family in NoVa (that's Northern Virginia, for all my overseas fans) and hanging with Paul and Chris, my homies from the old school. We watched great movies (the indescribable Saving Private Ryan) and dumb movies (the repulsive yet hilarious Waiting), and Chris insisted that we watch Serenity.

I had missed Serenity when it was in theatres last summer, and mildly regretted it. I do recall the weekly email update from Velocity Comics musing "Serenity: best sci-fi film ever?" but didn't take it seriously. This was a comic book store owner, after all.

I should have listened to the comic book guy. Patrick: you officially have my apologies.

This isn't a review. It's a love letter. It's an appeal to everyone who reads these words to dive into the 'Verse; jump in with no fear of disappointment. Don't start with Serenity like I did; do it right. If you like science fiction or quality television or just all that is well and good and shiny in the world, do yourself a favor. Go get Firefly: The Complete Series on DVD. Take a weekend off, watch it all, then go back and watch the commentary tracks. Then watch the bonus features. The go get Serenity and watch that. Then watch it again.

Writer/Director Joss Whedon had me in love with every single member of his brilliant ensemble cast within seconds of their introduction. (Actually, he had me a little more in love with Jewel Staite's character, Kaylee, than anyone else. Okay, a lot more.) What's more, he had me in love with Serenity, their ship. I'm at a loss as to what to say about the movie or the show, because I don't to give anything away; I don't want to rob you of a single jot of discovery if you take my advice and start watching.

Here's some generic stuff: Firefly is true science fiction: that is, fiction which uses a scientific basis to tell a story dependent on the existence of its foundational technology. By this definition, very little of what we call "sci-fi" isn't. Star Wars, for example, is pure fantasy; spaceships and laser guns do not equal science. But X-Men uses a fantastic variation on neo-Darwinism to put racism in a context that naturalistic storytelling could not. The most effective science fiction uses a scientific or futuristic context in order to tell a story that needs that context in order to function. But effective storytelling isn't about the vehicle; it's about the story and the characters, and therefore is about people. This is where most so-called "sci-fi" falls flat.

And this is where Firefly soars. Whedon's stories take place in a new solar system, humans having abandoned the spent Earth to colonize and terraform dozens of planets and scores of moons around a new star. But this is all just noise. It's really about a new frontier where cows and horses are much more efficient means of food and transportation than replicators and hovercraft, where gunpowder and lead are cheaper and more efficient than laser guns, where spaceships are transportation, lifeboats, livelihoods, Camaros and merchant clippers. It's about pioneers, pirates, privateers, and petty thieves. It's about the actual people who do the living and dying, the working and playing, that you never see in Star Wars, Star Trek, or Babylon 5. It's about the people the crew of the Enterprise will never meet. It's about the fact that 500 years from now, people will still be people, with the same triumphs and tragedies that people have always had.

I didn't realize how unintentionally condescending Gene Roddenberry was until Firefly. Not to take anything away from Star Trek, which I truly enjoy, but Roddenberry's insistence that we will have evolved beyond the need for zippers in our clothes (an insistence of Roddenberry's in Trek costume design) betrays an implicit lack of regard for certain eternal facts of humanity. When you've redesigned everyone's clothes into a generic set of one-piece coveralls, it's hard to tell stories about how everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. After Firefly, I find Star Trek: The Next Generation a bit cold. All these people whose every needs are filled by replicators and holodecks just don't seem to have anything at stake any more. A high-minded quest for personal fulfillment (pursuit of archaeology, learning how to sneeze, hitting that note on the trombone) just can't compare with Serenity Captain Malcom Reynolds' need to keep gas in the tank and distance from his shattered dreams.

As it turns out, no less an expert than Orson Scott Card has referred to Serenity as "the best science fiction movie ever." (Read his review here.) I've seen the film three times now, and every episode of Firefly at least twice, and I'm inclined to agree with him. In fact, I'm very comfortable putting Firefly in the ranks of the best television shows I've ever seen, in the same list with M*A*S*H, Sports Night, From the Earth to the Moon, The Sopranos, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Fawlty Towers, Mad About You, and the first four seasons of The West Wing. In fact, I'd put it above almost all the shows on that list, going so far as to say that Episode 8, "Out of Gas," may be the single best hour of television I've ever seen. (It's either that or the West Wing's "The Long Goodbye.")

So this is a love letter, but it must come with a warning: prepare to have your heart broken. Only 15 episodes of Firefly were filmed. The show was mishandled, meddled with, and finally dismissed by Fox in the space of only a few months. The fact that Serenity was even made is something of a miracle. More Serenity films may be in the offing (please please please), and Whedon plans to continue the story in ongoing Dark Horse comics (a three-issue miniseries, Serenity: Those Left Behind, is available as a $10 trade paperback), but in my dreams Firefly is picked up by a new television network. As good as Serenity is, these characters and stories are clearly best-served as originally conceived: within the context of weekly installments, a series of episodic stories rather than a handful of epic adventures.

Beyond good. Shiny. Do yourself a favor. Get on board Serenity. Her crew is going to take you places you didn't even know you needed to go.


  • At 6/15/2006 12:45 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I don't know about "the best science fiction movie ever", but Serenity is truly excellent. Made me wish there were characters more like that creepy bad guy in "Firefly". Between the two, I prefer "Firefly", but "Serenity" was perfectly executed as a free standing unit. You don't need "Firefly" to enjoy "Serenity" at all, although watching the series will enhance the story. Kind of like how "Star Trek: First Contact" didn't require that the viewer watch the Borg episodes of Star Trek: TNG. Characters rule in "Firefly". Story rules in "Serenity".

  • At 6/20/2006 9:56 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Both are frickin awesome. I feel like an idiot that I missed them both the first time they came around.

  • At 6/20/2006 10:11 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    the best firefly episode was the one where the engine dies and you see flashbacks of all the first meetings. awesome. awesome.

  • At 6/21/2006 12:00 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    "Out of Gas." That may be my favorite episode of any TV show ever.

    I also like the two episodes with Saffron, but that's partly because I worked with that actress, Christina Hendricks, in the '90s.


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