Monday, August 15, 2016

Is Firefly overrated?

The whole world is in need of a break from the madness, and someone on Twitter asked me to do a blog post about whether Firefly is overrated. So instead of econ or politics or serious stuff, let's talk about a television show that got canceled 13 years ago! :-)

The answer to the question in the blog post title is: "Of course not." In the strictest sense, no sci-fi show is overrated, because people in general ought to watch more sci-fi and less of whatever they're watching now. Science fiction has taken over movies, but not TV. Fortunately, with great programs like Black Mirror, Stranger Things, etc., there's still lots of good stuff out there.

But Firefly, more than probably any other show, holds a special place in the heart of my generation of geek-Americans. And it really is a great show. It's consistently at the top of user-generated lists of the best sci-fi shows ever. It's the subject of countless...OK, I'm not even going to finish this paragraph, because we all know that all geeks love Firefly like economists love envelope theorems.

Well, maybe not all geeks. A few have been known to write grumpy Tumblr posts about how the show is racist and/or sexist. But aggrieved identity-politics driven Tumblr rants are like death and taxes, except that Peter Thiel can escape the latter two. 

But buried deep within those overdone rants, I see the seeds of something that really did make Firefly different from other sci-fi TV shows - besides the snappier dialogue and Western motif, I mean. It has to do with the culture the series drew on for its mythos. Firefly was, at its root, a Southern show.

First of all, there's the well-known connection of the Firefly backstory to the Confederacy - Joss Whedon has said that the show was inspired by a Civil War novel. The Browncoats are the Rebs, and the Alliance is the U.S. Mal is the outlaw/pioneer/cowboy who went West after the Lost Cause was lost. Everyone knows that. But Firefly's connections to the South are more cultural than political. Almost every character on the show is some sort of traditional Southern stereotype.

Mal is the classic ideal of the Southern gentleman. He's brave, rigidly honorable, quick to violence...gallant, protective, and respectful toward women. He's sharp and clever but no intellectual. I imagine him as a planter's son from Virginia, who can trace his ancestors back to the Cavaliers in the English Civil War.

Jayne is the poor white Southern guy. He's the overseer, the patroller, the farm hand. He's tough, mean, not too bright, selfish, opportunistic, uneducated, and a bully. He's often the villain of the show, barely kept in check by Mal's aristocratic alpha-male dominance. He's shown improving a bit as the show goes on, though of course it was canceled before this could get very far.

Inara is the fallen Southern belle - the kind of woman who once ruled a plantation, then was forced to prostitute herself to make ends meet after the war, but who still maintains some kind of honor and dignity. An R-rated Scarlett O'Hara. 

Wash and Zoe are the Yankees (despite the fact that Zoe fought for the Browncoats, which is something I suspect Whedon threw in to muddy the parallels a bit). Wash is a geek, effeminate, playing with his dinosaur toys - Jayne calls him "little man." He's somewhat dominated by his wife, who is strong, independent, and sexually uninhibited. They're also a mixed-race couple, which of course was a Southern stereotype of the North. Shepherd Book is a black man whose violent past has been tamed by the civilizing power of Christianity. Kaylee is a simple backwoods country girl. The doctor and River are also Yankees, though they are external plot drivers and hence less stereotypical. 

And as a Southern show, Firefly is notably devoid of intellectual characters. There are no scientists on Serenity - Simon the doctor is the closest thing, and his uppity smarty-pants attitude earns him repeated face-punches from the dashing Mal. Kaylee, the engineer, works by intuition alone.

So the characters are mostly from Southern culture, but so is the theme of the show - it's all about honor. Mal's honor is central to his decent, noble conduct, and is the reason the Serenity crew is sympathetic instead of being a bunch of rascally piratical n'er-do-wells (which they probably would be if the show were Japanese or British). Serenity's captain is an upright man in a lawless, dirty world.

But honor is also the reason why Serenity is out there in space in the first place. Mal and the rest could presumably go live as Alliance citizens - it's not clear how repressive the Alliance government is, but the people seem to be pretty wealthy. We don't know what cause the Browncoats were fighting for. But it's pretty clear that Mal went to space to become an outlaw because his sense of honor makes him refuse to knuckle under to his conqueror. "You can't take the sky from me," as the theme song's lyrics go.

And this, really, is why I was always a little dissatisfied with Firefly. In most space opera shows, the cosmos is vast, exciting, full of wonders - the final frontier. Humans go to space because it's our destiny. We go in search of our better selves - to learn new science, to meet aliens, to teach others about our culture and learn about theirs, and to bring a better, more just order to the Universe. In Star Trek (The Original Series and The Next Generation) we go just to go. In Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 we go to make the galaxy safe for liberal values. In Robotech and Farscape we go to fall in love with aliens (hey, why the hell not). Battlestar Galactica and Space Battleship Yamato are darker shows about survival, but also depict a struggle to preserve liberal values in the face of overwhelming existential threats. Now you know I've watched way too much space opera in my life.

But in Firefly, why do we - meaning the crew of Serenity - go to space? It's not for a higher purpose. There's no science being done, no galaxy being saved. The show's theme song may be about freedom, but unlike many of the people around them, Mal and his crew aren't colonists. They aren't going to found a new, more liberal republic on the virgin soil of a distant world. They aren't going to build a city on a hill. They have no quest, they seek no knowledge, they fight for no cause, they meet no aliens. Their existence is simply a big fat middle finger to the government in the distance.

And that's fine. It's fun, it's exciting, it makes for some great gunfights. But it doesn't resonate with me. I grew up in Texas, but I don't really have the Southern honor culture, and even if the Civil War hadn't been about slavery the Lost Cause would have little or no romance for me.

That's why Firefly, as fun and as well-written and as adorable as it was, can never quite be the Greatest of All Time as far as I'm concerned. I mean, guys - you're in space. You're on a spaceship. You're flying around from planet to planet, and instead of looking out the window at the incredible sweep of the unknown, you're thinking about your honor, and how you lost a war, and how to earn your next dollar. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the stuff of inspiration. I don't know about y'all, but when I gaze up at the night sky, I hope my first thought isn't "Damn...somewhere out there is a place where I could evade some federal regulation."


  1. Malcolm has a very important precursor that goes unmentioned:
    Lone Starr from Spaceballs.

    There's a lot to be said for one million space bucks.

  2. I think there's a delicate balance between the two things. Lots of people will go to space for lots of different reasons. Freedom from federal regulations — alongside of course lots of other nastier things the alt-right wants — is absolutely one of those things.

    Doesn't really resonate a huge amount with me, though, not really. My main motivation is, of course, exploration — both outer and inner exploration. Just as colonizing space will let us learn a lot about the great beyond, so too will it let us learn a lot about ourselves. And that, of course, is the underlying theme of Star Trek.

    I will say that I never really got very far into Firefly, and you probably explained to me why. From my point of view, I quickly found it pretty dull and I realized I'd just much rather watch Star Trek.

    In reality, the early years of space exploration may be much more akin to what we see in Firefly. Why? No warp drives yet. Voyaging will be difficult. And the people most motivated to do it may be alt-right types who yearn for that which they define as freedom. Freedom means lots of different things to lots of different people. I think that that fact will be a rich source for future science fiction, actually.

  3. totally over-rated. I tried to watch this tripe after becoming a Castle fan. I gave up.

    There are good Scifi shows and bad ones.
    This was a good example of a bad one. Like Blakes eleven only they had little money!

    1. Anonymous10:41 AM

      It is not surprising you don't like the show, given your clear bad taste in TV (Castle is an abomination).

    2. It ended like that but started out quite well. Much better than Firefly.

  4. All sci fi is essentially about the present or the past. Good sci fi lets us explore these things. Very little good sci fi is about the incredible sweep of the unknown.

    1. Surely the best SF show was Dollhouse? I nominate it precisely because it was SF that went beyond "let's take today's political issues and project them, pretty much unchanged, into a different setting".

      Not only was it utterly original, it was also allowed that most glorious and rare of TV possibilities, a clean, fulfilling wrapup before ever jumping the shark.

  5. Space Battleship Yamato will always be Star Blazers for me, but I'm an older nerd than Noah.

    1. Star Blazers! OMG! Next you'll start talking about your Perry Rhodan collection.... :-)

  6. Interesting post. I've always thought that Firefly, whilst great, is not the best ever; I think that reputation has gained due to it being cancelled after one season. Had it carried on I suspect it would have got worse - as is tradition.

    I don't think its fair to dismiss the criticism as being an identity politics tumblr rant though. As I understand it the criticism is that the show essentially just takes the South's propaganda about the civil war and takes it as read ('It was all about fighting for FREEDOM against OPPRESSIVE GOVERNMENT. SLAVERY had NO part in it'). Which is fine, Whedon's perfectly entitled to take his inspiration from where it is, but I think its a legitimate criticism that can be made and explored.

    Likewise I don't get the point that it fails because its insufficiently filled with wonder. Firefly is, like Star Wars, importing the Western tradition, with its cynicism and such, into the sci-fi realm. Whedons just taken that idea and combined it with the notion that imagine that space travel is normal. People don't have that wonder because this is the everyday for them, particularly Mal and crew who've been out there for a long time.

  7. Including the movie Serenity, the plot ultimately was about the social engineering of the Alliance, and how Summer Glau and the Reavers related.

    Of course I haven't watched the amount of Sci Fi series you have, and that may be why Firefly is so well-loved (because they have not watched past series), but I can't think of any series better than Firefly. I mean, did you try to watch The Expanse? Was terrible imo.

    In any event, Rolling Stone gives Firefly #7 of all time, Battlestar Galactica #3, and Star Trek #1.

  8. "In Star Trek (The Original Series and The Next Generation) we go just to go. In Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9 we go to make the galaxy safe for liberal values. "

    You never mention Voyager.

    1. In OS we had absolute values by NG it had degenerated to relative values

  9. Totally overrated. I got to the last episode and watched an interrogation involving sucking people through a jet engine. I realized that the violence on this show was completely without consequence. It is hard to explore any worthwhile issues when the characters' actions have no consequences. It also bugged me that Mal could walk into the middle of a fire fight and just pick off guys right and left like a B-Movie sheriff. Add in the prostitute with the heart of gold and it becomes too silly to watch!

    The final straw was the tease of the mysterious Alliance "bad guys" chasing River for their experiments. It was too schlocky and too cliche for the writers to pull off well (See Lost).

    Science Fiction is largely dead as far as I am concerned. It has been reduced to Time Travel and mind possession with a little Frankenstein AI thrown in. Nothing lasts forever.

    1. OK, except that the scene you mention ("interrogation by jet engine") was in the -second- episode, and a few episodes later, they had to deal with the consequences of that via the mook's boss coming after them.

  10. Hokey is the word.

  11. I think it's instructive to compare with Canadian Firefly aka "Dark Matter".

  12. Anonymous5:17 PM

    It's Space as more realistic frontier: one filled with outcasts from the main body of society, lightly policed if at all, and therefore founded on the more primitive elements of personal honor and connections. I think the topic is quite fascinating, but then again, I also like settings like the Dark Ages or the Old West (especially the steampunk Old West). It's certainly not Golden Age space opera, but I think it fits quite well with modern sci-fi.

  13. The best recent space opera I can think of are the occasional articles and books I read about EVE Online and the never ending politics of a galactic civilization. See for an amazing account of humanity that is more real and seemingly consequential than any recent fiction I have read.

    Also the best single season television show of the recent past was the terribly named "Terriers" which is best described as California Noir. Perfect season with a perfect ending.

  14. Firefly's political nihilism (which you say you don't like) is inherited directly from the classic British antihero sci-fi show Blake's Seven. Discuss.

    (What, did you want vampires or something, Whedon fanboy?)

  15. Firefly was good relative to scifi that already existed at the time, but that was not a very high standard to overcome. Scifi at the time really only appealed to hardcore fans; and suffered from horrible special effects, comically bad science, etc...

    So sure, firefly was one of the best scifi shows. Unfortunately that doesn't even come close to making it one of the best tv shows.

    Today we are getting closer since scifi is starting to get mainstream popularity, but I'm still not sure we are quite there yet.

  16. Bill Ellis8:56 PM

    Best take on FF I ever read...

  17. Interesting take, Noah. I too grew up in Texas, and was somewhat influenced by Southern honor culture, though not steeped in it. I'm not sure that Firefly is the greatest science fiction TV show either. I'm not even sure that I'm in a good position to try to evaluate that. I just enjoyed the excellent writing, the character development, and the much more realistic post-Earth space-faring society (relative to other sc-fi shows I've watched). It's much more likely that we will go to space for such mundane reasons rather than for the reasons you and I might prefer. And depending on how things turn out, humanity's journeys into the rest of space may become a Lost Cause story of epic scope.

  18. I don't think this has anything to do with why firefly is so highly regarded.

    I think it's simply that they have sexy, interesting characters that people like and (most importantly) the show ended after season 1 so everyone's memory is of the hope and promise of the first season of a show. Not the boredom and slow death of a show with many seasons playing out the initial interest.

    Ohh, and of course *anything* becomes routine after awhile...even space.

    1. I look back on favorite shows and chuckle at how silly the first season seems compared to the higher quality and better charactored second and third seasons seemed. Of course, in the first season I was hooked. Only in hindsight is the first season's stumbling attempts to find its footing become obvious.

      Perhaps that explains the difference of opinions here. Those who experienced fresh enjoyed the newness and saw what it might become in the future. It was easy for them to accept the rawness and awkwardness of its adolescence. Those of us who came to it only after hearing how great it see it for what it is, not what it was supposed to become.

      How many of our favorite shows would survive a review of just its first season? M*A*S*H? Frasier? Next Generation?!

  19. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Firefly died a martyr, which has helped its reputation somewhat.


    Something I'm curious about, relative to your opinion of Firefly: what do you think of cyberpunk? e.g. Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Ghost in the Shell.

  20. Noah, have you read David Brin on the difference between SF and Fantasy?

    You're right, Firefly isn't really about the possibility of change. It isn't really SF, or, for that matter, fantasy. It's just a western set in space, though a very enjoyable one.

  21. They ran out of time. There was so much that could have been explored and wasn't. I don't think Inara was 'fallen', I think her status was real, and very similar to the status of courtesans who accompanied royalty in many cultures through the centuries. I think Mal was a good deal more educated than he let on. I think that Book, too, had a great deal of experience and depth we didn't get to see.

    As for the science, we didn't have time to learn more about the science in the science fiction. I have my own thoughts as to where they were going with it, beyond the mind-control and medication aspects of the Big Damn Movie.

    But Firefly is really a western in space, particularly because it's about refugees trying to make a better life for themselves. I wonder how many seasons it would have taken Mal to admit that "just keep flying" wasn't enough.

    As for the possibility of change, well... maybe River was an avatar of humanity to come, but for the most part, whether you're emigrating to a new continent or a new solar system... no matter where you go, there you are.

  22. After loving "Buffy", I was surprised to find myself hating the g-d thing. In what sense was it a sci-fi show? Its space ship had a jet engine. It hid things from inspectors by putting them on the outside of the ship, as though no custom inspector in the then-history of space travel had ever thought of such an obvious thing. It had space-cannibals who made a living by plunging down into gravity wells and hauling up people - to eat them. Sure it had Joss-Whedon snappy dialog and lovable characters. That doesn't make a show science-fiction. "Pigs in Space" was a better s-f show. Science fiction is about ideas. What if there are people on other planets who don't look like us? What if they are smarter and better than us? It's the attempt to examine things that were undreamt of in most people's philosophies.

    If you want to make a Western about the Civil War era, make it. Don't throw in space ships and pretend its science-fiction.

  23. The last paragraph of the piece applies to Cowbay movies as much as it does to space cowboys. "Guys, you're riding through the most stunning natural scenery in the world. There's a world of largely unexamined indigenous cultures, and enough dinosaur fossils and geological curiosities to excite scientists the world over. And all you care about is money, honor killings and evading federal regulations?"

  24. Anonymous3:05 PM

    I'm late on this, but you should seriously watch The Expanse, a season 2 will start in January. It blows the doors off of Star Trek. I find the notion of Star Trek as realistic science-based sci-fi exploring social issues laugable compared to The Expanse now. I like the show/series, but Gene Roddenberry's Utopia is beyond parody at this point.

    Never watched Firefly, but my dad loved the show and I'm aware of the fandom. To your post and comparing to the insane idealism of Star Trek, I find it ridiculous that people will go out in space and somehow our personalities will become enlightened to where conflict, personal flaws, and stuff like the concept of honor doesn't exist. That's probably why I like The Expanse.

  25. Anonymous9:18 AM

    I think the lack of higher purpose - or that insofar as it's there it's pessimistic/defensive rather than optimistic/aspirational - is something I really liked about Firefly. I also liked the fact that the protagonists aren't particularly important to the universe in general, and indeed that they are often forced to concede things to more powerful characters because that's the way the world works - so unusual for a TV program like this. (Also not the case with the film, which I like substantially less)