Firefly is the kind of show that fans and creators can only dream about – well, apart from the whole “cancelled-too-early” thing. What Buffy has in criticism and academia, Firefly makes up for in sheer fan passion and it’s for good reason.
It’s just a shame there aren’t more episodes to analyse and write about, otherwise this chapter of Joss Whedon the Complete Companion might have been deserving of a book unto itself.
Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion – Chapter by Chapter Review
3.01. Joss Whedon 1.01: Firefly by Ian Chant
Freelance writer and Firefly fan, Ian Chant takes care of the Firefly/Serenity introduction starting off with an explanation of why Firefly is classic, how it works so perfectly within the genre of the classic western and all of its associated archetypes. Chant makes a good point in saying that a lot of Firefly‘s untarnished perfection comes from the fact that it was such a short lived series, it didn’t have time to go downhill. He makes an amusing comparison of Buffy as the significant other with which you share all of the ups and downs and brilliance along with more mediocre moment, whereas Firefly is the sexy and brief fling, all sexy blazing passion and then it’s over before it had a chance to get bad.
Chant claims that the continued attention Firefly gets in all corners of pop culture prevents it from being considered with true nostalgia as it is always in someway fresh and present. I’m not sure I agree with that as I think all of that attention, worth as it is, comes from a place of nostalgia. He does make a good point that perhaps fans are so loyal to it as Firefly itself was the Underdog, and if there’s one thing an army of Brown Coated fans will support, it’s the Underdog. Chant admits to being one of those adoring fans and this comes across clearly in his writing. This is a fondly sentimental introduction to a show that is worthy of all of the praise he lavishes on it.
3.02 – “Still Flying” – An Interview with Tim Minear by Tanya R. Cochrane
In her second interview with an influential Whedonite in this book, Tanya R. Cochrane has a chat to Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse producer, Tim Minear. As someone who has had a major hand in the creation of many Whedon productions, and a host of other worthy credits, it’s nice to see the man get some well deserved attention in this chapter.
The interview reveals some interesting insight into Joss’ political and socio-cultural leanings, how that influences his work, and how Minear’s sometimes works differently even in his non-Whedon productions, all however operating together to service the best story to be told.
Minear retells his first introductions to Joss and Buffy while Minear was working on The X-Files. He pitched a few Buffy episodes – including one I wish had been made where a young Xander was going to be a Druid virgin sacrifice victim – and Joss just really not liking him, to them becoming close friends. He then goes on to discuss what he has learned from working with Joss, and it’s around this time in the interview where I wonder if Joss was asked the same question of Minear, what his answer might be. In the next question, that’s exactly what Cochrane asks him.
This is a well rounded interview that gives us the insight we want about the Whedon world (that’s why we’re reading this book after all) and also holds Minear a part as a valuable creator in his own right – even if he does just happen to work on a lot of shows that get canned early on. And that in itself, makes Minear and interesting character.
3.03 – Joss Whedon 1.01: Serenity by Kristin M. Barton
Kristen Barton returns to The Joss Whedon Companion with an introductory essay on Serenity. My complaint here is to the arrangement of the book as a whole – the Firefly/Serenity chapter is quite small considering the cultural impact of the show/film so it seems a waste to have two 101 introductions on something that is essentially of the same text.
While yes, it is an introduction, I would assume that most readers of The Joss Whedon Companion would be familiar enough with the story of how Serenity came to be without requiring a great deal of detail about the end of Firefly. The essay then goes onto a slightly too lengthy run-down of the Serenity plot, again something I think is a bit of a space waster in this chapter.
That said, Barton does give a satisfying survey of the film and the fan’s reactions to it especially in terms of main character deaths – something we had her writing about in the earlier Buffy chapter. She also talks about fans’ disappointment to the parts of the series that weren’t answered by the film, particularly Shepherd Book’s background. At this point it would have been nice to get into some of the Firefly/Serenity arcs continued in the comics, or at least have a mention of them even if it was only to say that there is such a thing. Ultimately, this is a very brief and not particularly insightful introduction to Serenity.
3.04 – A Postcolonial Provocation: Serenity by Leanne McRae
You weren’t going to get a chapter on Firefly/Serenity studies without getting at least one bit of postcolonial theory. And here it is. Australian media and cultural studies researcher and academic, Leanne McRae starts by thinking about how much of an unusual product Serenity is as a film tacked onto the end of a failed TV series neither having the chance to do everything they could have or should have done with stories or characters. And it’s in that point of dislocation that McRae applies her Postcolonial theory, looking at Serenity as both something familiar for Firefly fans and something new for new film goers.
This exploration of “continuity and discontinuity” is interesting in itself as I was expecting a basic postcolonial study of the various colonised planets, or perhaps the impact of the Chinese mega-power in the Firefly universe, not the postcolonial situation of the text itself. We do get into that more typical postcolonial theory, particularly with a discussion of Miranda and the Reavers, and the controlling power of The Alliance. It’s to the strength of this essay that it is grounded in the power struggles of the text itself rather than its content, and the two angles mesh well together in this thoughtful discussion that will have me thinking twice the next time I start yawning at the thought of postcolonial studies.
3.05 – The Death of Utopia – Firefly and the Return to Human Realism in TV Sci-Fi by Chris Colgan.
Chris Colgan is a music writer, reviewer and fan as well as a sci-fi fantasy lifetime devotee. In this essay, he starts with a look at the pre-2000s “Clean” sci-fi futures, particularly Star Trek - worlds where all of Earth’s major problems have been solved and characters have been as such criticised for lacking our more normal states of human motivation. Along comes Firefly to change all of that, set in a future where nothing much has changed – humans are still struggling against their environment, extreme social classes are still dividing cultures, ruling powers are still corrupt and people are still driven by the pursuit of wealth.
Colgan makes some great points in his discussion on how diverse all of these world in the Verse are despite the fact that there is an American and Chinese superpower homogeneity, and how the show did so well to represent all of this diversity just in its settings alone. Some interesting observations are made comparing Captain Mal to Han Solo – who is the more noble? Who is the more self-centred? And where might Jayne fit into this comparison?
Colgan then goes on to compare Firefly and Star Trek, making a great observation that the various planets in the Firefly Verse would be the planets the Enterprise would have just passed by whereas Firefly is the only show that gets into these poor and destitute colonies on any regular basis.
The article then talks about the differences in violence, particularly bloodshed in Firefly and Star Trek, highlighting that people on Star Trek rarely bleed whereas blood flows freely in the Verse. While this is a good point of difference between the show, I’m wondering how much it also had to do with changes in what’s acceptable to show on TV.
The essay closes with a discussion on the depiction of other, more emotional human realities, drawing comparisons with other shows before and since. Yes, I agree that Firefly had fantastically believable characters driven by very real human motivations, though I struggle to see the comparison Colgan makes between Firefly and Warehouse 13, which he claims was influenced by Firefly in this regard. Without getting into too much discussion here about Warehouse 13, one of the show’s greatest shortcomings is its distinct lack of real human motivation. The Firefly crew are all very real people with very real problems, the Warehouse 13 crew are stereotypes and two dimensional facades. And while we’re on Warehouse 13, I wonder how Colgan might have situated, Eureka into this discussion. True, Eureka is not set in a future Earth (neither is Warehouse 13), but it does have a very idealistic image of scientific developments and Eureka itself is a rather similar to something from the Star Trek universe in its scientific utopia. So, while Cogan makes some great observations on the future representations of Firefly, his comparisons to its sci-fi TV predecessors falls a little short.
3.06 – Can’t Stop the Serenity – Joss Whedon’s Shows and Fan Activism by Lisa Anderson
Veteran Pop culture writer and contributing editor of popshifter.com, Lisa Anderson here takes a look at one of the most socially and culturally interesting facets of the Whedonverse – the fans. This essay doesn’t talk that much about fan culture theory, but rather how the mass of Whedon fans, particularly Firefly fans have mobilised and directed their power for other purposes, specifically charity fundraising.
Anderson is writing from her own perspective as one of these mobilised fans, and recounts her experiences working with the Can’t Stop The Serenity crew -a global fan movement that by Firefly and Serenity screenings as well as merchandise auctions and other Whedon related events, raises money for Equality Now – a women’s rights organisation Joss Whedon is personally involved with.
This isn’t so much an essay or discussion rather than a quick run down on how the actions and motivations of the CSTS movement overlap with some of the continuing themes in Joss’ various shows. The positive empowerment of women is the most obvious one, but Anderson also looks at Chosen Families – family like bonds within like minded groups; and Boosting the Signal – using fan communities to spread the word about the group’s purpose and activities. Yes, it’s an interesting article but I would have liked to have learned more from it, I would have liked a deeper discussion on the social impact of CSTS and perhaps even the importance and power of fans en masse. As it is now, this article almost reads like a CSTS advertisement and seems quite out of place within the book as a whole but it is still an interesting read.
3.07 – The Ethics of Malcolm Reynolds by Mike Bailey
Whedon fan, Mike Bailey has studied ethics and philosophy and written about ideas of fate and existentialism in the Buffyverse. Here he takes a philosophical approach to Captain Mal, looking at the ethics of the man and his situation which on many levels would seem to be a nice and deep shade of grey. Or is it?
Bailey starts out by looking at ‘The Train Job’ (1.02) where Mal returns the stolen medicine to the sick who need it at his own financial loss and making a very, very dangerous enemy in Niska. This is identified as a case of “categorical imperative”, a philosophy from Immanuel Kant that states “Act only according to that maxim that you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.” Basically, do what is best for the universe without exception. A few other examples of Mal’s duty based ethics are discussed and it always comes down to the same point, Mal is a firmly ethical man who does what is best for the most and has the utmost respect for humanity believing no one should be owned and everyone should be free. Bailey does well to point out this is one reason Mal is so against Inara’s profession, that she is bought and owned for a period. He doesn’t mention though that, on perhaps more simple terms, Mal is perhaps jealous of those who buy Inara as he very clearly in love with her.
Mal’s ethics are contrasted nicely to those of the Alliance. Mal wants to do what is good. The Alliance wants to make the world better, but they often reach for that goal at the expense of so much humanity. Mal’s ultimate good is freedom and the Alliance have no ultimate good, just “better.” The question then is better than what and better for whom?
Bailey does well to point out in the close of his essay that there are at times where Mal’s ethics do contradict themselves – he shoots an unarmed man in Serenity despite previously claiming that was against his code - but Mal does, generally speaking always fight for the side of freedom, his ultimate good and therefore his grey ethical situation is somewhat lighter.
In a slightly longer essay it might have been good to pursue these ideas against other philosophical conundrums such as capital punishment verses imprisonment or the core value of human life and death, as Mal clearly has no problems killing the bad guys, or further explore his mixed feelings for Inara compared to the whores he encounters in ‘Heart of Gold’ (1.13). Given the brevity of Bailey’s essay though, he does quite well to draw out some complex ethical observations and does so in a quite user friendly style.
3.08 – Heroic Humanism and the Humanistic Heroism in Joss Whedon’s Shows by Candace E. West.
Candace E. West is an ethics and religious studies scholar with a PhD in Religious Studies. In this essay, the title of which is more than a mouthful, she looks at the ways in which Joss Whedon’s various shows, particularly Firefly and Buffy, represent ideals of humanism – not solely gender for which they are so often recognised but also heroism and questions of who we are and how we should choose to live, fight, die and everything in between.
West then goes onto discuss Whedon’s own views on humanism expressed in his 2009 acceptance speech for The Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. Here he talked about faith, especially faith in humanity, being a driving force for meaning and goodness, and ignorance and hate being the enemy of humanism.
These are clearly ideals expressed in most if not all of his shows and West gives specific examples from Mal’s ethical positions in Firefly, which tie nicely into the previous essay by Mike Bailey. This is further illustrated with a discussion of heroism in Buffy which is largely the same where it is the humanist hero, usually Buffy herself, who comes out victorious. West then does well in drawing out the tensions between Buffy as a Chosen One, a kind of divine position, to her deep desire to be a normal girl and how the two positions affect her in different ways at different times. This, I think makes Buffy a far more conflicted hero than Mal, as – as expressed in ‘Conversations With Dead People’ (7.7) Buffy has a superiority complex about being the Slayer and an inferiority complex about it. West’s argument does seem to support this idea in saying that there is a far greater tensions between heroism and humanism in Buffy than in Firefly. This excellent observation in itself could make for a long and fascinating debate in a more lengthy piece.
3. 09 – The Power of Fandom in the Whedonverse by Jack Milson
In this chapter, blogger and digital video editor/producer Jack Milson takes a look at the value of the Whedon oriented audience and fan culture in the context of new media. Whedon’s career erupted simultaneously alongside the new media revolution that was the Internet and considering some of Milson’s valuable insight, perhaps because of it.
The Internet has enabled a complete shift in creator and producer control and therefore a complete shift in the power dynamics of the entertainment industry. Not only do creators have more control over their content, but fans and audiences have a never before seen power and it is indeed a vocal one. As Milson notes, the Internet also changed the entire situation of what being a fan was all about and nowhere has the idea of fan participation been more significant than with The Browncoats. Due to the Browncoat online mobilisation, we now have Serenity, which Milson says is a point where fans have become active members in the sphere of production. The essay moves through the details of Serenity‘s production and also looks at the impact of Dr. Horrible alongside Whedon’s pre-Internet endeavours and provides a fascinating context in which to think about the power of new media in terms of production power as the gaps between television, viewer, text and internet increasingly close and even mesh to the point of blurring. Milson seems to see this as a permanent shift and one that will continue in the favour of the content producer and fans. It’s a nice thought though the power struggle between network owners and content producers and fans that the essay starts out by outlining will always be in play. It is now just a matter of it being re-designed rather than being removed all together.
3.10 – Zombies, Reavers, Butchers and Actuals in Joss Whedon’s Work by Gerry Canavan
Gerry Canavan is a Cultural studies academic with a particular bent toward science fiction cultures. In this essay, Canavan looks at Whedon zombies and starts out with the question of why there aren’t more of them, especially when Joss has so often cited George Romero as one of his a major creative influences.
Canavan offers two, rather pleasing explanations. 1 – the glut of American pop culture zombies are nothing like zombi the actual creatures of Haitian myth which is something that gets brought up often in Buffy and Angel. 2 – Buffy was built on subverting expectations that had been so long established in pop culture as to the core natures of killers and victims, monsters and heroes and as such, there’s just not that much one can do with the mindless drone of the contemporary pop culture zombie. AS such when there are zombie type creatures, there not quite what we all know as zombies or even zombi. Canavan sees this a problem, stating that the Whedonverse attempts at zombie characters were always “ruined” typically by too much characterisation or some other un-zombie like attribute like speech so they were never ever really zombies anyway. And so the argument continues, arriving at Firefly‘s Reavers as the most Romero-style zombies in the Whedonverse, and then moving onto the mindless slave type bodies in Dollhouse which are quite like the Haitian idea of the Zombi puppet.
Canavan makes some fascinating observations on how zombie culture has been worked and subverted in the various Whedon universes, but at the end of the essay I’m still wondering what the problem was. Why is it such a problem that Sunnydale’s zombie-esque creatures were not like either established pop culture zombies or zombis? What is the significance of questioning the political context of the Reavers, or how Dollhouse puppets ended up more human because of their experiences? These are all brilliant questions and fascinating topics to explore in their own right, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of cohesion to the whole argument that starts out questioning the Whedonverse zombie motivations. Zombies, or zombis, like any other mythic pop culture creature or motif are an open playing field for interpretation and it is good to question what that interpretation is all about and what it might mean in a larger cultural context. Here though, while the answers are interesting and enjoyable, I’m not sure I understand the overall question being asked.
3.11 – Nathan Fillion Misbehaves All Over the Universe by Lynette Porter
Pop culture writer, Lynette Porter here takes a look at Nathan Fillion, his public persona and his typical characterisation and links his entire pop culture iconic status to his being one of Joss Whedon’s ensemble.
It’s obvious that Fillion really enjoys his work, and Porter looks at how he uses and interacts with his fan base in public appearance and online and plays the geeky fan card in a lot of his wider work. The article examines Fillion’s Whedon characters, contrasting the loveable rogue of Captain Mal to the demonic yet still oddly charming evil Caleb in the final season of Buffy, and then back again to loveable albeit this time narcissistic hero in Dr Horrible’s Hammer.
The point is made that Fillion owes his legacy to Whedon’s writing talent and while this is rather obvious, I would have really like to have seen this idea explored further. What other actors have had the same kind of legacy under any other auteur creator? And why is Fillion the only of the Whedon ensemble to do so? These small gripes aside, this is an enjoyable article that the legions of Nathan Fillion fans about there will be sure to appreciate.