People still wonder what happened to get the sci-fi sit com “Firefly” canceled. It was a warm, funny, sometimes gorgeous (the CGI of space), occasionally near-outrageous and always sexy show. The Suits are always saying that the demographic they want is young, educated, and hip -- but it appears that this time they got what they asked for and then couldn’t handle it. Joss Whedon, the master mind, is from a family of series-devisers and script-writers: father, grandfather, and two brothers. One can only imagine the dinner conversation. Maybe the suits couldn’t even manage that.
Joss’ best-known series might be “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which I haven’t seen. The title is a tip-off to his basic strategy: contradiction. The name “Buffy” summons up a little twinkie blonde with too much money and probably a dog in her purse, all blonde and sun-streaked. Quite the opposite of a vampire and quite unlikely to know how to slay one. Seemingly. Surprise is the name of the game.
In “Firefly” the incongruous characters are gathered around a “congruous” one, who is meant to suggest Harrison Ford in “Star Wars.” Far from the cleancut aircraft carrier crowd of “Battleship Galactica,” which is a kind of WWII movie, all military and upright, the “Firefly” looks like a bug, esp. when the “glow” is fired up. A professional prostitute rents one shuttle and a “shepherd” (clearly a Methodist minister) is a passenger. The crew is a tough-mama veteran soldier with a Hawaiian-shirted beach cutie husband plus an escapee from a spaghetti Western with a fetish for strange hats. This ship’s version of Scottie is a Daisy May who channels her ship’s every gear and cog. Scottie would love her -- but be afraid to show it.
But the two who drive the plot are a rather stiff, if handsome, young doctor and his sister. The sister embodies one of the most emotional sci-fi questions. There’s the human vs. machine problem that drives Battleship Galactica. There’s the cultural relativity vs. evil problem that always preoccupied Star Trek. There’s the human vs. other species that rivets Aliens together. This one is about the hidden powers of the human mind. The doc’s frail, pale, vaguely Asian little sister has psychic powers.
Ironically, aside from the brother who is determined to “heal” her, the crew mostly sees her as a hazard. They don’t even understand what it is she tries to tell them when she can “feel” or “see” or whatever it is she does -- and so they discount her, brush her out of the way, and when the results are really bad, want to just dump her somewhere.
But the “bad guys,” believe everything she can do and have tried to turn it for their own uses, surgically meddling with her amygdala in a way that leaves her out of control, too vulnerable to bring order to her own mind. Who hasn’t felt like that? Even with a perfectly functional amygdala? But this is worse -- echoing the “bad trips” of the Seventies when people tried eating everything chemical or fungal, without preparation, protection or any assurance that they wouldn’t go crazy.
In some ways this ship is the way the counter-ists hoped life could be somewhere, maybe in a commune. Free-flowing, anarchic until the crunch comes and then an effective team, the cheerful galley with the Mexican taxi-driver’s decoration aesthetic is as much the heart of the ship as the elitist officer’s mess in “Master and Commander.” This is a crew we recognize. We “get” them.
Chinese viewers are at last included through an on-going joke. The writer kept a Chinese speaking woman busy researching how to say in Chinese such things as “you inflamed baboon butt” -- not that the cast was admittedly equally able to remember the words, much less pronounce them correctly. On “Battleship” the censors were evaded by saying, “Frack you!” On “Firefly” they say “rammin’” but the mysterious Chinese is even more effective as a sidestep, as well as a swipe at the arbitrary condemnation of Anglo-Saxon words.
The sexual values are those of the halcyon days, as the historians say, between the Pill and AIDS. But it’s meaningful that the whore asks NOT to be called a whore and is actually called a “companion.” There’s a good deal of wit about it, and one whole plot turns on a brothel in a desert, suggestive of a Clint Eastwood send up. In fact, bottom line, this is a Western. I’m not sure whether it qualifies as “steam punk,” which is the future bent back into the past when steam engines ruled the world, taking people across the oceans and continents to strange new places. There are actually horses in this sci-fi.
Getting back to the “spring” of the story -- or should we say the digital quartz of it -- it appears that what Joss is moving towards is the need for a human being, even an enormously gifted person like River who can read minds, to be in a community and to play as a child. The two girls, River and Kaylee, actually play tag and jacks. The married couple do have sex and they do have spats and they do get jealous. It’s like a family with a couple of tough uncles and an exotic aunt. But most of all, it’s about the counter-culture ethic that continues to survive: scruffy, suppressed, mocked, and losing but going on being subversive while too many people get rich and smug.
"Firefly" is what I’ve been trying to define as a “virtual world,” that is, one that is not “real” -- and the difficulty here is trying to define “real,” -- but certainly convincing, even after we know how the set was built, why the actors were cast and so on. Maybe the “realness” of it is related to our sympathy with Joss’ deepest assumptions which have to do with the Alliance as oppressors and the “reavers” as cannibals. They can only be survived with the help of a dedicated group of people attached to each other strongly enough to risk protecting each other. More family than circle of friends.
And what’s scary about it is that Joss and “Firefly” are indeed at the mercy of “Alliance” producers who think THEY know what the public wants (more explosions and violent fights) and it’s even scarier to understand that they are probably right and the “Reavers” public DOES want violence and sex rather than talk and understanding. But what not everyone has realized is that values like the mestizo comaraderie of “Firefly,” which is much like the relationships among cast and crew while production lasted, probably did as much to change the culture as court-imposed busing did.
The work of the arts is to mirror the world in a way that renews it, whether through criticism or example. Often a virtual world is subversive in ways that the Suits with their eye on the dollar never value. And not every viewer is a reaver.