Mischa Brendel tries to pinpoint which factors contributed to Firefly’s popularity.
Like many people in our Phoenix RPG community, I am a Firefly fan, a Browncoat. And like many Browncoats, I have often wondered what it is that makes the show so great. Unlike many however, I am a Browncoat that saw the movie Serenity before I even knew of the show’s existence. Needless to say that I liked the movie enough to dive into the universe that Joss Whedon had created and I decided to buy the dvd set of Firefly (no small feat at that time in the Netherlands: I live in a fairly small city and in those days I was a student on a tight budget and without a credit card. On top of that, there had never been an official Dutch release of Firefly here at that time).
I mentioned that I liked the movie enough to want to learn more about the Firefly universe, but this didn’t happen overnight. When Serenity came out in theatres (unlike the tv show, the movie actually did make it to an official Dutch release), I took notice of it, but didn’t actually go to see it. Instead, I rented it on dvd a couple of months later. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. I did like the characters on the show and the fact that important characters actually died. Not that I hated those characters so much that I wanted to see them dead, but it gave me the ‘anything goes’ feeling: no matter if a character is important, he or she may still die. Which makes for a much thrilling experience, in my opinion.
Anyway, it wasn’t until a couple of months after renting the movie that I saw it in a bargain bin at a shop and decided to buy it. Again I thought the movie was okay and entertaining, but I didn’t love it. But this bought dvd had something else, namely an introduction by Joss Whedon stating that ‘we’ve done the impossible and that makes us mighty.’ So there was a tv show to which this movie was a sequel. My curiosity was piqued and after some internet searching, I was convinced that I wanted to see this show. As mentioned, it took some time to actually find the dvd box but I eventually managed to get my hands on one and like most Browncoats, I was instantly hooked. So much so, that before long, I had joined an RPG gaming site which hosted sims set in this awesome universe.
But what is it that makes Firefly so great? I already mentioned the characters: not only are they very well written – they aren’t good or evil; they simply are trying to deal with the situation given to them and handle it in the way they think is best, either for themselves or for their crewmates – but the chemistry between the cast is undeniable. Without that chemistry, the show still would have been very good, but it would not have reached the heights that it actually did. Circumstances have put the characters together on a ship and there they not only have to act like a crew, but also as a family. And they actually feel like a family.
Another strength of the show is the setting. Although it is a science fiction show (and in my opinion the movie feels more like science fiction than the tv show) it is more so a western. Generally speaking I am not a fan of the western genre, but in this show it fits. And more importantly: the western setting comes second to the story. It isn’t a western story, but a story set in a western environment. And the western setting makes sense: because there is something very nomadic about it, which is exactly the kind of universe Firefly is set in. The western talk of course helps to add to this feeling.
The lack of technobabble is something else that makes this show stand out from other scifi shows and in my opinion in a positive way. I love Star Trek, but I was sometimes actually annoyed that there was always a way out by realigning the deflector dish, filling the Bussard collectors with some gaseous anomaly. In Firefly however, sometimes something that is broken simply can’t be fixed and when engineer Kaylee explains a defect in the engine to captain Mal, he doesn’t hide the fact that he understands very little about all the technical details.
Instead of this technobabble, Firefly hosts another language, namely Mandarin. And that makes a lot of sense from the historic point of view in the Firefly universe. Given that the US and China were the biggest national powers out there when the colonizing started, it would make sense that people talk both English and Mandarin. One might expect more Mandarin, perhaps even a mix of Mandarin and English, but the fact that this isn’t the case might be a simple matter of the show being American.
The way in which the show is shot, sudden zooming, camera flares, was pretty unique at that time and it has in fact been copied many times since, perhaps even too often. But it did fit that show: the Firefly universe isn’t perfect and many are getting by with the broken equipment that they have. It feels like the camera man is doing the same and it adds to the reality of the show.
Another thing that adds to the reality of the show is something that virtually every other scifi show or movie lacks. Or rather doesn’t lack, whereas Firefly did lack it: sound in space. There is no sound in space, so why pretend that there is? Granted, the Star Wars movies would have been pretty boring without any sound in space, but with Firefly it never gets annoying and again it adds realism. Another, quite similar matter that adds to the realism in space is that when spaceships meet up, they aren’t perfectly aligned to one another. There is no up and down in space; make use of that fact! Luckily, Whedon did.
There are other point which can be made in favour of what made Firefly great, but the last important one that I feel there is, is also the most controversial one: it was great, because it got cancelled. Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to see more episodes of Firefly. But look at the facts and look at Whedon’s modus operandi with his other successful shows, like Buffy and Angel. One could say a lot of positive things about both shows (and rightfully so) but Whedon does have a tendency to overcomplicate things the longer his shows keep going. In my opinion examples of this are the sudden appearance of Buffy’s little sister (which in itself was a brilliant idea), or Angel’s son and him and his crew taking over the law firm Wolfram & Hart. And then there’s the love interests, where all protagonists tend to try out every other protagonist (excuse my lack of subtilety, but after a while it does start to feel that way). Certainly not something only Whedon does, but it is never a strong point in a show.
Firefly didn’t suffer this condition and let’s face it: the tension between Inara and Mal and between Kaylee and Simon worked really well and from an emotional point of view we all wanted those pending relationships to become a reality, but then what? What would have happened if Inara and Mal had gotten together? There might have been a few episodes struggling the issue, especially considering Inara’s profession, but it wouldn’t have worked as a long term condition in the show itself. I do not mean that their relationship wouldn’t have held; I mean that it wouldn’t have made for interesting storytelling in the long run.
The same goes for Kaylee and the doc: I can see them getting and even staying together (and we were all rooting for them), but part of what made the dynamics among the characters so much fun was Kaylee pining for Simon and the doctor really liking Kaylee but not daring to act upon it or doing exactly the wrong thing.
And the stories themselves also seemed to benefit from the fact that the show didn’t last long, at least in large part. Granted, learning more about the Hands of Blue or the Reavers would have been awesome (although the storyline about the latter largely got completed in Serenity) but because the show ran that short and was on the verge of being cancelled virtually every episode even during recording, every story stood: no big ‘to be continued’s, no ‘do you remember that in last season’s, and no bigger, dragging all-encompassing storyline. Without those, we were left with a show which had a crew who tried to survive from day to day and that is how the episodes themselves felt.
And finally, the constant threat of cancellation probably also gave cast and crew a common cause, namely to fight for survival. Again the parallel with the characters on the show is obvious, but I can imagine that this is how it must have felt to them.