Firefly: A Gorram Appreciation



All I can say is thank God for Netflix's streaming service! Within the last month or so it's brought us a veritable deluge of Joss Whedon. The entire run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is there, along with Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, Season 1 of Dollhouse and, my personal favorite, Firefly.

I was thinking about Firefly recently because of the recent posts about setting by Nathan Bransford and our very own Beth Revis.

For my money, Firefly is a perfect example of setting done right. For those that don't know, (Shame on you. Shame!) Firefly follows the crew of Serenity, a Firefly class cargo ship captained by Malcolm Reynold,  a one time soldier on the losing end of a civil war and now a smuggler and thief. The universe they travel through is ruled by The Alliance, though their influence peters out significantly as you hit the outer rim of their territory. Reynolds and his crew do their best to get by, taking whatever job they can get and trying to stay a step ahead of the law.

So why is this show so instructive to us? Partially for the reasons Nathan and Beth talk about. Whedon constructed a dynamic world. A world in motion and in conflict.  On top of that, the universe is richly imagined and unique, a sort of post-earth Chinese/American hybrid with elements of high-tech science fiction and old west rustic. It's unfamiliar but accessible and rewards in-depth exploration.

Another point in Firefly's favor is how it deals with the concept of utopia/dystopia. If you're a monied resident of the central worlds, sure you've got the Alliance's eye on you all the time, but we're given the impression that your life is pretty damn fine. Safe. Prosperous. Ample resources. If you live out on the edges of the galaxy you're free, but struggling to just get by in a place that is more or less lawless. Which is the utopia? Which is the dystopia? Depends on who you are. Depends on your point of view. The show never makes things black and white. Ultimately, this allows for more complex stories and characters and also brings in moral and ethical gray areas that we recognize as being part of real life to ground the fantastical setting. This raises another question to ask as you're creating a world. Is what I'm doing with the world building helping me? Is it supporting my goal of writing complex and layered stories?

The thing I most take from the show, however, (and what I try to keep in mind every morning at 6AM as I'm working on my next book) is that Whedon seems to know that ultimately, as important as world-building might be, it's actually a relatively minor concern.

An odd thing to say on a blog more or less dedicated to a kind of world-building, but it's clear that Whedon knows that what matters is characters, relationships, and conflict. World-building works to support those three things. Watch any show by Whedon and you'll always see that characters and the choices they make are front and center. I love the worlds he creates. But honestly, I think you could strip them all away and you'd still be left with compelling characters and narrative. For me, that's the real test. I find myself thinking as I'm writing…"am I leaning on the whiz-bang elements of this world to keep people interested or are my characters enough?" If I put these people on a bare stage, would people still want to watch?

I'm sure we can all think of plenty of instances where a writer has done some impressive world-building, yet neglected to provide us with the things that actually make us want to follow a story. Examples?  The new generation Star Wars movies anyone? Any Matrix movie but the first one?  Pretty and detailed but utterly lifeless.

All that aside, you should watch the show because it's a hell of a lot of fun. The characters are warm and real and incredibly funny. The stories are great. It also has the benefit of saying some really helpful things to people who are trying to write in a similar vein.

Oh! It also has the best opening and theme song ever. If I had to do my apocalyptic playlist post over again I'd totally add it.



25 comments:

theflightytemptress said...

I love firefly. I recently rewatched Serenity. WASH! :( :( :( And I wondered whether Jayne was holding his very favorite gun in the last battle scene.

The other thing to notice about Joss is that he always leaves you hanging with relationships--and they rarely (if ever???) end happily. Buffy and Angel? Nope. Buffy and Spike? Nope. Dr. Horrible and Penny? Hah. Mal and Anarra? Psh. Echo and Paul? Yeah, right.

It's a little frustrating, actually. Can't any of his characters ever be completely happy?

Berinn said...

Firefly is the best series of all time. Whedon rocks. And you do, too, for bringing it up. :)

Feywriter said...

Yes, yes, yes. Love Firefly. Awesome worldbuilding, and characters. About time for my annual Firefly marathon.

KrysteyBelle said...

Yes, Whedon is amazing. Give the characters exactly what they want but at the worst cost possible.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Thanks Berinn!

You're right flightytemptress, no one seems to be romantically happy for very long in the Whedonverse. He fools me every time too. First, I thought Willow and Tara had a chance, then I thought Wash and Zoe did. Damn you Joss Whedon!

Sarah N Fisk said...

Love, love, love Firefly. It's a great example for this blog because the writing is so spot-on.

Amanda Hannah said...

LOVED Firefly (and anything Whedon). And I think you're completely spot on with the world-building vs. characterization.

Serenissima said...

As soon as I started reading your post, I decided I was going do a search for the FIREFLY theme song so I could indulge in a little nostalgia for one of my favorite shows--what a happy surprise that you'd included it! I can return to your post every time I need a fix. ;->

Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me!

Kristi Helvig said...

Those shows also bring a veritable deluge of Nathan Fillion which ain't a bad thing. :) I just discovered Firefly within the last few weeks (thanks to the Netflix instant streaming) and am on episode 7 of 14 - I don't want it to end!

Adam Heine said...

Love Firefly. That's a great point about how it's not either a utopia or dystopia; it depends on your point of view. I never noticed that. Thank you!

Angie said...

I always liked how Whedon extended his world building to the speech patterns. Rim vs. Core--with a splash of Chinese here and there.

Jeff Hirsch said...

Interesting Angie. I never actually noticed the Rim Vs. Core language difference. The Core uses less of that mash up slang? I'll have to listen for that.

Kristi, just looked up the episode list. You're about to watch #8? I think that's Out of Gas, one of my personal favs. Makes me a little teary, that one. Oh, and the way it intros Kaylee is hilarious and awesome.

Kristi Helvig said...

Jeff, I'm watching that one tonight - can't wait! This show has the best dialogue of all time. My hubby's favorite line is from episode #6 (Our Mrs. Reynolds) when Jayne says "That's why I never kiss em on the mouth." :)

Jeff Hirsch said...

Oh sure, Our Mrs. Reynolds is fantastic. Christina Hendricks is amazing in that one. Hmm...her character reminds of how much of a feminist writer Whedon is. That's a subject for a whole other post.

Enjoy Out of Gas tonight! You must report back and let us know what you thought!

Ellie said...

Absolutely love Firefly/Serenity. I'd never heard of dystopia until I started to follow here, and I think this show is a perfect example of it. River, Inara, and Zoe are my favorite characters.

I can now rewatch the shows in a new light and possibly glean some ideas to help me in my writing.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Whedon is genius, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to forgive him for ending Serenity the way he did. Or ending it at all, for that matter.

Anyway, I love your points about the world-building being dynamic but not what really drives the story - the characters Joss creates are always mesmerizing, keeping you coming back for more. I think keeping that in mind for ALL your important characters, not just the MC, is tough but important.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I OWN all of Buffy and Firefly. Never get enough of Whedon worlds. You're so right that it is the characters and relationships he develops that keep us coming back. I'm intrigued by your comment about it being utopia or dystopia depending on viewpoint. Excellent.

Julia Karr said...

Will have to watch Firefly. Somehow I missed it (probably because I rarely watch TV) - but, it sounds like it would be worth uncovering the set.

Mary McDonald said...

Firefly=Shiny! I found Firefly on Hulu about two years ago. I'd heard of it, but had no clue what it was about. (I actually thought it was about the bug. lol.) I stayed up half the night watching episodes on my computer, then stayed up another night finishing off the rest of the episodes.

I'm so with you on the character thing. Firefly does a fantastic job with the characters, and the last three Star Wars? Blech! My husband doesn't get why I hated them. I fell asleep in the theater in one of them.

Firefly ranks up there right under Friday Night Lights for having the most layered characters on televison. So, work that Netflix and watch some awesome FNL. It also uses the setting extremely effectively even though it is present day/real world.

Jemi Fraser said...

Firefly is one of my faves of all time. The characters are incredible - unique, fun, different, compassionate, loyal - and flawed. Real humans with strong emotions. Love them!

Kristi Helvig said...

Okay, I watched episode #8 last night. Talk about freaking intense - definitely my favorite episode so far. On to #9 tonight and refuse to watch more than one at a time so the series will last longer!

Jeff Hirsch said...

Glad you liked it Kristi! You're in for another good one in #9. Once you're all done, don't forget there's still the movie, Serenity.

Nishant said...

Firefly is the best series of all time. Whedon rocks. And you do, too, for bringing it up. :)
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Christina Farley said...

Okay, now I'm intrigued and will have to watch Firefly.

doctorcrankenstein said...

I loved firefly. Can't believe that it only went for one season though :(