YOU CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME: FIREFLY
Get the best reviews online: It’s weird death and potential rebirth
To hear executive producer Tim Minear tell it, FOX’s beleaguered and mostly canceled science fiction drama Firefly has had a bizarre run from the get go.
“The show has been odd from the beginning,” says Minear, in one of the phone conference interviews. “The fact is they were inches from not picking up the show…then it went from “pitch us an episode” to writing the pilot over the weekend. Then they picked up the show, but not the pilot. Then airing shows out of order. In the end, I don’t know that that mattered so much as not having the pilot air first.”
Firefly, the creation of Buffy the Vampire Slayer mastermind Joss Whedon, is the story of Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the captain of the transport ship Serenity and his crew. The story’s set in the far future, long after the Earth has been destroyed, and humanity has colonized the galaxy, terra-forming hundreds of “little Earths,” most of which are no more developed than the old West. In the course of events, a civil war broke out between those who favored a strong, central government uniting the planets and those who favored independence. Independence lost. Guess which side Mal was on?
The show plays on some of the stronger themes of both Science Fiction and Westerns, the adventures of the ship and its mostly outlaw crew serving as an ongoing discussion of the nature of right & wrong vs. law & order, sexual tropes and gender equality, class conflict and, most importantly, freedom vs. slavery. Unlike most other shows on television, it comes to no conclusions, and-refreshingly-makes no pat value judgments. It’s easy to see why it would get under a few people’s skins.
Still, even as the show was hitting its stride around the third episode-Minear’s excellent and haunting “Out of Gas”-it was becoming evident that many forces within FOX were disinterested in pursuing the show further. Advertising of the show dwindled, it was barely promoted even on the network, and critics bailed out after the beginning (a decent but not spectacular Whedon written episode called “Train Job,” which was about just that, a train robbery.)
The show hit a plateau in the Nielsen ratings, usually placing fourth in its time slot and neither rising nor falling in audience share. Tivo reports that it was one of the most recorded shows-an indications that the problem may not be with the show itself, but rather with the time slot, Friday’s at 8 PM, is a hard sell for 18 to 34-year-old males, which seemed to be the show’s demographic.
“When you have a premier,” says Chris Buchanan, president of the show’s production company, Mutant Enemy. “You get a pretty big number. We did a pretty big number for our premier with not a very big launch. Our premier was not a big, splashy event. Unlike most shows that have been canceled, our ratings held pretty steadily after the core drop off, but unfortunately, we haven’t been able to rebuild it. In our first three episodes, we were pre-empted by sports. We were not on-air in Los Angeles and New York…
“Friday at 8 p.m. is a challenging slot … 7 o’clock Friday night, even I’m not home watching TV. But even with no promotion some weeks, our audience showed up. This goes back to our fan base, a small group of people that are very excited about this show.”
Note the present tense, because Firefly has had one of the weirdest shutdowns in television history, and almost instantly garnered one of the most professional and organized fan efforts to save it of any television show in memory
“It became clear that there was a lot of talk of being canceled,” says Buchanan, of the almost immediate support the show received as cancellation rumors began to circulate. “What I’ve been impressed with is that they are very positive in their support. Instead of just attacking, they say ‘we love this show. We are a demographically important group. We’re smart and educated and buy lot of computers and cars and TVs. Now they’re going to the other networks, and telling them, ‘if you put it on, we’ll be there.'”
But to understand the passion a small group of fans holds for this beleaguered show, one needs to look at the show itself. And, in the case of this writer, it helps to have a feel for 19th Century anarchist literature.
The fundamental conflict in Firefly is that the characters are, for all intents and purposes, outlaws. “Sometimes they take legitimate jobs,” says Minear, in an earlier interview with this writer, “sometimes they do the crime. They’re kind of scavengers. They’re brigands…This shows less about the art, but the getting by of it.”
Considering Mal and his first mate, Zoe’s (Gina Torres) history as rebel soldiers, there’d be ready cause for conflict with authority. Certainly, their distaste for authority is made clear from the outset. The situation’s complicated by two passengers they’re harboring-Simon and his sister, River (Sean Maher and Summer Glau.) Simon is wanted for breaking his genius, schizophrenic sister out of an alliance facility where they were evidently experimenting on her.
So, yeah. They commit crime and they’re on the run from the law. Not horribly unfamiliar territory to either the Western or Sci-Fi. But scratch underneath that and there’s a world of fresh perspective happening here.
To begin with, let’s consider the relationship between Zoe and Mal. As noted in a scene cut from the pilot, Zoe fought under Mal against the alliance
“He was my sergeant. In command of thirty-odd grunts — five days in, there were so many officers dead he commanded two thousand. Kept us together, kept us fighting, kept us sane. By the time the fighting was over he had maybe four hundred still intact… they left us there. Wounded, and sick, and near to mad as can still walk and talk. Both sides left us there while they ‘negotiated the peace’. For a week. And we just kept dying. When they finally sent in Medships, he had about a hundred and fifty left, and of our original platoon, just me.”
Zoe’s remained unshakably loyal to Mal since, joining him on Serenity even when she thought it was a deathtrap. Her loyalty doesn’t stop her from speaking her mind, however, although when the chips are down, she’ll follow his plan, even if she thinks it’s insanity. For his part, Mal trusts Zoe implicitly. When he’s about to get whipped in a bar fight, in the series premier, he knows without looking that Zoe will be there to save his ass immediately. There’s not any verbal communication at these moments, they just each know.
But the best thing about the Zoe/Mal relationship is that’s it’s not the least bit romantic. There’s no sexual tension between them, no deep unspoken love, just an unbreakable bond of friendship and trust. Which is nice. A lesser show would have tried to build a romantic angle here, but it would be inherently inferior to what already exists. Besides, their hearts are already taken: Mal’s true love is the ship itself, and Zoe’s married to the ship’s goofball pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk.) Which is another wonderfully underplayed relationship.
Married couples are difficult for television. The temptation’s to make them cutesy, or to have them bicker. Zoe and Wash have the married vibe going on, with most of it unspoken, all caught in looks and, again, an unshakable trust. When a beautiful woman comes on to Wash, it becomes clear where his heart is:
“I’m sorry. I’m married to Zoe. And she can kill me with her pinkie.”
What becomes fascinating about these relationships is that, unlike a lot of TV relationships, they’re all equals. Certainly, Mal is Zoe’s commanding officer, but it becomes immediately clear that, to him she’s an equal and not a subordinate. The same holds true for Zoe and Wash’s marriage. They all stand on the same footing.
Moreover, it becomes clear that Mal extends that view of equality outwards-even when a good deal of society tends to look down on him, which causes friction. Actually, it creates a good deal of friction. It gets him into a lot of brawls.
What becomes apparent is a current of anarchism running through the show, not unlike that espoused by the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin in his 1897 writing, Anarchist Morality.
“After a long period of slumber comes a moment of awakening,” wrote Kropotkin. “Then thought frees herself from the chains with which those interested–rulers, lawyers, clerics–have carefully enwound her.
“She shatters the chains. She subjects to severe criticism all that has been taught her, and lays bare the emptiness of the religious political, legal, and social prejudices amid which she has vegetated.”
There can be no better insight into Mal Reynolds than this. His faith in both God and man was shaken by the massacre of his troops-and in the process of having his belief system devastated came an epiphany: institutions that would seek to control people are inherently corrupt.
“It is so easy to coerce it by fear,” writes Kropotkin. “This they do. They make the child timid, and then they talk to him of the torments of hell. They conjure up before him the sufferings of the condemned, the vengeance of an implacable god. The next minute they will be chattering of the horrors of revolution, and using some excess of the revolutionists to make the child ‘a friend of order.’ The priest accustoms the child to the idea of law, to make it obey better what he calls the ‘divine law,’ and the lawyer prates of divine law, that the civil law may be the better obeyed.”
Mal sums this up rather neatly to Book (Ron Glass) a priest who’s traveling with Reynolds for undisclosed reasons, when Reynolds tells him, “I told you. You’re welcome on my ship. God’s not.”
For Mal, as with Kropotkin, class and gender inequalities are laughable. One passenger, Inara (Morena Baccarin) challenges that view. Inara is a “companion,” an extremely high class, legal and socially acceptable form of prostitute. Indeed, so high class that she gets to pick who her customers are, and is received by high society everywhere she travels. There’s a grudging friendship between Inara and Mal, although it’s clear that he disapproves of her profession.
In the episode “Shindig,” Mal’s altercation with one of Inara’s clients reveals the truth of his feelings and her situation: her social status is an illusion. At the end of the day, she is still regarded as property by the client, who seeks to abuse her. It’s a truth that Mal’s seen since the beginning.
“In a society based on exploitation and servitude human nature is degraded,” writes Kropotkin. “But as servitude disappears we shall regain our rights. We shall feel within ourselves strength to hate and to love.” It seems that it is the search for this freedom that has drawn Inara into Reynolds’ fold.
This is just one of many insights that Firefly presents, peering its outlaw lens into a world not so-terribly removed from both our past and future, and pointing out that, at the end of the day, we really do allow ourselves to be slaves, that every inch of authority and civilization that we surround ourselves with is nigh-meaningless and artificial, and that, at the end of the day, none of us are any better than any other, and that none of us are property.
It’s a fascinating, dangerous premise for a television show, rife with potential and vigor. Unfortunately, potential and vigor are endangered species on television, and while Firefly is a show that deserves to live and die on its own merits, there are bigger forces at work dictating its survival: television itself.
Television is a strange business on the best of days. From the outside, it’s easy to believe that networks are gigantic hive-minds, dictating their desires with single-minded precision. The truth is messier: networks are Byzantine, complicated institutions, filled with dozens, often hundreds of individuals with conflicting desires, viewpoints and goals, all needing to come to a consensus on each and every piece of work that they broadcast. Really, it’s a miracle anything gets made at all.
Both Minear and Buchanan are quick to point out that Firefly had several champions within the network, including network president Gail Berman. “I believe they could have aired the pilot first,” says Minear, reflecting on what could have happened differently to have kept the show going. “I think it was that simple… There was confusion. When it’s a world as weird as ours, it goes against convention, expectation, you need an introduction to it.
“I think what FOX thought they were buying was a dram-edy They didn’t understand Firefly; they also maybe didn’t understand what Joss does. They though he was known for witty lines, but what he’s really known for is ripping your heart out and stomping on it.”
Buchanan agrees that the problems began with not airing the pilot first. “I think that we would have probably been a little more solicitous of what the network was expecting,” he says when asked what he would have done different. “In my mind, I’m very proud of the pilot, I think its amazing television. In retrospect, I see why the network chose not to launch the show with it. I think its unfortunate that, by the time we figured that out, it was too late and we were playing catch up all season. It made it hard for the fans to get into the show, and REALLY hard for the uninitiated. You had to do some work as a viewer. I think the pilot would have answered a lot of those questions… It just seems that there was, at some point, a disconnect.”
Whatever went wrong, fan reaction to the show’s plight was immediate and frighteningly organized. As rumors began to circulate that the show was ending, an Internet campaign appeared to raise funds for a “Save Firefly” ad in Variety. While this was hardly the first time a group of fans had done this-indeed, many of the same people behind the move were involved in the “Save Farscape” and “Give Buffy an Emmy” campaigns-Hollywood insiders were shocked at both the speed in which the price of the ad was raised, and the professionalism of it; that instead of complaining adolescently, it went out its way to thank the network for airing it in the first place, and to thank each and every sponsor individually, by name.
“That was one of the best ads I’ve ever seen,” says Minear. “It was smart and didn’t have the stink of failure… I don’t know what effect it will have, but the good from it is incalculable. Not only does it say that there is a strong, smart desirable audience, I think that it really helped bolster spirits on the set. As sad as it was, we had a great time at the end.”
Still, even as the ad was running in Variety, Whedon appeared on a semiprivate message board to inform fans that FOX would not be buying more episodes. Which is a little different than the show just being “canceled.”
“I know other shows,” says Buchanan, “that, when they’ve canceled, the studio has said, ‘Stop what your doing! Turn off the lights!’ “
That didn’t happen here. FOX continued to pay for the three shows it had ordered, and has agreed to not stand in Mutant Enemy’s way as they search for a new home for the program. Whedon and Mutant Enemy have approached UPN about moving the show there. When UPN passed, Whedon immediately turned around and approached the Science Fiction Network
Meanwhile, fans went into action almost immediately. A postcard writing campaign to beg television executives to pick up the show was underway, and within days thousands of postcards began pouring into television executives’ offices. A fan site, “Firefly: Immediate Assistance” (http://www.fireflysupport.com/) was launched to coordinate efforts to preserve the show, and television news crews were invited to viewing parties for the shows pilot/finale.
Some of the more interesting tactics that the campaign’s organizers have embarked on include compiling demographic data on who watched the show and letter writing campaigns to local affiliates, who are often more accessible than top executives.
While it remains to be seen whether the multi-pronged attack will be successful, one does need to wonder about how far television can be democratized. Certainly, there’s something to be said for changing the channel if you don’t like a show (this writer will uses that power often on the likes of Joe Millionaire) but it’s immensely difficult to make your voice heard in support of a show you do like. There is a certain cultural mentality that says you have the choice to accept or reject what the television feeds you, but that ultimately the decision as to what’s shown is not within your control.
Some cynics would say that the result is bland television, where only the least challenging, most accessible and ultimately most puerile shows can survive with any degree of success. Certainly, there’s no shortage of mediocre television out there. Firefly is difficult. It challenges the viewer, and rewards them for the work. Each episode was better than the last, and one hopes that, when either the three episodes FOX has purchased finally air or it moves to another station, that trend will continue. It’s the type of show that deserves to live and die on its feet
Struggle!” wrote Kropotkin. “To struggle is to live, and the fiercer the struggle the intenser the life.”
Buchanan seems to agree: “We’re going to keep pushing it forward until we drop.”
Victor D. Infante