Firefly: Re-Watching the First Few Episodes

Toby Frost

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I’ve recently re-watched the first few episodes of Firefly for the first time in the best part of ten years. Well, it’s fine, but I wonder whether the way SF is made for TV these days has moved on somewhat. Not that it’s bad, it just feels a little… clunky. The elements don’t really mesh as smoothly as I remember. The Chinese phrases and occasional Wild-West style of speaking feel rather labored. Generally, the Western feel of the frontier settlements makes rough sense, although at points it goes too far – I can get the horses and rifles, but why is a henchman wearing a top hat? Why are there feudal nobility when the Alliance is portrayed as soullessly efficient?

The characters talk like Whedon people, which is fine (I’d say the same about Aaron Sorkin characters), although I suspect Whedon’s range of dialogue is fairly limited (youngish person, authority figure and villain). There’s something slightly cartoony about it all, even in the darker moments. In fairness, though, two of the flatter characters – Jayne and Wash – provide a lot of entertainment, and I laughed out loud at least once in every episode.

However, River Tam is an intolerable Mary Sue. I can’t remember another instance where I was supposed to care about a character so much and cared so little. River does a sad thing, River does a mysterious thing, River does a cool thing, ad infinitum. My interest drops through the floor whenever she crops up, because the writers will ensure that, no matter what, she’s always right. I sympathise with Jayne and I know that I’m not supposed to. It’s not the actress’ fault, as the idea is fundamentally badly-executed, but the show would be much better off without her.

However, all the actors are decent, and what fault there is lies with the scripting and direction. Of course, Firefly is important, in that it took SF (especially space adventure) in a comparatively new direction, and maybe it’s unfair to judge it entirely to current standards. It did something fairly new, and is still pretty entertaining. So far, I’d give it a solid 7/10.
 

Toby Frost

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I wouldn't go that far, although camp is very hard to define. It's a bit arch, certainly, but I think it's basically meant to be taken seriously on its own terms. It's just light entertainment, really, but less fundamentally silly than either of those.
 

Star-child

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I just dont think ir is an honest attempt at realism as much as a particular flavor of over the top genre service. It will always be limited by that focus.
 

Toby Frost

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Yes, I agree. It is definitely over the top. Sometimes that works, and other times it feels quite crude.
 

CupofJoe

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Twenty years is a long time in TV... I've just realised that Firefly came out nearly 20 years ago...
I'm right behind the idea that River Tam is the weak link of the show. But some of that has to go to Summer Glau. I've only seen her play the same character. I wonder if they had picked a better/different actor for the role, it would have worked more smoothly in the storyline.
I like that Firefly is a little hokey. It is pop-corn TV, I don't think JW would claim it was anything else. I don't think it had a message or a big truth to reveal. I enjoyed Serenity less because a big serious story was pushed in and I don't think the format [cast, writing, setting etc] handled it well.
That said I enjoyed both far more than shows like BSG or Lost which were so deadly earnest and dull I've never made it through more than a few episodes at a time...
 

Toby Frost

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20 years! Yes, that is a long time.

That's a fair point about River: it is quite a showy performance, but then the entire programme is quite caricatured. For me it's that no matter what she does, River will be proved right or forgiven, and anyone who opposes her will be suitably humiliated. I wouldn't want a delusional ninja on my spaceship, and that seems quite reasonable to me.

I do like the cheapness of Firefly, but I think that sometimes that cheapness looks like a lack of imagination, especially where it seems to have been literally filmed in a Wild West theme park with a couple of extra hats thrown in. I actually quite liked the larger budget of the film and thought they didn't do too badly - although it was a bit disappointing that everything got neatly explained. But I agree about the lack of earnestness. That's quite pleasant.
 

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I love Firefly. I love the characters (especially Wash). I have no problems with River's character - isn't a Mary Sue somebody who's perfect? Wouldn't class River as a Mary Sue at all. Summer Glau does play a different type of character in Dollhouse, as far as I can remember. I do prefer Zoe to River though.

I love that there's an equal number of men and women characters. That seems to happen less nowadays.
 

Vince W

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It's difficult to give Firefly a fair review these days. Fox messed it around so much and then cancelled it abruptly so it was never given time to develop fully. Based on the 13 episodes we do have it was rather remarkable that it made such a lasting impact.

I do agree about River Tam, though. She felt gimmicky and tacked on. Being lumbered with such a character took focus away from the more interesting aspects of the show.
 

tinkerdan

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I enjoyed this series.

I always felt the River character was deliberately underplayed because of a an impending long arc that never was.
Then in the movie this seemed to play out because all of a sudden it was as if the flood gate was opened since this was likely the only time to tell the story and it became the River--retrospective and resolution subtitle the Mary Jane MacGuffin Switch. Still it stands as a good wrap-up of the whole.
 

Toby Frost

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Isn't a Mary Sue somebody who's perfect? Wouldn't class River as a Mary Sue at all.
Pretty much, yes. I suppose River fits into some kind of subset of "troubled Mary Sue", but for me the main thing is that she never comes out worse off. Nobody gets one over on her. She never looks foolish, which is an achievement in a programme with a lot of comedy. Everyone good indulges her. She never does anything that isn't tragic, cute, cool or mysterious. It just gets tiresome, especially when you know that anyone raising the reasonable point that she's a total liability will be ridiculed. Also, she is literally a genius psychic ninja. Perhaps "author's darling" is a better term.

The others are better, and work well, although Inara is a bit one-note and Kaylee is really saccharine, although both would have ended up better if they'd had more episodes to develop. I think the more low-key "person with a gun" characters are more likable, but that's just me.
 

Mouse

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Ah yeah, "author's darling" seems more like it. Like Jack in Lost. She probably would've got annoying to me if she'd stayed the same over several seasons but I'd hope they'd have developed her a bit more if they'd had a chance.

Kaylee was probably my least favourite, to be fair.
 

hitmouse

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I just dont think ir is an honest attempt at realism as much as a particular flavor of over the top genre service. It will always be limited by that focus.
I doubt there were great pretensions at realism unless my understanding of the concept is different from yours. It was a just very decent SF tv show, which did what it said on the tin and which would have vanished into cultish obscurity if it had not struck a nerve with its audience. I enjoyed it tremendously.
 

Star-child

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I doubt there were great pretensions at realism unless my understanding of the concept is different from yours. It was a just very decent SF tv show, which did what it said on the tin and which would have vanished into cultish obscurity if it had not struck a nerve with its audience. I enjoyed it tremendously.
All the shows and movies that garner cult followings hit some sort of nerve. It's just that nerve often is for cheeky campiness in the SFF world. Many of these shows live in a space that is as much Red Dwarf as Star Trek, and many shows devolve into camp as their ratings go down. For whatever reason, goofball is wrapped in with SF shows, maybe because SF fans get self conscious after not too long about our "hoaky" genre.

I would love to see an SF series that could take itself seriously like a medical show without channeling some other sort of caricatured behavior.

And maybe that's why the first two Star Wars movies were such hits - they were 100% serious and didn't need to wink at the audience or rely on a dark atmosphere to entertain.
 

Vince W

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And maybe that's why the first two Star Wars movies were such hits - they were 100% serious and didn't need to wink at the audience or rely on a dark atmosphere to entertain.
Empire Strikes Back is very dark and is the best film of the trilogy.
 

Star-child

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Empire Strikes Back is very dark and is the best film of the trilogy.
It is dark in events, not the way the characters act or the general mood. It isn't grim, like Altered Carbon. Plenty of rousing moments for the protagonists and an upbeat ending.
 

CupofJoe

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A film can have a single tone throughout its 90 - 180 min. [but I'd argue that in the early Star Wars films R2D2 & C3P0 are there in-part for comic relief].
A TV show which may run for 20+ 45 minute episodes a year, will have to have changes in pace or become stale.
You could argue that Firefly did this at the Pop-corn end of the line [mainly light and going dark occasionally] while other shows [BSG comes to mind] were mainly darker with lighter touches.
I watched ST: DS9 again recent and thought it did this balance especially well. It was a serious drama most of the time but could let it's hair down and play with the format when it needed to. That is one of the benefits of SF, you can usually concoct a reason for anything to be possible.
I think ER almost got there a couple of times with out-of-character episodes and I can remember a Xmas Casualty where [aparenty] Jesus [or God or an Angel or something] appeared and changed people's lives...
 

Toby Frost

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Well, I'm now quite a way in, and today I watched "Our Mrs Reynolds". This is definitely a step up from the previous episode, "Safe". Both have the slightly overdone but entertaining Wild West elements, but "Our Mrs Reynolds" has the double advantages of Christina Hendricks as Saffron and a near-total lack of River (and Simon). Of course, it does make me wonder what the unstoppable psychic ninja was doing while the story went on, and what would have happened if she'd appeared, but it's certainly improved by leaving her out and letting the more "normal" characters carry the plot. There's some very good dialogue and Inara gets to do something beyond look neat and sound slightly annoyed. Definitely one of the highlights so far.
 
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