Giddyup, spaceman

Buffy's creator gallops into outer space with "Firefly," taking the connection between sci-fi and westerns a little too literally.

Topics: Television,

Giddyup, spaceman

Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” which premiered two weeks ago on Fox, has the distinction of being both one of the most anticipated shows of the season and one of the strangest. The first distinction is based on Whedon’s cult status as the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spin-off, “Angel,” both of which are widely recognized as two of the most enterprising and original shows of the past half-decade. The second is based on “Firefly’s” genre-bending premise: It’s a science fiction western.

I don’t mean that it’s a science fiction western in the way that “Buck Rogers” or “Star Wars” or other sci-fi movies favored a scrap-metal version of the American Wild West over one-eyed Martians and enlightened aliens, or that “Firefly” has cowboyish space heroes and uses metaphors of space as the new frontier. I mean that it is the kind of western in which people shoot revolvers and ride horses and hang around back-lot sets that look as though they might have been used on “Little House on the Prairie.”

“Firefly” is set 500 years in the future, six years after a war to unite the planets has been won by a totalitarian government, the Alliance. Those who fought for planetary independence are now forced to live in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Among them are Capt. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who roams around looking for work on his ship, the Serenity (masochistically named after a battle his side lost); Zoe (Gina Torres), his second in command, who fought alongside him in the war, owes him her life, and never forgets it; Zoe’s husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s friendly and easygoing captain; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a plucky young engineer, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a hotheaded mercenary whose ties to the rest of the crew are tenuous.

Also onboard are Inara (Morena Baccarin) a “registered companion” (so-called now that prostitution is both legal and a highly regarded profession), who hitches her shuttle to the ship so that she may expand her client base; Book (Ron Glass), a man of God (in the future they will be known as “shepherds,” though sheep will be nowhere in evidence); and two fugitives from the Alliance: Simon (Sean Maher), a wealthy young doctor, and River (Summer Glau), his disturbed younger sister, whom he has freed from some sort of brainwashing experiment involving probes and who now carries on like Brittany Murphy in “Don’t Say a Word.”



The cast is as vast as space itself, though sadly not as deep — at least not so far. The show’s women, in particular, are a disappointment after the girls of “Buffy.” If that show’s heroine is a living contradiction between light and dark (cute blond SoCal teen/ass-kicking demon slayer), the women of the Serenity divvy up the traits that might have made for a single interesting character. Inara is beautiful and wily but seems incapable of breaking a sweat. Zoe is tough and disciplined but has yet to show any recognizable human traits. The sweet and doe-eyed Kaylee is handy with a wrench but otherwise comes across as a standard — albeit mechanically inclined — ingénue.

Because work is hard to come by in the margins of the universe, the crew will take any job — legal or otherwise — that it can get. (Come to think of it, “Firefly” is kind of a pirate story too.) The first two episodes involve, respectively, a train robbery and the massacre of a group of space settlers by a tribe of roving savages called “reavers.” In the first episode, the crew decides to return the loot to its original destination, after learning that it consists of medicine meant for sick miners on a distant planet. (Oh, and it is a Robin Hood story too.) In the second, they help a group of federal marshals escape a marauding settler-turned-reaver (he’s gone mad, you see, from witnessing the horror) and in the process lose the cache of valuable provisions they had recovered from the settlers’ ship.

The space-explorer story is the natural successor to the pioneer story, because, well, it is one. Replace the meteors with tumbleweed, and just about any space odyssey of the past three or so decades could double as a horse opera. Ever since we started getting pessimistic about the messianic powers of technology and government, most filmed visions of the future have tended toward the primitive and apocalyptic, depicting space as the next frontier — lawless, violent and cruel. The story usually goes something like this: Some kind of war or blight or economic need sends misfits, malcontents, fortune-seekers away from civilization, looking to get some of its spoils for themselves. Once there, they get in trouble with the law.

Like John Ford westerns, “Firefly’s” stories are morality plays, but with a millennial twist. In Ford’s moral universe, law and anarchy confronted each other in a showdown, the law won, and civilization rode into town. (In “My Darling Clementine,” for example, civilization was symbolized by the arrival of a schoolmarm in Tombstone.) In Whedon’s fictional universe, characters exist in a moral void (the prostitute is respected and the preacher is not) that makes the whole good/bad thing tricky, and nobody has a mission. On the face of it, it’s a promising idea — if “Buffy” is a metaphor for growing up in the modern world, as has been said, “Firefly” is about being a grown-up in the modern world. The driving principle of the Serenity’s crew is to “find a job, any job,” and the harshness of this reality could make Buffy’s adolescent idealism look like just that.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. After having created a messianic character driven by fate to battle evil (Buffy has no choice but to slay vampires, even when she’d prefer not to), Whedon’s new relativist characters seem a little lost. Admittedly, this is the point, but the show lacks the kind of psychological tension that makes “Buffy” snap. As much as the space and western genres have in common, “Firefly” could have probably done without the western soundtrack and the vague “Bonanza” look too. It’s not just that the “space as Wild West” metaphor is somewhat redundant, but that neither genre binds the series to the present.

This is a shame, because some of the ideas that Whedon has talked about exploring in his new show — existentialism, morality in the absence of God — are distinctly modern themes that tend to get lost in all the atmosphere. On “Buffy,” two distinct worlds come together as naturally as they do in any Gothic horror story, because they are all about the tensions between good and evil that can coexist in a single person or place. “Buffy’s” constant pop references add to the conflict by contrasting Buffy’s absurd but normal everyday problems with her messianic duties. It’s this tension that makes “Buffy” consistently exciting and psychologically complex.

On “Firefly,” however, whatever tension there is, is slack. The Alliance is generally — if not all — bad; and the Serenity’s crew is generally — if not all — good. (“We’re not thieves. Well, we are thieves. But we’re not thieves.”) We are meant to sympathize with Mal, even though tiny seeds of equivocation are scattered throughout: His name, as River points out during one of her lunatic rants, means “bad, from the Latin,” the independence fighters wear brown shirts, and they say things like “We will rise again.”

But despite these deft touches, which bring Mal closer to the type of ambivalent modern hero personified by Buffy, “Firefly’s” distinct “Gunsmoke” flavor seems to trap it in amber, casting it in the sepia-toned remove of a period piece and adding nothing. During the train-heist sequence, for instance, a few postmodern nods are thrown in with the period stuff just for fun: There are passengers in pioneer outfits, a woman in a burqa, and a carload of federal Storm Trooper types in hard carapaces. But with nothing to tie them together — I understand the burqa, but what’s with the “High Noon” extras? — these details are disconcerting, and the result is more Halloween party than interplanetary spaceport terminal during the holidays.

In a recent New York Times magazine piece, Whedon called “Firefly” a “philosophical drama … about the search for meaning.” And that sounds pretty good. As of this writing, however (and the show is only two episodes old, so it seems only fair to give it the benefit of the doubt, considering its creator’s track record), it smells more like an archetypal myth sort of thing. (Then again, this may have something to do with network interference. The two-hour pilot Whedon planned has been shelved for now.) At the moment it’s a little bit “Star Wars,” a little bit “Indiana Jones.” And thanks to the work of George Lucas and other Joseph Campbell-inspired visionaries, we probably already have enough of those to last us for the next 500 years.

Carina Chocano writes about TV for Salon. She is the author of "Do You Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid?" (Villard).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>