Forgive me, folks, if I babble on a bit about Joss Whedon's Firefly. I've been drinking, I've been watching Firefly with a buddy of mine who's digging it, and I've got some yammering on tap.
As Bob fans may know, Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly) knows and approves of the existence of Bob the Angry Flower. Bizarre, crazy, hard to believe, but it seems true and I've even received the occasional positive quote from Joss. Astonishing. Amazing. Indeed, even once he called me and chatted about the nebulous Buffy animated series in the context of one day perhaps me writing an episode of it, were it ever to exist.
So it was within that context, the context of a lonely starving isolated artist thinking he's cool enough to write some serious network television, that I started watching Firefly, Joss's sci-fi western. And yet at first, much as wanted to love the hell out of it and come up with pitches to pitch, it annoyed me.
The problem was that I saw it as Fox would have me see it; that is, lacking the pilot episode "Serenity", kicking off with the second episode "The Train Job". I watched the show (frustrated by the fact that it was on exactly the same time as Smallville, the only other show I watched on a regular basis, necessitating back-n-forth flipping and the inability to tape one show or the other in its completeness) as closely as I could, trying to figure it out.
While I watched it, I constantly imagined "What episode would I write?" If I was able to angle some thrust and get a gig writing something, I imagined I would write a Firefly episode. The problem was, I had a brutally hard time coming up with anything. It was strange. Joss had stripped his sci-fi universe of every element I liked. There were no aliens, no robots, no crazy weird reality-bending shit like you'd see on Red Dwarf. Just people. And I like writing about people, but in a sci-fi context I gotta admit I enjoy playing with the toys. With something like Futurama, I could imagine a million gadgets and ideas to play with and it all hung together.
With Firefly, I just didn't get it. So... we have a bunch of ironic witty 21st-century LA types on a spaceship flying around to different western-style planets... how is this supposed to work? I admit, the first episode I saw, "The Train Job," bugged me. We've got a planetfull of dirt-poor 19th century types needing some shit stolen off a high-speed levi-track train. I couldn't help wondering "Where does all of this crap come from? Where's the semiconducter factory you'd need to keep something like this train work? How can any of these losers pay enough to buy spaceshp fuel to another planet? And come to mention it, what are the planets? Does any of this shit make sense?"
More frustrating was the word I'd heard that Firefly was supposed to be set in a quasi post Civil-War Reconstruction era. "Awesome!" I thought. "Better read up on the Reconstruction Era so I have some ideas!" I thought. And yet that didn't work. Watching it as I did, I had no idea what the Alliance and the Outer Worlds were fighting over. Further, I was sad there there was no analogue to the slaves: how could you do a post-Civil War allegory without slaves? Wasn't that the whole point?
I was paralysed. I didn't understand the mechanics. I didn't know what I'd say to Joss if I ever got the chance to chat with him. "Um, yeah, Firefly's awesome. You should give me a job writing for it! Ideas? Sure, I've got tons of ideas! Megatons! There's just a few problems, things I don't quite get..."
All this was before I got a chance to watch the show on DVD, as it was meant to be seen. And I must say it was a revelation.
The thing about Firefly, the thing that makes it work , the thing I stupidly couldn't grasp while watching the Fox-insisted schedule, was the idea of the crew. We only have 14 episodes of what should have been a 80-90-120-episode show, but even those make clear the element, the idea, the theme and notion that I'd missed the first time, which is the bringing together of just the right people to make magic.
Truly I was an idiot for missing it the first time around. I recall a couple of San Diego ComiCon Buffy panels, huge rooms filled with thousands of people. All Buffy fans, and the thing I kept noticing about all these people gathered together to give love to Joss and the world he'd created was their need to be a part of it. Because with Buffy, it was all about the friendship, the close bond between Buffy, Xander and Willow. I recall folks getting up to the mike just to say how much they loved the show and to mention how if Joss happened to need a 15-year-old sprightly gal to play a guest role, how they'd be ready to step in. I remember it because I felt it myself. I wanted to be part of it, that powerful connection I'd felt between the characters, a connection I knew must be a mere reflection of the connection between the people who'd gathered together to make this story. I never thought I'd have a chance of appearing on the show as a guest actor but I had exactly the same dream as that 15-year-old girl, of being included, even if only by writing an episode or six.
The thing I like about Joss's writing, the thing that won my allegiance after Babylon 5 had let me down, was and is that he's very emotionally direct. You can't help but feel that you understand his life and what he's going through from watching his TV shows. That doesn't mean that he cant' screw you around and give you false hope and set you up for one connection only to slide in another, but it does mean that he's always focused on how these people interact and what it all means to them. It's ensemble drama, pure and simple, each person running with an agenda, a thing to do and a way to do it, with no toys except for the spaceship. Hence, no aliens and no robots. Nothing but people coming together and banging apart.
And more than that --cuz it's emotionally direct and all, and I can't help imagining I understand something of what Joss is experiencing-- you really get the sense that Mal and Joss are going through the same thing in the series. That Mal is clunking along, doing the scraping best he can, trying to survive, and the only chance he has is to put together the right crew to face all opposition.
And that's what Firefly, as it exists today on DVD, is all about. The Right Crew. Mal's already got what he needs in terms of second-in-command, pilot, muscle, mechanic and class-- the only thing he was missing was oblique spirituality, a mega-good doctor and a wild card to push him to destiny. Once he puts that bunch together in the first episode --plus a few more episodes to really cement it-- he's got all he needs to make a living in the 'Verse.
So too with Joss. Give me these people and I'll give you a world of stories, the show says. He got the crew he needed and out they went-- the only problem being that numb-minded Fox executives proved a greater challenge than Alliance soldiers, criminals and madmen put together.
So now, I think, I get it. Months too late, and the series' been cancelled and everything, but I finally get it. Joss gets another crack at it this coming spring when Serenity hits theatres, but even then it's not the same as an ongoing show, an ongoing life, striving for greatness backed by the best. Now it's frustrating and infuriating that we were given this taste only to ever wonder what was gonna happen if these folks got their full five-to-seven years together.
Oh well. Joss clearly isn't lacking for stories and the inhuman ability to wake up every day to write them down and make them real, so there's more to come, I have no doubt. And even with the mere scrap we've seen Firefly is alive, a real story to believe in.
And Joss, if you happen to read this, uh... yeah. Good show, even if it took me 500% longer than it should have to realize it. I'm pumped for Serenity this spring.
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