Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea 57 (Firefly)

(64 comments)

The argument for Firefly’s influence on Doctor Who is marginal at best. Moffat hadn’t seen the show until a year or two ago, and while Davies might well have, there’s nothing obvious about his Doctor Who that draws from Firefly in the same way that there is about, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance. Nor is there any particularly overt influence from Doctor Who on Firefly. I mean, nobody would be surprised to learn that Joss Whedon grew up watching Tom Baker on PBS or anything, but nobody rattling off Firefly’s major influences is going to hit on Doctor Who. Which is actually ever so slightly unfair, as one decent account of Firefly would be “if Robert Holmes had created Star Trek.” I mean, Holmes wrote two space westerns already…

But no. The truth is that the relationship between these two shows is not one of direct influence. Nevertheless, Firefly proves instructive in two regards. First, the history of Doctor Who is still in part a history of cult television, and Firefly provides an odd watershed moment in that history. Second, even if Firefly is not itself a direct influence, both it and contemporary Doctor Who share an aesthetic and structural similarity that is worth comment. There is, if you will, a standard manual for how to craft and structure good genre television these days, and Firefly is as good an example as any as to how it works.

Obviously there are huge differences. Firefly is a huge ensemble show that uses the multitude of relationships within its cast to generate a variety of perspectives on a focused topic. Conceptually, at least, the show is just “Star Trek where the Federation is evil but Captain Kirk isn’t,” or, as I said before, Star Trek if Robert Holmes had written it. It’s not a limited premise by any measure - “guys with a vehicle go to places” is, after all, pretty flexible. But still, when people talk about Firefly it’s not the flexibility of the premise they focus on, it’s the cast. Whereas Doctor Who works with a minimal regular cast and a the most ludicrously extensible premise imaginable.

But there’s a tightness of characterization that both shows share. What Firefly does is use its large cast to generate an even larger number of things it can do. There are thirty-six different two-person scenes that Firefly can do, and eighty-four three-person scenes, and that’s just with the regular cast. And unlike something like a soap opera where characters tend to stick to their own plotlines, Firefly throws characters in the mix regularly. Some are certainly more or less promising than others - I cannot, off the top of my head, think of any particularly memorable Wash/River scenes, for instance (Thanks to several readers at Whedonesque for finding a better example there than the first one I had), and some combinations like Jayne/Inara are god for little more than variations on a given comedic theme. But you have a lot of different combinations.

And more to the point, for almost every pair of characters you can pick you have a clear thing they have in common and a clear thing they differ on. So, for instance, Mal and Simon share an inability to be a part of society because of their single-minded devotion to something else, but Mal is a working class rebel and Simon is a child of privilege. Zoe and Wash share their marriage, but are in most regards chalk and cheese. This pretty much lets you set up any scene to run like clockwork: every set of characters has a reason they’d be loyal to one another and a reason why they’d get into a fistfight. And many of the series’ best episodes come from doing extended explorations of a given combination. “War Stories” is about exploring the Wash/Mal dyad. “Ariel” is at its core about the Simon/Jayne one. And all of them are structured around that basic system of compared/contrasted characters.

For three-person dynamics you just find ways to have the compare/contrasts form a chain such that one set of characters in the triad has a similarity that is the other set’s difference. So, for instance, in “Heart of Gold” you have Mal and Inara, who differ because Mal is a hardened and determined captain and Inara is a refined and elegant companion. Then you have Inara and Nandy, who share a background and profession. But then you also have the Mal/Nandy dynamic, where Nandy is tacitly portrayed as essentially being the captain of the brothel, thus setting up a similarity between her and Mal that corresponds well to the difference between Mal and Inara. Then you basically just wind it up and let it go with what is actually just a base under siege plot familiar to anyone who’s seen Troughton-era Doctor Who.

The other thing that Firefly does consistently relates to the general aesthetic preference towards narrative velocity that we talked about in passing with The West Wing. The short form is this: television has sped up appreciably over the last fifteen to twenty years as more and more writers realize that the appearance of coherence is more valuable than the actual thing, and that viewers are actually really good at filling in blanks in their knowledge. And so you have the high-speed dialogue of shows like The West Wing, Gilmore Girls, or, for that matter, anything ever by Joss Whedon.

But different writers go for speed in different ways. Aaron Sorkin mostly adds in monologues about political issues, Amy Sherman-Palladino is fond of lots of pop culture jokes, but Joss Whedon basically goes for a tremendous density of events within a scene. If I may be forgiven for going full Aristotle here, the bulk of plotting is a matter of reversals. That is, someone who was previously doing well has something go wrong, or someone who was previously doing poorly has something go well. In drama reversals ratchet up tension and pathos, and take place over a large scale, whereas in comedy they tend to happen at an exaggerated rate and within a single scene. (This is the heart of almost all banter-based comedy.)

What’s interesting about Joss Whedon - and something that’s often commented on with his work - is that he’s very, very good at mixing the comedic and the dramatic. But Firefly highlights how he does this. Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer or even Angel there aren’t a lot of outright “comedy” episodes of Firefly. You could maybe argue for “Jaynestown” or “Shindig” if you wanted, but neither comes anywhere close to, say, “Something Blue” in terms of being clearly written as a light and comedic episode. For the most part every episode of Firefly is distinctly dramatic. And yet the show is riotously funny. And the heart of this is that Whedon structures his plots like dramas, but his individual scenes like comedies. So an individual scene is jam-packed with reversals as characters one-up each other. Look at any Mal/Inara scene to illustrate this: the frequency with which who has power within a given scene changes is stunning. The result is an exciting hybrid form. It’s not just, as we talked about with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that Whedon is good at using melodrama to switch back and forth between registers. It’s that Whedon is actually blending structures in a compelling way.

Again, unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer there’s not an easy way to argue for how Firefly was an overt model for the new series. But this very much is “how things are done” these days, and the overall description and structure applies. Doctor Who’s basic structure of characters is similarly based on having a similarity/opposition structure, even though it introduces new characters each story. It gets a lot of mileage out of taking a single pair of characters and putting them in multiple situations instead of the use of an ensemble, but the underlying principle is the same. Similarly, the “structure scenes like a comedy, structure the story like a drama” approach has become all but second nature to Doctor Who. None of these are particularly Joss Whedon techniques. They’re just what good television does these days.

All of which is to say, if it wasn’t tacitly clear, that Firefly is very good television. It is also, famously, very cancelled television. In fact, it didn’t see out its first season. But what’s most unusual about Firefly is that it’s virtually the last show this is true of. Not the last one ever to be cancelled, obviously, but the last time you see an American show that only got one season still end up with a significant fandom. Which used to be not-entirely uncommon: Battlestar Galactica, Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, etc. But the well of those has really dried up for the most part - it’s difficult to think of an American show that has gotten cancelled after one season and yet still had a significant cultural impact.

Notably, it’s not hard to think of shows that have had cultural impacts similar to Firefly. It’s just that they all staggered through at least two seasons: Dollhouse, Chuck, Community, or Fringe, for instance. The difference seems to be less in the sorts of shows that are getting made and more in the tolerance with which networks are willing to treat low-rated critical darlings. Because unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which began to pioneer the idea of cult hits on extended channels, Firefly was on Fox, a proper major network. As were all the other shows we’ve talked about in the past two paragraphs.

Which is to say that the logic of funding a television show shifted after Firefly. And there’s a reason for that, because Firefly was, in hindsight, just about the stupidest cancellation ever. The show is still, a decade later, absolutely iconic and beloved. It still sells like gangbusters on DVD. It’s on a lovely sale on Amazon at the moment, but is the 6th best-selling sci-fi DVD on the site right now, and the 352nd best-selling thing in DVDs. The Blu-Ray is the 43rd best-selling Blu-Ray product. The show is a mainstay on Netflix and streaming video sites. Serenity, the film that wrapped the series up, does similarly well. The show keeps making money constantly, and in hindsight cancelling it has to go down as one of the most spectacular pieces of violence against one’s own foot ever committed.

The problem, of course, is that none of this was particularly understandable in the context of late 2002. In late 2002, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was actually wildly behind schedule on DVD releases - only the first two seasons were out as the show was airing its seventh season. In fact, the DVDs were more advanced in the UK - they had Season Five out, and would have the entire series out before the US got Season Six. Which is to say that the “TV shows on DVD” market wasn’t there yet. Netflix didn’t exist as a digital streaming service, nor, for that matter, did anything else. (Even YouTube was over two years from launch) All of which is to say that the technological innovations that made cancelling Firefly dumb were still in the future. Heck, even DVRs barely existed - I had a ReplayTV at the time, and it was still an utterly weird piece of technology. So the things that made Firefly able to work as a show weren’t there yet.

In that regard Firefly has an odd sort of status: it’s one of the last great niche shows to not get a chance, and the one that illustrates for everyone else why shows like this should get a chance. It pioneered an entirely new model of television distribution a few years before that model actually existed. And it was a hit show in the US in the same way that Doctor Who is, right down to the fact that Doctor Who’s real launch as a US hit came several seasons after it had actually premiered, with lots of fans catching up with Netflix binges. (Though this was in part down to the degree to which the first four seasons were how-to manuals on what not to do in importing a British television series to the US, prior to BBC America taking over and displaying some actual competence.) So while there’s not a creative influence, for US fandom at least Firefly is in many ways the model for the sort of show that Doctor Who is there, both in terms of what the show is like (the fandom overlaps are sizable) and in terms of how the show works financially. It’s just that one made its big US debut in 2010, after the technology needed to succeed there existed, and the other in 2002 when it didn’t yet.

That is, of course, just US fandom. In the UK the model that Doctor Who works under is entirely different, and far weirder. But as ever, I get ahead of myself.

Comments

ferret 4 years, 5 months ago

I think it's also worth noting the film Serentiy didn't just wrap up the series, but that it's also the ultimate testament to how stupid it was to cancel the series. Imagine going to movie studio executives and saying "I've got a great idea for a movie: I wrote a TV series that got cancelled before I even finished the first season, and I'd love for you to put money into a movie continuation." Ordinarily, this would nevber, ever succeed.

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aralias 4 years, 5 months ago

very interesting post - particularly what you say about how the character dynamics (and thus the show) works.

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elvwood 4 years, 5 months ago

The thing is, I only love one show more than Doctor Who, and that show is Firefly. I asked for the box set sight unseen when I didn't even have a TV, based on comments on a Traveller newsgroup I frequented. Basically, it was the only thing that everyone agreed on - soldiers, civil servants, teachers, medics, from Britain, Germany, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the US... and more I can't remember now. I had to ask friends if I could come round and watch the show on their TVs when I got it.

A great analysis, by the way - and I can now see a little of how the cancellation bit works. It actually made me feel a bit weepy reading that, knowing that the show was just the wrong side of the line.

"It's like Wagon Train in space. Done as a Western."

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

It's just the next iteration of the cult model. Whereas what kept the X Files et al afloat was a small but intensely loyal audience that the TV stations could sell to advertisers, the revolution that happened around 2002/2003 was that a way opened up to bleed money directly from that audience.

If you are a fan of one of these TV programmes -- and I mean the kind of fan who buys the toys and the T-shirts and the DVDs -- then what you are is a cash cow being slowly milked until they reckon you've run dry, which is they point where the programme is finally put out of its misery.

You aren't, though: you are (they hope) just passed along to the next bit of schmuck-bait that they hope they can eke some more of your hard-earned out of you in exchange for some branded tat.

Welcome to the brave new world. Don't tread on the flowers. They bite.

(The direct influence on Firefly, of course, in the sense that The Tempest was a 'direct influence' on Forbidden Planet, was not Doctor Who but Blake's 7.)

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

And that dynamic is reflected in the very structure of the universe it's set in -- an alchemical universe, where East and West have already collided and fused.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, I finally caught up to your blog and I've started my own--different premise but I had to quote you in the introduction from an entry way back because you explained something better than I could have :)

Firefly is a show my friend discovered this year and I've been looking to check it out. I think you've got a small point concerning the base-under-seige set up: when New Who does that format, they usually have the characters much, much fleshed out than Troughton's stories ever did, and that's really a testament to television storytelling evolution. I was just thinking about "The Rebel Flesh" and wondering why it isn't as appreciated as the 60s stories, because its villains aren't black and white and the characters each have their story.

The speeding-up coherence also applies as such: I'll always get frustrated with the Internet forums who are trying to work out exactly what happened, as if it should all be down to a scientific process. Moffat typically works on a more symbolic/abstract level, with the Angels coming out of imagination and memory being a powerful force. Everything hangs together until you try to pick it apart and put it all into a linear timeline, and by then you've missed the point of the story.

Netflix and the DVD market are definitely ways we take for granted of measuring the popularity of TV shows, but I always thought it kind of hurts the Doctor Who experience. It's a show that doesn't really have an order and can sometimes better be appreciated out-of-order, like a sort of anthology. Otherwise, you get those who speed through the stories and get upset when things change (series 5) and only compare that to series 1-4, whereas this is something the show does a lot and should be treated as a bit different: it's another way of looking at the same premise. That's why Doctor Who is still alive.

On the other hand, the DVDs certainly help with catching up with the originally series and experiencing all of the Doctors/eras/companions. Something you couldn't really do back in the nonstalgia-infested 80s.

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

The similarities between Firefly and Blake's 7 don't seem to me to stretch much beyond the bits that might be hit on independently. (Farscape seemed closer to Blake's 7; if Blake's 7 had been worked on by the more surreal members of the Doctor Who writing staff.)

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Chuck Baggett 4 years, 5 months ago

Typo: in
"some combinations like Jayne/Inara are god for little more than variations on a given comedic theme"

"god" should be "good"

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

From memory:
'You may have noticed, but I'm not very good at talking to women.'
'Honey, you're not very good at talking to anybody.'

Although it doesn't really amount to a scene.

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SK 4 years, 5 months ago

Well, up to the point where they recycle the exact same gag in the exact same words.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

"I was just thinking about "The Rebel Flesh" and wondering why it isn't as appreciated as the 60s stories, because its villains aren't black and white and the characters each have their story."

And also because the big character choice comes down to a matter of relationship rather than a matter of competence or cleverness. A goodly portion of Classic fandom still can't stand anything frockish.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

That's the other odd thing I've noticed about fandom: that some seem to think of things are masked by "science" (technobable), it's better than another explanation. For example, according to audience research reports, The Mind Robber wasn't that well received because it was too "far-fetched" and couldn't be dignified with "science fiction". But, when you think about it, science fiction is just fantasy with an explanation that sounds like it has something to do with science, even if it's just completely made up.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

It's not surprising a Traveller newsgroup had a consensus in favour of Firefly: the show is Joss Whedon's Traveller campaign in all but name. If Whedon didn't run a Traveller game back in the day, i shall eat my cloth armour.

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Ross 4 years, 5 months ago

I know that there have been quite a few things in the new series where I heard fans go apoplectic, where they admitted freely that they'd be entirely fine with it if they'd just thrown in the sentence, "Not magic, Jo, science: the advanced science of the Daemons!"

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spoilersbelow 4 years, 5 months ago

Firefly occupies an odd place in my heart, because while I enjoyed it quite a bit, I nearly missed out on the entire thing because I have bad friends.

I missed the show entirely when it first ran, because I've always had trouble making my schedule work around television broadcasts, but I'd heard of it mostly through osmosis and table chatter. Whenever I'd bring it up, I was met with a chorus of cheering and Joss Whedon hagiography. It was the best show ever made, it was criminal that it was cancelled, people in television are stupid, etc. But no one would tell me what it was actually about. I knew it involved spaceships, that was about it. No one would tell me the premise or even what characters were cool. There were brown coats and a hat with earflaps involved, maybe? Literally all I could get was "Best. Show. Ever." Not even an offer to come over and watch (or at least borrow) the DVDs or anything. Which is, suffice to say, not the most appealing things to hear exclusive of any actual details about a program.

I ended up seeing the film first, and hating it. It presumed a larger amount of care for the (what seemed like) one dimensional characters and their situation that I possessed, having not watched the TV show religiously. In retrospect, I'd liken it to watching The End of Time without having seen the rest of David Tennant's run as the Doctor: it might seem cool, but there's a lot going on that just doesn't resonate without context. I could understand why it flopped.

I finally sat down to watch it a few years later, after coming across the DVDs at a thrift shop and figuring I could waste $5 on it. And they were good. It was a pretty good show. A lot of the film made sense in retrospect. I could see why people liked it so much.

But why the hell couldn't you just tell me it was a space western, guys? "Wagon Train in space during the Civil War reconstruction period. The Killer Angels with space whores and bounty hunters and Han Solo + James T. Kirk as the captain of the ship." Would that have been so hard?

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Theonlyspiral 4 years, 5 months ago

It's just worth noting for completion sake: Community is an NBC show.

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Pen Name Pending 4 years, 5 months ago

Haha, that's my other counterargument: The beloved story The Daemons is about the Master summoning the Devil.

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Assad K 4 years, 5 months ago

I always find myself in a (slightly afraid) minority when Firefly comes up because I was just a little underwhelmed by the show. While the characters were great and the banter exquisite, with more laugh-out-loud scenes than many sitcoms, I was not always too fond of the plot. The heroes were a little too murderous, the Alliance was just a little too much bog-standard Evil Empire, things like Mal not getting skewered in the first minute of his duel in 'Shindig' bothered me and I hated, HATED 'War Stories' as one of the worst hours of television I had ever seen. Perhaps I had loftier expectations of Whedon. And perhaps I saw the glorification of the Browncoats as some sort of latent sympathy for the Confederates... ;).

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Alan 4 years, 5 months ago

"I cannot, off the top of my head, think of any particularly memorable Zoe/Simon scenes"

I can. I think the single best scene in the two-hour pilot (which, stupidly, was aired right before cancellation) was the Zoe-Simon exchange in which she explains what the Reavers are (the "rape us, eat us, wear our skin, hopefully in that order" exchange). Aside from establishing how frightening the Reapers are, it also does great character development on the two. Simon, despite his education and sophistication, is so naive that he thinks the single most dangerous aspect of frontier life is just a fairy tale. Unflappable Zoe, OTOH, can coolly talk about the prospect of being raped and eaten alive, displaying an emotional sensitivity to the stakes while maintaining the serene professionalism that defines her character.

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Alan 4 years, 5 months ago

"And perhaps I saw the glorification of the Browncoats as some sort of latent sympathy for the Confederates... ;)."

That was a big problem for me in the beginning as well. The unaired pilot, I think, makes it clear that the Browncoats are analogous to the American Revolutionaries except that they lost to the British Empire. The actual first aired episode ("The Train Job") which was clumsily reconfigured at the last minute to serve as a pilot made them come off as Reconstruction-era Confederates in a world where the South was unambiguously in the right and slavery had nothing to do with the war (in fact, if anything, it was the victorious North that allowed slavery in its colonies). At the time, I thought it was a mash letter to Trent Lott. While I'm fond of Firefly, I didn't warm to it until Ariel (possibly because it was the first episode that visited a core world, and the frontier premise was becoming tiresome.

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elvwood 4 years, 5 months ago

Hah, how true! "Hang on, travellers", to quote Wash in the pilot. Still, since I was on there as a Traveller player/referee/writer too, and aware we had our own divisions comparable to rad/trad/frock/gun which generally seemed to stop us agreeing on anything very much, (a) it being called "Travelleresque" was a recommendation for me, and (b) the fact that everyone praised it meant it must have struck some common chord, and I could therefore be confident it would resonate with me too.

Without that recommendation I wouldn't have bothered looking. Joss Whedon wasn't a draw because I didn't like Buffy much. I could see it was well done, and because of that I quite enjoyed the episode I watched, but the premise/setting didn't fire my imagination. And I wasn't much of a TV watcher anyway, particularly at the time.

Oh, as an aside, in general I don't think RPG campaigns translate well to non-interactive forms, as there's too much of a "I guess you had to be there" factor. Still, the germ of the show visibly has those roots, doesn't it?

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elvwood 4 years, 5 months ago

I can certainly see that the movie isn't a good place to start, for the reasons you state. I only know one person who was sold on the show based on seeing the movie, whereas there have been several "converts" who got there by watching my boxset. I generally didn't describe it particularly well, but got around that by actually sitting them down and watching it with them. I have no idea why your friends didn't do that!

The movie is not my favourite thing, anyway. I kept thinking, "this is fun, but it would be so much better parcelled out over a couple of seasons." Ah well, it was not to be.

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tantalus1970 4 years, 5 months ago

Paul Darrow says on one of the Blakes 7 dvds, when asked 'will Blakes 7 ever come back?', that it already has, as Firefly (or Serenity, can't remember which).

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

I think also The Rebel Flesh doesn't quite have the courage of its convictions, and does have a little too much padding. As Phil says television as a whole has moved on; the standard for excellence for The Rebel Flesh is set by The Doctor's Wife and A Good Man Goes to War. Whereas The Power of the Daleks, although less sophisticated in terms of character, nevertheless is pushing itself to do things and succeeding in doing them.
I agree that the straight base under siege is a fairly uninteresting genre; it's rather a recipe that can be filled in to produce workmanlike results. I'm not in a hurry to find the reconstructions. Whereas The Rebel Flesh is pushing for greatness and not quite staying the course.

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Captain Rufus 4 years, 5 months ago

I'm like an anti Whedon person. Haven't liked anything he has done so all the fan gushing over Firefly has made me less likely to see it. It may be good but the brownies caused me to go the opposite on it. However I don't think Sci Fi did Who a negative. I mostly saw the show as a thing in between seasons of Battlestar Galactica. But with the DVR I gave that show with the plunger bots and the Scarf Guy a chance. Once Dalek came on I started becoming a fan.

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

I watched the movie first. I think I assimilated the characters to Buffy analogues (Mal = Angel, Kaylee = Willow, Jayne = Cordelia), and went along with it from there. I agree it's much better if you know who these people are. I also agree that it's a sad substitute for a continuation of the television series. Firefly hadn't got anywhere near its potential. If you compare running times, Buffy had only just got to School Hard.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Doesn't have the courage of its convictions? Pray tell more!

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

We're starting to get back into my territory now! Not Firefly in particular, but spaceship shows and sci-fi futurism. Since I'm probably going to have to write a piece on it myself at some point, I'll use the Eruditorum comments to talk a little about my relationship with the show.

I have a bit of a contentious history with Firefly. I'm especially susceptible to hype aversion: The more fans rave about something, the less willing I am to actually sit down with it myself and the easier it becomes for me to start to actively resent it outright. Firefly was *all* my sci-fi fan friends would talk about for the entire first half of the 2000s and would ceaselessly harangue me to marathon it so it took me a very long time to take the show on its own terms.

When I finally did get around to watching Firefly I was more than a little underwhelmed. There were bits of it I liked, but it seemed to me to be little more than a series of forced quirky comedy bits strung together to give fans something to parrot ad nauseum. Firefly fans reminded me of the worst parts of US Monty Python fandom so that just made me dislike the show more.

Eventually I was finally able to appreciate the show for what it was, but I still have problems with it, mostly in terms of gender roles. I think Whedon's work, especially here, is a bit overrated in terms of feminism. I mean he's better than most and the mere fact he has more than one female character and they're actually defined as people gets big props from me, but he's no stranger to objectification and it bothers me more than a little Firefly fans keep singing the praises of the neurotic, moe-influenced River and Kaylee and holding them up as examples of ideal female characters. This naturally says more about sci-fi fans than it does Firefly itself, but this will always be something I associate with the show. For what it's worth I thought Inara was absolutely brilliant (she's actually my favourite part of the show) and Zoe was really cool too.

I guess Firefly was never my thing and I never quite understood what the big deal was (and it really didn't help when The Science Channel dubbed it The Greatest Science Fiction TV Series Of All Time a couple years back). Phil's made a really good case for its quality and legacy though.

Oh incidentally we already got Robert Holmes-influenced Star Trek and Star Trek Where The Federation is Evil, but that's another train of thought.

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Ross 4 years, 5 months ago

My wife watched the movie first. She thought Inara was a schoolteacher.

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

Of the survivors, nobody survives along with their clone/original. In no case are both original and clone left to negotiate who gets which pieces of the life. The conflict between clones and originals is caused by the belief that the survival of the original and the clone is mutually exclusive. And that is only challenged at the level of words, not events. It's a bit of a cop out.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Huh. I can see that, but I wonder if the story (or any story from the Revival, for that matter) should be taken so literally.

Me, I thought the Gangers were metaphors for the monster inside everyone. To have twins leave the Island would be like to make the metaphor literal -- instead, what they do is show that the monster inside *is* the self, that it's a mistake to think this aspect of self is really something "other." That was the whole point the Doctor was making to Amy by switching places with his Ganger.

Both Jen and Buzz ultimately can't accept that there's no important difference between Ganger and Self -- that's why they die. Everyone else leaves more integrated than at the beginning.

Ironically, this state of integration is achieved through some act of self-sacrifice, which is a metaphor for the dissolution of the Ego. This is why it's so important to have the Amy reveal at the end -- because the Ego sacrifice only feels like death; the experience of "resurrection" follows, which is how that final scene is coded.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

What is "moe-influenced"?

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

From TVTropes:

"Coined in Japan in the late '90s, "Moe" (??, pronounced as "Mo-Eh", derived from a Japanese word that means "budding, to sprout/bloom")note is an ill-defined otaku term that means, amongst other things, "cute", "huggable", or "endearing". While it's sometimes used to describe a series, it's more about a specific ideal or kind of character...

Moe characters are, generally speaking, cute. Moe characters are implicitly youthful, congregating to high school age and below. Adult female characters who qualify are almost always in their low twenties.

Their personality will reflect an "innocent" outlook on something vital, such as about romance. A related implication is that moe characters are virgins, though mostly in Japan, where virginity and purity still remains important to a girl's appeal.

The classical Moe character is highly associated with innocence, submission [and], helplessness..."

More: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Moe

I think a big part of the appeal of Kaylee and River is that they fit into the anime archetype of the Moe heroine just about perfectly. Indeed, I feel one of Firefly's big innovations is translating this archetype into live-action science fiction, further cementing the historical link between anime fandom and sci-fi fandom.

The problem with Moe is that it's an overused character type to the point there's a kind of implicit assumption that female characters in genre works (or at least in anime and manga) *have* to be Moe and that's the only way to write women believably and realistically. This is not helped by statements like Hayao Miyazaki's that Moe originated as a way to create a relatable female alternative to "badass" male action hero leads (a statement which it is worth pointing out Miyazaki has backpedaled significantly from: he's now very much opposed to the idea of Moe, and his heroines wouldn't be considered Moe by today's definition anyway).

Firefly itself is actually very good about avoiding this pitfall, often contrasting the Moe River and Kaylee with the more mature, sophisticated, elegant, worldly and independent Inara and Zoe (not to mention YoSaffBridg) and showing how all of them are equally valid ways to be women, but I do think it's telling Firefly's fans tend to fixate so strongly and exclusively on Kaylee and River, River especially.

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Iain Coleman 4 years, 5 months ago

What makes something feel like an RPG is when the characters are somewhat cynical and selfish, and try to avoid doing stupid things. That's why, when I first saw Blake's 7 as an adult, I thought "thisis just like my Traveller game": not that there's much similarity of setting, but there was a lot of similarity of character.

Related to this, my problem with a lot of American SF TV is that it's based on a military setting, so a lot of what characters do is because they're carrying out their duties within the chain of command. Boring. DS9 is the best Trek because it does as much as it can to break away from this while remaining a Trek show, but I much prefer shows like Firefly or Blake's 7 where the lead characters remain together and perform their actions because of overwhelming driving forces, whether external or internal, not because they have surrendered their professional freedom to the state. There's more actual drama that way.

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Galadriel 4 years, 5 months ago

I only started watching Firefly after I got into Doctor Who, and I think they had some really good story-telling techniques.
It's interesting that you should mention DVD as the real game changer for TV shows--maybe it was, but it's the Internet that really made it go crazy. For shows that are exported late or not at all--it took a year to get a Sarah Jane Adventures boxset for region 2--it's really the only option.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

I seem to remember Whose Line Is It Anyway? doing a bunch of parodies of the trailer to Serenity when it first came out, mostly poking fun of the fact it came out of nowhere and did nothing to explain/sell itself and thus made no sense to people who weren't already fans of Firefly.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Interesting! Learn something new every day.

That said, I'm not so sure it's an apt term for River or Kaylee. Neither are innocent -- Kaylee's very gung-ho about sex, and River's a killer. Both are competent, albeit in very specialized forms, forms that are stereotypically the province of men. River becomes more and more proactive as the series and the character progress; Kaylee's the one who pursues Simon, not the other way around. And she eventually succeeds in getting him.

And yes, Kaylee's a very sweet person, but I find it almost anti-feminist to say that any sort of character attribute is off-limits for a character simply by virtue of her sex. It would be problematic if everything about Kaylee's character was reduced to the moe trope, but that simply isn't the case.

Likewise, the fact that River is the most "badass" character of the group undermines the fact that she partakes of another aspect of the trope, namely that she's in a situation where she depends (or seems to depend) on her brother to navigate the social and political situations of her world.

I suppose it depends on how you view the attempt to undermine tropes in the first place. It's not an easy task. Again, I have to point to Dave Chappelle, who employed all kinds of black stereotypes for his comedy, always with an aim to undermine and deconstruct them. He eventually chose to step away from this technique, a decision that had a mixed reception. Whedon is another who employs tropes with the intention to contradict and subvert them.

The other tactic to use is not to invoke a trope at all, but this too is complicated. First, ignoring something won't make it go away. Second, by ignoring it, one may inadvertently invoke it -- tropes, after all, evolve from common observation of life and media, much in the same way that stereotypes emerge from the subconscious processes of categorization -- but without the self-consciousness of intentional subversion, they may end up going unchecked instead.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

I saw Firefly upon first airing, and never thought the Browncoats were analogous to Confederates -- Shepherd Book was proof of that. I always saw them in the Rebel Alliance vein of Star Wars.

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Alan 4 years, 5 months ago

Well that's what I mean -- it's all nostalgia for the "Lost Cause" in which the humble, plain-spoken agrarians got burned to the ground by the effete East Coast liberals, and racism has nothing to do with it because see how well our blacks and whites get along. I live in Mississippi, and a big part of "Lost Cause" mythology insists that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery (which somehow would have magically ended on its own even without the Civil War) at all but was in fact driven by tariffs imposed by the North, which was jealous of the superiority of the Southern way of life. That this theory is ludicrous to anyone who studies the historical record does not prevent people from cheerfully spouting it off even today.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 5 months ago

Moe characters need not be entirely naive and innocent, they just need be naive and innocent about *one important thing* to the point it interferes with their ability to function socially and gives the audience a feeling of wanting to protect them. That describes Kaylee and River to a T IMO. River may be hyper-intelligent and a trained killer, but she's also psychologically shattered, a danger to herself and others and requires the constant protection of everyone on the ship. Likewise Kaylee may be sexually confidant, but in every other respect she has the personality of a child, especially when it comes to romance, where she's just about clueless (indeed, she's just about a metaphor for children in "Objects in Space" during Mal's "special level of hell" speech).

It's also not just me, by the way: The unanimous consensus on TVTropes (a site that began life as a Buffy and Whedon fan site) is that both characters are extremely Moe (indeed they're both listed as examples on the trope's description page) and the link from Anime to Firefly is just about incontestable.

Again, the problem from my perspective isn't that Kaylee and River are Moe, and I'm certainly not saying it's a bad thing they are: Firefly is very good about showing a spectrum of traditional and non-traditional gender roles and behaviours to the point it neatly avoids any of the messiness involved with the overuse of the archetype. As you said, Whedon is on the whole pretty good about recognising and playing with tropes and one thing he's unquestionably good at is realising that you can get away with writing some traditionally feminine tropes and characters if you just happen to also have a lot of female characters in general. He can get away with River and Kaylee because he also gives us Inara and Zoe. This also gives all of the women the freedom to act along a spectrum of behavioural types, which makes them more successful and enjoyable characters.

What I was more remarking on is the fact that it's the Moe characters fans instinctively gravitate to and who become the focus and main selling point of the show. Every single Firefly fan I've ever met raves about how awesome-yet-vulnerable River is and gushes about how woobie adorable Kaylee is. Very few talk about how badass Zoe is, and I've never met a single one even mention Inara when talking about Firefly's feminism: It's like she doesn't exist (except as a love interest for ruggedly handsome Mal, of course).

To me that says a great deal about the attitudes of science fiction fans, even Whedon fans and even today and that really bothers me. The fans tend to *really* dig Moe characters because they're mostly privileged-yet-isolated young white males, so they're the ones they talk the most about. Firefly is one of the most progressive shows in recent memory when it comes to gender roles, but its core fanbase is still patriarchal, and I know I at least was a massive skeptic until I actually saw the show (actually it took me 2 or 3 watches to begin to appreciate it), which took awhile because I got the exact wrong impression of it from its cheerleaders.

It would be unfair to let this stain Firefly's legacy, but unfortunately for me, due to the way I was introduced to it, it's something I can't reduce out of it. Ironically, Firefly's fanbase, , the very same one that turned it into a cult phenomenon and saved it from obscurity, seemed to me to be actively working against the good work the show itself was doing, which perhaps means it wasn't as successful in this regard as it could have been.

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Alan 4 years, 5 months ago

Further complicating any discussion of these characters is the fact that the series was cancelled after (IIRC) nine episodes. Undoubtedly, both of these characters would have evolved over multiple seasons in ways that moved them past the "moe" trope, if only because the actresses would have aged to the point where playing such an innocent character concept would have been unsustainable.

As for River's fan popularity, a lot of it was also driven by the fact that she was a MacGuffin as well as a character, with the mysteries surrounding her back story driving much of the plot during the show's televised run. Shepherd Book, similarly, had a huge fan basis that was, IMO, wildly out of proportion to what he actually did onscreen due to the mysterious background built into the character.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Ah, I see! Growing up in Michigan, that particular vein of Lost Cause nostalgia's unfamiliar to me; I didn't make those North/South codings. If anything, I coded the Empire in Firefly along the lines of the dominant conformist culture of high school against the loose groups of outcasts and misfits to which I belonged. The Browncoats don't have a unified cultural milieu like the South.

I also get a "Once Upon A Time... The Revolution" vibe to it. Duck, you sucker! Ha ha.

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

I think part of Kaylee's appeal is that she's a technical geek, and that appeals to a big portion of fandom, which tends to slant towards technical geekery. The Moes I know in real life -- both male and female -- are definitely techies. Very smart when it comes to sciencey sciences, struggle with social situations, but are incredibly kind and sweet.

Isn't Simon a Moe, too? He's extremely naive when it comes to dealing with the outlying cultures beyond the Alliance, yes? And surely that interferes with his ability to function with Mal? He's young, he's very cute -- he's a woobie!

Alan, I like the point you make that there's not enough time to see these characters develop. There are signs it's starting to occur, though -- look at Objects in Space, where River becomes the protector of her protectors! That's kind of what I mean by subverting the premise of a trope, and I wonder how much of that sort of contradiction drives audience identification -- characters who can embody both sides of a polarity can be accessed by people on either end of any particular spectrum. Or maybe it's just that Kaylee and River are more kind than anyone else on the show, and people actually respond to kindness.

Josh, I try not to let how a fandom reacts to a work influence my take on it -- if I did, I'd have to disavow the Hinchcliffe years completely, just because that era's advocates are the most difficult segment of Who fandom I've ever encountered. But I never got into Firefly's fandom (or much of any of the Whedonesques, for that matter) as I didn't seriously get into any sort of fandom until LOST came around -- in a way I'm still a newbie when it comes to this! -- so it might be easier for me to say so.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

"Further complicating any discussion of these characters is the fact that the series was cancelled after (IIRC) nine episodes."

Agreed, but I'd go one further; this fact complicates any discussion of pretty much ANY aspect of the show, for good or bad. Any criticisms can be fairly legitimately countered with the not-unreasonable defence it only had ten(? I'm being a bit contrary here) episodes to find it's feet in -- for comparison, if we only had the first ten episodes of the new series to work with, there'd be plenty of valid criticisms that never got the chance to addressed and built on as well. Conversely, however, the praise the show often receives -- which is, let's be honest here, at times ludicrously over-the-top -- is often as much an elegy for the episodes that weren't made and the potential that wasn't realised much as a fair assessment of what actually exists.

"Josh, I try not to let how a fandom reacts to a work influence my take on it"

I think this is a fair approach to take -- particular since, as I've pointed out before, hardcore Whedonites and Browncoats can be incredibly insufferable -- but at the same time, it can be a case of easier said than done. I'm kind of like Josh in that I've repeatedly tried to get into "Firefly", but the sheer volume of the noise and the hype and the fandom surrounding it has elevated it to heights that any show, no matter how well made, would struggle to reach. The volume of the fandom surrounding "Firefly" is, in a way, kind of like someone using a jackhammer right outside your window -- you can close the window and try to ignore it, but it's not quite that easy to get rid of.

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Scott 4 years, 5 months ago

"Notably, it’s not hard to think of shows that have had cultural impacts similar to Firefly. It’s just that they all staggered through at least two seasons: Dollhouse, Chuck, Community, or Fringe, for instance."

In the case of "Dollhouse", it can be argued that it was precisely because Fox had completely screwed themselves so utterly and completely over "Firefly" that "Dollhouse" was in a position to stagger through into that club in the first place. If Joss Whedon hadn't been involved and he hadn't brought with him a fan-base that was still sour that Fox had cancelled "Firefly" and was ready to pounce, I honestly can't see that show surviving it's first season, let alone getting a second.

In fact, to go on a bit of a tangent, to be honest I'd question whether "Dollhouse" really belongs in that list in the first place. Maybe I'm just not moving in the right circles, but even at the time, I seem to remember that the reception to the show was kind of underwhelmed, and it doesn't seem to have inspired nearly the kind of passionate devotion or cultural impact that "Community", "Chuck" and "Fringe" has produced. "Chuck" had people buying sandwiches en mass to save the show, "Community" has things like "#sixseasonsandamovie" turning into memes that even people outside the fandom can recognise, but there really doesn't seem to have been anything on that scale produced from the "Dollhouse" fan community. Even when it was cancelled, the overall mood seemed to be more "oh, that's a shame" rather than anything else -- nothing near the kind of fan outrage that even some of the less-remembered shows you've mentioned faced upon cancellation, which seems especially odd considering the intense loyalty "Firefly" still inspires even ten years after. It obviously had fans, and people were obviously disappointed when it was cancelled, but equally no one really seemed/seems that bothered at the prospect or reality of living in a world without it either.

Frankly, if it wasn't for the involvement of Joss Whedon and his stable of actors with their own devoted fans, I honestly think "Dollhouse" would have disappeared into the "shows no one really remembers that much", and even then it seems to be rapidly becoming the "oh, and he did that as well" part of Whedon's recent career.

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5tephe 4 years, 5 months ago

"Jayne = Cordelia" equals I Love You Forever.

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David Anderson 4 years, 5 months ago

I think that from a feminist point of view, once you're writing a female character as a person you're pretty much there, even if they're not a Feminist Role Model. For example, I think Elizabeth Bennet is far better from a feminist point of view than Lara Croft, even though Jane Austen's world has hardly any scope for independent women.
For that reason from a feminist point of view, I think Kaylee is better than Zoe. Zoe's major character traits are: a) the sane one, and; b) happily married to Wash. Neither of those give her much interiority.

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elvwood 4 years, 5 months ago

"What makes something feel like an RPG is when the characters are somewhat cynical and selfish, and try to avoid doing stupid things."

I see what you mean now - I had been thinking of those books that feel like they've been transcripted from a campaign rather than actually structured. But yeah, that's a good way of thinking about it. I am reminded of my longest-standing group, where that description fitted about half the characters, but we also had quiet ones who were kind of along for the ride and weird ones who gave their players a chance to immerse themselves in the roleplay. Remodel a bit to set up those interpersonal relationships Philip was talking about, and voila!

I'm mostly with you on military SF TV, though that doesn't mean it can't be good if there are other aspects to open it up...

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jane 4 years, 5 months ago

Which is a shame. Some of his best work went into Dollhouse -- it's certainly my favorite from his oeuvre. (One must consider that I absolutely adore the subversion of tropes, especially when set up to implicate the audience at the same time, and that's largely what Dollhouse is all about.)

Dollhouse is quintessential "cult TV" insofar as its entire existence is owed to the aforementioned cults who follow the showrunner and those performers, and the critical cachet that generally comes with them. Dollhouse had its detractors, but after The Man In The Street many sung its praises, and the long-term impact of the show was to show people that networks were now willing to give these kinds of shows a decent shot, even something with the abysmally weak numbers Dollhouse put up.

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spoilersbelow 4 years, 5 months ago

The best shorthand description of moe I can come up with is "Boy, bet that character really need a good partner to help her out with all her a problems, doesn't she? Perhaps someone like yourself, dear viewer?"

And as much as I enjoy K-On! and slice of life comedy shows of its ilk, there's always this uncomfortable background assumption going on there, offering to sell me plastic figurines, pencil boards, and body pillows to complete the fantasy it thinks I want.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

The speeding-up coherence also applies as such: I'll always get frustrated with the Internet forums who are trying to work out exactly what happened, as if it should all be down to a scientific process.

Well, except that there should definitely be a thing that happened. The speeding-up isn't about making the events of the plot incoherent; it's about the fact that you don't have to explain everything for the viewers to understand it.

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 5 months ago

I don't think the idea that it was one of the last cult shows not to get a fair chance stacks up - in just the last year or so we've had Awake and Last Resort, both critical darlings, both with bags of potential, both cancelled after a baker's dozen episodes by big, cold networks; and that's just off the top of my head.

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Ununnilium 4 years, 5 months ago

I think Whedon's work, especially here, is a bit overrated in terms of feminism.

DUCK AND COVER!

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Aaron 4 years, 5 months ago

I'd argue Kaylee and River are more expressions of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. Which isn't saying anything better about their characterisations, but I don't really get them as 'moe'.

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jane 4 years, 4 months ago

I liked Awake, I was sorry to see it go, though I think it leaned a bit too heavily on the police procedural side of things in comparison with its "cultish" aspects.

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matt bracher 4 years, 4 months ago

"My wife watched the movie first. She thought Inara was a schoolteacher."

I saw the movie first and thought that *maybe* Mal and Kaylee were siblings: that based on Mal's remark at the end of "I did NOT need to know that."

My parents watched the movie once -- after they'd seen the series -- and aren't going to watch it again. "Firefly", sure, but not the movie. Too much a sad conclusion to a joyous story.

For me, though, the moment of River, standing there when the blast doors open, makes much of it worthwhile.

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Josh Marsfelder 4 years, 4 months ago

@Aaron

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a sort of a descendant of the Moe character, at least in the discourse I've read.

@Jane

Yes, Kaylee is an engineer and knows her way around a wrench. That certainly ties into her appeal: Isn't it cute she's an adorable little girl who's so technically skilled, yet socially awkward? She clearly needs someone to show her the ropes, perhaps someone like you, dear white cis male nerdy engineer sci-fi fan viewer. You'll have something to bond over.

@spoilerssbelow

Yeah, that's pretty much it in a nutshell.

@Everyone

Yes, the abrupt cancellation will hang over any discussion we have about the show. But the other side of that is it's all what-ifs, isn't it? We can assume that things would go in one direction but it's just as easy to assume they'd go in a completely different one. I don't know, what has Joss Whedon said? Did anyone read those sequel comics? What does everyone think of them?

I give Joss Whedon plenty of credit when it comes to writing female characters. Firefly deserves any feminist praise we can throw at it, its insufferable fans notwithstanding. That said, I don't think that simply because it's better than average doesn't mean it's above criticism or that feminism is over, which is the attitude I've picked up from most discussions about Firefly. My biggest feminist gripe against the show is that as great as the characters are written and portrayed, they're still shot kind of voyeuristically, especially River.

Even the most spectacularly, delightfully feminist shows I can think of still trip up every once in awhile. We still live in a patriarchal world and that has a tendency to creep into everything. Nothing's perfect, at least not yet. I have impossibly high standards, I know. But there's still a lot of injustice in the world and I don't let anything slide. Everything's a fair target for me.

As for not letting the fans colour our individual interpretations of a show, I agree it's the best way to approach something like this and a good habit to get into, but it's really hard to do, especially with shows like this that have such frothing and insular fanbases. I mean it's not like I do this all the time: If I did there would be absolutely no way I could enjoy either the parts of Doctor Who or the Star Trek franchise I do. But in the case of Firefly, the fandom is a major part of the case study for me.

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peeeeeeet 4 years, 4 months ago

Yeah. I think the showrunner admitted that, actually. I found it quite relaxing, since I don't normally watch procedurals, so I could watch it on cruise control!

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SK 4 years, 4 months ago

And the difference is that they had less scope for merchandising, whether in the form of toys, T-shirts, comics, mugs, or whatever. Sci-fi programmes obviously have that; but the other ones that limp on, like Community and especially Chuck, are designed with merchandising in mind ('Troy and Abed in the morning' mugs, for example, or any number of 'Buy More' items).

It's a numbers game: it's all about the bottom lines, and targeting a demographic which has disposable income and can be persuaded to part with it n order to feel part of your brand.

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Philip Sandifer 4 years, 4 months ago

Yes, it really is dreadful how everyone involved in the production of art wants to get paid, and tries to accomplish it. If this sort of thing is allowed to continue it'll be anarchy. Bloggers putting out book versions in the hopes of making money. Panic in the streets.

As for Awake and Last Resort, I suppose we'll see if they end up having a lasting cultural legacy. But I doubt it. Which is more what I mean. Not so much critical acclaim as long-standing influence.

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ferret 4 years, 4 months ago

Of the survivors, nobody survives along with their clone/original

That does seem like quite a missed opportunity - also how much easier/neater would it have been for Cleaves and Dickens (at the press conference in the final moments) to promote Ganger Rights if they'd had a fully independent duplicate with them?

It seemed like they were leaving events open-ended for greater exploration of the history of "The Flesh" technology in later episodes, but that didn't happen - we just saw Madame Korvarian abuse a slightly more advanced version of it, with both her and The Doctor appearing to regard it as just another soulless weapon no different from a bullet.

"The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People" had made clear that The Doctor was genuinely concerned about the abuse of The Flesh, which made it's use in "A Good Man Goes To War" rather empty and disappointing :-(

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Scott 4 years, 4 months ago

I can see where the 'glorified Confederates' interpretation comes in, but I think it's largely intended as being a classic 'scrappy underdogs' archetype (certainly, Joss Whedon doesn't strike me as a man with a great deal of sympathy for the values and ideologies of the Confederate South) -- it's just that those scrappy underdogs are incredibly similar in both ethos and aesthetic to the losing side of the Civil War, which lends itself very nicely to such interpretations, for better or worse.

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Ross 4 years, 4 months ago

I think a big part of the issue is that it's very easy on paper to look at the story of the confederacy and go "Plucky underdogs fighting a doomed fight for the right to live their lives the way they want without their more 'respectable' and more powerful neighbors dominating them and forcing them to live their way... If it weren't for the slavery, this would be a pretty good story." And then you set out to write that story, which is all well and good, except that slavery is kind of a big deal to handwave away. History is sort of unpleasantly full of these kinds of stories: "Plucky adventurers making a new civilization in an untamed land under harsh conditions? If it weren't for the wholesale extermination of the indigenous peoples, the colonization of the new world would be a pretty good story." Or, y'know, the unfortunate parallels between Ender Wiggin and Hitler.

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GeneralNerd 3 years, 8 months ago

This is the thing that frustrates me when people talk about the influences of nuWho. You talk about Firefly while admitting that it in no way had an influence on Doctor Who while at the same time completely ignoring the most nuWho-like show that was on the air at the same time as this and actually has an incredible influence on the style and tone of the new series: Farscape. And don't tell me that organic-looking TARDIS interior was not influenced by Moya.

I mean, I enjoy Firefly but if I was looking at influences on Doctor Who it would not be a show I would pick, least of all without talking about Farscape as well.

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