The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we take on the first 6 episodes of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.
For a long time, I didn’t really care to get into Joss Whedon. Of course, I knew people who really into it, who swore by “Buffy,” could quote “Angel” chapter and verse, and had opinions about a sci-fi show that I had never even heard of. I know some of my unearned distaste for Whedon was in the way he was presented by these people. No one ever talked about the worlds he created, the characters that were developed or the complex mythologies that were developed. Instead, people just mindlessly quoted the characters, making themselves out to be annoying Monty Python fans rather than people who had valid opinions about things.
A year ago, as the summer began, I started watching the first season of “Buffy,” the notoriously dull and hokey season of Whedon’s first work. I was unimpressed to say the least and abandoned it quickly. I was given no reason to keep going into the second season.
After “Cabin in the Woods,” I was given a reason to explore all of Whedon’s oeuvre. His 80’s horror homage was such a potent mix of genre defying plot, the bitter and world weary sense of humor and the Lovecraftian conclusion showed me that the guy might deserve a second look. I started on a project (which will receive at least one additional post later) called the Summer of Whedon, and luckily, this class is helping me out.
Of all of Whedon’s cult shows, “Firefly” is the cultiest. The quickly abused and cancelled sci-fi show was treated beyond poorly by FOX and a ravenous group of fans have demanded more for the show for years. As a person who loves sci-fi, and as watched plenty of his favorite shows be trashed by FOX, I had a pretty decent chance to enjoy this one.
Ideally, yeah, I would love it but a lot of the problems that I’ve always thought Whedon has had initially held me back from getting into it. For one, he writes worlds and stories much better than he handles characters. Now, I’m not saying that he can’t do a great job defining the voice of certain characters or the way that they interact with one another but he definitely has trouble writing the initial character.
“Firefly” is a fairly obvious fusion of the western and the space opera, with a group of former rebels completing crimes for unsavory clients on the edges of civilization. The ship, the Serenity, is filled with archetypes: the cold quiet protagonist, the tough as nails deputy with morals, the sure-of-himself pilot, the shoot first-ask questions later killer, the whiz-kid, the priest with a dark past, the hooker with a heart of gold, the humanistic doctor and the survivor of atrocities.
The thing that bothers me the most about the use of these fairly obvious archetypes is the fact that Whedon doesn’t twist them at all. Granted, I’ve watched the first 6 episodes and so far, the characters remain little more than cliche. If Whedon’s purpose was to show how easily the old western cliches could be ported over to the space opera, then he’s succeeded but if he was trying to make those characters compelling in and of themselves, its a failure. I don’t care about River as a character because she’s flat, instead I’m forced to depend on the plot to make me care.
Luckily, the individual plots of the episode have been great. Where Whedon often played a very long game with episodes of “Buffy,” he’s working much better in making stand alone episodes that are loaded with world building. Watching the crew infiltrate a high class gathering looking for jobs might not feed into the long running plot of the show, but it manages to show that there is a richly developed world beyond what Whedon is showing us every episode.
That being said, the characters really grow on you. By the time I hit “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” the rhythm was working a lot better, with the characters bouncing off of each other in expected but enjoyable ways. We know that Zoe is going to bring the whole crew down to laugh at Mal’s fate, we know that Jayne is going to have a semi-romantic relationship with his favorite gun and we know that Wash isn’t going to cheat on his beloved wife with Saffron. The pleasure is watching them do just that in their own unique way.
Really, that’s kind of how I view all of Whedon’s work but I’m willing to keep going. The charm of “Firefly” is in seeing those classic plot archetypes being updated, although there might not be anything particularly new or original there. You know what you’re going to be getting in Whedon’s sci-fi show but, for the most part, that kind of works in this homage filled space opera.
Next Class: We’ve got another 6 episodes of “Firefly” before we finish the show and watch “Serenity” in two weeks.