Television review: Firefly

8 July 2004


The ship Jayne and Vera More of the crew

Well, yeah. Not bad at all. Characterisation is in broad strokes but at least there's more than one colour used per character; the technological background is clearly there for convenience rather than plausibility, but at least it is mostly applied consistently; and some of the stories that emerge in the fourteen extant episodes are quite interesting.

The problem with Firefly, though, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's still sci-fi rather than science fiction. As is usual with televised SF, with very few exceptions there's no story told here that couldn't be done as well in a traditional western, or a modern setting, or... Now, by television sci-fi standards it's good stuff; you're mostly comparing it with the interminable Star Trek series, Andromeda, SeaQuest DSV and the like, and only the occasional Babylon 5 or Stargate SG-1 or, yes, Firefly rises above the tide of claptrap. But for those of us who still remember how to read, even these are only a pale shadow of the real thing.

So, we have a society just after the not-Civil War, where the not-Union is lording it over the scattered settlements of the not-Confederacy. It is rather laid on with a trowel. Of course, this world's not-Confederacy doesn't seem to have had any not-slavery to provide an excuse, so the not-Union just comes over as an unambiguously Evil bunch of bullies. Helps to make it clear that the captain's a Good Guy even if he takes on some morally dubious missions from time to time.

Apparently the not-Confederacy only settled planets that look like the California desert. How convenient! Y'know, folks, generally if there's breathable air there's quite a bit of plant life, and if a planet has more than one sort of terrain I'm probably not going to plop my settlements down in a desert unless I've got a damn good reason...

What do these people do, anyway? The West survived because it had a market back East. These people spend their time being Poor; cargo ships are evidently pretty rare events, so that several worlds we see don't even have a spaceport. But the people have to be there for the plot to happen. It's the same with the technology: the force-field window makes for a good sight gag when someone gets thrown through it during a bar-fight, but that force-field technology is never mentioned again... even though you'd think that if it were cheap and reliable enough that a bar in an out-of-the-way pesthole is using it instead of glass, a bunch of other people would be using it too.

I think we can be glad the series was cancelled when it was. If Whedon had had another Buffy-style runaway success, he'd probably have given in more to his ego-massaging tendencies (very obvious in the extra material on the DVD release) and started to mess about with the characters just to generate "tension"; as it is there are some warning signs of that in the later episodes. Much like Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Whedon seems to produce better material when he's being ridden by a non-artistic type who doesn't understand the Creative Vision but just wants to get the product out on time.

So, it's not bad. As television sci-fi goes it's pretty good. But it's still television sci-fi, and never comes close to rising above that.