Thursday, October 27, 2011

Off Topic: Blogger Hates Me

You may have noticed that my recent post on the TV show Firefly has been abruptly truncated. I went in to make a few small edits and suddenly half the post disappeared. I'm going to go have myself a small mental breakdown and then try to rewrite everything that has now been permanently deleted by the Blog Demons. Many apologies, and I'll try to make these repairs as quickly as possible.

EDIT: The post has been fixed as best as I can from what I remember the original saying. Sorry about the mess-up. I have learned my lesson from this, and henceforth will be making back-up copies of my posts in MS Word in case Blogger gets hungry again. If you are hungry for new content, do not despair! I promise you, I am hard at work on a few new posts which should be up shortly.

Friday, October 21, 2011

TV Show: "Firefly"

The television show Firefly is one that is very near to my heart for a few different reasons. For one thing, it is a damn good show. For another, it's one of the first geeky things I went out and discovered for myself.

If you haven't been living under a rock for the past several years, you've almost certainly heard a reference to the Joss Whedon show Firefly. I discovered this when I went to college in 2009, a good six years after its cancellation, and acquired high speed internet courtesy of the university. It seemed to me that every geeky thing I ran across on the internet would quote something from the series or bewail its premature cancellation.

At the time, I thought that this phenomenon was all baseless hoopla, and I ignored it. Eventually, however, I succumbed to the hype. I told myself that I would just watch the pilot. I would find out why so many people seemed to think that this show was so awesome, and probably end up filing Firefly away in my brain with Twilight and all the other over-hyped garbage I've run across over the years.

As you can probably guess from its inclusion in my blog, that didn't happen. Within minutes I was completely sold on Firefly. The acting, the writing, the soundtrack- all of it is deserving of the hype. From the characters to the ship Serenity herself, I cared about what happened on this show and wanted more. This connection and fondness is something I can have trouble making with shows, especially newer ones. With Firefly, I didn't have this problem at all.

The series has been described as a "cowboys/Wild West in space!" affair, and it's actually a fairly accurate description. The series is set far into humanity's future, past the point where we have used up our home planet, known on the show as "Earth-that-was," and gone off into the universe in search of a new home. We managed to find not one, not two, but a whole system of planets to colonize, none of which were already home to alien life (and in fact aliens make no appearance in the series at all).

Unfortunately, this move into space was not an altogether peaceful one. The planets at the core of the system wanted all the inhabited planets to unify under the Alliance, whereas the planets on what is known on the show as the "Outer Rim" wanted independence. A bloody war was fought over this difference of opinion, with the Alliance forces eventually triumphing and annexing the Outer Rim planets.

The series takes place several years after the end of the war. The Alliance has power, but the war is still fresh in the minds of many, and tensions between supporters of the Alliance and supporters of independence can still occasionally run high. The inner planets are very modern and sleek, with all the latest technological advances, but people on the Outer Rim still struggle to get by with equipment that often isn't much better than that possessed by people of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is in this often complex system that the characters of Firefly must try to make a living.

Visually speaking, the show is gorgeous, and has surprisingly good special effects. The cities and places on Inner Rim planets are sleek and shiny, whereas those on the worlds on the Outer Rim are often grubby and shabby, reflecting the little attention they are paid by their nominal rulers, the Alliance. The costumes reflect the characters who wear them, and typically range from lavish and expensive silks and satins worn by the upper class to coarser homespun and simply constructed outfits worn by the less-affluent. Unlike some shows that sacrifice writing quality for extravagant visuals or vice versa, Firefly's visual effects enhance the sparkling plots instead of distracting from them.

The musical score is also a valuable enhancement to the show. While the opening title track was written by Joss Whedon, the soundtrack was composed by Greg Edmonson and is utterly spectacular. Like the effects, the music serves to enhance the action on the screen, not to show off some snazzy synthesizer work or complicated chords. It ranges from snappy tunes that put one in mind of the Old West to hauntingly beautiful melodies that stick in your mind long after the end credits roll. This is one of those shows with a soundtrack you might actually buy.

By far and away though, the characters are one of my favorite things about Firefly. They are, on the whole, complex, fleshed out individuals with their own quirks and flaws. The actors do an excellent job of bringing these people to life on the screen. It's virtually impossible to not care about what happens to the crew of Serenity. So who are these terribly interesting people?

First of all, you can't talk about the people who live on the ship without talking about Serenity herself. Though she isn't alive, she is often treated as such, especially by the captain and the mechanic. Serenity is an almost obsolete Firefly-class transport ship (hence the name of the show), but she has plenty of storage space for legal cargo and plenty of discreet areas for less-than-legal cargo, both of which suit her occupants just fine. She is also still (usually) perfectly functioning, thanks to the efforts of her crew, and for most of them is the only place they'd want to live.

The lead character of Firefly is the captain and owner of Serenity, Malcolm Reynolds. He was a sergeant in the Independent Army, also known as the Browncoats, and is still bitter over its outcome. The war robbed him of his home and his faith. His focus is on doing various "jobs," which may or may not be strictly legal in order to make money, and no matter what usually do not "go smooth," all to keep his beloved ship flying. He is never without his old brown coat and the pistol at his waist. Mal is a natural leader, able to command the respect, obedience, and genuine affection of his crew. In return, he is deeply fond and protective of them, as many less than savory individuals discover to their misfortune.

Zoe Washburne is the first mate of Serenity. She fought under Mal in the war and is very loyal to her captain. This loyalty does not prevent her from letting Mal know when what he's planning is deeply stupid, however, and she typically does so in a hilariously snarky deadpan. Zoe is smart and capable, and is just at good at landing shots with her gun as she is with her dry wit.

Hoban 'Wash' Washburne is Zoe's husband and the pilot of Serenity. Wash is a superb pilot whose interests include flying, making wonderfully sarcastic/snarky/just plain hilarious quips, playing with plastic dinosaurs (I'm serious), and his beloved wife.

Kaylee Frye is the ship's mechanic. Though young, she is an incredibly skilled mechanic, and one of the most adorable characters ever committed to any type of medium ever. Kaylee is an overwhelmingly positive person with an infectious sense of good cheer. The rest of the crew are quite fond of her for both her sweetness and her technical aptitude, and making Kaylee feel bad is a crime of the highest order. Kaylee is also openly and unashamedly sexual, a trait a trait for which she is not shamed. This attitude is refreshingly progressive on a television show. While it is not referred to very often, it is an example of the generally sex-positive attitude of the show.

Jayne Cobb is, quite simply, a mercenary. While he does what Mal tells him to (usually), he openly acknowledges that if he's offered a better price by someone else, he'll take it. Until then, he's content with trying to take charge whenever possible and using his extensive collection of weapons on anyone he's allowed to.

Inara Serra is a Registered Companion who travels on Serenity. Companions are basically sex workers, but in another example of the sex-positive attitude of Firefly, the position is a prestigious one, and very different from prostitution. Clients apply to Companions, who then accept or reject the applications as they see fit. If a client mistreats a Companion or violates their Guild code, they are blacklisted and unable to contract with a Companion again. While Companions do engage in sexual relations with their clients, they are also cultured and educated, and are often contracted just as much for conversation and company as they are for more intimate relations.

Companions are quite different from prostitutes. Whereas Companions are highly educated and occupy a respected position in society, prostitutes, who occupy one of the lower rungs in society, engage almost exclusively in the basic trade of sex for money, without any of the culture and education possessed by Companions. As a result, many people on the show look down on prostitutes much as many modern real life societies do.

Shepard Derrial Book is a preacher who joins the Serenity as a passenger. While maltheistic Mal initially isn't happy about Book's presence on his ship, he quickly comes to join his crew in respect for Book. Book is a deeply kind, compassionate, and understanding person, willing to offer a hand to anyone in need. His past, however, is hinted to have been rather less holy. In the episode "War Stories," he says that while the Bible he follows does prohibit killing people, it is "somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps." He takes part in the episode's dangerous rescue mission/shoot out, and proves to be a very good shot indeed. His hair, when unbound, is just as frightening as his ability with a gun.

Simon Tam is a young doctor who has become an outlaw by breaking his little sister, River, out of a sinister, mysterious government facility called the Academy. Simon is completely devoted to his sister's welfare and is willing to sacrifice his own life to keep her safe. Though he initially joins the ship as a passenger, he quickly becomes Serenity's medic.

River Tam is Simon's little sister. As a small child, she was vivacious, full of life, and incredibly gifted. Sadly, her brain has now been pretty thoroughly broken by the time she spent in the Academy. She still possesses many of her original talents, though, along with some extraordinary new ones. Though her abilities are never explicitly described in the series, she makes a habit of knowing things she should have no way of knowing and performing incredible physical feats like fatally shooting three men with her eyes closed.

While each character is a fantastic individual in their own right, all of the actors have wonderful chemistry with each other.This can be at least partly attributed to the close relationships they had off screen. Another reason the characters all seem to fit so well together is that they are all the product of excellent writing. The plots and dialogue in each episode of Firefly are extremely well done. The dialogue is typically witty, sharp, and eminently quotable. It can also be hauntingly poignant, especially when characters talk about the war or their lives before coming to Serenity. The plots are fresh and intriguing, and twists are well done and often genuinely surprising. This is a nice change of pace from so many other contemporary TV shows, where formulaic plots and end twists you can predict five minutes after the opening credits seem to dominate.

Also unlike many other TV shows, Firefly has a long, continuing arc. This arc should have spanned several seasons, but the show sadly didn't even get to finish out its first season. The show is unusually heavy on continuity for a contemporary TV show. The episodes do have a definite order to them, with past people and events referenced several episodes after they were introduced. This had a major effect on Firefly's cancellation.

From the start, it seemed that FOX television network had it in for Firefly. The show was given an earlier time slot on Friday evenings, which wasn't the most appropriate given the themes of violence and sexuality that are often present on the show. The network also aired the episodes out of order, making the show's timeline very difficult for viewers to puzzle out. Finally, despite the protests on dedicated fans, the show was canceled abruptly in the middle of its first season, with only fourteen episodes produced.

Fans of Firefly clamored for more, and a few years later their wishes were granted with the release of the movie Serenity. The movie was meant as a follow up to the TV show that helped to tie up several loose ends. Unfortunately, it underwhelmed at the box office and years later there is no sign that Firefly will ever be resurrected.

If you are interested in watching Firefly, the complete series is available free, legally, and in high quality on The episodes are arranged in the order they were meant to be seen in, so beginning viewers should have no trouble at all keeping up with continuity. The site makes episodes available in rotation, so if the pilot isn't available when you want to watch it, just wait a few weeks- it will come around again. The show is alos available on DVD, if you decide that you love the show enough to want all of it on demand whenever and wherever you please.

Having said all of this, Firefly is not for everybody. There is quite a bit of sexual and sexually related content, though nothing above a PG-13 rating. There is also violence, with several shoot outs and physical altercations in the course of the series. This isn't too bloody, but it is depicted more realistically. There are frightening elements in the series, especially where the Reavers are concerned. Though a true Reaver is never shown in person on the show, the descriptions and evidence of their predations are genuinely chilling and may be upsetting to some viewers.

Overall, Firefly really is a wonderful show with great acting, fantastic writing, and superb visual and musical effects. The characters are memorable and have excellent chemistry and dialogue. The plots are interesting and well-crafted, with several legitimately unexpected twists. If you're looking for a smart, funny show with an original concept and great writing, you will probably like Firefly.