Test Pilot #32: Firefly
Debut date: September 20, 2002
Series legacy: The defining cult series in contemporary television
Welcome to 2012, friends, readers and fellow humans. Test Pilot grew into a popular (relatively speaking, of course) and personal favorite feature in 2011 and I think we have a bunch of really intriguing stuff coming up that will allow Test Pilot to trend upward into the new calendar year as well. For example, to kick things off this year, we’re doing something special: A Test Pilot theme week. Instead of tackling a new pilot within a certain theme every other week, my guests and I will be discussing them over the next four days. This is obviously a different approach and maybe it won’t work, but if it does, look for more theme weeks in the future.
This week, four guest co-writers and I will discuss the work of one Joss Whedon. You folks might not have heard of him, I know. But he’s the voice behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. Although Whedon has not won nearly as many Emmys as the Davids (Chase, Simon, Milch) or someone like Matthew Weiner, he is one of the most respected and admired creative forces in television (and well, now film apparently). His work on the first two series spurred on an entire field of academic study, the third has one of, if not, the most tragic network mismanagement stories and the fourth might be looked at completely different in five or 10 years.
Throughout the week, I will be joined by veteran viewers of all four series and we will talk about how each of these pilots reflect larger Whedon-y (Whedonian?) traits, why they are heavily beloved and what kind of idiot I could be for not watching them sooner. If you missed Tuesday’s coverage of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or yesterday’s discussion of Angel, please check them out.
Today, we are here to discuss Joss Whedon’s shortest and yet perhaps most-celebrated television product, Firefly. By now, you folks know the story: FOX consistently screwed with Whedon’s work during Firefly, deciding to delay the airing of the official pilot episode, “Serenity,” and ultimately canceling the series after 14 episodes. Nearly a decade later, Firefly remains one of the most-discussed one-season wonders and so-called cult favorites.
Joining me to discuss Firefly today is Rowan Kaiser. Rowan is a freelance writer living in the Bay Area. His work has appears regularly at the A.V. Club, has also appeared at Gamasutra, 1UP.com, The Escapist and Kotaku. To find all Rowan’s work, check out his blog Renaissance Gamer and follow him on Twitter.
And to mix it up a bit, Rowan pitched me on doing these piece in a more of a crosstalk/conversational style. The two of us exchanged emails about Firefly over the last handful of days, discussing why this pilot might just be the best thing Whedon has ever done and why I’m ready to watch the rest of my DVDs.
Rowan: There is a scene early in “Serenity” that I think acts as a microcosm for what I like about the pilot as a whole. Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic, is sitting in front the ship, looking for passengers. She’s holding colorful umbrella and twirling it, which takes up most of the screen, as she talks to Shepard Book, a potential customer. This camera focuses on this simple bit of beauty for a bit longer than expected. Its takes its time introducing us to Kaylee, who is the bright color of the show in a metaphorical sense, but it’s also just a nice, slow shot. It’s not the only lingering moment in the episode, though, Inara, the ship’s Companion (a legal, socially accepted prostitute), takes a slow, sensual (but not all that sexy, oddly) bath.
To me, Cory, as the Whedon “expert” of the two of us, this indicates Whedon’s confidence in his ability to use the televised form, far more than the other pilots. In those first episodes, Buffy is cute but awkward, Angel spends too long trying to dig itself out of Buffy‘s shadow (and generally failing), and Dollhouse kind of a chaotic mess. Firefly, on the other hand, started up with Whedon at the height of his powers, with both Buffy and Angel finding their groove. And Buffy especially was driven by Whedon’s experimentation. Episodes like “Hush” (the silent episode) and “Once More With Feeling” (the musical episode) indicated a willingness to play with the formal constraints of television.
So in “Serenity” we see a television show that’s willing to sit back and take a deep breath. It does what pilots do – introduce the world, the characters, and the conflicts – but it does so in a way that works with the narrative, instead of barraging the viewer with new information. Of course, it’s aided by the fact that it’s a double-length episode. So, naturally, FOX apparently hated this episode and didn’t air it first, choosing the inferior “The Train Job” as the introduction. And here I am, having seen all of Whedon’s TV shows, happily declaring that “Serenity” is a masterful pilot, probably my favorite thing Joss Whedon has ever done. So, Cory, are you with me or with Fox? There is no middle ground!
Cory: The absolute best thing Whedon has ever done? Does that count Alien Resurrection? More seriously though, Rowan, I am absolutely with you. The Firefly pilot episode is far and away the strongest of opening offering of all the Whedon series. Watching all four pilots within a short period of time makes the differences between them easier to point out — your points about Buffy, Angel and Dollhouse are all fair — but even separated from that vacuum, Firefly stands alone.
As you touched on, the strongest element of this episode is that the world, the characters, the history, all of it, feels fully-formed. It starts with that extended prologue in “the war,” but we’re never given many contextual clues as far as what that war is actually about or who in particular is fighting. This lack of exposition or dreaded pilot-y over-explanation continues throughout. Nearly everyone we meet in the pilot appears to have an intense personal history with someone else we meet.
The initial crew members have a strong rapport that’s both brotherly and complicated. Mal and Inara’s issues are barely below the surface. Simon and River, though new additions to this rag-tag bunch of space cowboys, are constructed with similar initial depth. I could go on here, but the point is that the characters are well-formed and are so without much bland LET ME TELL YOU AND EVERYONE ELSE HOW WE KNOW EACH OTHER dialogue that plagues so many pilots. We’re dropped into this world with little clues as to what’s really going on, and there’s all sorts of intriguing stuff below the surface, but Whedon’s script still manages to tell a wonderful, thrilling and sprawling single story at the same time. Only truly great pilots manage that kind of perfect balance between compelling set-up and sense of initial resolution.
This, without question, is a great pilot. As I’ve watched all four of these pilots this week, I’ve noticed that Whedon prefers to eschew the traditional “origin” story boiler-plate pilot storytelling. The Buffy and Dollhouse pilots have their issues and certainly aren’t as strong as this one, but they still nicely avoid too much obvious and cumbersome exposition about their admittedly high concept premises. Oddly, Angel, the one pilot with a character and story the audience would have been most familiar with anyway, features the most annoying use of exposition. How do you feel about Whedon’s approach to pilot storytelling in that regard and do you think his unwillingness to completely SPELL IT OUT for audiences (and network/studio executives) is part of the reason something like Firefly failed?
Rowan: Well, I might say “The Body”, Buffy’s most intense episode, could be better, but it isn’t standalone like this one. As for Fox and its treatment of the show, well, there are two basic theories as to why Firefly was cancelled: either it was treated so poorly by Fox, especially in having this episode left unaired for months; or that Firefly was just too niche to succeed. I really can’t say which it might be, because when I look at a show like this, or Terriers (which shares Whedon alum Tim Minear as an Executive Producer and writer) and I see exactly what I want in a television series. It’s fun, smart, and tense, with stand-alone episodes as well as a compelling overarching narrative. So naturally both were ratings disasters. I will say that Fox was certainly wrong in not airing this episode for so long, especially as the two episodes that replaced it – “The Train Job” and “Bushwhacked” – are probably the weakest of the entire run.
You mentioned both the war and characters, and I’d like to get into those a bit more, because those are the two things that I think make the show so gorram fascinating. Let’s talk about the war first, since it’s a little bit less obvious. Mal and Zoe having been on the losing end of that war builds an aura of tragedy that Firefly’s entire aesthetic supports, especially the background music as well as the theme song. They are, to take the idea of the space western, the remnants of a Lost Cause that was actually worth fighting for, unlike the real-world Civil War. The setting is clever in that it can milk that tragic aspect without the whole slavery thing that makes real-world westerns with ex-Confederate heroes so frustrating.
I love this for two reasons. First of all, it lets our heroes be underdogs. This is the fourth time I’ve watched the pilot, and only now do I really see how thick that underdog aspect is being laid on. But that’s because the underdog aspect is just so damn cool. Ending on “We’re still flying.” “That’s not much.” “It’s enough.”? How can you not pull for these guys? Second, it makes them the resistance, fighting a war that’s already been lost. And I’m a huge fan of resistance stories, from Lust, Caution and Army Of Shadows to Final Fantasy VI. So how do you feel about the Firefly aesthetic and tone, Cory? And are you with me in thinking that maybe it’s more comparable to Terriers than the other Whedon shows? Should we be doing Tim Minear week instead, perhaps?
Cory: If we did a Tim Minear week, I know two things: 1.) We’d need more days to discuss all his failed projects and 2.) People would be stunned and saddened with how many solid, but failed series that guy worked on. I guess at the pilot stage, the comparison to Terriers is more applicable than something like Buffy. However, I do think that all four Whedon pilots have this underlying combination of the underdog spirit and a smidgen of sadness. Buffy doesn’t have much trouble in her first throwdown in Sunnydale, but the whole “bringing the team together” portions of the pilot include their fair share of melancholy bits. Angel is super-depressed and therefore a off his game in “City of Angels,” a fact the pilot probably hammers home too much. The Dollhouse pilot is a god-damn mess, but dude, those people are sad (and personality-less, but hey).
Anyway, the aesthetic and tone create an interesting dynamic for me. The space western backdrop and the generally appealing visual pallet bring a whole lot to the table. I watched the pilot on Blu-ray and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t remastered in any way; the thing was gorgeous. I hate to be one of those people who blindly piles on networks for making mistakes, but it’s amusing that FOX and 20th Century clearly pumped a substantial amount of money into the pilot and then shelved it for what you and most everyone else call lesser episodes. The long and wide shots in space don’t look cheap at all and the set design is fantastic. The contrast between the dirt and the grime and the glories of space exploration really work for me. I’m sure Whedon proved himself as a visual storyteller with some Buffy episode I haven’t seen, but there’s an obvious contrast between his direction on the Angel pilot and what he does here. This again goes back to your insistence that with Firefly, Whedon is at full-capacity, not only as a writer, but as a director as well.
But as obviously wonderful as the aesthetics are, I think it’s the tone that really helps “Serenity” succeed, or at least, it’s the element that works the best for me. The tragic, rag-tag underdog feelings are all there, but I also appreciate that these characters are noticeably flawed, which allows for the right mix of Whedon wit and a more grim outlook. Mal, from all accounts in this episode, is a pretty screwed up dude. He clearly fits that outlaw hero mold, but it goes deeper than that. He’s a darker, tenser and initially deeper version of Han Solo (yes, I’m aware I’m the 10,241,291th person to make this comparison): He’s been through some stuff and while he can certainly crack wise to cut the tension, he also has no problem forcing the issue, threatening someone’s life or shooting a horse just to knock over an opponent in a gun-fight. He’s haunted by some of the things he’s seen and done, but he’s also sort of secretly proud of what doing and seeing those things turned him into.
My favorite moment of the whole pilot is when Mal bulls Simon over and informs him that Kaylee didn’t make it, leading to the great quick cut from Simon’s exasperated reaction to learning Mal lied to him to the crew laughing hysterically. Sure, it’s a moment dedicated to cheap laughter. But it’s also a useful character moment that tells us what kind of demented sense of humor Mal (and the other crew goofballs) have.
Thus, as the centerpiece character to the story, Mal’s complex identity serves as a great representative of the pilot’s general tone: Witty and willing to jump into action when needed, but much more interesting under the surface. Let me ask you this: If this is Whedon’s most singular, individual achievement, how does the rest of Firefly stack up to “Serenity?” What changes, what doesn’t and what, perhaps, should have? Is the pilot the best the series has to offer?
Rowan: I do think that the pilot is the best that Firefly has to offer, but not by much. There’s a two-episode whammy in the middle of the season, “Ariel” and “War Stories”, that might beat the pilot for sheer entertainment value. But as I’ve mentioned, the languid pace and feeling that “Serenity” is just letting the story and characters breathe. It’s quite the opposite of the end of the series, the still-quite-good Serenity film, which has an almost identical story in some ways, but crams too much into a similar run-time. And yes, Whedon’s directorial playfulness is a big part of the story of Buffy – in the seasons of that show leading up towards Firefly, there’s a string of Whedon penned/directed episodes that exhibit increasing formal daring: “Hush”, “Restless”, “The Body”, “The Gift”, “Once More With Feeling”.
But yes, despite all that, what really makes Firefly amazing, and what I think makes it The Great Cult Show of our age, is its memorable ensemble of characters. And while we could spend another three or four rounds of this talking about each of them just in the pilot, I think it’s best to focus on Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who is just a stunning achievement of writing and acting. Certainly, he’s of a type – in addition to Han Solo, he can easily fit in with, say, Raylan Givens – but it’s a type which is given that nice little Whedony twist.
Joss Whedon is often called a feminist writer, which is occasionally somewhat problematic, but it’s easy enough to defend that I’m not going to take that away. But instead I think it’s better to say he’s interested in examining gender, and he often does a better job with masculinity than the does with femininity, as Mal demonstrates. You mentioned the practical joke scene, which is iconic and defining, but there are ten other iconic moments. “Didn’t she shoot you?” “Everyone’s makin’ a fuss.” Or the “Guh?” when he first sees River in the container. And you know what? Those are going to keep coming. Mal always stays interesting.
A huge amount of credit has to be given to Nathan Fillion as well. It would be easy for Mal to turn into an over-the-top cartoon, just as it would be easy for him to be a gritty anti-hero. But Fillion captures a perfect combination of confidence and insecurity, or of humor and determination, or of masculine power and anxiety. He makes Mal’s gut reactions to be a jerk seem just as plausible as his quips or his changes of heart.
And that Mal is wrong so often is another interesting thing about Firefly. We’re so used to our male anti-heroes since The Sopranos, but Reynolds is really the first major break with the typical science fiction Wise Patriarch. Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Picard would never have even considered tossing Simon out of the airlock, and as always-right as Babylon 5’s Sheridan generally was, he was never so badass as to walk into the loading bay and shoot a villain in the head without breaking stride. Firefly doesn’t get all the credit for subverting the Captain-as-Patriarch, as Battlestar Galactica came out at almost the same time, but it’s certainly part of what makes the series feel so fresh.
So let’s get towards wrapping this up. Apart from Mal, what characters made an impact on you? And how quickly are you going it to tear into the rest of those DVDs and join The Cult Of Whedon you’ve tried so hard to make fun of? Firefly was my gateway too, after all.
Cory: Fillion is tremendous. I like him on Castle quite a bit, but watching this pilot fills in the context of why people love that guy so much. You’re right, Mal could have easily been a basic Han Solo riff with a whole lot of bravado and not enough depth or complexity for quality television, but Whedon and Fillion worked together to keep that from happening. As far as the rest of the characters, it’s sort of interesting that many actors are playing “types” I’d expect from them: Adam Baldwin’s Cobb is the stiff, muscleman, Alan Tudyk’s Wash is a bit of a goofball, Summer Glau’s River is odd and awkward, etc. Clearly, my familiarity with these performers comes from roles they’d play after Firefly, but now it makes totally sense why some of these actors have been “stuck” in those spots for a decade. Nevertheless, this hindsight-fueled perspective on various performances or characters didn’t negatively impact my viewing of the pilot at all. The full group dynamic and the sense of history between many of these characters are very appealing.
However, I will single out Sean Maher’s work as Simon. He’s not necessarily a “favorite,” in the pilot, but he does some layered work and handles the exposition about River and his relationship with her masterfully. The initial crew members — both the characters and the actors — have this comfort and rhythm with one another and I like how Maher (and to a lesser extent, Glau) bring a completely different, more subdued but still emotionally complex energy to the proceedings. Similar things can be said about Monica Baccarin’s Inara as well. I read that Rebecca Gayheart was originally cast in the role and I can only imagine what kind of a disaster that was. Baccarin is such a unique talent and her chemistry with Fillion is palpable from the get-go. Whedon and his casting director did a splendid job with everyone, really. Who do you love? Is there anyone who you feel doesn’t fit in well?
Another thing I wanted to ask you before we finish: What, in your mind, are the primary reasons Firefly failed? The issues with FOX are well-documented and it’s really easy to say “most TV watchers are dumb,” but let’s dig into this further. What could Whedon and his team have done differently? And finally, how do you think the legacy of the series would have changed had it continued? Does the early cancellation make fans think back more fondly than they should at all?
And oh yeah, I’m definitely looking forward to watching more. Then I can’t wait to yell at people in random humanities courses who haven’t seen it!
Rowan: It’s interesting that you pick those two. Generally speaking, I think Simon is the character that fans dislike the most, as he is something of a wet blanket in terms of being protective of his sister, and he’s not witty like Mal or Wash. I also tend to single Baccarin out as the weak link of the cast, but that’s not obvious in the pilot. I do think that in later episodes, her stilted, Companion poise seems just a little bit too forced, and it’s a lot more fun and believable when she lets her emotions out.
After Mal, it’s pretty much impossible for me not to say that Kaylee is a favorite. I will freely grant that she lacks depth. I will also admit that she’s of a cheerful, quirky type that Whedon seems to enjoy adding to all his shows, like Willow early in Buffy and Fred on Angel. And maybe it’s even cynical that the character who brings such joy to the show right away is the one who is immediately placed into mortal danger. But I’ll be damned if Jewel Staite doesn’t work perfectly at making Kaylee seem human instead of a manic pixie dream girl. She’s aided by the writing in two respects: first, Kaylee is really good at her job, and her job isn’t a feminine one. Second, she’s neither infantilized nor over-sexualized. Her budding relationship with Simon is a solid part of the pilot, and one which carries over to the series and the film.
As for why Firefly failed, well, I really have no idea. I almost have to say that it was luck, but it wasn’t just bad luck. There was also good luck – Joss Whedon coming up with this great of a premise, Nathan Fillion and the rest of the cast being available, whatever exec at Fox decided that a space western about crooks was something to air – but then there was the well-documented bad luck of studio meddling with episode order. For sanity’s sake, I almost have to remove myself emotionally from such things, because as many have noted, it’s really a miracle that anything great gets made through the bizarre production system. It’s also worth noting that I came to it on DVD, five years removed from cancellation, so I knew not to get too attached. But I did get attached. And now I’m part of the cult. Though I like to think I’m sane and don’t believe it’s possible to bring back. I’m just holding out for Firefly: The Next Generation in another decade.
Cory: Goodness, even when I try to be a Whedon Kool-Aid drinker, I fail miserably. I CANNOT WIN. Of course I would like the characters that real fans hate. Nevertheless, I can see the wet blanket comments, as his earnestness and protective instincts probably do grate over time. I liked him here, though.
On the failure point, do you think there’s any way that Firefly, in its exact same form, could make it onto the airwaves and succeed today? Clearly ratings expectations have changed and in some respects, it does feel like networks and studios are more willing to give showrunners and creative minds some leeway to make the series they want to make. The short answer, in my book, would be yes. Series with weirder premises have made it on television and the two big factors of the contemporary industry (lower ratings and the rise of cable, both which create more niche audience groups) suggest that Firefly could fit right at home on FOX Fridays or maybe even FX or Syfy. It seems like Whedon is snake-bitten when it comes to these matters though, if his dealings with FOX during Dollhouse are any indication. Ultimately, Whedon was ahead of his time with Firefly. Right?
Rowan: Well, yes and no. In terms of its niche fan appeal and its low ratings, Firefly might do better today. On the other hand, if you take a look at the television market today, there’s a distinct lack of science fiction. Voyager, Enterprise, Farscape, Andromeda, Babylon 5, Stargate: Whatever, Deep Space 9, Battlestar Galactica were all shows that aired within a few years of Firefly. Now we’re hitting a year past the last few episodes of Caprica, with nothing in sight. I do think that Whedon has realized that perhaps he should stick with cable if he does do television again, but who knows if we’ll see that again?
Cory: That makes sense. I’d like to thank you for joining me. I always do my conclusions on the legacy of the series, and this time, there’s no question that the legacy of Firefly is warranted. This is a fantastic pilot.