We Few, We Happy Few, We Band of Brothers

I’ve come five years late to the party, but no one ever told me about Firefly. Oh, I dimly recall that they said it was good and wept over the untimely cancellation, but many shows die young that way. It was off the air almost before it was on the air, and I was in my first post-fandom phase, after my short post-Voyager affair with Buffy but before Jerie finally got me to watch Stargate.

How could I, then merely a Trekker, imagine that a show could be good in its first season? Obviously 11 episodes is not enough to break in a cast. Just as obviously, the show wasn’t even good enough not to get cancelled, so why bother with Firefly?

I finally bothered with Firefly only because I’d finished Farscape (thanks again to Jerie) and the library didn’t have the next season of Stargate Atlantis, but they did have a set of scratched up Firefly DVDs. Why did I even look for them? I dimly recalled all that weeping over a stillborn show, but that wasn’t nearly enough to commit myself to yet another fandom. The real reason was, Jade was knitting me a cunning hat and I figured I couldn’t wear in with true geek-fu if I’d never even seen the show. So I grabbed the first DVD.

Why did no one tell me about this show? An accidental wedding in one of the first episodes broadcast? The whore with a heart of gold? The brooding captain in the trenchcoat? This stuff is pure fan crack. No wonder there was weeping. It had me at the accidental wedding.

One advantage of watching a show with the stake through it so long it’s petrified is that there is no weeping at the end of the stack of DVDs. But there’s still the question, why is this such fan crack? It had me long before the accidental wedding, and it’s really not very sci-fi for a sci-fi show. There is no sense of wonder to a spaceship that succumbs to a blown carburetor. The crazy girl with the government conspiracy after her is straight out of the X-Files, and the rest of them out of a spaghetti western casting call.

It bothers me that the show (at least, as viewed in order on the DVDs) worked so well from the start. Not because it got cancelled—only the good die young and all that—but because novels very rarely work from the start, or even work so well at the very end. I worry that my medium (writing) can’t compete with the new medium (film); I don’t understand why it’s lasted even this long—and maybe it hasn’t. Maybe film is the one, damning reason why people read so much less than they used to.

Some of the crack is the visuals, the one thing writing can never do. Mal is very, very shiny, and the grunge western sets filmed in grainyvision are also pretty neat. Some unexpected crack comes from the language—unexpected because I claimed in one of my many reviews of RotK that the novel’s subtlety of language couldn’t be filmed—and yet the language of Firefly is one of the most appealing bits for me, both the pulp western patois and the swearing in Chinese. And, of course, the basic snappy, snarky dialogue that somehow survives translation into these two unlikely languages unscathed.

But the real hard stuff, the crack that Firefly shares with so many similarly addictive shows—many of them, in fact, sharing the same premise of a small-to-midsized ship (or phone booth) wandering between the stars—is the band of brothers, or in TV-speak, the ensemble. Friendship is one of the basic values of Western civilization, coming not from Christianity this time but from Ancient Greece, and we tend to forget that it is just a local value. Most cultures value family more than acquaintances.

The ensemble in space is so much more, however, than an ensemble of snarky but basically directionless friends in the city (another very common and popular theme). The ensemble in space, be it a team popping through the stargate or a ship full of lost Starfleets, depend on each other for their very lives. Everything they do together is meaningful, is fraught, is so much more significant than the isolated office work of their audience and therefore so much more appealing.

The trouble with the ensemble-in-the-city is that realism is at odds with significance. You don’t have to have go ultra-naturalistic to be boring; even our more exciting basic cultural assumptions, like the one about falling in love with someone similar to you (or some cute barista at the corner coffee shop) and sleeping with them, is essentially boring to watch, while falling for the whore renting one of your shuttles who has that pesky no-servicing-the-landlord policy is essentially interesting to watch.

Sorry if some of this was boring or obvious. I just had to answer the question of what is fan crack for myself. YMMV.

Comments are closed.