Over the holidays my sister visited. She doesn’t as a rule read or watch science fiction and fantasy; she watches very little television in general regardless because she doesn’t own a tv. However, she does enjoy watching programs with others (I got her and my mom hooked on Nashville). So rather than watching whatever zombie program my spouse is viewing at the moment, he and I agreed to introduce her to Firefly, which we ended up watching over about five nights.
This is the fourth time I’ve watched the entire series straight through. I hadn’t heard of Firefly until after Fox cancelled it.
On the fourth viewing, my overwhelming reaction to Firefly is how much I love the nine main characters and the complex ways in which they interact with each other and with the worlds around them. The opening title sequence with its plaintive title song evokes nostalgia for a show–for my acquaintance with these characters–cut short too soon.
Many ensemble shows take multiple episodes or even a couple of seasons before the actors truly jell with each other. Firefly had an unusually strong blend. I don’t know in what order the episodes were filmed but I do imagine that the pilot double episode, “Serenity,” was filmed first because the way the characters work together feels just a little stagey. By The Train Job the ensemble is smoothing out; by Bushwhacked it feels as if the ensemble has been together for several seasons already. They just feel right together, like it was meant to be.
Of course I have a few criticisms. Every time I watch I don’t understand why we don’t see more Chinese and other Asian faces. Given the setup, they should be everywhere, and definitely Chinese in the highest echelons of society, but mostly they are absent. Simon and River should, by rights, be played by Chinese or Chinese-ancestry actors; however, Sean Maher and Summer Glau are so great in the roles that I don’t regret them being there. And while I love the conceit that everyone uses random words of Mandarin in their speech, as a reflection of the hegemonic power, I can’t speak to how well the language use is actually managed.
This is meant to be a brief piece, not an essay, so I won’t say much more although I might expound in the comments if inspired, because there are so many levels to these characters and their relationships and all of it funneled through with humor melded with the serious. How great is Wash? How complex and mysterious is Shepherd Book? Why is Jayne at his most sympathetic when he begs the captain not to tell the others that he betrayed them? How does the character of Kaylee even work, and yet she does, and also her friendship with Inara is perfect. How awesome is Zoe? Why do I love Inara even though by rights I ought to dislike the trope? Simon is a perfect blend of clueless privileged guy and dead-serious doctor, and River is a work in progress who was still unfolding in so many ways.
One of the most interesting things that happened during the re-watch was experiencing the opening scenes of “Our Mrs. Reynolds” with a viewer who didn’t know what was coming. My sister was appalled at Zoe mocking Saffron, and at the general unsympathetic tone of most of the crew’s comments. My spouse and I were, of course, laughing, because we knew the twist and she didn’t, but her outrage forced me to step back from my place of knowledge and look at it with fresh eyes. It’s effectively written, I think. Mal, as always, is a person of contradictions: He is a deeply damaged man who can be harsh and sometimes genuinely mean in a petty way (we see this in his interactions with Inara, because he can process his feelings for her in no other way even as we are meant–I believe–to find his behavior unpleasant and immature). Yet at the same time as I’m appalled by his treatment of Inara, I admire him for his complete loyalty to his crew, which is unshakeable. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” is a rare moment where we see Zoe in a negative light. Is she mocking the girl because she is jealous? Not of Saffron’s potential sexual relation with the captain but of the potential for another person to become as close to the captain as she is? I don’t know. I love Zoe, so it’s unexpectedly jarring to glimpse that side of her, however briefly.
And that’s what I adore about Firefly. I feel I am getting to know people who have the complexities and flaws and strengths that people have. The journey matters because the characters matter to me.
If I had to point to a moment in the pilot that captures me every time, I will always point to the scene on Persephone when engineer Kaylee, sitting with her rainbow colored cheap paper parasol in a grungy folding chair, spots Shepherd Book and tells him in that bright, smiling tone that never sounds false, “You’re coming with us.”
It’s as if she said it to me.