One – show BUSINESS
(Joss Whedon) answered every single criticism that
may have had about that two hour pilot
and they didn't even look at it."
Minear, co-executive producer, Firefly
after additional shooting ordered by the powers
at Fox quoted on Cinefantastique's Web Site (cfq.com)
They didn't even look at it.
and TV shows are driven by money or rather the potential
for said movie or show to generate money in the form of
box office, merchandising or advertising. But aren't we
just a little 'head hung low' over those Fox Execs' casual
but appalling indifference? Joss Whedon, one of the foremost
practitioners of quality US Film and TV, is allowed to re-submit
(and shoot additional scenes for) his Firefly
pilot to please Fox's powers that be and they're too busy
orally massaging the lower regions of the body Dollar to
even look at the man's work? Fuck art. Ya gotta admire the
cojones of commerce. Considering how close those cojones
would be in front of the commissioners while they were on
their knees, admiring them is not difficult.
production of Firefly, Whedon submitted
a pitch for the new Batman movie and came
away from the meeting, head in hands, moaning "How
many more lessons do I need to learn that the machine doesn't
care about the creative process? I got back to my office
and found out Firefly was cancelled and
I was like, 'OK, maybe one more lesson.'" (SFX
– December 2003). Whedon's enormous and fervent success
that was Buffy meant only one thing to
those behind Buffy's budgets. He had, in
a business sense, delivered warm, admiring and moneyed bodies
to the glass teat (a nod to Harlan Ellison there) so they
could be sold stuff they don't need. He delivers the crowds
– that is the only thing that matters in Hollywood. It really
It REALLY is.
(and this has been true for decades longer than you imagine)
the correct definition of 'cinema' is 'a purveyor of vastly
overpriced sugar water, popped corn and assorted sugar based
confectionary using flickering images as a lure'. The irony
here is that it's the actual movies that are the 'commercials'
for the stuff that really generates the profit. Popcorn
is the single biggest marked up item for sale in the world.
If you buy £10's worth of the stuff at the box office,
it has cost the supplier one tenth of a penny. That's for
real; the mark up is 10,000 percent. You've got to hand
it to the bastards. Their passionate forefathers made us
fall in love with an art form and their suited descendants
made us sugar slaves to pay for it.
corporate machine has about as much empathy with the artists
who keep that machine fed as Rupert Murdoch does (whoops,
'did') with typesetters. Whedon said while pitching Batman "they looked at me like I was a video fish bowl."
(SFX – December 2003.) However
much you loved anything that came out of Hollywood, that
movie or TV show was not allowed its existence with any
emotion attached that wasn't related in blood to avarice
and greed. Of course, passion is the impetus of any project
(unless it's Patch Adams) but once in the
birth canal other hands are waiting to molest it. The delivery
room is sterile and conservative. For the baby to live,
it has to distinguish itself (or make money) and preferably
both. In fact that's not true. It simply has to make money
or be seen to have such potential. It seems that Fox saw
too much Bonanza and not enough bonanza
in Firefly when what they wanted was...
Who knows? Not 'a western'. No one knows what works which
is why TV and Movie land is such an odd place. Success cannot
be calculated in advance. But tougher sells need corporate
passion (it can happen) and Fox really did not know what
those shows that make it over here, shows at which we swoon
for their wit, invention and satire, every Simpsons,
Buffy and West Wing ,
filler, the lot of them. Filler for the commercials. They
are prime examples of the greatness of American television
but in the colder climes of show BUSINESS, they are the
commercials' 'commercials'. We'll be right back to sell
you stuff you don't need but first here's Martin Sheen being
liberal, Sarah Michelle-Gellar coming over all 'kick ass'
and Homer delivering such gems as "Lisa, just because
I don't care, doesn't mean I don't understand..." Now
is that just a dandy example of the mentality Whedon deals
with on a daily basis? Who'd bother? I'm so glad folk like
Whedon, Sorkin and Groening do. We're a much richer culture
Buffy ran for seven years because it was consistently profitable.
So what next? The corporate dictum is that if you find a
talent who can deliver the masses, then you ask them for
a sequel. "Mr. Whedon, please produce another TV show
that brings a wide demographic to the glass teat. Make the
masses return." Whedon went off in a perverse direction
(he went west, I believe) but it was still Whedon so the
context of the show was hardly crucial (except of course
to the networks who commissioned it). If you pay money for
Joss Whedon, you get a Joss Whedon show. I mean, read Fray,
Whedon's futuristic vampire slayer comic. Like Brighton
rock, his voice is stamped all the way through it. This
means (whatever coat – brown or otherwise – it's dressed
up in) you get a liberal, humanist, emotionally challenging
and damn exciting approach. It means wit by the Serenity-load,
story-telling of the highest calibre and it means a genuine
and honest emotional connection to an audience. That's Whedon.
Whedon works within sf writer Theodore Sturgeon's law –
that there is 96% of crap in the universe and only 4% worth
anything. Whedon is a four-percenter regardless of genre.
Fox surrendered the rights, Universal moved in and enticed
Whedon to fashion a film from the ashes of the TV show but
a movie is so, so different. Firefly was
designed to be 100 hours long, not 100 minutes. And the
demands of a movie are so different to those of a weekly
TV show. Joss Whedon is extraordinary and I will be in line
for Serenity the Movie but the 14 episodes (all
10 hours of it) have a different life and rhythm of their
own. So we have the DVD box set and that is a DAMN GOOD
thing. And I'm actually learning to say 'ain't'.
Part Two – SHOW business
the show that works is the show that had a vision."
Whedon, creator, FIREFLY
quoted in SFX magazine, No. 112, Christmas 2003
So what was the briefly lived but rabidly resurrected Firefly
a lone bunch of misfits led by an embittered but sentimental
man, rallying against the mighty governmental forces that
have swatted him down. Imagine he wanders the galaxy in
a bulbous backside-lit ship. The name with which it's been
christened has a sentimental attachment to its captain.
The internal dramatic conflict between the characters is
usually enough for any TV drama but every now and again,
the crew get to schmooze on some planet. Remind you of anything?
Blake's 7 maybe? Hell, Firefly
is Reynolds' 9!
hold Blake in some high regard but prayed
– after recent viewings – that in an alternative universe
they could have been blessed with the luxury of a twentieth
of Firefly's budget – hell, 'a' budget would have been a
start. Blake was always about the strength
of its ideas and the characters and scripts were uniformly
good. What let it down was the paucity of budget (and the
fight scenes were classic 70s RADA – a few light years from
even remotely convincing).
have a theory – not a quote from the delectable Sondheim-inspired
Buffy, Once More With Feeling.
Whedon was able to fold over almost every genre of every
movie into the glorious mix that was Buffy the Vampire
Slayer. One genre resisted the formula. Resolutely.
So maybe he figured, screw it. "I love westerns, so..."
so Joss created Firefly. Firefly
is a really odd bird of a series but, hell, does it grow
on you. To the American audiences at first, it must have
seemed significantly odder. Fox didn't like the pilot and
screened a more action-oriented episode as the series' opener.
This sent a none too subtle message throughout the industry
– 'troubled show'. Luckily, the running order is preserved
on the DVD and Firefly unfolds highlighting
a common narrative device (a number of diverse characters
travel on a ship) contained in a universe (a 'verse) with
its own mega-swear word ('Goram') and a whole host of Chinese
expletives for characters to spew when stressed to the max.
This is Blake's world. Black suited anonymous
'Alliance' soldiers pepper the show (to all and sundry,
the Federation, by any other name) and there's even a Travis
parallel, the ageing and sadistic Niska who enjoys torture
and pain as some enjoy using pillows.
is also the mystifying 'western' format that means – as
well as the beautifully designed ship 'Serenity' – we get
ranges, horses, six shooters, waistcoats and rustlers. Why?
I can only think of Whedon's penchant for westerns and how
a frontier mentality may have caused technically super-efficient
off-world terra-forming mankind of 2502 to denounce spandex
and get into leather again. Some of the delights of Firefly
(a brutal thug piloting an exquisite hover car while horses
gallop next to him) also serve as things that pull up casual
viewers. Why the western format? Joss never really answers
definitively. You either go with it or it grates every time
the John Waynisms share frame space with Kubrickian science.
Oh, the delight in space uncrowded by the blast of sound
effects. In Whedon's space, the twang of western strings
is the only sound you hear.
Whedon's own admission, the mission statement (apologies
to Slarek) of the show is to drop a pebble in the waters
occupied by nine very different characters and see how the
nine react. Firefly is 90% character. Plot
with twists and functional narrative are above the line
quality but it's the characters that hook you. How about
this for a mix:
irascible self-styled captain who fought on the right
but losing side of an interstellar war. He served
his time WITH;
right hand woman, a fighter, fiercely loyal to her
captain who nonetheless is MARRIED to; the pilot who
is Whedon's alter ego (has to be). Think Albert Brooks
in delivery and wit. The pilot is reliant on his Scotty;
sweet round faced girl who hears engines talking to
her metaphorically of course;
last and outwardly least (but even he grows on you)
there's the brutish mercenary who's in to nothing
without personal gain attached. Hell, he even screws
over his crew-mates on a regular basis.
Malcolm Reynolds, Zoë, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne form
the crew of Serenity. The passengers are a wonderfully mixed
bag, in short, a doctor, a paranoid schizophrenic, a courtesan
and a preacher. Ain't TV grand? Aside from the pilot, a
wonderful scene at the start of the episode Our Mrs
Reynolds (all nine crew members faced with an accidental
marriage) is Firefly character writing
at its most sublime. There is subtext at every line and
it's heartbreakingly funny. The captain says as an aside
"How drunk was I last night?" Helpfully, his soldier
crew-mate Jayne makes the situation better with "I
dunno. I passed out."
since another significantly more evil preacher casually
stabbed a potential slayer in the stomach in series seven
of Buffy, I've had my eye on Nathan Fillion.
He has all the characteristics of a straight laced western
hero but he plays off his overt masculinity and that twinkle
in his eyes. The man has comic timing by the wagon-load
and his shuffling large framed amiable rogue-ishness is
terribly endearing. Let's not forget the accent. On Fillion,
it's the real deal. It's only when it's coming out of George
Dubya's mouth it sounds phoney.
marriage in a prime time TV show? How extraordinary. They
have sex. How unbelievable. They have good sex. My, my.
They are happy. Now we know we're in fantasy land. The networks
urged Whedon to drop the married couple (how can a potential
buyer of Coca Cola identify with a married couple? That's
for grown ups). Yeah? And so is Firefly.
Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoë (Gina Torres) work so well,
it's heartbreaking to know this show is no more. Wash's
off the wall surreal banter beautifully dovetails with Zoë's
down to earth soldiering attitude. The fact that they are
a black and white couple is also something that gives me
hope for America. Almost 40 years ago, a white man kissed
a black woman on TV – a first (take a bow, Star
Trek) but it's still an aspect of 21st century
life that TV can push. With the less successful (dramatically
speaking) pairing of Gunn and Fred in Whedon's Angel,
Joss is doing his bit for pluralism.
(Adam Baldwin) is the resident shifty mercenary but he plays
the Cordelia role in Firefly. He blossoms
against stereotype because Whedon never lets him lose his
Jayne-ness. He's a bastard and throughout the series he
stays a bastard. Characters who are 'real' rarely exist
in mainstream US movies and TV because of this obsession
with 'arcs'. Characters have to change because events have
to make a difference. Most people die with the unchanged
beliefs they wired in at the age of seven. Jayne couldn't
be anything other than himself. He's a bastard and that's
a bastard of a coup to pull off – creator, writer and actor-wise.
Baldwin is a consistent joy. He only has to react to anything
and it's priceless.
nine characters, one or two sometimes get hidden in the
narrative but Whedon and Minear seem to serve up stories
that allow each character to have their moment each show.
'The brilliant engineer' is a sf staple (a cliché
even) so Whedon's subverted that by casting Kaylee (Jewel
Staite) as a bright eyed innocent girl, buffeted this way
and that by the rough edges of everyone else but she holds
her own being Serenity's heart. Her introduction to the
ship (in Out of Gas) is memorable if only because
it's during a sex scene behind ajarred doors.
far one of the more interesting re-occurring characters
is River (Summer Glau), the Alliance-operated-on, mind reading
paranoid schizophrenic fugitive. It's all go on Serenity,
isn't it? I fell for River when she told the preacher that
the Bible was 'broken'. Priceless. It's such a shame Whedon
cannot tell us all he had planned for this girl as her 'arcs'
(arc-phooey) were likely to have been planned to the nth
degree. Yes, she is capable of doing anything bizarre at
anytime (which gives the writers enormous freedoms) but
the consistency of performance is quite rewarding. She steals
a scene in Safe in which she suddenly hones in
on a hoe down and dances free of care. It is one of the
more erotic and playful scenes I've seen on a TV show since
Angel fed off Buffy at the end of the third season.
after River is the doctor, her brother Simon (Sean Maher).
His privileged background makes him the outsider on the
ship and his knack of saying exactly the wrong thing keeps
Kaylee at a distance when she really wants to be close.
It's a tough role to pull off. He has to be aloof, superior,
inordinately caring and also carrying the psychology of
a man on the run (as he has ripped his very important sister
free from the Alliance's scalpels and lasers). Simon's Ivy
League looks underline the character. He's the moneyed crewmember,
the only one with no dirt under his fingernails.
(Morena Baccarin) has broken a few taboos. I believe she
is the first prostitute with a reoccurring role on a prime
time TV show. Fancy that? Everyone does but her heart belongs
to the only man who doesn't know that yet (who else but
the captain). Inara is a very hard part to play. Baccarin
has to look like a woman who may make a living from high
class prostitution. She has to exude the confidence of a
woman who choses her own clientele. At this she is completely
convincing. What Baccarin has in common with some of the
best actors around is that they know the value of stillness
in a performance.
there's the preacher, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). Religion
out on the fringes may be unrealistic (after all, Firefly's
playground is heaven itself) but the gravitas that Glass
brings to his role is admirable and never less than entertaining.
Many famous dramatic aetheists cannot help but fold religion
into their drama. Oolon Coloophid springs to mind. I never
did get around to read "Who Is This God Person Anyway?"
I can't imagine Whedon observes any religious discipline
but if we have to have a man of God, then Book fits the
bill. And you've got to love the hair.
is shot in a moderately modernist style. A lot of hand held
camerawork and the special effects often have a documentary
feel to them (focus pulls, snatched camera moves, as if
the ships were real). The FX of the Reaver ship falling
through the sky spewing out huge black smoke plumes is an
image that bears repeating. As we now come to expect modern
CG used properly looks wonderful. The 35mm, 16x9 transfer
is suitably retro (Whedon hunted down old lenses specifically
for their faults) and the grading/shooting of Out of
Gas is especially noteworthy. The underscoring is good
although at the time, there were significant 'borrowings'
from Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard's score for Gladiator.
Hell, steal from the best and watch out when movie score
nuts like myself recognise a bar or two.
despite the bells and whistles and the oddly jarring but
satisfying 'western' with space ships production concept,
the writing and characters that Whedon and his writers have
created are supremely entertaining. The one liners dazzle:
the days of me not taking you seriously are coming to a
it's the characters you take away with you, the detail and
richness of nine different points of view, each taking their
specific cultures 'into the black'. The ensemble acting
is about as flawless as you'll see on TV (The Big
Chill in space?) and for that to be (a) in its
first season and (b) on a cancelled show (the actors and
crew knew during the latter shoots that the show had been
axed) is quite unique. We won't see Firefly's
like again so lap up the box set.
have to excuse me now. I have The Passion of Christ
on 35mm, Firefly has been graded to mimic
Whedon's beloved westerns of the 70s. Just check out the
flare in the opening scene of Our Mrs Reynolds.
But the problem with flare is that it screws up the DVD
encoding process something fierce. So you get a many circular
banded wipe out. Otherwise, the DVD picture quality is sharp
and the colour (mostly brown!) is vibrant and rich, even
if the box set is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic wide
screen format following the Buffy wide
sound is a solid Dolby Digital transfer with a constant
atmospheric signal to keep the rear speakers happy. There
are a few forward to back activity (notably Whedon's credit
at the end of the main titles) but it's not a showy soundtrack
and for Firefly that's a good thing.
seven Commentaries are rich, funny
and entertainments in their own rights. All the bullshit
you read about TV shows creating families and every one
having so much respect for each other blah blah. Sorry.
Here's it's true. Again. The pairings of the cast and crew
giving commentaries are also episode specific which feels
right. And yes, the actors are as dry and funny as their
characters. It was also a little thrill to hear Fillion
and Tudyk start singing the main theme on their commentary
track to War Stories, something I have been doing
so often in the last four weeks, my son is humming it. I
also appreciate the main players name checking their less
glamorous crew members. One in particular struck home with
me. I know the set decorator David Koneff and it was good
of Whedon to mention him in the commentary to Serenity
Gag Reel is fun – starting off
nicely with Fillion wanting to know how to 'turn the fucking
rest of the Special Features are solid, kind of 'do what
they say on the can' sort of extras.
How It Was – The Making Of...The 10th Character – Serenity
Tour of the Set
Joss sings Firefly Theme
Alan Tudyk's audition
Four Deleted Scenes
of the deleted scenes was an alternative opening to the
entire series which would have had the show follow a much
darker route via the Captain. I like what was re-shot but
once, just once, it would be nice to give a series-maker
complete autonomy. It's what I call the George Harrison
principle. The Beatle really wanted to see Life
of Brian so just gave 'em the money and trusted
the Pythons to deliver the movie...
there's no damn trust anymore...