Five Lessons From Firefly

Serenity

Recently, my wife and I became the last two humans on the planet to finish watching the TV show Firefly and its companion film, Serenity. My verdict? Pretty much the same as everyone else’s: a lovely, epic little show, and it’s a shame it couldn’t have been a lovely, epic big show.

As a writer, I am also a scavenger, pawing over others’ creative works with dirty fingers for any nuggets of nourishment I can salvage. I thought the writing in Firefly was excellent, and the show has been rattling around in my brain for a while now, so let’s see if I can’t come up with five takeaways from Joss Whedon’s short-lived endeavor:

1. Characters are the foundation. The backstory’s intriguing, the plot turns and twists, the worldbuilding is thoughtful, the ship is cool. But the heart of Firefly is its characters. They’re active: they have strong opinions and strong feelings they aren’t afraid to follow. (Or rather, sometimes they are afraid, but they act anyway.) They’re consistent and distinct: you get a feel for exactly who each person is, and you know that if they change, there will be a reason. And they’re all bottled up on a tiny ship together, which makes for plenty of interesting conflict.

Can you do a good show that’s founded on a plot or an idea, rather than characters? Yeah, you can. But I think it gets tricky, because then you’re trying to make the people obey the needs of some other element, and it can be hard to make that believable.

2. Good vs. evil is murky. You don’t always know who’s right and who’s wrong in Firefly. The Alliance isn’t always bad, the captain isn’t always good. (I mean, okay, the Reavers are pretty much always bad, but stay with me.) The important thing, I think, is that you have somebody to root for. Even if the audience isn’t sure where they are ethically, as long as they’re on somebody’s side, they can stay engaged. Importantly, though, Firefly doesn’t sweep the ethical issues under the rug – it all gets talked about.

3. Story comes before message, always. I love Star Trek: The Next Generation a lot, but I admit they would sometimes do this really irritating type of episode where the whole point is for the characters and the audience to Learn Something, such as Don’t Hurt The Environment, or Civil Liberties Are Important. Firefly, thankfully, avoids this. Yeah, there are lessons, and sometimes they’re even made explicit; I’m thinking of the Jaynestown episode, in which Mal opines “…every man ever got a statue made of him was one kind of sumbitch or another.” But the lessons never come at the expense of the story.

4. Diversity isn’t just a corporate buzzword. One of the beautiful things about Firefly was how different everyone was: race, age, and gender being the obvious ones, but also of background, personality, class, and pretty much every other way that people can vary. This is a good thing – not because Diversity Is Special, but because it makes the characters more interesting, characters being the foundation and all.

5. Early reviews were not kind. Firefly is perhaps the most beloved sci fi show of the past decade, so it’s easy to forget that not everyone was a fan at first. According to Wikipedia (the source of all knowledge), “Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle felt that the melding of the western and science fiction genres was a ‘forced hodgepodge of two alarmingly opposite genres just for the sake of being different.'” He went on to call the show “a vast disappointment.” Others criticized it too, for various reasons. Remember, it’s a long road to love, and bad reactions early on can often give way to warmth as the audience slowly “gets it.” (Or not. The story’s gotta be, you know, good.)

Seen Firefly? Any thoughts worth sharing? Leave ’em in the comments!

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11 responses to “Five Lessons From Firefly

  1. 6. Chinese is hard to pronounce. And the Firefly actors were really, really bad at it. Lol.

  2. Even the Reavers had their moment as a force for good.

    A fun game is to try to see how the movie would have been broken up had it remained episodic. It’s a good lesson on how to make every scene move plot and remain entertaining in its own right

  3. Firefly ftw!

    It seems strange with all the grassroots love and adoration with the cult following it has that no studio (that I’ve heard of) has really thought long and hard about trying to revive it, with all the reboots and less interesting shows out there. Maybe some day…

  4. I didn’t see “Firefly” when it was on the air. My (then-) boyfriend (now-husband) showed it to me when he bought it on DVD. We’d just plowed through four of the five “Babylon 5” seasons, when we swerved to watch this instead.

    My initial reaction was, “This is okay, but ‘B5’ is better.”

    But as I watched more of the show, that changed. I still like “Babylon 5” (and I still need to see the 5th season and the related movies) but I grew to love “Firefly” deeply. Not in the obsessed-Whedon-fan way (I still haven’t seen “Buffy”, I’ve only seen a smattering of “Angel”, and I’ve no interest in “Dollhouse”. “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog” was fantastic though.), but in a “I am so very interested in these characters and their stories” way.

    Fortunately, the stories continue through comic books, or, at least, they *were*. I’m not 100% sure they still are.

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