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posted by [personal profile] mmoa_writes at 02:03pm on 15/11/2011 under , , , ,
In that great and noble tradition of science students everywhere, due to the fact I am currently running an experiment (a really cool little simulation of linguistic evolution), I will use my time explaining in mind numbing, petty detail just what I thought about the last thing I watched instead of doing data analysis or catching up on sleep.

So, my initial impression of Firefly was that it was rather mediocre. On the whole not very good, but not especially awful. I watched the entire first series, after all, and unlike, say, 'Outcasts', this was because I wanted to see where the series would go rather than because I felt it would be dishonourable not to watch the entire series before being mean about it. It piqued my interest, and that is one of the good things about it. It's intriguing.

Other good things included the acting and the special effects. Perhaps I'm just reading too much into it, but I got the feeling that the cast all enjoyed working together and exploring their characters which I've always thought helps to make the audience more emotionally involved. Even if you think a particular work is bad, if there's a sense that it's something precious to someone you're willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Like I said, the effects were fine though I'll be honest and say I don't care much about special effects in general. If they're great, that's amazing, but one only notices they're bad when the story is bad first.

On the other hand, probably because I'm English and am used to special effects that would look out of date in the 80s, but perhaps I just have my standards set too low.

The actors - and the actors alone - were what saved Firefly from being utterly abysmal. They were brilliant, bringing life to sometimes fairly clunky dialogue and rendering new dimensions to what were essentially 2-D cutouts. There's the main crew who include a captain who's dark and conflicted and realistic except that he isn't, a loyal subordinate who's loyal (and definitely one of the better characters there), her husband who pilots the ship and likes dinosaurs (again, one of the better characters though it was hard to forget the memories of his earlier incarnation in 'A Knights Tale'), a spunky engineer and the buff dumb heavy weapons guy (minus a Russian accent) who are joined by a runaway doctor (who can't swear! How gosh darn upper class!) and his ca-raazy (CRAZY!) sister and a Shepherd (this particular future's version of a priest of the Christian faith. Which tradition? Who knows. His theology is too woeful to be C/catholic/Orthodox and he's too bearable to be a Reformation-hopping anabaptist). Nothing particularly original which should mean the writers would have more time to deal with the interesting bits as we are pretty familiar with these types but unfortunately not.

Ah, well.

I will also say that I did find the basic idea behind the world of Firefly very interesting. Though the idea of a Chinese dominated futuristic culture is actually rather dated in terms of futurologist speculation, it is an idea that hasn't been put into consideration in a futuristic sci-fi TV show to the extent that Mr. Whedon has done, and for that, as they say on the streets of Lagos, I dey salute-o Mr. Whedon. It was an interesting premise, not particularly well delivered but admirable nonetheless.

Now, the main point of criticism I have concerns the world-building, but before I get onto that, I'm going to ramble on some other things I had a bit of a problem with.

Firstly, the script. I know I said the actors did an amazing job at selling it, but no one is so good that even a borderline illiterate peasant such as myself couldn't tell the script was fairly woeful. It sounded rather like the dialogue from a certain type of YA science fiction/fantasy novel, where someone has to explain some quirk of society/history in a manner that would be fine if that person were a trained anthropologist or historian except they aren't so it's just weird and embarrassing like they've admitted to having piles or something. Even more annoying, people had the tendency to explain themselves as though they were case studies from a textbook of Psychoanalysis 101 rather than real people. I think the last straw came in episode 7, 'Jaynestown', where the overseer of a clay plant not only thought it necessary to tell us that most of the workers were indentured (*gasp!*) but explains why he has indentured workers (what would you know, it's something to do with maximising profits. Who would have thought? I mean, really? My mind is blown by this insight into capitalism in action, Mr. Whedon. Blown), as though it weren't obvious from the general demeanour of the workers that these aren't exactly people with a pension plan written into their contracts.

Reader, I died.

In general I found the script to be much to 'on the nose', an expression I have never really understood - and still couldn't explain precisely what it means to be honest - until I watched this series. The use of Chinese peppered here and there should have been good in theory but just didn't quite work for me. Firstly, I could have done with some subtitles but barring that, I don't think it's much of a success when you make another language sound like nonsensical babble, even to someone who is used to listening to (though alas not quite comprehending) said language. Indeed, my other problem with the Chinese was that it seemed to be used by the wrong type of people, but that's an issue I'll cover when I get to the world building  fail, sorry, aspect.

The direction and the score did not help matters either. I got the impression - and I could have been mistaken - that Firefly was meant to be taken seriously as a piece of 'realistic' science fiction drama. Now, an inadequate script is one thing, but coupled with a fairly appalling score and you have a farce, not a drama. It was hard not to start giggling - in fact, I often did - at a bit of dialogue apparently played straight that came across as spoof thanks to music that better suited Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman than a bit of pseudo-steampunk drama:

ust realised how much I used to enjoy watching this show late at night on SKY. Brings back memories. You heard it here, Dr Quinn Medicine Woman >>> Firefly.

The direction was occasionally very good and innovative but generally pretty staid which is fine for bog standard television drama but could have been used to greater effect to highlight the sense of realism.

However, realism, like so much else, is in the eyes of the viewer. As is what makes a good character. On this issue I, as with just about every single issue I had with Firefly, am definitely in the minority, but what am I to do? In for a penny in for a pound.

To cover the good things first, I really liked Zoe and Wash. I could have had a show with those two as the central characters and everyone else with a bit part for an episode or two (Mal would be the sad ex-comrade that Zoe would meet in the penultimate episode, with a bionic leg and cyborg eye, drunk on cheap gin to escape the nightmares that he suffers as symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. No, I'm not really being serious as that would have been terrible and exploitative but still better than anything they thought of... *grumbles*) it would have been amazing. Perhaps Kaylee could have been thrown into the mix and maybe even Jayne, but only for a shoot out that would end after two seconds with a bullet from Zoe's gun in his cranium.

Jayne was the usual adult-geek fantasy of all the jocks who were mean to them at school (it's a very American sort of thing isn't it? This sort of nerd revenge fantasy is rather tiresome, I have to admit, but I suppose we all have to get our jollies somewhere, even if it is in writing boring stereotypes) who came complete with a hat knitted by his mum (aww...?) and a gun with a girls name. Inara (who I also liked, by the way, though the whole Companion thing is not only problematic but makes no sense) is the high class prostitute type who occasionally pop up in these liberal male Western fantasies of what a sexually enlightened culture would look like. River is the stock CRAZY slip of a girl with the body mass of a stick insect who's a bit of a savant (but a CRAZY savant) - like a poor man's Luna Lovegood but in space where everyone is dressed like cowboys. SHE EVEN DOES CARTWHEELS, bloody hell -  and says weird and creepy things in a dreamy tone of voice because it's weird and creepy and as she is weird and creepy she has to do that in order for you to know she is weird and creepy (or creepy and weird. Whichever works best for you). 

Mr Whedon is an intelligent guy but she is very much a stupid persons idea of what a smart person sounds like. Considering her strangeness -  depicted as an intertwining accompaniment to her supposed 'intelligence' - has been there since she was a child, I couldn't tell if River was Mr. Whedon attempting - and failing - to portray an autistic woman or a woman turned 'autistic'/fey by the procedures of mystery performed upon her at the Academy. Either way, there was just so much... wrong with it, it spread over everything the character touched. Indeed, the real mystery is how Simon could tell there was something wrong with her at all. Girl-River seemed just as otherworldly as Woman-River complete with the irritating ability to regurgitate dictionary entries and speak in anagrams and riddles.

Perhaps that's what the Academy wanted from her brain. Clues for the next hundred years worth of cryptic crosswords.

I have a real problem with these sort of female characters by the way. They are usually priestesses or seers in fantasy films where they are less disturbing if only because those tend to be the sort of works with other more problematic aspects to worry about. These days, they tend to be the stock 'quirky' female character in low budget indie films. It's all rather redolent of the 'woman in the attic' trope without the context (and thus sympathy) of the original setting. The fact that they tend to be written by men makes me wonder if the problem here isn't just the usual miscommunication between the sexes - no my good man, she isn't being mysterious and quirky, she's being polite and finds you boring. She just says weird things because she needs to entertain herself and/or wants you to shut up. Sorry but it's true. Now leave her alone.

There's also her brother, a doctor by the name of Simon who is stuck up and, you know, a bit of a snob (probably as a result of watching 'A Game of Thrones' beforehand, I thought he and River were incestuous lovers for some reason. There was just something a little off about their relationship that I found interesting and genuinely uncomfortable but alas that turned out to be a red herring or, most likely, due to severe issues on my part) and the Shepherd who is religious and incidentally was God's cousin in 'Teen Angel', a criminally underrated comedy that used to be on the Disney channel a few years back:

I personally thought that the writers missed a very good opportunity with River and Simon. There was a chance to explore the tension that can exist in a group made up of people with such different backgrounds, in terms of race/culture (the actors are Caucasian which was due to the audition tests but in terms of the series, the Tams could be read as an originally Han Chinese family, in the same way as you get people in England with French surnames due to a Huguenot great-great-grandwhatsit), class (the Tams are distinctly upper-middle class with the mercenary streak of the innate social climber. It takes one to know one) and politics (Tams==Alliance. Mal/Zoe==ConfederatesBrowncoats). I was expecting the Tams to be much more Chinese (or at least Firefly-future Chinese), representative of the apparent dominant culture to a larger extent than the itinerant pirates (who, incidentally, really should have had their own dialect rather than the occasional Chinese swearword. In fact, I'd expect the Chinese to come from the Tams and other middle-/upper class characters rather than Mal and his motley crew, and even then more than just a few rude words.

The Tams are Firefly's resident fish out of water types, and Shepherd the naive man of God who goes into real world for which he is ill equipped (and, if it had continued, halfway through the second series would get his faith challenged and/or lose it). Personally, I thought Shepherd was a good example of just why writers should stick to writing what they know as it seems people really do have a problem with writing a character with a perspective that they just don't share. Shepherd was unnecessary anyway but I could have done without the liberal secular humanist interpretation of a non-fundamentalist religious person as it was pretty irritating. 

There's a marvellous bit in Jaynestown where River is ripping out sections of the Bible as they contradict each other/don't make sense and when Shepherd catches her he says something like "You don't fix Faith; Faith fixes you." Now, ignoring the fact that Faith!=the Bible and the question of why, for someone who's read so much, River isn't even slightly acquainted with traditional biblical hermeneutics, (yes, believe it or don't, traditional is not the same as fundamentalist) I completely understand that as religious-speak goes, to someone who isn't religious, that's about as sensible as anything else us lot come out with but then, why not just have Shepherd being struck dumb as befits an idiot religious person by the idea that oh no the Bible contradicts itself and then we can all high five each other and rejoice in the awesome wisdom of Mr. Whedon, philosopher and man of letters. I mean, we already had the fundamentalist cult people who were willing to burn River for being psychic (I loled) without a trial. I really don't need any patronising attempts to writing a 'good' religious person. It's fine, really. 

Throughout the series, I did find Shepherd's sheltered naivety and foolish as opposed to good-hearted (a la Kaylee) optimism (there's a shootout where he says, pre-gunslinging, "nobody's going to die" and I was so exasperated, I farted. Didn't you know it's a sin to lie or are you really that out of it? He should have been preparing for performing hasty last rites en masse and getting a medical staff organised, what the hell) off-kilter with his no doubt shady past and his role as a sort of pastor. I mean, I do understand that one might initially think someone trained in a monastery would be that type but that's the sort of idea typical of someone who hasn't actually spent much time around people in those sort of religious roles. From experience, if anyone gets just how messed up the world is, how horrible and nasty people can be, it tends to be them.

The only genuinely original character is Kaylee who I grew very fond of because it's a refreshing change to have a character who is simply nice and whose niceness and overwhelming generosity informs every aspect of her personality from her skills as an engineer to her sexuality. But, as with Inara and the whole institutionalised prostitution thing, I found Kaylee to be an example of a very specific level of empowerment. For someone who complained about not having enough sex, and never expressed any desire for emotional intimacy or any negative opinions about Inara's line of work, I found it interesting that apart from an initial observation that there were some rather nice looking male prostitutes available at Nandi's ranch in episode 13, 'A Heart of Gold', she isn't shown as taking up the opportunity. Now of course, maybe she just wasn't interested but not only would it have been a contrast to Jayne with his smiling and squealy (but conveniently mute) obedient blonde with a naff corset and show us something about her character rather than hearing her simply telling us about it, but it would have helped take her as some supposedly sexually liberated character a bit more seriously rather than a signpost of Mr. Whedon's awe inspiring feminism. In fact, speaking of a specific level of sexual empowerment/enlightenment, it's interesting how we're never shown Jayne paying for services rendered. No doubt he was just too irresistible.

Talk about blind spots.
As for Inara, that can be hashed out in the next post which will probably be titled '[personal profile] mmoa_writes' 101 insignificant, contradictory and petty problems with the world building in Firefly' but I thought she was overall decent as a character. Her crush on Mal was a bit embarrassing but what crush isn't? We've all been there, amirite?
Anyway. I think I've spent too long talking about things that, of all the things that bothered me, didn't really bother me that much. I'm going to toddle off, run more simulations and try and catch up on the past few lectures on Superconductors and whatnot. 

And yes, I didn't go much into Mal's character because he was such a pain in the derriere, just thinking about it sends me into such a tizzy I couldn't write any critique in an even moderately coherent fashion.

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