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Rising again.

Can we add “Utterly incompetent” to Fox’s new motto of “Wholly without merit”? I’m talking about the entertainment division, here, not the news division—though Lord knows there’s hardly been a difference, really. (Surely the only value derived from the Fox News Channel is a jagged, adrenaline-laden form of entertainment? Calisthenics for one’s rage? Like being chased by a pit-bull on one’s morning jog…) —After a couple of years of pre-empting Futurama at the drop of a second-string quarterback’s helmet, running new episodes unannounced in the dead of summer, at a 7 pm (or was it 7.30? No, wait, it’s 7 again. I think) timeslot that fit it about as well as its usual companion show, King of the Hill (a fine enough show in its own right, but what was the rationale? That they’re both cartoons?), after showing it so infrequently that the final season was stretched out over two broadcast years, Fox finally decided Futurama just wasn’t going to cut it. So they canned it.

The Cartoon Network picked it up. Showed reruns at the same time on a regular day. Promoted it. It’s a huge hit for them. Re-runs on TNT ain’t doing too shabby either. The DVDs are selling like hotcakes. “I think we came in ninth place twice in the past few weeks on just a random rerun at 11 pm on Cartoon Network,” said executive producer David Cohen to TV Guide recently. “And this is including broadcast TV. It’s astounding what a little promotion and regular airing will do for you. Maybe Fox is feeling a twang of remorse. Hopefully.”

Perhaps moreso, now that the Firefly movie is good to go.

Sci fi (and I use the Ellisonian bête-noir advisedly) is in a slump on television right now; westerns (horse-operas? oaters?) are non-existant. So the times perhaps weren’t auspicious for a sci-fi–western hybrid, for all that it came from the pen of (little director’s viewfinder-thingie of?) fanboy god Joss Whedon. Nonetheless, that’s precisely what Fox put out last year: and then they shelved the original pilot, ordering Whedon and his partner Tim Minear to whip out a Great Train Robbery riff instead, over a long weekend; then they proceeded to pre-empt episodes at the drop of a baseball glove, showed them out of order, skimped on promotion, and when they decided the ratings just weren’t impressive enough, they killed it with three finished episodes yet to air.

Firefly has since become a hit in Canada and England (and Mexico, and Denmark, and Australia, and South Africa, and…). The DVD collection of all 14 filmed episodes hasn’t officially gone on the market, but available pre-orders have sold out at Amazon—where it was apparently no. 3 on the sales ranking chart for a while. And there is the aforementioned movie deal. Over at Universal, instead of Fox. Cue Nelson-esque “Haw haw!”

I’m of two minds on the subject. On the one hand: yay. Firefly was just about the best SF television had produced in, well, a hell of a long time—only Farscape can give it a run for its money, but it took Farscape a year to hit its stride, and Firefly only got 11 (aired) episodes. (Deep Space 9—far and away the best of the Treks—had trouble sustaining runs of good shows, and only occasionally hit Firefly’s mark, much less the mark of Firefly’s potential. —Being unable to stomach wooden acting and leaden Arthurian parallels, yr. humble correspondent cannot adequately assess Babylon 5’s impact. Though he will allow as how those two alien ambassador guys had their moments.) The look of the show was a bracing mix of soleil noir—sort of what The Fifth Element was trying to do to Blade Runner—spaghetti-lite western, and Alien’s lived-in industrial æsthetic. Whedon’s ear for dialogue (and, by extension, that of his usual stable of thoroughbreds) proved as adept at folksy westernisms (in space!) as it had at his patented whip-smart teenspeak. And the ensemble cast did an impressive job of keeping the nine main characters and their interwoven relationships sharp and clear. (Unless, of course, muzzy ambiguity was called for. Which it was.) The episode “Ariel” was an engagingly messy look at betrayal and its consequences; “Objects in Space” had some truly impressive stream-of-consciousness treatments of murky psionic powers (or madness?); “Out of Gas” is just triumphant; and that pilot Fox shelved, casting a pall of doom about the whole enterprise before it ever got out of the gate—I already said something about the best SF television has produced?

But at the same time, I worry that it’s a television idea, not a movie idea. For all that the details weren’t carefully worked out—were there hundreds of colonizable planets circling a single star? Or hundreds of star systems with a never-specified faster-than-light drive?—it was a world to be explored. The ship itself was a world: those nine interwoven characters require a broad canvas to have some give and take; someone is going to get short shrift in a mere feature-length movie. And Whedon was edging up, in his usually sneaky, self-deprecatory, junk-culture kick-ass way, to a Really Big Idea.

Whedon has cited in a number of interviews the effect his professor Richard Slotkin had on him at Wesleyan, and Slotkin’s book, Regeneration Through Violence. With Firefly, I think he was starting to play directly with those ideas in an edgily dicey manner. —Set 500 years in the future, the show’s political setting was a none-too-subtle recreation of our own post-Civil War Reconstruction: the Alliance of rich, industrialized central or core worlds had fought a war to quell the rebellious, rural, economically disadvantaged outer planets. The rebel “brown coats” had been put down, the frontier overwhelmed, the Union cemented, and now all our heroes can do is scrape by from job to job, keeping a low profile. It’s a standard western setting, troped up into the future, yes—but that doesn’t account for the chill that went down my spine when, in the (second) pilot, as our heroes engineer their last-minute getaway, Mal (the captain of the ship, a former rebel who still defiantly wears his brown coat), smiles and tosses a bon mot at the villains of the set-piece: “Oh,” he says, “we will rise again.”

Jesus, I thought. Does Whedon know what he’s playing with here?

After all, playing by the rules of the metaphor, Mal maps onto the Confederacy—the rebellious, rural, economically disadvantaged butternut-coats that lost. And he’s stubborn, proud, independent, self-reliant, a rugged, gun-totin’ he-man, whose moral gut regularly outvoted the niceties of his ethics, and who nicely filled out a tight pair of pants. He is, in many ways, the sort of ideal idolized by reactionaries and conservatives, and his beloved brown-coat rebellion was everything the neo-Confederates claim of the poor, put-upon, honorable South.

“Oh,” he says. “We will rise again.”

But! Mal was also rather explicitly something of an antihero. Whedon calls his politics “reactionary”—oh, heck, at the risk of derailing my sputtering argument, let me quote him at length:

Mal’s politics are very reactionary and “Big government is bad” and “Don’t interfere with my life.” And sometimes he’s wrong—because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can’t see that, because he was a Vietnamese.

And there’s the world Mal and his crew and fellow travelers play in, where the folksy talk is peppered with Cantonese slang. Women work as mechanics and fight in wars. The frontier isn’t romantic; it’s hardscrabble, nasty and brutal. The Alliance isn’t Evil, just banal, mostly—and what conflict and oppression we see is driven not by race or religion or (admittedly homogenized) ethnicity, but class and economics, pure and simple.

Whatever it is that’s going to rise again, it sure as hell doesn’t look like the neo-Confederate dreams of the South.

The last batch of westerns—Peckinpah, Leone, et al (and yes, I know morally ambiguous began with John Ford, at least; let’s keep this simple)—rather famously took the straight-shooting archetype of the morally upright western hero: the cowboy, the marshal—and turned his independence and integrity and self-reliance rather firmly inside-out. And that was a good and even necessary thing to do, and anyway it made some kick-ass movies. But in savaging the happy macho myths America had told itself back in the 1950s, in trying to cut away the swaggering pride and racism and cocksure aggrandizement that landed us in Vietnam, among other things, we went too far. Hokey as it might seem, there was a baby in that bathwater. And what I think Whedon was doing with his SF western was very deliberately walking up to the other side of the kulturkampf and taking their idea of a good man—the independence, the self-reliance, the folksy charm, the integrity (cited more in breach than practice by the Other Side, whose idea of self-reliance means I got mine, screw you—but I grow partisan, I digress)—he was taking that idea of a good person, a person capable of doing good things, and giving it back to us.

And that sort of dramaturgical working is big enough you want the long wide canvas of a TV show, you know? Not so much two hours at the multiplex. Which is why I worry.

(On the other other hand, the relative luxury of a filming schedule, as opposed to the hurry-up-and-on-to-the-next-week schedule of television production, could prove a boon; I’m keen to see what Whedon can do when he really stretches himself.)

There was more, but it’s late. I was going to point out the episode where Mal fights the duel for Inara’s honor on the planet with the swords and the courtly manners and the genteel chivalry and how that plays into all of this, but it deals with the weak point of Inara and my brain’s muzzy, and anyway the ep while zippy and fun wasn’t one of Jane Espenson’s finer moments. So I’ll end with a smattering of links: here’s the Nielsen site. It’s hard to say what part the noted deficiencies in their methodology might have played in undercounting Firefly’s audience; they weren’t facing a language barrier, after all. But there are stations revolting, and viewers as well, fed up with the damage wrought by the admitted shortcomings of their monopolistic methodology. (Yr. humble correspondent had at one point considered a comparison of the beleaguered television fan, unable to watch the shows she loves, with the beleaguered voter, unable to vote for the candidate she needs. This will, perhaps, be left for another day.) —And I’ve saved the best for last: here’s Tim Minear, executive producer, writer, and director, who months ago posted a brusquely moving elegy about the last days of filming the show.

Anyway. It’s late. I’m for bed.

  1. Beerzie Boy    Sep 5, 07:00 AM    #
    Check out some CNN "Fair and Balnaced" right here. I especially like this:

    CARLSON: Do you trust this president?

    [Britney] SPEARS: Yes, I do.

    CARLSON: Excellent. Do you think he's going to win again?

    Excellent?

  2. Ampersand    Sep 5, 02:18 PM    #
    Like you, I'm a bit leery about the Firefly movie; I think movies are just a less useful form for character-and-world development than movies. Still, when a pig flies, it seems ungrateful to complain that its flight path isn't the trajectory I would have preferred. That Whedon pulled off a deal to make a movie from a cancelled TV show is a miracle.

    Besides, who knows? If the movie's successful, maybe it'll lead to a TV show.

  3. Alas, a blog    Sep 5, 09:05 PM    #
    Some stuff Ampersand is reading lately.
    Kip at Long Story; Short Pier warms my geeky heart with the best geek-media news I've heard in a while: there will be a Firefly movie. If we're lucky, the movie will be so successful that they'll make a TV show out of it... Two good links from Kip's po...

  4. Population: One    Jan 2, 02:10 PM    #
    Lasso me a spaceship
    I finished up the Firefly DVDs yesterday. Overall I liked the show quite a bit. Nice snappy Whedon dialogue, potentially...

  5. barbara    Jan 21, 12:09 PM    #
    I bought two copies of the DVD - one for lending and one that will never leave my greedy clutches.

    Can't wait for the movie. Mmmmm, Captain Tight Pants and Zoe kicking butt.

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