Firefly pilot reaction

In which the author grumps at some length about a show he’s not overly impressed with.(Word count: ±1650)

OK, so I know up front that some of these comments may seem unfairly nit-picky. Especially since I also know that the show is well-regarded, was cancelled after 14 episodes, not all of which were aired, and that the story was intended to run for seven years. Which is to say it should just be ending its run, or could have just recently ended and we might now be thinking about if there might be a big-screen release rather than knowing about the movie which came out a few years ago already. Some of these nit-picky concerns may have been addressed during the intended run of the show, and there just wasn’t time. But I doubt it.

So let me start with the things I like. Firefly is a good looking show. The sets, the costumes, the make up, the landscapes, the special effects, the lighting, the shot composition (generally). I like the look of the show. And the acting in the pilot was solid. Grading on a curve, solid acting in a pilot is high praise.

And here are the nit-picky complaints, followed by some post-hoc justifications for why they’re not merely nit-picky. According to my (admittedly skimpy) research, the dominant government in the Firefly universe is some sort of multiple-star-system-wide imperial-type structure rising from an amalgamation of the United States and China but without faster-than-light travel probably. OK, but I didn’t notice any particular Chinese influence in either the culture or the language. By which I mean, specifically, where were the Asian people, why did the scenes of government look like Imperial flunkies from Star Wars, and why was the only use of Chinese when people needed to say off-color things? Chopsticks in the mess hall aren’t enough. (I know that it’s a TV show, you cast the best actors for the roles from the available pool of actors without worrying too much about ancestry, and that if you had to translate the entire script in to a speculative version of future languages only to subtitle it back into English for–predominantly–a US audience on FOX it would be a production pain-in-the-neck.)

I like the idea of a wild-west feel to the world we’re in. It’s a single planetary system with lots of terraformed planets and moons, and the unfinished feel is pretty neat. Or maybe it’s several pretty close-by star-systems with plenty of planets and moons suitable for terraforming, whatever. By why are there horses? (I know that the reason there are horses because there have to be horses in a western.)

Seriously. For a show set 500 years or so in the future, in a multi-star system section of space, which does not include Earth, which was colonized and then terraformed by people who took generation ships in order to escape overpopulation on Earth… why isn’t the dominant culture better amalgamated, and the language more different? (Didn’t someone in the pilot say generations ships left Earth-that-was?) It’s less nit-picky to ask this since it was a choice Joss Whedon made to explain the universe of his characters in this way. It’s a nit-picky thing, and didn’t distract from the story of the pilot, but after seeing only the pilot, and thinking about things, these questions came up and now these questions are never going to be far from my mind, and may detract from my future enjoyment.

And about the horses. This is actually a special case question about the general set-up. Generation ships out to who-knows-where in order to combat population pressures on Earth just isn’t plausible to me. First, if not everyone leaves Earth, then who gets to (or has to) stay? How many? 50% of the then-current population? 15%? Where did all the resources that went into creating generation ships come from? And maybe they aren’t generation ships anyway. Maybe they’re just regular old huge honking ships to evacuate the entire human race from Earth (or maybe only some fraction of it). In order to effectively relieve population pressures, it seems that billions of people have to be evacuated on ships that can both sustain life for those billions of people and then sustain the lives of the generations who will be born on the ships. After all, if there was an effective way to limit population growth on the ships, it seems it could more simply have been implemented back on Earth. So, given that the generation ships were a response to population pressures (and, presumably limited resources), then (at least during the trip from Earth to the destination star system(s)) these pressures could be expected to increase.

Or maybe the pressures on Earth are already so great that the population is declining, and there aren’t billions of people to evacuate. Maybe it’s only several hundred thousand or several hundred million. Still. I’m unconvinced that dedicating resources to constructing an evacuation fleet is the answer humanity would really come up with. Especially if, once you get to the destination, you still have to terraform the place to make it habitable. Why not terraform Earth?

Then, on arrival, there was an extended campaign of terraforming. Let’s assume that the Earthlings knew, beyond doubt, that there was at least one planet in the destination system capable of supporting Earthling life, and was able to do it better than Earth. (Maybe it’s both somehow larger so there’s plenty of room and natural resources to be a suitable base, and not so much bigger that the additional gravity is still tolerable.) And that there are plenty of planets and moons suitable for terraforming so the underlying problem of population pressures can be coped with in reasonable ways.

Still, suppose all of this is on the up and up. (After all, all I’m going on here is one line that’s little more than a throw-away. Earth could be just fine back there where they left it, and all these people have maybe been living out there among the stars for 150 years or so, after say 150 years of tranport, and a couple hundred years of terraforming. And what the characters say about Earth is just made-up hooey because nobody’s gonna make the trip back to find out anyway.) Why do you dedicate any resources to getting horses from Earth to the destination? Why don’t your rely on mechanical horse replacements once you get there? And if Earth is all that messed up in the first place, why are there still horses to be brought?

Enough of the nit-picky background stuff. Now for the stuff that bugged me while I was actually watching the show. And bugging me while I’m actually watching the show is, in some ways, worse than bugging me afterward. After all, if it bugs me during the show, obviously it’s getting in the way of my enjoyment of the show. Those other questions up there I can probably put aside while watching. So here we go.

The actual words coming out of the mouths of the characters bugged me. Particularly, and it pains me to say it, Shepherd. I love Ron Glass. I like religious characters. Shepherd strikes me as particularly cardboard. Which is at least different from most of the other characters’ dialogue which struck me as show-offy. Not the characters themselves, mind you. On the whole I found them interesting–perspective, skills, characteristics, interests and motivations. I’m fine with all of that. But how they actually express themselves seems unfortunately full of the author.

The intermittent idiomatic use of Chinese bugged me. Not because I didn’t understand it, or because it wasn’t subtitled. But because it seemed arbitrarily limited. I mentioned this previously as a production nit-pick. But as a viewer, to have another language tossed in a few times over the course of a two-hour pilot was jarring enough to pull me out of the moment. This is particularly unfortunate because when Chinese is used, it is precisely in moments when, if I’m pulled out, I miss the moment. The exciting or nerve-wracking parts, when the characters are stressed, and need to swear. Rather than using some ordinary cuss word (or make one up which sounds like an ordinary cuss word), they slip into Chinese, and I think, “Oh, Chinese, I think, or did she mumble?” And by the time I’m back experiencing the show, the tension has been resolved, and I missed it because I was thinking about a production choice rather then flowing with the narrative.

There was a scene between the Companion and Shepherd which bugged me. “I’ve been out of the abbey for 30 seconds, and now I don’t even know if it’s OK to kill in defence of the ship’s passengers…” and so on and so forth. And then a two-shot of Shepherd kneeling in front of the Companion, with them in silhouette against an orangy candle-lighty set with her placing her hand on his head as if in benediction. It all felt forced.

And forced is the general narrative complaint I have. Leaving aside the production and background choices. The show I actually saw and heard on the screen and coming out the speakers just felt forced. Not the plot, which I pretty well liked. And, given that there are horses, I liked that there are horses. (I just don’t understand why there are horses, given what we’ve been told about why there are people.) But back to the forced problem. The dialogue felt like the author was forcing words into the mouths of the characters. And a lot of those words felt like they were there merely because the author liked them, not because the author though they were the best words available. Like ‘shiny’ as a general term to replace ‘cool’ or ‘elegant’ or any number of synonyms for ‘desirable.’ It felt very much like how highly verbal undergrads wish they could speak during some relationship crisis or conflict between student organizations.

But it’s cool that space is silent.