serenity

Well, I finished up the last three episodes of Firefly Tuesday night, and they weren’t that bad, though as Aimeric warned me, one of them was a fairly ordinary western set in a ramshackle whorehouse (approximately 60% sexier than a high-class bordello from what little we saw of it). I thought the last episode, “Objects in Space,” was going to be my favorite until the scary bounty hunter started in with some zany woo-woo Joss Whedon dialogue and the dramatic tension whooshed out the airlock. Oh, and we were set up for River to do something spectacular and violent, but there was no real payoff because she just did something clever instead. That would have been fine if the series had continued for one or two more seasons (the “‘verse” isn’t fleshed out enough for more than that) and the show’s secrets had unfolded gradually and naturally.

But of course it was cancelled, and Whedon had to rush his ending with this movie. We find out some things we basically already knew — that River had been extensively altered by the government to be a psychic living weapon — and some things we didn’t know, like where the Reavers came from, and why the government is so keen to get River back. Those last couple secrets are unfortunately a bit anticlimactic and only one of them is even faintly plausible. Perhaps the problem is that we know so little about the Alliance government — except that it must be bad because it does mean experiments on people and because Our Hero Mal fought against it on the yee-haw side of the Civil Star Wars. It’s never been clear what kind of regime this is — dictatorship? oligarchy? plutocracy? or just a corrupt republic like we have in the US of A? — so it’s hard to guess what’s at stake for this government if its secrets get out. People buy fewer Oaty Bars? There’s another Civil Star War in which the Rebels lose again? A “candidate for change” gets some votes?

And doesn’t it seem a little out of character for Mal to stake so much on this? It does, which is why in every other scene someone is talking about strength of belief, why the enigmatic Shepherd Book (whose past may now remain a secret forever, unless the series is revived, and maybe even then) has to pound into Mal’s skull the idea of “believing in River” — because Mal now has to do something stupid, profitless, incredibly dangerous, and completely against his nature, not to mention sort of pointless. Even today the media has a lot less power than we imagine; one conspiracy theory from a disreputable source is just a drop of oil in the ocean.

What happens is SO out of character, in fact, that Mal has to threaten his crew to get them to go along with it. This is incredibly clumsy writing for a show that prided itself on being about people and relationships. The latter don’t get their due either; I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are deaths in this movie and none of them are visibly mourned. Yes, we see their graves, but that’s not mourning. It just rings hollow.

I had some other minor complaints, like how Mal could hold his own for more than a minute in unarmed combat against a master assassin, or why the master assassin AND the scary bounty hunter from “Objects in Space” are both black and both ultimately diffident in bizarrely inconsistent characterizations. But what it comes down to is that the pacing and — I’ll admit it — pretty solid writing of the TV series didn’t quite work in this film. It’s too bad, because in a lot of ways this is better TV (and it’s HELLA better sci-fi) than the new Doctor Who, and even if you don’t like a person, you can’t always enjoy seeing them give themselves a wedgie. It’s sad.

When I heard Battlestar Galactica was going to wrap up this season, I was scared that it would end up like this: a rush job that didn’t and couldn’t do justice to the measured development you get with a solid TV series. It still might, but BSG has the luxury of 900-odd minutes to wrap up, and Firefly had only about 115. Serenity didn’t totally suck, but it sure didn’t blow me away.

firefly

After dismissing the show pretty quickly (my sister failed to get me into it, and then I failed to get her into Battlestar Galactica), I’m finally getting back around to working through Firefly. I have 3 or 4 episodes to go and then I can watch Serenity and be done. It’s never going to be my favorite show, and it’s definitely not “the best science fiction series ever” as I’ve seen some otherwise intelligent people soberly claim, but I’m not hating it.

It’s very clever, the “space western” angle. A lot of science fiction shows have their foundations in more traditional genres — Star Trek’s a naval exploration thing, Star Wars is a samurai movie, Battlestar Galactica is “Wagon Train to the stars” and also based partly on the Book of Mormon if I understand correctly, and Blake’s 7 (the classic low-budget British series this show closely resembles) is “The Dirty Dozen” crossed with pirates. I can’t remember any of them wearing their underpinnings so nakedly, and it’s kind of admirable.

It’s not that enjoyable, though — probably just because I don’t really like Westerns or slide guitar or country fried theme songs. So a little dust and tumbleweeds and six-shooting and fiddling and hoeing down goes a long way. It’s best when it’s sprinkling flavor on the space thieving action, and kind of a drag when we’re soaking in it.

The more I watch, the more I miss Blake’s 7, which was mainly lacking in budget and warmth, but had the same premise: a small group of thieves and rogues and rebels travel the galaxy pulling off heists and guerrilla operations, staying one step ahead of authorities and bounty hunters. We have Blake and Mal, basically good leaders on the wrong side of the law; Zoe and Dayna, women of color handy with guns; Avon and Jayne, selfish and ruthless antiheroes (though one’s a computer genius and the other’s a brute); Wash and Tarrant, boyish, feckless pilots; Cally and River, troubled psychics.

Oddly, though the characters in Firefly are better developed, more sympathetic, and often better acted, I still don’t like most of them as much as Joss Whedon wants me to.

Wash is a dork, just annoying on every level. Zoe’s the kind of dull Amazon you get when an actress is too aware that she’s supposed to be playing a Strong Woman but doesn’t really inhabit a character. Kaylee’s cute in a Sanrio kind of way, but the jaunty downhome syntax the writers insist on putting in her mouth comes out sounding false. I can’t stand preachers in real life, and I don’t like this Preacher any better. And then there’s the Ren Faire hooker with a tea set of gold, the “Companion” who somehow manages to be thoroughly unsexy, the least titillating element of the show, and that’s saying a lot. It’s a funny thing about professional sex: the more respectable you try to make it seem, the less appealing it becomes.

So that leaves Simon and River, who fortunately bring a thread of mystery and gravity to the whole affair. River’s psychotic breaks can be kind of melodramatic, but I’m interested in their story and I mostly don’t mind watching them. Mal’s pretty watchable too, the sort of captain who cuts Gordian knots with a single unerring gunshot, and that’s all right with me. My favorite character on the show, however, is Jayne, partly because I love the Id on every show (see also: Eric Cartman, Bender), and partly because Jayne’s Avon-like amorality is fascinating and funny in a way that the all-for-one-and-one-for-all crew’s camaraderie isn’t.

So I feel about this the way I feel about Buffy: it’s massively overrated, maybe half as good as it’s cracked up to be, but since it’s cracked up to be pretty damn good, it’s still halfway decent. If only the incidental country music would stop!