Firefly: Great Space Western or Greatly Overrated?

We were discussing Joss Whedan’s late and lamented outer space horse opera FIREFLY. A reader named Sophia’s Favorite holds forth sharp criticism for the show:

In my opinion Firefly is the JFK of TV shows: a mediocrity at best that gets ludicrously overrated solely because it was taken “too soon”.

He goes on to list several reasons for saying so.

  • The Companions, which simultaneously whitewash the most evil industry humanity has ever devised and yet never actually seem to have the prestige we’re repeatedly told they have, so Whedon can give us feminist morality plays about “sex-work positivity”, most of which involve straw misogynists right out of a current Marvel comic.
  • The setting that dissolves into pure risibility with ten seconds of thought. (“Why not just re-terraform Earth That Was?” “Why let a guy with a head full of state secrets tour a facility full of telepaths?” “Why give super-soldier training to your slave-telepaths?” “Did they not do one human trial of Pax before releasing it on the entire population of Miranda, and thus at least catch the catatonia if not the Reaver-ness?” “What totalitarian state would let a known former rebel not only have a spaceship, but one that he names after a battle he fought against them?”) A non-totalitarian state wouldn’t let Mal have a spaceship!
  • Related to the fact no state, let alone a totalitarian one, would let a bunch of petty-criminal vagabonds have a spaceship (ask the Kzinti why), the ludicrous idea that Kaylee can be a spaceship engineer without formal training. It’s not the damn Scooby-Doo van; interplanetary spaceships start at “nuclear submarine” and only get scarier from there.
  • “Out of Gas”, the episode that only happens because their spaceships are designed like space-opera ships. (You never put engines in a pressurized compartment on a real ship in the first place; if you have engines in pressurized compartments at all, you are working on space-opera rules and so you have to ignore the potential downside of putting engines in the same compartment as the habitat. Otherwise it’s an Idiot Plot and an automatic F.)
  • The fact Whedon and Kinear wanted a Space Civil War, but didn’t have the guts for the Browncoats to have been fighting for something comparable to slavery.
  • The Operative who apparently studied martial arts under Rube Goldberg and who speechifies like a Metal Gear villain whose goal is Outer Heaven, the utopia of soldiers, not a world without sin and strife.
  • The “Chinese” so bad the bootleg HK DVDs subtitle it as “[speaks galactic language]”—that is, they couldn’t even tell it’s an attempt at Chinese.
  • The fact the Reavers shouldn’t be able to crew ships, the fact they claim there’s no FTL but they have video calls in real-time between people further off than low orbit, the fact terraforming that many planets in that amount of time means the Alliance are comparable to the Forerunners at the height of their power and so should never have had to fight the Browncoats, and last but not least, the fact that anyone who can make war in space can stop a signal, it’s called jamming.
  • Oh yeah, and the exchange “Psychic? That sounds like science fiction.” “You live on a spaceship, dear.” Because people in the 26th century will totally think of spaceships as something from science fiction. (That is not the same response as “spaceships used to bescience fiction”, which would work: Whedon, in all his other shows too, always has the characters know what their audience knows, not what they would actually know, e.g. when the guy in Buffy or Angel takes a rifle up to a clocktower…to commit suicide, by a very inconvenient and bizarre method, if you don’t know you have a TV audience and want to fake them out.)

The only good thing that came of Firefly is bringing Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Gina Torres, Summer Glau, and Nathan Filion to pop culture’s attention, but they’ve all been in much better things since—HaloDestinySarah Conner Chronicles. And it was only because of the supposed wrongness of canceling Firefly (which should never have been greenlit in the first place) that the network let Whedon make Dollhouse, one of the worst TV shows ever made—even by his infernally low standards, since it didn’t even have snappy dialogue, the one thing he does well!

A harsh opinion! I am not sure I can agree.

Perhaps we should say rather, that it was a good show, or even great, with some flaws and drawbacks a critical eye, searching diligently enough, can possibly find.

Having a whore with a heart of gold is a trope of the Old West not original to the show. Evil as the institution is, it seems not to be a fair criticism that such a character was included. Also, the science fictional idea that harlots in the future will be a respected high class profession, while it glamorizes evil, it not even as outrageous a speculation about a future where sodomites of the same sex are allowed to be married in a church to each other, and anyone not willing to cooperate with the desecration of matrimony is liable at law — and in the same make-believe country, polygamy is outlawed.

I do agree that the idea of a whore being a well respected profession is a hard sell, and, in this case, Joss Whedon never lulled my disbelief into suspension. Of course, to a Victorian, the idea that actresses, who are a kindred of whores, being celebrities would be likewise unbelievable.

I can think of science fictional scenarios, especially in a frontier society of corrupt morals, where such “hetaerae” or court concubines or temple prostitutes could enjoy high prestige, but Joss Whedon never does put any such scenario on stage.

On the other hand, I have seen every episode, more than once, and I honestly do not recall any “feminist morality plays about sex-work positivity, most of which involve straw misogynists.”

There is an episode were a group of whores hires the crew to help them drive off their pimps, so they can keep the money they make whoring, but it did not strike me as different in tone than any other episode. I am not sure it glamorized whoring any more than the train robbery episode glamorized train robbery, or the episode where Mal fails to fight a duel glamorizes dueling.

In most episodes, the corrupt society regards “Companions” as an honorable profession, and Mal does not.

On balance, the criticism should be granted, if, perhaps, on grounds slightly different than those stated.

The setting is perfectly reasonable.

Nothing aside from the bare fact that Earth was “used up” is ever mentioned, so unfounded speculations that it would be possible to terraform the ruins of Earth, much less economical and politically feasible, are merely that … unfounded speculations.

For that matter, it may have been political rather than economic reasons why the Earth was abandoned.

Speculations that the corrupt yet incompetent totalitarian state would have performed it bumbling evil more efficiently and effectively are likewise unfounded. Contrariwise, I submit that the idea of effective and efficient totalitarian who can make the trains run on time is a more unrealistic idea, given the real world history of real totalitarian states.

Asking why the government did not test the pacification drug on a small scale before testing it on Miranda is akin to asking why the Chinese government erects ghost cities in the wastelands of China, or why Stalin killed his own generals and sent his own nuclear scientists to the gulags.

As well ask why the CIA dosed innocent civilians with LSD as part of widespread and covert mind control experiments. It is a small step of the suspension of disbelief, rather than a large one, for a viewer to allow that such an atrocity could happen if similar experiments, in the future were carried out on a whole community.

The event happened in the background: blaming a show for not putting on stage an answer to a question no one is likely to ask is not a valid criticism. This is doubly so in a case where the totalitarians did something the characters (and the audience) is meant to find appallingly stupid and wicked in size and scale.

The theme of the show, endlessly repeated, is that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Rivers’ psychic powers are established to be part of an experiment, whose results are clearly tricky, unpredictable, and not even widely believed to be possible. For a high-level officer who doubts the legitimacy of the experiments to demand an inspection tour is not unrealistic.

Moreover, for her powers to be greater than suspected is not merely a standard trope of science fiction, it is THE standard trope of science fiction ever since Frankenstein: an experiment that gets out of hand, rises up, and destroys its maker.

Again, since the scene was not onstage, merely speculating that the errors made were unrealistic is not a legitimate criticism. As well as why the Rosenbergs were able to walk into and out of the most highly secret spot in America, carrying the plans to the atom bomb.

And the question “Why give super soldier training to your slave telepaths?” seems to answer itself: in order to have a cadre of slave telepath super-soldiers, of course. As well ask why the Soviets were experimenting with producing Ape-Human hybrids.

(For the record, Ilya Ivanov did decide to attempt the artificial insemination of African women, without their knowledge, with chimpanzee sperm. Are not communist literacy programs wonderful?)

It is no criticism of a science fiction story if the make-believe events involved are less shocking and incredible than events in real life.

As for the government permitting Mal to own a spaceship, let us not ignore the established backdrop of the story: the inner worlds are tightly controlled by the totalitarian Alliance, but the outer planets and moons are beyond the pale, where the writ of the sovereign does not reach, a frontier. He names his ship after the lost battle in defiance.

The Alliance government is in Firefly no more in a position to stop him from owning a ship than the Union government in the Nineteenth Century could have stopped a man living in the frontier territories from owning a riverboat.

To dismiss the idea of private ownership of space vessels as unrealistic dismisses all of science fiction, with remarkably few exceptions. Even Larry Niven’s ‘Known Space’ stories from which the trope comes that spaceships are too dangerous to be in private hands, has private ownership of spaceships.

Likewise, the idea that spaceship design must be more complicated than aircraft, locomotive, or motorcar is merely a speculation about engineering designs that have not yet taken place, nor will take place for centuries. To dismiss the idea that the craft of repairing and maintaining them cannot be learned except in a formal setting is an unfounded speculation.

I myself have just written a scene where my hero sneaks aboard a pirate spaceship, entering through the engine section, which is not pressurized. Aside from this one scene, and perhaps the Spacecraft Discovery One in Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey there is no story, radio play, television show, film or novel of science fiction I can bring to mind where the engine is outside the life support.

Perhaps there are mil SF stories where this is a plot point: if so, I have not read them, or I cannot recall them.

In any case, for television show purposes, requiring the engineer to don a space suit and radiation armor each and every time a scene is shot where the engines are onstage would be prohibitive.

This is not a flaw in the writing, it is merely raising the bar for scientific accuracy above the level where more than ninety-nine out of one hundred science fiction stories rest.

And it is not even a real criticism of real accuracy: as well dismiss the heavier than air ship design for Clipper of the Clouds on the grounds that the main lift for the Albatross was by propellers, rather than by wings.

If a reader of scientific romances in my grandfather’s day were to say propellers are not a realistic lifting agent for heavier than air aircraft, he could make a good argument, especially if he spoke up after the Wright Brothers flew but before Sikorsky. But his comment would be unfounded speculation.

The Civil War backdrop is needed as part of the Old West trope, and, in this case, the writers adapted it to be a war for liberty, to make the main character sympathetic, rather than a war for slavery.

Since we Virginians traditionally have a different view about the War of Northern Aggression That Was Totally Not Our Fault from any darned Yankees, let us not call it an artistic flaw in the writing something which is actually merely a personal preference as to how the Civil War should be portrayed even in utterly imaginary versions of it set in outer space.

That is not a flaw in the writing, it is an expression of a personal attitude toward historical events — events that, by the bye, only thematically are the same as those in the make-believe story background.

I, for one, am so pleased to have any Southerner portrayed as the hero in anything, even if in disguise, I am hardly going to call it bad writing because the Southerner-in-Space is not the Slaver-in-Space.

Some of Our Boys during the War of Northern Picking on Us (Never Mind the We Shot First), who were not themselves slave owners, did in fact, rightly or wrongly, think they were fighting against the impositions of a federal government that had overstepped its constitutionally limited role.

No matter what one thinks of Our Boys in real life, it is not a flaw in the writing to invent a make-believe background where a superficially similar war was fought but one where that issue was, the liberty of a free people, was the real issue at stake.

The Operative is a stock character from all boy’s adventure stories. If his warped idealism, monologue-making, and sadism make him an unrealistic villain, I can only suggest that not merely science fiction, but spies stories, techno-thrillers, and above all, superhero comics are richly peopled with such unrealistic villains.

And to put a Leftwing utopian idealist onstage, and have him be a pathologically violent sadist and black-ops killer, not a hero, is so rare and wonderful that all conservatives and libertarians wheresoever situation should forgive all flaws of the series just for that. It is a rare oasis in a wasteland of politically correct message fiction. I cannot image how this sneaked past the Thought Police.

He also had a preacherman portrayed as a hero. Wonders abound.

Let us please not be criticizing actors for not being able to pronounce Chinese swearwords without an accent. That is not something that makes a show mediocre. They are speaking pidgin, and no doubt with outrageous accents.

As well dismiss Disney’s immortal classic Mary Poppins as mediocre on the grounds that Dick van Dyke could not manage a convincing Cockney accent.

I am not sure why the Reavers would be unable to crew ships. As well say the Vikings cannot built longboats, or the Red Indians cannot tame horses.

The nature of their drug induced insanity was never made clear, so it is merely speculation that it incapacitated them utterly. In real life, a crazy person can drive a car, work a firearm, commit a murder, and so on.

The signal lag between worlds in the same system would have been annoying to portray on television, and no other space show in all of history has done this.

It is a question that is not addressed in the show, because it is a point a critic would not bring up, unless he is arbitrarily raising the standard of scientific accuracy for this SF show above that of every other SF television show, movie and radio play ever devised, and the overwhelming majority of all written fiction.

Indeed, aside from myself and four other authors who make a fetish of scientific accuracy, I do not recall the lightspeed limits of signal lag across interplanetary distances being mentioned in any space stories whatsoever. (Those four, for the record, are Isaac Asimov, Bob Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Andy Weir.)

Besides, the Firefly background might have had ansibles or Dirac communicators or subspace radio, without having warpdrive, just was we in the modern day have telephones and television without having teleportation. This is such a standard trope of science fiction, it hardly needs to be mentioned.

How earthlike the planets and moon of this system were before terraforming began would change any speculative estimate about the technology level needed. Maybe one need Forerunner technology. Maybe not.

“Psychic? That sounds like science fiction.” “You live on a spaceship, dear.” —  if set in a modern context would read: “The Space Force? Sounds like science fiction” “We are aboard Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, bro.”

The criticism here is merely a misreading of the line. What is being said is that current technical wonders were all once scientific romances.

All in all, the criticisms listed above range from finding minor flaws, to erecting standards no television science fiction has ever met, to matters of personal taste. These are not fatal flaws in the show, and to the devout fan, not even noticeable ones.

I humbly suggest that a standard so high that not a single science fiction film or television show could pass muster, and precious few science fiction novels, is not the proper standard to use when condemning a show as mediocre.

Myself, I hold it to be a bigger flaw that Mal in the pilot episode throws a man into the intake of one of his own engines without worrying about foreign object damage. I was raised on a navy base. My father was the chief test pilot. Pilots do not treat their ships that way. No pilot. Not ever.

More to the point, all the criticisms listed so far deal mostly with world-building and scientific realism. That is certain one aspect of judging science fiction, and science fiction stories should pass muster when it comes to such things.

Setting, however, is but one element of a story. The others are plot, character, theme, style.

In the case of this show, the plotting was well-paced and engaging; the characters were fully three dimensional, vivid, and delightful; the theme was a vision favoring liberty over servility that any American should find rousing and deeply moral (a theme which is most unusual for modern television); and as for style, the acting was good, the camera work was imaginative, and the dialog was charming, endlessly quotable, and was indeed the best feature of the show.

Even granting every criticism listed above in full, the drawbacks of plot holes or lapses in the setting do not make a show mediocre if the other elements are good or are great.