Firefly, Star Trek, and why more is not always better.

[Shadow note: I fixed a couple instances of “Josh” instead of “Joss.” How some were right and others wrong is beyond me… regardless, I George Lucas – ed it and now it’s correct.]

This past weekend I went to my first CSTS event. If you don’t know, CSTS stand for “Can’t Stop The Serenity,” and is a series of charitable screenings of the film Serenity held across the nation by groups of “Browncoats”: fans of the Joss Whedon spawned (and Fox killed) Firefly universe, the crew of misfits on board the Firefly-class cargo vessel “Serenity,” and it’s anti-hero captain, Malcolm Reynolds.

Salt Lake City has a Browncoats branch of its own, and I was pleased to hang around them this weekend at the CSTS event at Fort Douglas on the University of Utah campus. They had a great panelist in the lead-up to the screening of the film: Loni Peristere, co-founder of Zoic Studios (and director of series such as Banshee and American Horror Story), which created the effects, the look and feel of the television series, along with those of the incredible reboot of the great science fiction series, Battlestar Galactica. He was very generous with his time, sharing stories, behind-the-scenes stuff, and even indulging in some dinner table chat about televsion and movies, in general.

But this post isn’t about the charity work the show’s supporters do, which is substantial, but rather to talk about the show itself, about what it means, and where it stands in relation to the Gold Standard of science-fiction television: Gene Roddenberry’s immortal, Star Trek.

Star Trek was sold to the network, by Roddenberry’s own admission, as a “Wagon train to the stars,” sci-fi western. What he delivered, as we all know by now, was something much more visionary and hopeful for humanity’s future. A future in which the earth finally made peace with itself and joined the community of life among the stars.

Clean power, a cashless society, and the spirit of exploration, not conquest, drove humanity forward into the reaches of space, driven by their imagination and sheer will.

But even Roddenberry’s Utopic vision of the future wasn’t perfect. War still existed, but always with the “Other,” those outside of humanity: the Klingon’s, the Romulans, and countless other races.

Roddenberry’s vision of true equality among humanity was thwarted by the norms of the time. Even the original, un-aired pilot for the show–rightly lauded for its inclusion of all races and sexes–still had a woman only as second-in-command, and even that couldn’t get through the network honchos.

Still, Star Trek was a marvel of its time, and remains so to this day.

Sadly, Roddenberry’s vision was woefully naive, though wonderful in its concept.

30-plus years later, Joss Whedon brings forth an alternative to the neat, clean, idyllic future of Star Trek, in Firefly universe.

From its inception, Firefly‘s ‘verse stands in stark contrast to Roddenberry’s. The earth is “used up,” and humanity is forced to cast itself out into the void to find a new home. Finding more than one to be inhabitable or able to be made habitable, humanity drove outward, united in its desire to survive, but still entangled in its old prejudices and loyalties.

From the pristine inner planets  of the Alliance to the far-flung, primitive Rim worlds, Whedon presents us with a grittier, more realistic vision of humanity’s future, grounded in the realities of human behavior and tradition.

Humanity, throughout the ages, has always chaffed against dictatorial governance, whether real or perceived. In the Firefly ‘verse, there was an inevitable conflict between the “civilized” Alliance worlds and the Independents of the outer worlds. Like so many conflicts throughout human history, the war finally ended. In Whedon’s vision, it ended in an Alliance victory, but not in the subjugation of those Independents whose only wish was live their lives free of interference.

Is that really asking so much? According to the Alliance: yes.

And it is in this ‘verse the captain and crew of the Serenity find themselves, trying to scratch out a living however they can, by hook or by crook… mostly by crook.

But at its heart, Firefly bears the same hope for humanity that Roddenberry ensconced so firmly in the Star Trek universe. A hope that a people that wants to go-along and get-along, free from unnecessary intrusion, free to raise a family, to make a life for themselves. Maybe that life wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be one that is their own.

But unlike Roddenberry’s universe, Whedon’s vision is one that shows humanity–with all its good and evil, its blacks and whites and oh-so-many shades of grey–and its drive toward the future. Not the Star Trek universe, so noble and perfect, but a real future, a human future; still noble, but far from perfect.

Though Star Trek has spawned 10 movies and four spin-off television series, some more successful than others, Firefly lasted 14 episodes, spawned only a single, fan-centric, love-letter of a film. There has long been a rumbling from the Firefly fan-base for another season, another film, a continuation of the ‘verse they have come to love.

In my heart, I, too, long for that, a return to the dusty worlds, the edge of space, the lives of the crew and the family they have become, the family that they welcomed us into for so short a time, yet for all time.

In my mind, though, I fear what we might get if such a rebirth were to happen. I am soured, perhaps, by one too many reboots or re-imaginings of past greatness.

One cannot step into the same river twice, it is said, and I fear that, perhaps, the magical stretch of water that swirled and eddied into our hearts has flowed down and around the bend, gone forever, existing now only in that incredible handful of episodes left behind, like a snapshot from a childhood vacation, a perfect moment of reality, perfectly preserved in our memories.

Perhaps this is part of the reason we have yet to see such a re-emergence of Firefly. Perhaps Joss Whedon is protective of what he has created. Maybe is shielding, not just us, but himself, from impossible expectations, despite his, and his casts’, desire to dip a toe once more into those swirling waters.

Perhaps. But the heart wants what it wants…

 

Firefly is currently available to stream on Netflix. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching it.

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