So, I was one of the many who came to the Firefly/Serenity party late.
It came and went when I was working on my associate's degree. To save money, my roommate and I paid for cable internet but no TV.
We were cable cutters before it became a thing.
As a result, I was introduced to the property much much much later.
The film "Serenity" was my introduction, it was my pilot, and I really enjoyed the movie. It was an origin story for the 'Verse and if viewed through that lens, it was a fairly tight one. The characters arc, the story progresses, the world changes, and the heroes move on. We get shown the origin not just of how folks got out onto the frontier, but we got to be exposed to the culture without exposition dumps, get a more humane understanding of the inhumane Federation, and the origin of the Reavers is established as a core aspect of the story and not hanging over the heads of the characters like a boogeyman that requires an exposition dump to understand. The movie does an effective job os establishing the universe as one long, engaging exposition dump.
Which brings us to "Firefly".
Look, I get it, it was shown out of order. When I purchased the DVD pack on Amazon in 2006, I found out the correct order to watch the series. So, I popped in the DVDs and watched them in the proper order.
The pilot was bad.
Now, I long had a problem with the high concept of the series. The thin veneer of Post-Civil War US means that Mal and Zoe are Confederates and that was something I never sat well with me. And add to that the fact that the rest of the 'Verse production design pulls in two directions - we want it spacey and futuristic but everyone talks like they just finished working on the Trans-Continental Railroad. But that wasn't the problem with the pilot - the pilot was just boring.
The pilot had a few moments, but it was not good as a television show. Not at all. It was dull, and I think that comes from the scope that Whedon had planned for the entire series. The pilot was written to payoff several episodes or seasons down the road. As a result, there was not a whole lot for folks who may not be SciFi fans to glom onto - particularly when it comes to any sort of action. I can totally understand why Fox reorganized things. The first two-parter was boring with no payoff during the episode to hook the audience...well...beyond it being a Joss production.
The pilot clearly hooks into a larger series and doesn't establish itself as a self-contained story. As a point of comparison, I'm going to look at three other series, one a SciFi two-part pilot and one single episode pilot, that went on to anchor larger stories as well as fit the same sort of story format Whedon appears to have been gunning for:
Battlestar Galactica Miniseries (2003)
This might not be a fair comparison, due to the length of the BSG Miniseries (4 hours), but bear with me.
This was a self-contained miniseries. It told an entire story. Characters arc. The story hits all of the beats. It did not require any additional episodes for any of the content contained within the four hours to "get it". Even if you never watched the four seasons, the story told was the basic premise of the original series - Galactica escapes to find Earth. While there are hooks to future episodes, they aren't required for the arc of the miniseries to be complete.
The first part is is a kick in the pants within the opening minutes - new Cylon Centurians, Capirca 6, new Basestars, and a huge explosion. Moore and the rest of the showrunners knew there would be tension going into the series, so they capitalized on it.
More than that, it is FILLED with conflict. Not just combat, it has that in spades between the ambush of Galactica's fighters to the fight outside of Ragnar Anchorage, but is has tons of character conflict. Adama and Lee, Lee and Kara, Kara and Tigh, Boomer and Chief sneaking around while Agathon covers for her, a reluctant President and a potentially mad scientist who sold out his entire species.
By comparison, the Firefly pilot was not self-contained. Nothing is settled in the pair of episodes. It works so hard to set the stage that it doesn't do much to keep the audience in their seats. The lack of conflict both literal or character-driven led to a flat showing because too much was focused on prepping for a larger story which sacrificed the "now". Whedon admits that he wanted to illustrate the bonds of family and that the crew was a family. In the TV series, it was a very stable family. Compare it to the film "Serenity" and you begin to see where I'm coming from.
The film "Serenity" had loads more conflict - whether it was the escape of the Tams, River going off twice, dealing with the Alliance Fleet and the Reavers. There was greater conflict between Jayne and Mal, Mal and himself, Mal and River, Mal and the crew that was absolutely missing in the television version. The crew was dysfunctional, and the conflict kept things moving.
The reason is obvious: in both cases, the creators had to craft their world to a broad audience to ensure that the investment of funds would have a return without the guarantee that there would ever be another time to tell that story as it is. So, the writers and creators had to wrap it up within its own context - they were constrained to tell a good story to people that might have zero involvement in the original content (the old BSG series or the Firefly series). In the case of Firefly, the film forced Whedon to write an interesting story with the constraint of NOT being able to serialize it, and he did it well.
The same sort of thing can be seen in Whedon's Dollhouse - the entire first season was ambitious. It was written with a total of 5 seasons in mind. 5! Whedon falls into the usual trope of creative people that can be seen - without constraints, the production gets muddled and the message lost. Creative work thrives on constraints, it forces the creator to focus and get to the essential elements of the creation without distraction. Working under severe constraints can be rewarding, but it is difficult, and even worse, can be seen by real creatives as limitations rather than benefits. Whedon's best works were done when there was little pressure (Buffy) creatively but constraints with budget demanded creativity, or when greater constraints were placed on his conceptual work due to market concerns or realities on the product being delivered (The Avengers, Serenity).
This can be illustrated best by Joss who said "you have to be the general and the scout - in other words, that you have to keep an eye on the big picture and the reason you're telling the story, but also keep an eye on the small obstacles and figure out a way around them," Too often he sets his eyes several years down the road, focusing too much on the big picture.
The one, pervading theme that I find though when it comes to Whedon and his works is his - at times - complete inability to see the common theme in all of his failings: himself. He's very good at passing the buck when things go wrong, but is quick to absorb the praise when things go right.
If an artist is oblivious to his own failings, then he can't and won't grow as an artist. Growth, change, that is how the craft gets perfected in an artist, and Joss certainly is one. Criticism and self-review, being able to say "Yes, I made this, and yes, it wasn't very good" is critical to the creative life of an artist. Comments are a blessing, but only if you leverage them to improve.
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