Tuesday, June 29, 2004

I was dogsitting for some friends this weekend, and I took the opportunity to borrow their DVD of the T.V. series Firefly. For those of you who missed it (which was almost everyone), Firefly was a "space Western" created by Joss Whedon, the guy responsible for Buffy and Angel. I only saw a few episodes of this series when it was on T.V. a few years back, which isn't surprising since it was canceled halfway through its first season, but I really liked it. This despite the fact that on paper, the show sounds more than a little goofy.

Firefly is set 400 years in the future, when humans have spread out and settled distant planets. The action begins six years after the conclusion of a war in which the Alliance, which hoped to unite all the planets under a single government, defeated the Independents, who wanted to maintain their autonomy. The series follows the exploits of the spaceship Serenity, which is captained by Malcolm Reynolds, a former Independent who can't reconcile himself to Alliance government. Reynolds and his crew trawl the outer reaches of the settled universe, where Alliance control is less firmly established, taking whatever legal or illegal work they can find. The conceit is that the frontier of the universe looks an awful lot like the movie version of the old West, complete with horses, covered wagons, imperiled settlers, exploited miners, tough but big-hearted madams, and lots of chaos, poverty and violence.

When I first saw Firefly, I couldn't figure out why Whedon didn't either tone down the hokey Western elements (working-class characters use a kind of old-timey country dialect, except when they spontaneously break into Chinese, while more privileged characters speak with the formality that we expect of historical rich people; the costumes gesture towards 19th century clothing) or just do a straight Western, actually set in the postbellum American West. I think part of it is just the perverse fun in mixing up the high-tech shininess of our imagined future with the grittiness of our imagined past. I think he may be trying to point out that the division between shininess and grittiness is more geographic than temporal: there are many parts of the world which have not enjoyed all the benefits of modern technology. (Yeah, this may be a stretch, but we're talking about Joss Whedon here.)

But mostly, I think that by wrenching the West out of its historical context, Whedon has found possibly the only way to make a non-revisionist Western. Or rather, he can choose the parts he wants to revise. For instance, the crew of the Serenity is terrified of the Reavers, frontier-dwelling "savages" who torture, murder, mutilate, and feast of the flesh of "civilized" people. There's no suggestion that Reavers have their own culture or that they're fighting to protect their territory or way of life from encroachment. As far as we know from the episodes that were filmed, they really are just evil, cannibalistic savages. They play the part that Indians would have played in a classic Western, but because they're not actually Native Americans, Whedon can allow them to play that role without making any allowances for contemporary cultural sensitivities. Similarly, the recently-concluded war bears a definite resemblance to the American Civil War: at one point Reynolds even tells a bunch of Alliance supporters that "we'll rise again." (And yes, Firefly obsessives, I do realize that's mostly a pun on the next image.) But this civil war has nothing to do with slavery and really is about an encroaching federal government. It's the Civil War that modern Confederate enthusiasts wish had happened, not the one that really did. This is important, because it allows the ship's captain to maintain the righteousness of the lost cause without compromising his fundamental compassion and decency.

Whedon does go revisionist where race and gender are concerned, though. Race apparently just isn't an issue in the multi-racial Firefly universe, and it's never referred to in any way. You couldn't get away with that in a smart Western set in actual 19th-century America. Gender is more complicated. There's one old-fashioned sexist cliché, the mysterious, "exotic", beautiful high-class prostitute who rents space on the ship, but in general women are allowed to defy the conventions of the genre. (There's another slightly problematic female character whom I'm not going to discuss, since it'll ruin the pilot for anyone who hasn't seen the show yet.) Kaylee, the ship's sweet, optimistic mechanic, is something of a mechanical genius, and Zoe, who fought with Captain Reynolds in the war, is a stoical soldier who out-badasses any man on the crew. You could argue that Kaylee anthropomorphizes Serenity to such an extent that her skill at fixing the ship is actually an act of feminine nurture and that Zoe is just another ass-kicking hottie in the Alias vein. There's something to both of those points (although I'd suggest that Gina Torres plays Zoe with such dignity and dry humor that she transcends the ass-kicking hottie label), but there's no getting away from the fact that women could never play either of those roles in a classic Western. All of this is to say that by setting his Western in the future, Whedon can sidestep issues of racial and gender inequality.

I can't decide whether this dodge is irritating or refreshing. There's a long history in feminist science fiction of imagining a future without misogyny, but my sense is that the imagined future generally looks quite different from the present or the past. In Whedon's imagined future, the (apparent) elimination of sexism and racism doesn't change very much. I think this tends to downplay the significance of racism and sexism: they're treated as superficial things, not stuff that fundamentally shapes our society and culture. On the other hand, it is really nice to see women playing roles that have generally been reserved for men in both sci-fi and Westerns.

So anyway, Fox canceled Firefly halfway through its first season, but apparently there's going to be a movie. I'm pretty excited about it, mostly because I'm a huge geek. And also because it will give me another chance to see the pretty, pretty cast.

Oh, and can anyone tell me why the bounty hunter in "Objects in Space" is named Jubal Early? Did Whedon mean to refer to the Civil War general, or did he just like the name? Because it is an awesome name.

Wow. That was a long post. Sorry about that. Tomorrow I will probably get back to short, manageable posts that whine about my doctors.

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