Firefly is one of the best shows you’ve never heard of. With an ensemble cast of nine, the show crosses genres and styles to create a science fiction masterpiece. However there is a 10th main character that could only be found in science fiction: the spaceship Serenity. Firefly is not the first science fiction series to make a fan base fall in love with a ship. From the universally famous examples of the U.S.S. Enterprise, or the Millennium Falcon to lesser known fan favorites like Moya (the living ship in Farscape), many fan bases connect emotionally to their ship. But Joss Whedon, the show’s creator and director, managed to make Firefly’s starship a part of the way he told the stories, not just a setting or plot device.
Serenity is a spaceship that is advanced beyond our own technological capabilities. But in the science fiction universe, and even in the Firefly universe it is a piece of junk. The walls and engines are rusty, things routinely break, and Captain Mal even bought it from a junkyard. On the show it is defined as “a mid-bulk transport, standard radion-accelerator core, classcode 03-K64, “Firefly” ship.” It is an interplanetary transport ship, and does not have any offensive capabilities. The fact that the crew has no firepower (just a few decoys) plays into one of the central tenets of the show, that Mal and crew are just trying to survive on the extralegal fringes of society, not fighting a gallant battle against the central government.
Color was extremely important to the show’s creative team. They sketched out the color scheme of each compartment of the ship, which accentuates the characters that spend time there or the interactions that take place there. The rust of the steel of engine room,where Kaylee spen ds most of her time, makes for very earthy tones that accentuate her sensuality and lighter colors that reflect her cheerfulness. One of the two smaller shuttles, rented out by the courtesan Inara, has a darker red color,obviously reflecting her profession and sexuality. The infirmary, where Doctor Simon Tam is in control is white and sterile, reflecting his background as an Alliance professional, and his stiff personality that eventually relaxes as the series moves along. The infirmary seems to have the only non tarnished or rusted steel in the entire ship.
The interior of Serenity was built as two complete sets, one for the bottom half of the ship, the other for the top. While this made standard filming techniques impossible (although walls could be moved to facilitate the camera), but it was not a problem for Joss Whedon. He wanted a documentary feel for the series, and all interior shots are filmed on hand-held cameras, often following characters through the tight hallways on extended shots (sometimes upward of 4 minutes). The close quarters lends credibility to the familial feeling the viewer has towards the crew. The ship is so cramped and small it feels more like a flying house than a starship . The fact that the characters move throughout the sets in continuous shots allows the viewer to get a feel for the layout and personality of Serenity. Acclaimed science fiction writer and artist Larry Dixon convincingly posits that the interior of the ship helped to characterize and define the other nine characters. The lines of the ship, such as the railings and pipes, help to move the viewers’ eyes in a way that accentuates the characters. The diagonals of the cargo-bay catwalk, for instance, often guide the viewer’s eye to Mal’s mouth and face when he’s to be taken seriously. The pilot Wash and his second in command wife Zoe are often framed in doorways during emotional moments so the viewer focuses their attention on the couple. Horizontal connecting lines would be used to show a connection between two characters (like Inara and Kaylee), while their absence sometimes augmented a character being out of place such as Doctor Simon being shot against a flat background.
In the episode “Out of Gas,” which shows how Mal and some of the crew came to Serenity, the color palette of the ship changes to reflect the mood of the scene. In the present time, the ship is cold and blue as a wounded Mal attempts to restart the engine and life support of the crew-less Serenity.
But flashbacks to the happy times directly preceding these events are in the warmth of the kitchen as they all sit and dine. Even further flashbacks are to when the ship was on the ground in the junkyard, and the dust of the unused ship creates a cozy and nostalgic ambiance.
This episode is meant to show the connection the characters all have with the ship, and goes on to explain why Mal is willing to “go down with the ship” even when it seems foolish to do so. When Mal first walks Zoe through it, they have this heartwarming exchange:
Mal: “You are very much lacking in imagination.”
Zoe: “I imagine that’s so, sir.”
Mal: “C’mon. You ain’t even seen most of it. I’ll show you the rest. Try to see past what she is, and on to what she can be”
Zoe: “What’s that, sir?”
Mal: “Freedom, is what.”
Zoe:”No, I meant – What’s THAT?”
Mal: “Oh. Just step around it. I think something must’ve been living in here.”
The ship itself allows for an old-timey feel to the series. It would be jarring to see the gang shooting revolvers from a stage coach one minute, then beaming back to the ship to zip off at light speed to the next planet. The rust, hodgepodge feel, and utilitarian design of the starship allows for the mixing of science fiction and western genres. Star Trek may have had the elements of a western, but the Starship Enterprise’s sleek design and advanced technology would feel out of place captained by cowboy Mal. Mal operates on the frontiers of this universe, and just like all frontiers supplies and up-to-date technology are limited. The Enterprise feels more like a flying city compared to Serenity. Serenity needs hatches and ladders to get to sleeping quarters and parts of the ship, not sliding doors or transport bays.
Serenity is one of the main draws of Firefly, although it is difficult to realize it. Joss Whedon uses the lines and colors of his continuous set to accentuate characters, relationships, and even the tone of a scene. Firefly’s details lend credibility to this science fiction western, that makes it far more believable than it has a right to be.