Posts Tagged ‘Firefly’

Cultural Hierarchy in Firefly

December 22, 2009

The series Firefly, a space western, is set in a time where Earth has been abandoned for a new solar system far away. Constantly switching between genres, and heavily dependent on futuristic technology, travel, language, fears, and culture, the series needed to find a way to reach mimesis for its viewers. In other words, the show needed to be effortlessly believable and comfortable, and with visual or verbal cues that would allow audience members to assume certain things about characters, locations, cultures, actions, and the outcomes of those actions. One of the ways Firefly did this was through the construction of a social hierarchy based on a planet to planet differentiation where the classes were literally separated by planet.

Society in Firefly is broken down into four main groups: high, middle, low, and drifters. The homes of these classes are denoted by the core planets, middle reaching planets, far reaching planets, and those who live on ships, respectively. Each class has its own type of dress, different level of technology, different cultures, and differing opinions about the Alliance, or the solar system’s government.

High culture is found on the core planets and some smaller areas. They are the wealthiest planets and are lush in super advanced technology. Buildings are extremely futuristic, cars hover and race through huge skyscrapers, and large houses are guarded by invisible fences and sensors at every door. Their clothing is either extremely futuristic or has heavy 19th century influences, and no expense is spared at their dress, food, parties, housings, etc. In the following clip, three of the ship’s main characters, Simon, a doctor, River, his sister, and Jayne, a crew member, break into a high level medical center on the central planet Ariel. Here, Simon is able to use the futuristic and amazing technology to do a full body and brain scan of his sister. Take note of the technology and clothing.

Because of the lab’s location on Ariel, which is explained to be a central planet of great wealth, this level of amazing technology does not surprise the audience. Instead, all of the technology, and the amount of medicine available to be stolen, seems obvious to the viewer, and mimesis remains strong.

The middle planets are a happier mix between the high technology and futuristic genre of the central planets and the minimal or non-existant technology and western genre of the outer rim planets. In the following clip, the ship Serenity, lands in a port of Persephone to restock and take on passengers. This middle planet has some technology, and the port is well stocked and busy. However, as it is a middle planet, the port is still dirty and jam-packed with people of all different races, creeds, and cultures. Technology does play a huge part in their lives, but, as you will see, they still cook and sell food out on the street or from tents.

Horses and spaceships ride next to each other, computers stand next to cloth covered tents, and little boys sit on space-safe storage bins. The fashion is mixed, but not wealthy, and cannot be easily described by one era or another. The sci-fi futuristic and western genre mix sets the audience’s expectations for what types of things would be available on such a planet, and sets expectations for behavior. For example, one would expect to find parts for a ship here, but not the high tech medical center that was found on Ariel. Also, as this port sets up mimesis for the audience, we are not surprised to find the crew getting shot at by a trader, and then picking up a pastor and a wealthy traveler as passengers.

Following the line of technology, the low planets are the most poor with the least amount of technology and comfort. These planets often have no technology whatsoever, and rely heavily on horses, wagons, and other ranching, farming, and cooking implements that one would have seen on the Oregon Trail, or in the Wild West. The following clip shows a planet that is a huge producer of mud, and follows the crew around as they get a short tour from the foreman as he describes the status of the workers.

The view is pathetic, especially in comparison to the first video of Ariel’s medical center. The indentured servants work knee deep in smelly mud, mixing dirt and water with the most basic of tools. Their clothing is raggedy, their food consists of a liquid bread/beer, and they worship a statue of a thief made out of, that’s right, mud. These surroundings, while unfortunate for the mudders, set the audience’s expectations for the rest of the episode. From this scene, we expect and accept the dingy bar area, the group signing around a guitar, and the hope that was given to them when a thief dropped a bag of money while fleeing the scene of his crime.

The final social group is made up of those who live on the ships, drifting, not calling any planet home. Many of these captains and crews are, like Mal, soldiers from the wrong side of the rebellion against the Alliance, fugitives from the law, or those who don’t really quite fit in. While this group is often made up of those from other groups, many of whom retain their dress and cultural habits, they are treated differently by those with whom they interact. For example, these groups tend to be a bit more rough and tumble than those found living on the middle planets. Take the following clip, for example, where Inara, a high class companion, is attending a ball with a client on a high planet.

Atherton, a high class gentleman, points out that Inara, a high class woman, should not be living on “that flying piece of gossa”. While it does not detract from her appeal or manners, per say, it is not considered a place for a high class woman to be living, although she does choose it. The episode then continues, creating mimesis through our past experience and expectations of groups from different “worlds”. For example, when Kayle enters the ball wearing her store-made dress, Inara curses. We understand her sentiment immediately as the show, through its construction of social hierarchy, shows us how to react when two classes mix. It is then no surprise later in the episode when Mal, protecting Inara’s honor, punches Atherton in the face, as we would expect him to do, even at a fancy ball. As Atherton is of the high class society, it is then no surprise to the audience when Atherton reacts by stating “I accept,” and Mal is then bound to a duel with swords. While this may seem fantastic or strange in the audience’s sense of reality, because of the mimesis created by the show, the audience understands Mal’s surprise but also accepts it as a cultural necessity.

I think that it is also of great importance that Firefly is indeed a television series. While in the movie, Serenity, they did briefly describe the cultural difference between the planets, I think that it takes the length and freedom of a television series to really create the mimesis that makes this show really work. Take, for example, the following clip from the first episode of Firefly, where the crew is sitting down to dinner.

Mal and Zoe explain to a passenger how the outer moons have such a difference in the level of technology. Mal explains that “they”, aka the Alliance and the central planets, dumped settlers on the outer planets with the bare minimum of technology. This is an interesting moment, that built up over the series, really helps to explain why the classes are separated onto different planets, and probably helps explain the economy of the system. Furthermore, it helps create mimesis in the series and give the audience their expectations.


“I’ve got my Serenity”

December 21, 2009

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.

That's the stuff

Serenity: Not Sleek, Not Advanced

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.

Too Sleek, Too Sexy

USS Enterprise: Sleek and Advanced

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 Color Scheme for Serenity's Rooms

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.

Getting There

Millennium Falcon: Less Sleek, Still Advanced

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.

Present Time Sucks

Cold Blue of Present Day 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.


Dust Makes For Some Old-Fashioned Nostalgia

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 SerenitySerenity 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. 

TV vs. Film

November 10, 2009

When I first started thinking about the difference between Film and TV I was mostly concerned with time, the former being anywhere from an hour and a half to about three hours and the later being blocked into either 30(22) or 60(42) minute slots.  After reading Mittell’s Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television, I started to think about how format itself and TV’s use of complex narrative gives me a completely different relationship with tv shows than with movies.

No where else did this hit harder than in Mittell’s comment about how the entire storyline of the first(and only) season of Firefly, a subtle and satisfyingly laid out fourteen hour epic, was summed up and played out in a two hour movie.  For anyone who has just watched the movie, you get a clear story, you get the characters and quick satisfaction.  Those who watched the show entered the movie with a completely different background.  You knew all of the characters like they were family, you learned about how they became part of the crew of Serenity, and how they acted around each other.  You the viewer were around for all of the good times and bad times that the crew experienced.  Firefly used many of the mechanical operations that Mittell discusses, most notably flashbacks to previous times with the crew, and episodes that start out with the outcome and then go back to see how that situation came to be.  Through the series each character had at least one episode about them, where the viewer could delve into the characters psyche and make sense of their choices and relationships, all the while the larger mysteries of the reavers, River Tam and any connection between them is slowly progressed.

I feel that this is certainly a plus to TV over film.  The one exemption could possibly be the serialized movie, for example the Harry Potter movies.  With is mostly cheating because most people know the characters through the books first.  Taken strictly as a series of movies, even though there will be eight of them, and a number of different approaches due to the different directors, you will never be able to get the same connection to the characters, and therefore the story, that television shows like Firefly can provide.