Liz Tells Frank Stuff She Forgot About “Firefly”

Dear Frank,

firefly-poster1It is weird, being here in the year 2013, and seeing what’s happened to Joss Whedon — see a man whose name was synonymous with “cult not-really-a-hit” no less than three years ago play puppet master with one of Hollywood’s biggest, most profitable franchises.

The Whedon-directed Avengers grossed all those billions! ABC picked up the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D TV show he’s executive producing! He signed up for Twitter and got over 100,000 followers in like no time! Frank, Joss Whedon is en fuego!

Which is why it’s fun to look back at Whedon during his slightly more humble days — you know, when he had only three shows on television at one time–

Hmmm. It’s fascinating, isn’t it Frank, how Joss Whedon always seems like an underdog? Even when he’s doing insane things like making millions of dollars off a web series?

Of course, that perspective isn’t really his fault — it’s one that’s built up around him thanks primarily to the stories he typically tells, about outsiders and outliers. (Even in Avengers, he manages to refer to six of mankind’s more perfect specimens as “a freak show.”)

Firefly is, currently, probably the most perfect distillation of Whedon’s love of outsiders, something I was reminded of during a recent rewatch. I was also reminded of a few other things, Frank, which I will tell you about now!

As any nerd student of Joss Whedon’s career will tell you, Whedon had been trying to make a thing about space pirates for years before Firefly. My three primary examples for this are some screenplays from the 90s that have his name on them:

  • Atlantis: The Lost Empire (yeah, that Disney movie with Michael J. Fox): Whedon only has a story credit on it, but the crew taking Mikey on his quest to Atlantis is not only a ragtag group of misfits, but two characters are basically proto-Zoey and Kaylee.
  • Alien Resurrection (yeah, the one he’s not exactly proud of): Ellen Ripley teams up with a band of space pirates in order to deal with her alien queen impregnation hangover. None of the characters really directly parallel any Firefly characters, though Ron Perlman’s character could be seen as a slightly en-smart-ened Jayne.
  • Titan A.E. (yeah, that time Don Bluth tried to make a space movie with CGI, and I weirdly liked it): Slightly smaller amount of space pirate crew, much more alien, but still — space pirates.

Titan A.E. also contains touches of Asian influences, which was one of the big glaring things I’d (probably tried to) forget about Firefly. I honestly don’t know which is worse: The fact that according to the mythology of Firefly, American and Chinese cultures are intermixed on every level except for giving any Asian people actual lines of dialogue, or the non-Mandarin-speaking actors attempting to speak Mandarin phonetically.

And Frank, before you say anything — I too thought Summer Glau was Asian for years, but apparently that’s not the case? Also, that article I just linked to is worth reading if you want insight from someone who isn’t a white person talking about this and other issues with race and Whedon’s work.

Another thing that raised an eyebrow for me: Avengers isn’t the first time Whedon gleefully slipped the word “quim” past his bosses — it pops up in the Firefly episode “The Message.”

Except this time, instead of a bad guy using it to insult to a strong woman, a bad guy uses it to refer to a man he’s threatening… You know what? I think I’m just gonna leave that thought right there, where it can’t hurt anyone (or drag me into Internet comment fights with rabid Firefly fans).

I’m getting nitpicky here. I apologize for that. Because there are so many things I really really love about Firefly! It’s a sexy funny show with a great deal of heart, and it takes place in SPACE which is always rad, and there were some smokin’ hot people in it!

Like, remember what Nathan Fillion looked like in 2002?

BOOM.

BOOM.

And two-episode guest star Christina Hendricks?

I had not forgotten she was on this show, but I did have a few weird "what is Joan from 'Mad Men' doing with that gun?" moments.

I had not forgotten she was on this show, but I did have a few weird “what is Joan from ‘Mad Men’ doing with that gun?” moments.

And how Sean Maher would sometimes take off his shirt? Not to be totally shallow or anything.

Did I mention the funny? Because it was even funnier this time around, because I did most of the rewatch wearing headphones while working at my desk (I’ve been finding, Frank, that having a TV show on in the background while you work is like working in an office where everyone is really witty and attractive).

Thanks to the headphones, I heard snippets of dialogue, here and there, that I’d missed in my original crappy VHS viewings — for example, Jayne teaching the whores of “Heart of Gold” how to shoot, or Wash remarking, when confronted by a naked Mal in “Trash,” “I didn’t know he was Jewish.”

I actually forgot how casual and laid-back Fillion is in that nude scene; just happy to be basking in the warm sun in his all-together. I wouldn’t argue against the premise of the scene on any level, but something about his relaxed grin really freakin’ sells it.

It works for the character, too, because why would he be uncomfortable? He’s with his crew — his family. So much of Firefly, I’d forgotten, is structured around the concept of a constructed family, with so many scenes involve the entire crew around the table, sharing a meal.

But with that said, it’s also fascinating to see how, over the course of these 14 episodes, Whedon ends up leaning more and more on the character of River. I mean, from her first appearance in the true pilot she’s clearly a big deal, but eventually her role grows to become almost the anchor of the show — or as Whedon put it once, “It’s so funny, because I have a lot of movie ideas and they all tend to revolve around young adolescent female superheroes. But not “Firefly.” This one is about Joe Schmo, everyday life, and then of course I introduce River, the young female superhero. Let’s face it, I’m just addicted.”

Can’t really blame him, though, if only because look how beautifully she dances:

Let’s see! Other things I’d forgotten! I’d forgotten that the infamous Jayne hat — the one that is such a hit with nerds that it sparked a massive copyright infringement kerfuffle awhile back — appears in only one episode, and that episode was one of the unaired ones!

Of course, no one really remembers what episodes were aired versus unaired, do they, because this is a show that found its audience on DVD? Heck, they don’t remember the original airing order–

Oh, I should mention that one of the things about me that I’m sure people find really insufferable is when I talk about Firefly. See, I was a big Buffy and Angel fan (I mean, not “get a tattoo” big, there’s only one show that’s true of and no I’m not going to tell you what show that is). Point is, I was a fan of Joss Whedon’s work in 2002, and so when the show premiered, I was there with my trusty VHS tapes, recording every episode when they aired (mostly on) Friday nights.

I usually ended up watching each episode a couple of times after it was broadcast — once by myself, and then once or twice more with friends who relied on said trusty VHS tapes. Those tapes became cherished items, which is why I was weirded out by watching the show on Netflix and discovering that while for years I’ve just automatically assumed “Jaynestown” comes fourth in the running order, it’s actually the seventh episode officially–

No matter. Point is, with some exceptions (wow that Mandarin sounds awkward in some mouths), I was pleasantly surprised by how well Firefly held up. I even found that Serenity, which I didn’t love when it came out, probably because it wasn’t 14 more hours of Firefly (oh and also because of this), was solid in rewatching.

As you can see above, Frank, I have no shortage of criticisms of Joss Whedon, but his work still remains a dear favorite. And Firefly will always have a special place in my heart, thanks to 2002, and those videotapes. Because, after all, here was a guy whose shows I loved, and he was MAKING A SHOW THAT TOOK PLACE IN SPACE.

There’s very little like finding a show that feels like it was created just for you. That feeling? That feeling is shiny.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on May 14, 2013, in Some Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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