Eulogy for Firefly

Eulogy for Firefly by Keith M. [ ] Dec. 09/2002 So it looks like Firefly is gonna get cancelled. I found out when I was at work on Saturday, and I got to thinking about it while I was riding on the bus home. There’s something about riding an empty bus in the frozen north when it’s pitch black outside at quarter after six in the evening that’ll tend to depress a person. That damn Firefly theme song was running through my head the whole way home, a song that I initially disliked but ended up having to admit that I dug. Turns out Joss wrote it himself. He’s a true renaissance man. Nathan Fillion, who plays Mal on the show, was cautiously optimistic about the show’s chances. It’s not necessarily cancelled yet, and there’s a chance that it’ll survive if the ratings pick up, but the ratings aren’t good. He pointed out that The Ratings are the real enemy here, not the Fox Network. However, there’s no denying that Fox is truly the Old West of television stations; only the strong survive, and any show that doesn’t immediately garner an impressive following is immediately slaughtered. Almost every show that debuted on Fox last year died a quick death, which, looking solely at the ratings, is understandable. But dammit, some shows just don’t deserve that kind of death. There should be more involved in the decision than the ratings, some shows deserve some independent judgment on the part of the Fox executives. Some shows have that spark that makes them stand out, and deserve a second chance to turn around an initial slump. Last year there was a Fox show called Undeclared. It was a fantastic show with a really subdued, subtle form of comedy. I can see how it eluded some folks, but me and the lads thought it was hilarious. Little pauses in conversation or inflection of tone would have us cracking up, but at about midseason it got canned because the ratings weren’t good. Like I said, I can understand this; once people decide that a show’s not worth watching, there’s not much you can do to make them decide otherwise. But let’s not forget the famous story of Cheers. Ranked 75th in a list of 75 shows, it by all logic should have been cancelled. NBC didn’t have the money to make a new set for a replacement show, so they let it run for another year out of pure necessity. Cheers then went on to dominate the sitcom airwaves, until Seinfeld finally took the top spot years later. Letting it survive for another year was the best decision NBC had made in a long time. Obviously, there are a lot of shows on television. Not every show deserves a second chance, and even those that do will probably not pick up in ratings even given that chance. I don’t think Undeclared would have survived. As much as I loved it, it was a very unusual show that would probably never amass more than a cult following. Firefly, on the other hand, is different. Firefly has the potential to gain mass appeal. Firefly could live for many years, and Firefly could be great. I understand why the ratings failed to materialize – the first episode I was cautiously optimistic about, but I thought the second episode was frankly poor. My fledgling enthusiasm waned, and I honestly only watched the third episode out of a sense of duty to Joss Whedon. Episode three was great, and they’ve all been solid since, but I’m sure they lost a lot of viewers after that second episode. The show has a large cast that takes some time to get comfortable with, and to deliver such an aimless script so early on did not help things. Where Buffy and Angel could survive a rocky first season due to the relative unpopularity of the WB Network, Fox is a cruel battleground. There’s no room for even a single stumble until a show is firmly entrenched. However, beyond that second episode, the show has been much stronger than the first season of any recent show I can think of, with a full four episodes of the initial pack being downright excellent. Letting it survive at a loss until its audience can grow would allow this show to prosper. Other shows that debuted this year might have high enough ratings to make it to the next season, but will they make it to season three, four, five? I don’t think so. I don’t think they’ve got that potential, I don’t think they’ve got that spark. But Firefly does, and given its obvious quality even this early in its life it becomes very frustrating to see that it’s going to be cancelled. However, I may be wrong. Perhaps Firefly would never find its audience, because its audience may not exist in great enough numbers to register. I think there may be a more fundamental reason that its viewership has failed to grow. The show has that patented Joss Whedon mix of drama, comedy and action that no one but he can pull off quite so well, but it’s also got something that hooks me far more deeply, and it’s something that I don’t think most people are looking for. Firefly has got a goddamn hero. There’s not a lot of call for heroes in this world. It’s not a concept that people believe in anymore. I know I didn’t when I was younger – the very word seemed embarrassing to me, it was nothing but a damn fool word used by damn fool people who were making up some fairy tales about how they thought the world should be. Heroes, jesus, there was no call for a lie like that. That’s not the way I thought people were and that’s not a way I thought people could honestly be. Whatever definition I’d heard or example I’d seen of people being noble and standing up for something that was worth standing up for, it didn’t reach me. Bounced off me like a hailstone, just a bunch of flighty bullshit. From self-righteous socialist crusaders to cookie cutter Disney heroes, I could find no real value in any example I was given. My favorite movie was Se7en. It really spoke to me, with a bleak view of the world and what I thought was a realistic view of how things really were. The world was a mess and all we could do was put up with it, and try to co-exist with it as best we could. “The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part.” That’s the final line of Se7en, and one that hit me profoundly. Coming from that Voice of God that Morgan Freeman has, it seemed powerfully significant. But I didn’t think about it too hard – I didn’t realize that the way I related to that line was more telling than I realized. The world was not a fine place, it was not a fine place at all, but worth fighting for? Yeah, it was. No matter how unimpressed I was with things, no matter how little stock I put in human beings or even in myself, I knew the world was worth fighting for. What little we did have was worth preserving. That was a given. That’s something I never thought to question. That concept of valuing existence was buried deep in my psyche but was sorely undercultivated. It could never be reached by the saccharine, poorly reasoned, difficult to believe testimony of the world in general that said things were okay and that people were great. That concept never seemed real to me until I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s easy to criticize Ayn Rand. Her work is extremely single minded and at times very unreasonable, but the basic message she had to impart was that people can be good, that the human mind is a powerful and unstoppable thing and that whatever mistakes we’ve made in our way of living on earth are nothing but that: mistakes. They are not inevitable and they are not the way things have to be. As I said, aspects of her work are very underdeveloped, very single-minded, but sometimes that’s what it takes to get through to someone, particularly a depressed kid who deep down wants to believe in the value of his own species but can’t find any cause to. Sometimes it takes an idealized view of the world to show someone the way things can be. Ayn’s characters, her heroes, were far removed from any person I’d ever met and even from any kind of person I would truly want to be, but they proved a point to me – they proved that it really was stronger to be a good person than to be a bad one, that the negative behavior and ideas of others do not fundamentally reflect on us as human beings, and that a real joy and satisfaction with your own life is possible by being a moral person, by standing up for the good, by fighting for the things that are worth fighting for. I couldn’t help but notice a similarity in her characters to the movie heroes I’d seen throughout my life, the ones I’d never believed in and who held no particular stock for me. I started to understand how that happened, that people wanted to believe in these ideas and wanted to hold a positive view of their own lives, but they didn’t know how to get there. They couldn’t visualize it, they couldn’t bring it all together into a plausible view of life. But little bits seeped into characters in movies and books, and while most of them still didn’t speak to me, I recognized that there was an undercurrent, that there was a desire in the mass-subconscious to break free of the paralyzing guilt and cynicism that our society has laden us down with. Eventually I began to find characters and people who demonstrated the traits of an honorable man, honestly and realistically, in a way that I could actually relate to. Finally, after so many years of thinking nothing but negatively about the human race, I was slowly beginning to see positive examples that didn’t strike me as hollow or phony. I could understand where these people were coming from and what kind of positive future it was they envisioned, what kind of value they could see in the human race. That cowboy sense of life that had always seemed like so much movie fodder began to seem a whole lot more real, and my time here on earth began to seem immeasurably more worthwhile. Over the past few years I’ve managed to find a few folk besides Ayn’s characters who could elicit a positive response in me. There’s the comedian Bill Hicks, the former wrestler and author Mick Foley and the psychologist Nathaniel Branden. They are (or in Bill’s case, were) good people who really seem to understand the importance of being one of the good guys. On the fictional side there’s Jesse Custer, the hero of the comic series Preacher, which is the best damn comic I’ve ever read, written by a fella named Garth Ennis. I don’t know how these people came to be the way they are, I don’t know how they managed to come to the same basic conclusions I have, but they give me that sense that they understand the importance of telling the truth and doing right. I feel it from all of them, and it’s a rare thing to recognize in somebody, and something I don’t think most of the world would recognize or would even care to look for. It’s one thing to come to a personal understanding of what’s right in the world and what you should do to be a good person, of how to have the kind of life you can look back on and be proud of having lived, but it’s hard to maintain sometimes without a reminder. It’s a whole lot easier to keep your eyes steady on the horizon when you know there’s somebody else seeing that same horizon with you. And I think that that, more than anything, is why Firefly might not live. You can see it on the Fox Firefly message board, there are people who love this show and can’t quite put their finger on why, people who are pained at the idea of it being cancelled, the same way I am. There aren’t a lot of us, certainly not enough to keep a show on the air, but the draw it has, the sense that people get from this show is that sense of the heroic, that cowboy morality that only makes sense to most of us when we’re little kids and that we lose as we grow up. Captain Malcolm Reynolds may be the best character a television show has had in a long time. Captain Reynolds is a bonafide goddamn hero. It’s not something a lot of people believe in and not something a lot of people are looking for, but I think when they see it something inside of them reacts. Something inside of them knows they’ve found a thing they don’t exactly have words for, something that’s been missing in their lives for a long time, and something that they don’t want to let go of. But maybe not enough of them. It’s a concept Joss has touched on before, with the evolution of the character of Angel into a champion, someone who will be important to the future of the world and who will redeem himself through positive deeds. But the character of Angel has a checkered past, is mired in duty and has an intrinsic inability to ever be truly happy, or truly satisfied with what he’s accomplished. Malcolm Reynolds hasn’t had time to really come into his own as a fully-rounded character, but that sense of the heroic is already with him. He knows what’s right, he knows what he deserves out of life, and he will do everything in his power to fight toward that future. It was apparent from the very first episode, when Mal agreed to a job hijacking a train carrying medicine. Once he saw the condition of the town he was stealing from and the desperation of the people living there, he returned the medicine. He couldn’t take the job, even though it meant putting himself in a very dangerous situation with the man who hired him. “A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is,” the sheriff told him as he returned the cargo. “But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.” “I don’t believe he does,” Mal replied, and to me, that set the tone of the entire show. I don’t know how meaningful that line was to most, but to me, I got that immediate sense that I was dealing with a man who understands the power of good, who has a deep respect for our positive potential and who wants to show it to people, both in the character of Captain Reynolds and in Joss himself. Joss Whedon believes in the basic cowboy principles that this world is so poor in cultivating in people, he knows that there’s a code of ethics that every decent human being should follow, not out of some sense of duty to others, not out of fear of reprisal, but because it’s the right thing to do and it’s the only way civilized people can honorably co-exist. That’s not something you can accidentally stumble upon and not something you can fake with any sincerity. It’s a rare thing to find, and Joss Whedon has it. The second scene in a later episode that drove things home for me was one where Jayne, the ship’s mercenary, decides to turn in two other members of the crew for their ransom. Things go poorly and they barely make it back to the ship alive, but no one realizes that Jayne had tried to turn in his shipmates, so he decides to pretend that it never happened. Mal, however, pieces events together and realizes that he and his whole crew have been double crossed. He privately locks Jayne in an airlock, intending to let him be sucked into space as they leave the atmosphere. Jayne, realizing that he’s about to die as a result of his own misdeeds, asks the captain, through a small speaker, “What’re you gonna tell the others?” Mal watches him through the airlock window, considering for a moment. “About what?” “About why I’m dead.” “Hadn’t thought about it.” “Make something up,” Jayne says, obviously pained that his life has come to an end, but his last worry still being that his name will be remembered dishonorably. “Don’t tell ‘em what I did.” And after a long moment, Mal opens the door. No television show that I can recall would have a scene such as that as its climax, no show would treat the notion of a desire to die with dignity, leading to a chance for redemption, with such weight and such seriousness. That, to me, is the true value of Firefly. Now I don’t know that most would agree with my assessment of the show, and I’ve never heard Joss Whedon comment on it specifically, but he’s taken a place in my mental list of the few people who have given me that sense of psychological visibility in matters of standing up for the good, of doing what’s right, of being a cowboy. Not a cowboy in the sense of hooting and hollering and dressing in anachronistic clothes and carrying a lasso, but in the cowboy spirit. And not the historically accurate cowboy spirit, but the movie cowboy spirit, which is very elusive in our modern world. Firefly gave me that sense, and to me that’s the ultimate value of art. If not to teach you something new, then at least to give you some assurance that you’re not alone in the world and that someone else sees things the way you do. If Firefly is in fact cancelled, I can at least remember it as the truly great show that it is. It has action, it has comedy, it has drama, it has all of the hallmarks of what has made Joss’ other shows great, but it has something more. At its base, it has a deeper understanding of what makes a character great, of what makes a story significant, and of what makes a life truly worth living. To some this will seem melodramatic, but once you’ve attained that sense of life, once you’ve been fully and consciously convinced that the world is a fine place and is worth fighting for, any person or any work of art that supports your conviction takes on a value that cannot be measured. While I’m watching you on your death bed, all I can say is rest in peace, Firefly, and thanks to all who made the show possible. You may succumb to the many dangers of the open plains, but the spirit you tried to convey will re-appear somewhere. As long as there are a few of us left to keep it alive, it can’t help but come to the surface again. And one day there’ll be enough of us up here to give it the proper welcome it deserves. “Take my love, take my land Take me to where I cannot stand I don’t care ‘cause I’m still free You can’t take the sky from me”