Sunday, May 16, 2010

Firefly v. Star Trek

For many s/f fans, this is an ancient issue. The Joss Whedon series Firefly had a brief TV run 8 years ago, and the Serenity feature film was released in 2005. On the other hand, a recent screening of Serenity at a movie theatre near me was attended by many fans, including some in Browncoats. And of course, Star Trek goes back a few years itself.

But the Firefly stories are among those that deliberately define themselves as being different from Star Trek, and in some ways, an opposite answer. Yet there is quite a lot of resemblance in their histories--which seems to be completely unacknowledged and ignored by Firefly creators and fans. Anyway, I've just seen the series on DVD and download--for the first time complete from start to finish-- and the Serenity movie on DVD, safe from commercials. So I thought I'd address some of the specific challenges its story universe makes to that of Star Trek.

First of all, I love the Firefly series and its universe, and I like the Serenity movie. The actors create great characters, the dialogue is amazingly good, the idea of the s/f western has never been done better. So I am a fan.

And as far as fans go, I detect some possible influences on Star Trek JJA, especially in Abrams' visual style (the lens flares, the shaky camera, the always-in-motion camera) but also in his approach to characters and even story. For one thing, the Captain in Serenity gets beat up almost as much as Captain Kirk in Star Trek JJA.

But there are differences, especially in the story universe. The Firefly version of the Federation is the Alliance--a progressive, prosperous and seemingly benevolent government of planets, but unwilling to allow planets or peoples to be independent. Instead, the Alliance used military force to subdue the Independents (the Browncoats) in an interplanetary Civil War, and uses other forms of tyranny to enforce its rule, such as imprisoning one of the characters and experimenting on her brain.

This story thread, established in the series, came to full fruition in the Serenity movie, where the Alliance was exposed in various ways: as employing a highly skilled assassin (the Operative) and in trying to make one planet's citizens "better people" by dousing them with chemicals. And then when the chemicals go wrong, inducing an entire population to simply die from lethargy while creating the race of marauding human beasts called the Reivers, the Alliance very carefully covers it up.

The idea of Utopia gone wrong is a central one to a lot of dystopian fictions, including the first and most famous: Nineteen Eighty-Four and especially Brave New World (in Serenity, the planet experimented on is called Miranda, which is the name of a main character in Shakespeare's The Tempest--she is the one who first utters the phrase, "brave new world.")

Further, there are those who believe that the very attempt to create a utopia inevitably necessitates tyranny. The Soviet Union is often their prime example, and the Communist era in Eastern Europe and China almost made "utopia" into another word for tyranny and totalitarian state. More recently, the British author John Gray made this part of his premise in his influential book, Black Mass.

Judging from a comment or two by Joss Whedon in the Serenity DVD featurettes (I haven't listened to the full commentary yet), Star Trek was on his mind when he created Firefly, but then it nearly always is on the minds of creators of new depictions of the future, since Star Trek's is the best known future on this planet. His comment was a bit specious, indicating that the Enterprise would have ignored the class of characters in this series. He also seems to be of the "more gritty" school--as if dirtier spaceships are more realistic (whereas sailors on real Navy ships apparently spend a lot of their time keeping them spotlessly clean.)

But the more important distinction is whether the Federation is an impossible Utopia, which is partly based on another idea that's a favorite of post-Star Trek s/f TV--that human nature is fixed, and very flawed, to say the least.

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