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November 20 2010

A Bright Center to the Universe: Taking a Second Look at Joss Whedon's Firefly. It's one of the most interesting articles on Firefly in ages.

Hmm. I think that to properly appreciate the article you have to like the Star Wars prequels and be willing to accept the author's nasty shots about Buffy. He says he didn't like Buffy, that it wasn't his thing. Fair enough. But his attacks on the show go beyond personal preference.
For instance, he says that it was Firefly that finally showed Whedon capable of silent storytelling when it can be easily argued that he did this time and again in Buffy. So reading this, I kept losing track of his point every time he threw in another dis of Buffy.

He also seems to have encountered lots of people who hated the prequels because it was made by the same "media conglomerate" that canceled Firefly. I'd be interested to know if that is true of anyone here.
Most of this falls apart when you realise that Firefly lived and died before Episode II was even released.
For the most part, I believe that when it comes to debates about the quality of media, it's all personal opinion. But disliking Buffy (for being "a mix of comic-camp and 90210 soap-opera" - did he even watch the show?) and considering the Star Wars prequels superior to Firefly and Serenity is about as close to being straight-out wrong as you can get. Arrogant, too - he directly accuses Browncoats of "steadfastly ignoring Firefly's flaws rather than confronting them head-on", and rather than provide a compelling backup for this claim, he simply presents an opinion that the dialogue "comes off as forced and boring" and that the action scenes are "incomprehensible and unremarkable", as though this is immutable fact that everyone ignores, when it's simply that the majority of us love the dialgue and find the action anywhere from competent to exciting to utterly gripping (at least, I assume so, who here agrees?). I know the hair on the back of my neck never fails to stick up during the Battle of the Ion Cloud.

Not to mention what Matt has said above - Firefly came out around the same time as AotC, and even Serenity couldn't have taken ROTS into account.
"If there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet that it's farthest from."
I find it fascinating from the standpoint of a naysayer revisiting the work after some time has passed. It's unquestionably a tough read for anyone who thinks the Star Wars prequels are dreck. As for the relative release dates, if you include both Firefly and Serenity, there's enough leeway to include the SW prequels.
It's kind of refreshing to hear from a sci-fi fan who doesn't like Whedon-- sometimes we seem so monobrain. "Joss good, Star Wars prequels bad." I didn't like the prequels, and, well, here I am on Whedonesque, but you can learn a lot from a dissenting opinion, and in this area they're a bit hard to come by.

But of course I lost patience and didn't finish reading, so what I learned mostly condenses into "Orson Scott Card likes Firefly?! Coooool!"
He also seems to have encountered lots of people who hated the prequels because it was made by the same "media conglomerate" that canceled Firefly. I'd be interested to know if that is true of anyone here.

I never heard of anyone hating the prequels because of Firefly ... which is not to say such people don't exist, just that there are plenty of people who hate the prequels for other reasons. I saw the first two prequels before I even knew Firefly existed, really really wanted to like them, and was sad that instead I thought they were a complete disaster.
Hey! I like the pop-culture references!
Apt quote, alexreager. :)

I thought this was an interesting article, it did take me awhile to completely read through it. While I would by no means call myself a Browncoat, I found myself continually annoyed by the glorifying of Lucas' works vs. the constant negative critique of Whedon's work as I was reading.

Still, that last paragraph was worth the time it took though.

Thanks for linking this, Simon.
He also seems to have encountered lots of people who hated the prequels because it was made by the same "media conglomerate" that canceled Firefly. I'd be interested to know if that is true of anyone here.

I loved the Star Wars trilogy. As for the prequels, (the character of Jar Jar Binks aside), I thought The Phantom Menace had a lot of promise and looked forward to the rest. Sadly, I enjoyed neither. I thought they were vastly inferior to the original movies and wished Lucas had left well enough alone.

So, no. My dislike has nothing to do with the "media conglomerate" that cancelled Firefly.

[ edited by menomegirl on 2010-11-20 20:15 ]
I agree with Lioness. Buffy was and will always be Whedon's greatest work, I adore Firefly as much as the next guy, but when I remember episodes such as "The Gift", "The Body" & "Hush" I can't help but remember how superior the Buffster is.
Do people not realize that 20th was simply a distributor for a fee of the prequels?
Most of this falls apart when you realise that Firefly lived and died before Episode II was even released.

Came here to say this, leaving satisfied.

I'm happy that the author found a way to make peace with Firefly but there's not much call and response to be had with TPM, and the other two came too late for this "narrative prism" to be valid.

The really sad thing about the Prequels is that they could have been great. The cartoons that fill the narrative gap between Episodes II & III were terrific. TPM should have been a 10 or 15 minute prologue to the story from AOTC, the cartoons' storyline used for Episode II, then Episode II makes sense without the need for a cartoon series to tell the viewer what happened along the way. As it was, the essential plotline of the Prequels was so forced it was frankly unconvincing.
I don't know if it will come as quite a shock to folks to learn that, in point of fact, there *are* those of us, *very* many in fact, who passionately love and sincerely appreciate the SW prequels (they are what got me into SW and made me such a devoted fan in the first place, and I am in no way the only one) and consider them every bit awesome, phenomenal, wonderful, rousing, moving, beautifully-woven and spectacular as in truth they *are*....but what's more, ye-es, we do also very much love and appreciate "Firefly" and the whole 'verse, as well! Yes indeedy, we actually *are* passionate and die-hard fans of the SW prequels, but we can be, and *are*, equally vociferous in our enjoyment and admiration of all things Jossian too (BTVS, "Angel", "Firefly", the whole lot of it).
So please, kindly don't be making such erroneous generalizations as to try purporting that "everyone" supposedly "hated" the SW prequels, and that "no 'Firefly' or Joss fan liked them", or they supposedly "sucked in comparison"....when, in point of fact, *none* of those statements are the least bit true. *I'm* a SW prequel, "Clone Wars" and Joss-verse fan combined, and so are many, *many* countless others (who are beyond sick and tired of all the negativity and bashing, and being constantly shouted down and insulted by those who bash and trash the PT, incidentally) - and it would do well to be remembering that fact!
Again, the article discusses both Firefly and Serenity in essence as a kind of single work. Firefly aired in 2002, Serenity was released in 2005. TPM was released in 1999, AotC in 2002, and RotS in 2005. I think the article might overstate certain comparisons, but the time frame isn't as out of whack as people want it to be.
If we're to believe Joss (and why wouldn't we?), the plot of what would have been Firefly S2 and eventually became Serenity was in his mind right from the get-go, which outstrips AotC by a solid few months and RotS by around three years. Saying that the Star Wars prequels were a basis for Firefly/Serenity kinda strikes me as being in the same vein of people who claimed that Buffy S8 was taking a page from Twilight's book, ignoring or not knowing that S8 was plotted out well before Stepanie Meyer even began to believe that people cared about her dreams. Not to mention some of the connections between the two are a stretch at best. I say this as someone who is a genuine fan of the prequels, but I find trying to claim them as any real form of inspiration for Firefly to be completely off base.
I'd buy that if his critique was merely about plot, but it isn't. But, more than that, while the article doesn't do a great job explaining this, this sort of critique (I believe) isn't about "so and so is directly, deliberately, and consciously responding to the work of other so and so", but more about a more zeitgeisty "dialogue" that happens under the radar, often under the creators' radars themselves. (Granted, even in that context, I think the piece takes it too far anyway. But, regardless, it didn't strike me as overtly "Joss was specifically and deliberately responding to George" as it's getting made out to be.)
But, regardless, it didn't strike me as overtly "Joss was specifically and deliberately responding to George" as it's getting made out to be.)

Umm, that's exactly what the article is trying to do. And failing at it.
THE CHEESE AND THE WORMS by Carlo Ginzburg is a great book. The author reads the confessions of a man from the 16th century, then reads the books the confessor read, and then reads the confessions again to try and understand what filters the confessor had when reading the books, to better understand the mind-set of someone dead for hundreds of years.

I try to apply this same concept to tv and movie reviews. In this case, the author loves the prequels, so that means he was 5 to 12 years old when PHANTOM came out. That would make him somewhere between 16 and 23 now. So that makes the prequels his nerd touchstone, but also means he's got limited experience with many, many other things. For example, it means he was 3 to 10 when BUFFY started, still stuck in "girls are icky" mode and unable to understand any of the pulp culture references... that's if his parents let him watch it at all. He would have been 6 to 13 when Firefly aired, so again, he wasn't really in the right age range to appreciate it.

This makes the prequels his fan touchstone, and he filters everything through that. Since he's young, he expects that everybody else should see things the way he does, which is why he thinks Joss' work is a response to the thing he loves, the prequels.

So that's why he doesn't like Buffy (give him time on that one, I think), or understand that there were bounty hunters before Lucas wrote stories about them, or really get the whole Old West/THE KILLER ANGELS connection.

To be fair to Bob, Joss did frequently reference Han Solo when talking about FIREFLY. And I agree with Bob about the Alliance ships at the send of SERENITY ;-)
Interesting, but ultimately highly unconvincing, for the hatred of Buffy and the idealization of the prequels, which were extremely flawed. I just can't appreciate where he is coming from.
Based on the comments section at the site of this article, it appears that the author bases nearly all of his reviews as comparison/contrast to Star Wars. Because Star Wars came "first" in 1977, everything since is somehow derivative.

Others have already commented on the timeline and why his attempt to show how Firefly mimics/debates/discusses/pays homage to Star Wars stems from the Lucas kool-aid flowing through his veins.

I have two other complaints:

First, his suggestion that those who disliked the Prequels are a small minority and the claim that they are "a vocal contingent of old-fans who longed for the simple good-and-evil Manichean conflict of the originals". I can provide a list of reasons for why I disliked the Prequels and I assure you, more simplicity would not make the list.

Second, his contention that Asimov or Card are hard sci-fi writers. This has nothing to do with Whedon, but it goes to the credibility of someone who reviews science fiction. Asimov and Card are the exact opposite of hard science fiction. This mistake undermines his "authority" as a sci-fi afficianado regardless of his writing skills.

I don't hate the Prequels, nor do I wish to dump on a fellow sci-fi fan who clearly gives thought to what he watches and enjoys sharing those views with other fans. I just think he needs to branch out in his reading/viewing of the genre and gain some perspective.

[ edited by lottalettuce on 2010-11-20 22:28 ]

I follow Orson Scott Card fairly regularly and I can tell you that he does indeed hold Firefly and Serenity in high regard.

OSC hates all things vampire and zombie so he is not a particularly huge Whedon fan. That said, he called Firefly "the best space-opera sci-fi series ever on television" and Serenity the "best science fiction movie, ever".

Some may look askew at that last bit, but understand that Card cares more about the relationships and moral struggles than he does shiny spaceships flitting about.

He also had nice things to say about Browncoats. Given the many early screenings of Serenity and the the continuous high buzz about how awesome it was (at least for those of us in the sci-fi community), he was absolutely stunned that he never caught so much as a whiff concerning the demise of a certain Leaf. And I have to agree because I felt exactly the same way.
Someone needs to tell that guy that not everything in the universe resolves around George Lucas.

As to why the Prequels suck, just watch Plinkett's Reviews. They are pretty long but funny as hell.
I don't have much use for the prequels, but I'm not a hater. I'm more of a purist who didn't appreciate the revisionist things Lucas did to his own films which I won't go into because everyone pretty much, I'm betting know, or how wooden the acting was in comparison to the original trio of films, which were such fun, charming sweeping epics, much more like Indiana Jones in space. There was some very lyrical writing in that piece and it pointed out a lot of very good things about the Firefly/Serenity 'verse. But then it was undercut by the author seemingly implying Joss is only standing on the shoulders of giants past. That hardly seems fair. Everything in film is self-referential and derivative. If Joss did things in this particular 'verse that showed positive parallels to Lucas or sci-fi as a whole, or exceeded those parallels and made them his own, why not leave it at that than undercutting a master work like Buffy and Joss' vision? That really took me out of the writing and made it hard to get through.
Interesting that an article based on revisiting a preconception that the author had elicits so many responses that seem almost violently angry at his reaction to Buffy. A reaction I might add, which really isn't a new complaint and to be honest, I'm not sure what we're arguing about. Buffy WAS humor + drama. Perhaps the 90210 comparison isn't flattering, but it's not missing the point either.

I think viewing the prequels through the lens of what Lucas was trying to do and holding up Firefly as a mirror is actually a good comparison to make. My complaint was that it seemd Lucas' pen in the case of the prequals could not equal his ambition. That tinny dialogue which was OK in the black and white world of the original trilogy would prove to kill anything that becomes politically nuanced. And lets face it, the fall of a republic from its ideals IS a very meaty venture. I wish that he had gotten Lawrence Kasdan on board to write the prequels for him for that reason.

Considering that I was (and remain) a die-hard fan of the Prequels, it always turned into some kind of conflict between those two pieces of science-fiction, and between their creators in general.

Amen. Based on this thread alone.

For the record, I don't enjoy the prequels very much. But I don't think it's unfair to acknowledge what the author is trying to do here. The author's point was not "Whedon owes Lucas." His point was, both works tend to speak to the same ideas and that in a sense, their subject matters overlap and they talk to each other. It's also not unfair to compare relatively concurrent projects with each other to see how they complement or differ.

I'm glad Simon posted it because I found it interesting as well.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-11-20 23:01 ]

[ edited by azzers on 2010-11-21 22:36 ]

I don't agree with your final point that the author is suggesting "both works tend to speak to the same ideas and that in a sense, their subject matters overlap".

I think he very clearly IS saying that Firefly/Serentiy is derivative of Star Wars, right down to saying that Serenity's planet Miranda is just a retelling of Attack of the Clones planet Kamino.
Looks like a tough thread. I didn't take the author's dislike of BtVS too seriously as either an actual well-wrought criticism of the show or as anything to get particularly upset by; the author didn't like the show, fine, the end. Similarly, the fact that the author liked the prequels surely doesn't automatically nullify his opinion. I agree that the statement that people only didn't like the prequels due to a preference for "good-and-evil!" stories is wrongheaded. But his suggestion that the prequels actually follow a path where the real story is hidden from the protagonists is pretty much correct; I think it's too buried to make a particularly good story, but I can't really argue with people who do.

The overall point though seems to stand: Firefly and The Phantom Menace actually do cover some similar ground, and both implicitly or explicitly look at the key differences between the inner and outer worlds of their respective 'verses. I found aspects of the article a little unclear--surely if his thesis is that TPM is aiming for a criticism of the bureaucracy of the inner worlds, then Whedon doesn't have to be criticizing TPM to be appropriating some of its visual language, as is suggested? Still, I found it interesting and worth thinking about.
The obsessive comparisons of Firefly to Star Wars was a bit much and single minded. For example, at one point the writer states:

Beyond the mere threat of rival criminal factions and bounty hunters (another artifact lifted from Lucas), ...

C'mon, similarities such as these could also be attributed to both works accessing and doing mash-ups of similar historical and movie archetypes... I mean really, Lucas didn't invent rival criminal factions and bounty hunters! Just a bit too much emphasis, and assumption, that similarities were due to Joss borrowing from Lucas, rather than giving more allowance that each creator was inspired by the same source material.
Ugh... need to rewrite this... but I gotta go.

[ edited by azzers on 2010-11-21 01:29 ]
I agree with 11thHour. There are elements that could be influenced by Star Wars, but are hardly unique to those films. Perhaps some (or even many) of the similarities are due to Lucas' influence on Joss, but they could just as easily be from elsewhere.

I am put in mind of one of the original great debates on Harry Potter. In certain circles, there were quite a lot of people who saw Harry Potter as an obvious rip-off of many elements of Neil Gaiman's main character from "Books of Magic". But Gaiman maintains that it is much more likely that they both were influenced by T.H. White, and of course Rowling claimed that she was unfamiliar with Gaiman's work.

It seems plausible that Star Wars did have some influence on the 'Verse (it's impossible to deny that both "Shindig" & the original "Serenity" Pilot feature brief appearances by Star Wars vessels), but this article seems to claim that any similarity in question is almost automatically attributable to Star Wars. I am of the mind that if the author wants to claim those connections, then he should find greater proof to establish that they directly come from Star Wars, and not anywhere else.
I think the real problem isn't that the author dislikes Joss Whedon's work (to each his own), or that the author loves the Star Wars prequels (I thought they were terrible, but again, to each his own), or even that he compared the two franchises to each other.

The problem is that the author set up a comparison between the prequels and Firefly as the key to understanding the latter. It seems that he views them as some sort of essential Rosetta Stone. As many people have pointed out, Firefly was gone by the time Episodes II and III were released. Furthermore, I thought many of the comparisons (except, perhaps, comparing the secret planet in Clones to Miranda) were strained at best.

In fact, I think an excellent essay should be written comparing episodes IV, V, and VI to Firefly/Serenity. Considering the effect Star Wars had on pop culture and sci fi especially, it's impossible to discuss Mal without mentioning Han, or the Alliance without mentioning the Empire, or of Persephone without conjuring up Tattoine.

But the prequels? I just do not see it.
Funny, his stance on Buffy reminds me of how I used to view the show, before even watching more than five minutes of it, I'm ashamed to say, and before falling in love with Firefly compelled me to really check out that "other thing" this Joss dude had done.

Now Buffy is in my own 'best show ever' category (which holds from 3 to 5 shows at any given time). And considering I only started watching Firefly because of a couple of raving browncoats I wanted to troll on a Trek board... yeah, there's hope for anybody, folks ;)
Not going to argue this person's opinions re. Firefly vs. StarWars because, well, that's a long wait for a train don't come. However:

"...Whedon can be seen nodding his head in agreement to Lucas..."

"If Whedon is sometime parroting Lucas’ anti-bureaucratic message throughout the series, however..."

"...the mere threat of rival criminal factions and bounty hunters (another artifact lifted from Lucas)..."

There is clearly a lot of misattribution of source material. This article seems to be unaware that things like callous bureaucracies and criminal competition have been around for, like, EVER. Call me another craaaaazy Whedon fan, but I do take issue with the fact that he seems to be characterized here as both derivative and inferior.

There's a classic exchange between Howard Roark & Ellsworth Toohey that seems perfectly appropriate here:

Toohey: Mr. Roark, we’re alone here. Why don’t you tell me what you think of me? In any words you wish. No one will hear us.

Roark: But I don't think of you.

[ edited by UnderTheDark on 2010-11-21 10:49 ]
From the scrap-heap underclass look of its criminal sectors to the gleaming, elegant design of its posh uppercrust sectors, Whedon’s ‘Verse is one that borrows heavily from The Phantom Menace‘s peerless mix of art-deco cityscapes, belle epoque courtyards and classic Italianate architecture for a look of the future that bears striking similarity to fairy-tale visions of the past.

This pretty much encapsulates my (and others') main issue with his thesis - 'art-deco', 'belle epoque', 'Italianate', these things all existed previously outside of 'Star Wars' so why must they be specifically taken from there ? How could the author possibly know the contents of Joss' mind with enough certainty to just state it outright without disclaimer ? And anyway, i'd argue that the Alliance worlds are mostly quite starkly modern architecturally, lots of concrete and shiny metal (and the rim worlds are obviously mainly 19th century American west).

In general, 'Firefly' IMO, if it's a direct "response" to anything, always felt like more of a response to 'Star Trek' (particularly the newer incarnations) with its evenly distributed, post-scarcity technology and its benign but disturbingly monocultural central authority. The 'verse feels as if Joss sat down and asked himself what that would really be like, given that in 500 years technology could change immeasurably but human nature not so much.

That said, a lot of what the author says refers to the original trilogy and on that there's not much to discuss IMO - can any sci-fi creator operating today fairly claim to not be influenced by the original films ? They're a cultural landmark, simple as that (the prequel trilogy's also a cultural landmark, just for less flattering reasons unfortunately).

Various other details smack of the single-lens issue I have with a lot of cultural criticism - the guy has 'Star Wars' in mind so everything is related to 'Star Wars' even when, to me, it fairly clearly isn't (for instance Miranda is surely more of a reference to 'Brave New World' and its drug soma - via one of 'The Tempest's more famous quotes "How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in it!" - than it ever is to Kamino though both may be inspired by the same source). 'Star Wars' pays basically no attention to scientific fact so 'Firefly' is apparently in "strict adherence to scientific-fact" (because though it's not, it certainly is by comparison). Asimov and Orson Scott Card aren't hard sci-fi writers (though Asimov is closest) but in comparison to 'Star Wars' (which some even characterise as "science fantasy" to distinguish it from general sci-fi) their books might as well be Phd theses. And so on.

But all said and done he's not actually as hard on Serenifly as you might think from reading this thread (although a lot of his compliments are slightly back-handed) and not actually as uniformly glowing in his praise of Lucas (he acknowledges his widely agreed appallingly bad ear for dialogue) and anyway, that's "mere" opinion and he's obviously entitled to his. As with any other article, some of what he says seems fairly sensible to me (or is at least arguable) and some doesn't (or is outright factually wrong). So it goes.
Wow, it seems like everyone already said what I was thinking as I read it. It came across as if the article's author wasn't familiar with much science fiction outside of Star Wars. Firefly borrows from a lot of places, but ... gosh, very misguided. "Peerless" cityscapes of Phantom Menace? My god.

And yes, his opinion of Buffy seems to be based on watching maybe one episode from season one. :/

I love my bad guys with a hefty dose of gray rather than black and white, but hated the prequels. They weren't hated because they were all shades of gray, but because the writing, plotting and characterization sucked. The CG was nice, but very flat compared to the older movies. If he doesn't understand why people didn't like the prequels, I'd have a hard time imagining him understanding why people like Whedon's work. Normally I'd think that's fine, except he seems to expound on it as if he really does understand.

I just realized that Melaka Fray falling from tall buildings through flying cars is a rip-off of Phantom Menace!!!
Personally, I've always seen Firefly and Serenity as the "Anti-Trek". Yes, there are Star Wars elements to both the Series and the BDM, but I think the 'Verse is more of a reaction to Star Trek than it is a "Salute" to Lucas.
I don't think it's a very good idea to sarcastically antagonize the author of the article, although he already has an idea in his head of who he thinks "Whedonites" are because I read all the comments where the article is, including his. Wish he had come over here and talked with us just as he wishes we had gone over to his site and talked to him. He mentioned writing a piece about Dollhouse next, so I imagine that should prove interesting if linked here.
Coulda woulda shoulda ;).

(cross-site discussions are a hassle anyway but I also don't see the point in this specific instance because what would it boil down to ? "I believe this is the case but don't have much specific evidence !", "I agree that you believe this is the case but do not personally believe this is necessarily the case although I also don't have much specific evidence !". Uh huh. Good talk ;)

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