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March 22 2011

Firefly and the return to human realism in tv sci-fi. Find out how the show helped to kill off the traditional tv space opera.

The person who wrote this article obviously never saw a single episode of Babylon 5. And he probably hasn't even heard of Blake's 7.
Yeah... I'm having hard time seeing the world of B5 as a peaceful utopia seeing that one of the main arcs on the show was Earth's Civil War. I mean, a point could be made of Firefly being different from the other space operas since it focused on people living outside the mainstream society (as opposed to the usual military/science POV), but Firefly was hardly the first one to go for realism instead of idealism.

[ edited by ruuger on 2011-03-22 15:00 ]
And even more: " Jayneís sense of restraint is nonexistent, and his nobility is severely limited, although it does exist. Before Jayne, no major character in any science fiction series possessed such moral ambiguity." Have the author never seen the Doctor on Lost in Space?
I could make a comparison with Mal and the Maquis, and The Alliance with The Federation. It's a point of view sort of thing.
I have seen both B5 and Blake's 7 and I would back the idea that Firefly was one of the shows that helped usher in a new realism in TV SF. I actually own both series on DVD (I have an all regions DVD player and ordered Blake's 7 from Great Britain).

I don't find either series particularly realistic and I personally find B5 to be be unrealistic from beginning to end. I mean, just look at how the characters talked and the design of the aliens. Part of the new realism of TV SF was the jettisoning of people with bumps added to their heads in make up. B5 frequently veers off into the mystical and magical. This isn't always a bad thing (I particularly enjoyed Neil Gaiman's episode), but it takes the show very far out of the realism category.

The problem with Blake's 7 is that TV technology was just too crude at the time. It is a very, very hard show to watch these days. I think it tried to be a bit more realistic than previous series, but the technology limited what it could do. Also, no one in the U.S. (except for especially geeky people like me) has even heard of it, let alone seen it.

The one complaint I have is elevating Firefly over BSG. I absolutely love Firefly and I think had it lasted longer it might have had more influence on TV SF, but BSG, which was already being developed when Firefly was shown, established a new realism for TV SF. Having no aliens, eliminating shields (as in, "Shields down to 20% Captain!"), having more natural physics, eliminating "Magic Science" (SG-1 is particulary guilty of having "Magic Science" throughout the show), and introducing a new grittiness are all things BSG established on TV.

I assume that everyone knows that Serenity makes a very brief appearance in the pilot episode of BSG. Zoic did the special effects of both series and inserted the ship in a scene on Caprica. I doubt if BSG creator Ronald D. Moore has ever seen Firefly. He watches very little scripted TV.
In the original non-crappy Star Wars, Lucas tried to display what he called "dirty space." The idea that things were used and overused and beat up. It's hard to see over the flash and special effects but a good example is the condition of the robots, the halls of the consular ship (before blasters make it worse). No one can deny Alien's effect on the genre. Blade Runner is another example. Something like distopia.

I get what this writer is trying to say, though. What we often like about sci fi are the pretty colors, people and things. Battlestar and Firefly are good examples of TV distopia/sci-fi. As much as walking toasters and cowboys can be, I suppose.
On board re. B5. Nothing Utopian about that society, from the implied pollution of Earth (all cities under Domes) to the feudal treatment of the colonies, to the horrible way the telepath phenomena was handled, to the arc in season four that described Earth Alliance as a corporate Plutocracy, where the government only thought they were in charge, but multi-planetary corporations had the actual power.
Pretty dystopian IMO.
Interesting article in my opinion. I don't entirely agree but he makes good points. I haven't seen Babylon 5 so I can't really attest to what you guys are saying about that though. I kinda want to rewatch some BSG now though...
Shey, I do agree that B5 did not depict a Utopian society. It was definitely a society of haves and have-nots. And I do think the essay emphasized human motivation too much instead of looking at the overall picture. B5 was not Utopian but neither was it in the tiniest way realistic. I confess to loving it whenever Sheldon on Big Bang makes a dig at B5. I think there is a very real sense in which B5 was precisely the kind of show that Firefly and BSG has killed off. I don't think we will see an outer space SF series any time soon in which there are any aliens like you see on B5.

Though I have to confess that I have trouble being objective with B5. It is, in my opinion, the worst designed SF series ever. Londo encapsulates much of what I detest in the show. His outrageous overacting, his absurd hair, his atrocious outfits, his unbearable accent. I'm so repulsed by all of that that I have trouble attuning myself to his story.
My big nitpick with the article is that it assumes that capitalism (and specifically the desire for wealth and continually more wealth) is a natural human trait. The desire for wealth was existant before capitalism, but I'd argue that it's not a basic, natural human desire; rather, it is brought on by environment and society.
I think there are actually two separate ideas of realism under discussion here. One is the social realism of a series and the other is the emotional realism of the characters. I haven't watched B5 but I'll take everyone else's word that it involved a non-utopian future which included pollution, poverty, inequality etc. In fact I think dystopian elements are far from uncommon at least in science fiction movies.

But what Joss does so outstandingly in all of his shows is portraying people as real. When I try to articulate why I am so swept away by BtVS, what I always come back to is the realness of it. When I watch other supposedly "realistic" television shows, such as medical or detective procedurals, I often find myself thinking "This isn't how real people talk. This isn't how people react to things. I can't buy this." On Joss's shows not matter how ridiculous the premise (vampires, giant snake demons, an entire town in denial about the supernatural flagrantly obvious in it's midst), the characters are emotionally genuine (if about 100 times wittier than a normal human being.) In that respect that is what Firefly did that was realer, just as BtVS, Angel and, maybe to a slightly less degree Dollhouse (still not convinced that Boyd could have been that successfully secretive) are so much realer than most of what else is up there.

That's what has me coming back to Joss again and again, and weeping soft tears in the moonlight for all the Firefly episodes that never were.
B5 was unquestionably space opera -- one of the central premises of the show is that there are alien races out there so advanced that their powers make no sense to us and might as well be magic. And many of the main characters are almost blandly heroic and good. But there was grinding poverty on the station itself, and one whole episode revolved around a labor dispute because the dockworkers were getting squeezed by budget cuts. So a bit of a mix.

Firefly takes the more interesting aspects and extrapolates. There are some locations that could fit in nicely with space opera, like Ariel, but they're just glimpsed from below.
The desire for wealth was existant before capitalism, but I'd argue that it's not a basic, natural human desire; rather, it is brought on by environment and society.

I think it's inevitable in any resource limited environment which is pretty much every one that people have found themselves in so far - when there isn't enough to go around there'll be pressure to acquire what you need, a demand for a limited supply. Which is basically capitalism boiled down.

As to the essay, I disagree with it on most points, when the author isn't stating their opinion it seems to me fairly full of pronouncements that're either inconsistent or just wrong. Neither 'Star Wars', Babylon 5' or 'Stargate SG-1' present futures "where mankind had, for the most part, eliminated poverty and disease from the social structure and people lived in a clean, almost utopian environment" so that claim is simply factually incorrect (SG-1 is set on more-or-less our Earth, 'Star Wars' has poor farmers, hand-to-mouth smugglers etc. and as mentioned above B5 has a definite underclass, political unrest etc.), not to mention "Blake's 7" etc. as others already have above. And if we're talking influences (particularly on BSG), how about 'Space: Above and Beyond' ?

As to the believability point, I believe Mal as a character but I also believe Londo and Rygel ('Farscape's another show the author apparently hasn't seen) as characters because a character's believability isn't predicated on their hairstyle or how human they look for me.

As to the "other kind" of realism ("realisticness" ? ;), well again, B5 with a few "gimmes" is on a par with 'Firefly' (the O'Neill colony itself, ships that don't bank, poverty, power struggles etc.). Sure it has jump-gates and aliens but then 'Firefly' has instantaneous (i.e. FTL) communications, artificial gravity and a pretty improbable solar system comprising several stars and "hundreds" of moons and we've apparently discovered all this without any outside help (cos look ma, no aliens). And on that, whether depicting aliens at all is unrealistic per se is obviously a moot point until we know there aren't any anywhere.

In general i'm long over the idea popular among some fans that everything Joss touches "revolutionises" that particular medium/genre. 'Firefly' is brilliant, even at only 14 episodes it's among the best sci-fi TV ever made IMO. It's not particularly revolutionary though, it does things lots of shows did before it just does them better.

(i'm also kind of puzzled by sci-fans that are instantly turned off by the inclusion of aliens or more "far out" ideas/environments. Isn't that part of what being a sci-fi fan's all about ? I know the "sense of wonder" is a big part of the attraction for me)
In general i'm long over the idea popular among some fans that everything Joss touches "revolutionises" that particular medium/genre.

That's unfortunate. You can't write for a major science fiction blog with that kind of attitude.

Seriously though, a lot of people came to Firefly with little or no real sci-fi background. Wasn't it a major selling point when the browncoats were out to minimize the sci-fi aspect of it and champion the show as a family?

And honestly, I'm with you on the rather quixotic idea of sucking out the sense of wonder from sci-fi. If what you want is exclusively normal people and straight action scenes, wouldn't it just be better to write "Oregon Trail" the series?

I think it works for BSG and Firefly in reaction to what came before them. I think as an ongoing model, it's a litle suspect. That is, if you insist on showing lack of change in the human condition based on science then you are actually writing plain 'ole fiction. Or in the case of Firefly, transplanted historical fiction.

Science fiction tends to ask how people or societies change when confronted with technology rather than how they stay the same (even if the impulses remain similar). Or in some cases, it's used as an artifice for safe satire of current events. But in the end, if you demand from science fiction that it behaves like the world we have today, then I fail to see the need for its existence when it can just as easily be replaced by The Wire which satisfies the same need without the excess mythology.

[ edited by azzers on 2011-03-23 00:25 ]
Utopian and dystopian science fiction are both pretty common. Purely escapist space opera was common several decades ago, less popular now.

I'm an sf purist who generally avoids space opera, but I make an exception for Firefly. Reading this discussion made me realize that a large part of its appeal is that it is neither utopian nor dystopian, but presents a world where people are coping with something like normal life in a relatively exotic environment. That allows for a much more close grained narrative than most video sf with endless possibilities for human-scaled situations and plot.

Not as true for the movie, which had to sacrifice most of the everydayness because of time limitations. I love the movie too for different reasons.

Firefly does have one serious social science fiction element, the status of Inara. The closest historical parallel to a Companion would be the Athenian hetairas, which most people have never heard of.
The person who wrote this article obviously never saw a single episode of Babylon 5. And he probably hasn't even heard of Blake's 7.

Not to mention freaking Farscape, which, let's be frank, did everything Firefly did but years earlier and with a sexier Commander Tightpants.
I think it works for BSG and Firefly in reaction to what came before them. I think as an ongoing model, it's a litle suspect.

Exactly azzers. Like 'Dark Knight Returns' or 'Watchmen' for the primary coloured/simple world-view comics that came before, 'Firefly' or BSG work best contrasting what we see in other shows. And also like the comics, if everyone starts doing gritty realism it'll become staid pretty quickly. I like 'Firefly' for its human scale, grittier feel and I like 'Star Trek' for it's operatic grandness and essential optimism, don't see why we can't have both.

Seriously though, a lot of people came to Firefly with little or no real sci-fi background.

Yeah, true and one of the things about the fandom that's genuinely great IMO. But if you weren't a sci-fi fan before watching 'Firefly' and don't have that background it's maybe best to avoid genre encompassing pronouncements (same thing with people who weren't comics fans before "Astonishing X-Men" and decided off the back of their limited experience that Joss also revolutionised that world).
I still think its too early to say how much of a dent Firefly and BSG put in the sci-fi world. We've had, what? Stargate Universe - copying BSG - and Caprica - from the BSG people since the ending...? There simply hasn't been enough space sci-fi (or gritty real) for any argument involving the future of sci-fi to be made.

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