Saturday, April 2, 2011
Joss Whedon explains, 2005
I interviewed Joss Whedon and wrote this article back when our Firefly-fan backstory was still fresh and it still seemed the spirit-winds could again lift out collective dreams aloft.
About how Firefly was the Brave Little Toaster of TV shows, attempting a seemingly impossible yet brilliantly realized fusion of soap, space, and horse opera.
How characters cursed in Chinese, action scenes were shot like ’70s revisionist westerns and, as with Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the dialogue featured whipsaw quipping o’plenty.
And from there, you know the story and I'll let the piece run as it did, just before Serenity failed to set box offices aflame. Metaphorically, of course, what with we being a peaceful people.
Our narrative delight ran a crushingly wee 11 episodes before Fox pulled the plug. But the damned thing wouldn’t die, mainly thanks to the show’s die-hard fans, DVDs that flew off retail shelves like rocket-powered griddlecakes, and Whedon’s conviction that “it was just too good for a silly thing like cancellation to make it stop.” The sheer existence of Firefly’s movie incarnation, Serenity (which opens Sept. 30), is payback for its supporters’ crazy faith.
But what sparked a fandom so bounteous and vociferous that it in part convinced Universal to blow about $40 million on a movie version of an axed TV show? Speaking via cell phone from Los Angeles International Airport, Whedon speculates, “I think Firefly gave fans characters they either identified with or just loved watching.”
Sounding just a mite tuckered out—understandably, what with months of traveling around the planet to attend genre-centric conventions and not-so-secret screenings of Serenity—Whedon continues, “And that kind of feeling breeds a different kind of fandom. When you really create a new world for people, they want to live in it—especially if it’s filled with really pretty people who say funny things.”
Foremost among those really pretty Firefly people who say funny things is Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a vet of the losing side of a civil war fought 500 years from the present between the self-explanatory Independents and an interplanetary corporate empire, The Alliance. Mal now captains Serenity, a Firefly-class junker spaceship, a sort of interplanetary U-Haul for-hire. Serenity’s crew: Mal’s ex-lieutenant Zoe (Gina Torres), pro courtesan Inara (Morena Baccarin), preacher Book (Ron Glass), strong-arm Jayne (played by Adam Baldwin like a comedic riff on Warren Oates ), mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), physician Simon (Sean Maher), and Simon’s possibly telepathic sister, River (Summer Glau). Together, this oft-squabbling crew pulls odd jobs both legal and not-so on assorted planets that look like leftover sets from The Wild Bunch.
Serenity goes beyond the simple train robberies, snatch-and-grabs, and willy-nilly Robin Hood plots of the TV show to encompass a galactic conspiracy tale involving the attempts of the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an Alliance assassin, to capture River. Or rather, capture the memories implanted in her head that not only threaten to turn the girl into a literal human weapon but also pose a threat to the Alliance itself.
All of which is good and well, but really doesn’t tell you why both the show and movie work so damn well. The lived-in, multi-culti frontier planets made for good sci-fi, but what was truly precious was the intimately observed interactions of the crew: the way Inara, all cool sex-worker professionalism, and Mal, diffident or sometimes downright petulant, negotiated their personal codes with a growing, grudging affection; how Book irritated lapsed-believer Mal into reconsidering his notions of faith; how Jayne learned to not be a jerk (well, learned to be less of one); and the inevitable, spirited dinners in Serenity’s homey galley, with all assembled telling tall tales.
While glad to take “as much credit as I can” for this superb ensemble, Whedon more seriously adds, “Part of the reason Serenity exists is I was just so blown away by how these people loved each other, and gave off an energy of being a real crew.”
And as was the case with the core groups supporting Buffy and Angel, Firefly offered another of Whedon’s quietly radical redefinitions of the non-biological family. “My family was very ’70s, very scattered,” says Whedon, a third-generation TV writer (his father wrote for Captain Kangaroo, his grandfather for Leave it to Beaver) whose mother helped found the women’s rights group Equality Now.
“I didn’t really feel that kind of particular romance that you might get from something like Little Women or The Incredibles. For me, the created family . . . it’s like the clubhouse . . . a little nest you can hide in. It’s sacred, the most exciting kind of family.”
As family leader, Mal is a complex mixed bag, as capable of thrilling heroics as laughable pettiness. Most importantly, “Mal will lay down his life for the people around him,” Whedon says, adding that Mal both meets and falls short of the effective leader’s need to be “a little bit distant, a little bit uncompromising, and sometimes absolutely arrogant.” The result is the tragic-comic pickle of being stuck between “accepting that a) there’s something wrong with himself or b) there’s anything right with himself.”
Serenity’s villain suffers no such inner conflicts. The Operative is an ideologue, an Alliance assassin whose belief that evil—and River’s dangerous implanted memories of Alliance dirty secrets—can be extinguished, but only via violence. “He’s a creation of the monster that is good intentions,” Whedon says. “I believe in what the Operative wants as strongly as the Operative does, and I want to slap Mal around half the time, but at the end of the day, Mal’s the person who’s going to save us from the notion that we can be perfect.”
The Operative is also the human face of Serenity’s crackling political undercurrents—which, without spoiling a great plot twist, have everything to do with empire expansionism. “It’s about how everybody else’s politics—which don’t take us into account—inevitably affect our lives,” Whedon says. “And about the idea of individualism and dissent—how conflict is a natural outcome of that in the same way that what we consider to be sin is a natural outcropping of human behavior.”
Whedon is building a head of steam. “No matter how enlightened you are doesn’t make you the boss of the universe or . . . able to govern places that are very faraway and have very different customs and ideals,” he says. “You can’t just sort of say, ‘OK, we’ve got it right, our dance moves work so everybody dance like us.’ It’s just not going to happen.”
To fans who’ve suffered through the sudden death of Buffy’s mom or the demise of Angel’s entire supporting cast in its final episode, it won’t be surprising that Serenity’s battle between political opposites exacts a human toll that includes some fan favorites.
“People who know my work, know: I like to kill,” Whedon kids. “But it’s something I’ve dealt with my whole career—if a character is likable, you can’t kill him. So what we’re saying is God only kills bad people?” Noting the upgrading to superhero status of Hannibal Lecter in 2001’s Hannibal, he continues, “Or God saves cannibals? When you just sort of blithely say, ‘Bad guys die, good guys don’t,’ you’re robbing people of a bit of their humanity.”
And as much as Serenity is shot through with loss, it’s also, ultimately, about faith—something stated outright by Book and mirrored in the movie’s “Can’t stop the signal” tagline, which is both “a shout-out to the fans’” and mnemonic of the movie’s belief that the truth cannot be quashed.
So what does faith mean to an atheist like Whedon? “It means, ultimately, a little bit of cock-eyed optimism,” he says. “Not that there’s a higher purpose, necessarily, but that there is something worth doing, worth believing in. That what is good in us, the invention of altruism, will eventually outweigh what is bad in us, the invention of evil.”