Fireflying into the Future: Training Day!

Hello! I’m Helen and I will be your guide in this feminist consideration of Joss Whedon’s science fiction cult classic, Firefly. It’s a first watch for me, so hopefully any experienced Browncoats will find my reactions entertaining—and if there are any fellow Firefly newbies out there, watch along with me! You can comment at the bottom of my posts, so feel free to share your own responses and reactions. You’ll have my love for all eternity.
Since this is my first post (how exciting!), I’d like to start out by explaining how everything is going to work. Each post will focus on one or two episodes, and be divided into four sections; Synopsis, The Geek, The Girl, and Spotlight.
Synopsis is fairly self-explanatory—a short snippet describing the episode in question, mostly to explain or remind people about what’s going down. The next two sections are my major perspectives on each episode. In the Geek section I’lll share what I think about the show from a sci-fi angle, from the perspective of someone who’s been a fan of this area for most of their life. In The Girl section, I will share my perspective as a feminist, as a woman, and as someone seeking representation. In the Spotlight section I will pick a particular aspect of the show that’s been jumping out at me—music, costumes, sets, specific characters…whatever takes my fancy. Think of it like a fun little grab bag.
Without further ado, I bring you the first post of Fireflying Into the Future!
Serenity is the name of the spaceship we will follow throughout this series. In the first episode we learn that the crew are outlaws of sorts, and that they make their living by transporting legal and illegal things around their galaxy. Their first job is a train heist, commissioned by a crime lord. They steal the goods, only to find it is medicine that’s desperately needed by a mining town experiencing a deadly plague.
Honestly, I feel as though this has the same problem as most pilots—after introducing our characters, there is little room left for plot. It didn’t allow for much tension to develop, or any real sense of climax. But watching it the second time through, once I had some sense of who was who, I did find myself more invested.
The exposition is surprisingly non-clunky, and for the most part, these feel like conversations characters could legitimately have. The downside to this organic style of exposition, however, is that only so much can be done while remaining subtle. I’m wanting more information than I have about the universe, and while this might mean I’m are tempted to come back to watch, overall, it just felt a little unsatisfying. Having casual scenes of space travel side by side with such low-tech items as plows and horse-drawn carts goes largely uncommented on, leaving me to frantically try to explain away such technological imbalances. If there’s one ruling government, presumably there’s no Prime Directive equivalent to get in the way of shared technology. Even if the government is as flawed as our Browncoat heroes seem to think, this is a very inefficient system, and visually jarring. A little explanation would be appreciated.
And finally, I’d like to leave this section with the most pressing question of all, the one thing that popped out at me and wouldn’t leave me alone for the entirety of this review. The question that I beg you, dear readers, to help me find an answer for, so I may finally sleep at night: Is it a law of the universe that every science-fiction captain must get into a bar fight?
At first glance, the pilot episode is brilliant from a feminist perspective, it depicts actual female friendships and nuanced female characters! They are subverting gender roles and, for the most part, pass the Bechdel test! I do feel iffy about the casual Orientalism, the mish-mash of quote-unquote exotic cultures, without any members of these cultures present as characters. Depending on whether or not being a Companion is inherently heteronormative, and what exactly the role entails remains to be seen. I am hoping we might have some attempts at LGBTQ representation, though. And while it’s great to have a woman of color in a major role, and in a leadership position no less (First Mate Zoe ), it seems a bit telling that she and Inara are the only women of color we’ve really met so far. If the society of Firefly truly is a result of the mixing of Chinese, Indian, and European groups, shouldn’t the people look it?
I do love seeing a companionable relationship between two women, though. Kaylee (Serenity’s Engineer) is portrayed hanging out happily with Inara (the Companion). Another wonderful thing about Kaylee is that she’s shown as having interests beyond the usual “tomboy” ones, and while she may not be able to deal with her own hair all the time, it’s pretty clear that she’s not being forced into being “more feminine” while chilling with Inara. It would have been easy to portray Kaylee as a tomboy, as someone who was more in line with traditional masculinity than femininity. Instead, by portraying her as enjoying traditionally feminine activities, they subvert the gender roles that are so often strengthened by science fiction.
Coming to the end of the episode, I find myself torn from a feminist perspective. On the one hand, a woman has special skills that are necessary to save the day (expertise which the men on the crew seem more than willing to acknowledge). On the other hand, her special skills are inherently related to a job which has been heavily implied to be related to her sexual attractiveness and gender. We do have a surprisingly good number of female main characters, and varied ones at that, but no real LGBTQ+ representation so far. And, as I mentioned, the majority white cast is a little nonsensical. At the very least, though I’m not feeling disappointed or angry. I’m actually quite content, given the normal quality of science fiction in these areas. Will I become truly content as time goes on, or will things only devolve from here? We’ll just have to wait and see…
Today, I’d like to put some focus on my first emotions about the characters I met in these episodes—with the hope of comparing my first reactions to those at the end of the series. I have to admit, I’m a little bit giddy to see if and how they change!
I’m incredibly fond of Kaylee. She seems enthusiastic, sweet, strong-willed, and smart—a whole bunch of combinations I often find myself missing in science-fiction women. As someone who identifies as femme, seeing a woman display exceptional intellect in a traditionally male role (Ship’s Engineer) without having to be a “tomboy” is incredibly reassuring. On an instinctive level, I want to trust and care about her.
Mr. Captain Man
Well, I guess the fact that I still can’t remember his name is telling. So far, he’s a bit blah, a bit cliché, and at times a little annoying. I’m sure they were going for rakish-with-a-heart-of-gold, but it comes off as a bit grating. I’ve seen this before and I’ve seen it done better.
I feel like I should like Zoe. The reality is that I admire her character, but feel as though I haven’t seen enough of her to get more than a slightly snarky-badass-strong-woman kind of vibe. This is one particular opinion that I really hope will change as I continue the show.
It’s hard to say much about River at this point, but I must point out that her actress does an excellent job of projecting her vulnerability without losing her three-dimensionality. At no point do I feel as though I’m watching someone who is defined by her current mental state. I feel an instinctive desire to protect her and help her if I can. She’s hypnotizing to watch and definitely makes me curious about her past and future.
I don’t have much to say about the Shepard, or about the angry guy character (third in command?) who wanted to leave Captain Man and Zoe on the planet. Or, really, about Zoe’s husband. I don’t know much about them, and didn’t really have any strong reactions. Hopefully I’ll have something to talk about next time I do a character discussion!
Inara, my darling Inara! I am starting to love her. The ending of this episode, for all my contradictory feelings about it, is clearly an attempt at reminding viewers, right off the bat, that this traditonally feminine woman is no less a badass than anyone else on the ship. First, she appears to us as soft-spoken, but she’s able to get things done whenever she pleases. She may not hold the special place in my heart that Kaylee is quickly carving out, but Inara is a woman I would definitely love to have around—and can’t wait to watch change throughout the series.
So who are you falling in love with? What do you think of our cast’s balance? Are there any carefully spoiler-free hints I should be given? Will I ever know the secret of the Captain’s Barfight?
Feel free to answer these important questions right here in the comments.
Helen, out.

Words by Helen Barford

4 thoughts on “Fireflying into the Future: Training Day!

  1. First things first, you’re totally right about this show in terms of it’s portrayal of women (in that it does a damn good job, especially compared to other sci-fi series), and I think your needs for more Zoe depth and LGBTQ representation will be satiated, though perhaps not immediately. But I have to disagree in terms of Captain Man, Malcolm, I think the pilot doesn’t do his character justice the way the series does, and while you are correct in that “rakish-with-a-heart-of-gold” is his M.O. Mal definitely has some moments as the series progresses, often in tandem with Inara, that give him the something more that makes him so iconic. Also, I’m a bit surprised you didn’t get anything out of Wash (the pilot) or Jane (third in command), while they are both a bit underdeveloped in terms of character at first they provided a few solid laughs. But so far your first overall impressions seem valid and thoughtful. I highly recommend the Joss Whedon Much Ado that just came out over the summer if you haven’t seen it yet. Remarkably better than Kenneth Branaugh’s.

    1. I was lucky enough to see Whedon’s Much Ado several times during the summer, and absolutely loved it. I’ve admittedly got a soft spot for Branaugh’s (thanks to bb!Sean Leonard), but I’d agree that it’s a marked improvement. The music was unsurprisingly brilliant, and the cast, for obvious reasons, had far more chemistry.

      As for Jane and Wash, I think my main problem was lack of variation? All of our screentime with them in the pilot felt one-dimensional enough that my opinions were more about the scenes than the characters themselves. I already have a feeling that when I come back to the characters, I’ll have far more to say.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

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