The Ten Percent: You Can’t Take the Sky from Me
“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another instalment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week we’ll take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. Titles in the Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public. Now, I know that our fearless leader, Glenn Walker, has written about Firefly before, but I think it can stand a second discussion.
Firefly (2002) was Joss Whedon’s first foray into science fiction – his previous shows (both of which you’ll eventually see us write about here) were Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997 – 2003) and its darker spin-off Angel (1999 – 2004). Take a good look at those dates. During Firefly’s all-too-short tenure, Whedon had three shows running at once on three different networks, which is crazy at a whole new level.
Basically, Firefly came about after Whedon read The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Battle of Gettysburg. Put that idea in a blender with spaceships, honorable outlaws, and a futuristic society, and the result was Firefly. The show stood out for a multitude of reasons, some of which were pitch-perfect casting, a willingness to mix genres, superb world-building, and scripts that were whip-smart and wickedly fast paced.
The Fox network didn’t know what to do with this show, and relegated it to the graveyard of Friday nights, where it was then tossed about unceremoniously, removed from the lineup for World Series games, and had episodes shown out of order. Under those circumstances, it’s nearly a miracle Firefly lasted half a season.
The future in which Firefly takes place is not the sterile, “we’ve eradicated poverty and disease” future of Star Trek. Rather, the show envisions a world in which exploitation, superstition, and violence still reign. Furthermore, Firefly imagines a future with space travel, but without alien life forms. It’s still just us out there, and while we have made many advances in technology and science, we’re still the greedy, grasping, hardscrabble folks that we are today. Some are doing quite well, others not so much. A central allied government wants to extend unilateral control over all and others – well, they disagree. A civil war was fought and this story is told (mostly) from the losing side, a point of view that is again unusual.
One of the central conceits of the Firefly ‘verse was the idea that the United States and China were the last surviving superpowers on Earth before humanity abandoned “Earth-That-Was” in a search for a new home. By the time Firefly takes place, it’s been half a millennium since humans left Earth and history is a bit tangled due to the passage of time.
So is language. While the show primarily uses English as the language characters communicate in, it’s a unique dialect that pulls from the Old West, Pennsylvania Dutch, Southernisms, and Whedon’s fertile imagination. Characters also freely sprinkle Chinese into their speech or what is supposed to be Chinese: apparently it was common for the difficult tonal Chinese to get muddled beyond comprehension after a certain number of takes. This gives rise to one of the common criticisms of Firefly – for a series that puts such an emphasis on Chinese and the blending of cultures, it’s surprising that there are no main characters who are Asian.
No show is perfect. (Well, Breaking Bad comes close.) But Firefly is a sparkling gem. With only 14 episodes (three of which never aired), you can easily devour this in a weekend and still have time to see Serenity, the 2005 movie made to answer some of the outstanding questions of the series. The show highlights Whedon’s love of created family, the surprising depths of integrity that can be found in the least likely of places, and his deft weaving of a large ensemble cast into a unified whole.
Firefly manages to be funny, gripping, action-packed, and mournful, often all at once. It’s also incredibly quotable. And that is why it is part of The Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.