Why We’re Obsessed with Firefly

By now, most geeks know that Serenity — the movie based on Joss Whedon’s failed scifi series Firefly is being released on Friday. The rest know … but wish everyone else would shut up about it.

We’re obsessed with Firefly, worshiping at the altar of Whedon like crazed cultists clad in brown and cursing in Chinese. But the question is … why? Why are we so enthralled with this series that we were able to resurrect it from a 13-episode oblivion?

Big Damn Heroes

I think there are several reasons, some obvious, some not. The first one is that its damn good. Not serviceable, not adequate, not even ok, but so freaking good that you have to exert a tremendous amount of self control in order to not watch the whole boxed set in one sitting (a task many have happily failed).

Whedon’s dialogue is smart, witty and engaging – — in short, everything that Star Trek’s wasn’t (at least since DS9 went off the air, and even that tended more toward dull than engaging). It can range from comedic to dead serious, but it’s never boring. Moreover, Whedon’s combination of Western slang with Chinese curses is as much a part of the atmosphere of Firefly as its set and dress.

The setting is also a welcome change from two decades of Federated space — instead of placing our heroes at the helm of the U.S.S. Ponderous, the crew are flying in opposition to the monolithic government of their era. Where Star Trek’s Federation is a benevolent, all-powerful socialist state in which everyone is happy (and those who are not happy are conveniently killed off), Firefly shows the downside of extrapolating the United Nations to the stars. The heroes – — and yes, I do consider them heroes — – never wanted to be party of this great political alliance, and still live on the fringes of the society it built through forceful assimilation. This dynamic and depth just isn’t something you see in a lot present-day TV scifi (with the notable exception of Battlestar Galactica).

“Just Feeling a Little Guilty Sir”

But while the quality of the series explains a lot about its resurgence, I think there’s more to it than that. Based on its ratings when it was on Fox, and from personal experience, I think it’s safe to say that most Firefly fans never had the chance to see the series on TV. They found out about it after the fact, usually after hearing from a friend who couldn’t stop espousing its greatness.

Then they too watched the series, began preaching to their own friends … and felt guilty that they missed it. That’s certainly how I felt when I rented the DVDs for the first time: after seeing the first few episodes I thought “How could I have missed this? It’s the best damn scifi on television in a decade, and I missed it.” As a result I (as I suspect many other fans did) made sure to share the series with as many friends as possible. I’ve been indoctrinating my gaming group for weeks, hosted post-game airings, and lent out the boxed set (which was, admittedly, a very hard thing to do).

There is a sense that we screwed up as much as Fox did — – yes, they may have let the series air out of order, did a horrible job of promoting it, and generally had no idea what they had — but we missed it. Great science fiction was on TV, and we did nothing to save it … so now that it’s on DVD, we’re going to do our damnedest to make sure that no one forgets it.

The Geek Ties That Bind

There’s another factor at play here, although I’ll admit that this hypothesis is more tenuous than my “guilt” one. And it’s this: the geek community (particularly the scifi geek community) is searching for new ties to bound it together.

Yes, within the larger society, geeks tend to be loners, but within the geek community, even the most stalwart wallflower will happily argue the advantages and disadvantages of stormtrooper armor until 2 a.m. The problem is that geekdom’s signature franchises, namely Star Trek and star Wars, are worn out. In the old days, you could have an entire conversation doing nothing but exchanging Star Wars quotes; now two rounds of edits have deadened the glory of the original Holy Trilogy, while the prequels have forever tarnished the brand. Meanwhile endless regurgitations of Star Trek had even diehard fans rubbing their eyes and wondering if there might be something better to do out there, like say, exercise.

I get the sense, reading through the blogs and the editorials that people are looking for something that can revitalize the stagnating geek lexicon, and the immensely quotable Firefly might just be what we need.

If only we hadn’t let it get cancelled.

Serenity Rising

The big question now, as the film’s debut looms large before us, is whether Whedon can keep our obsession going. Will the movie be true to the series? Or will it be an abomination that will force us all to retreat into memories of our treasured DVD boxed sets?

I guess we’ll know on Friday. In the meantime, I’m going to do my part to fuel the hype machine — I’ll have a review of the essay collection “Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly” as well as look at the Serenity comic book. And on Friday I’ll be standing in line waiting for the Big Damn Movie … and with any luck, I’ll be writing a glowing review of it on Saturday. And if not, well, the new season of Battlestar starts in January…

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