Firefly. Serenity. They're two words that are seemingly unrelated … unless you're talking to a fan of Joss Whedon's show, Firefly, or the movie he made following the show's unfortunate cancellation, Serenity.
If there's a fan in the room, you can bet they have something to say. I had the fortunate opportunity to interview a few people on Firefly and Serenity. Their responses were as varied and interesting as any you'd find anywhere.
My first guest, J. Chris Bourdier, had a lot to say, actually, so without further delay, let's get to it!
(Note: This interview was conducted via email and aside from correcting a few punctuation and spelling errors, and making a bracketed comment for clarity's sake, Mr. Bourdier's responses are as he'd written them—M.)
When did you first encounter Firefly? How?
Back in 2000 or 2001, a friend told me that the creator of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was creating a SF series called Firefly. No interest at all. Buffy was a terrible movie. At least the crappy Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat had the incomparable Deborah Foreman. But if there was a point to Buffy, I never got it. Just what the world needs, I thought. Another space show with ships roaring by in space, swooping like WWII fighter planes, bumpy-headed aliens, and completely illiterate storylines. Physics? Never heard of it. Continuity? Who cares as long as we can tell a story? Intelligent stories? Give me a break—It's "sci-fi." Only geeky men and boys will watch this thing anyway.
So, as I said, I had no interest. And then one day, I was flipping through the channels. I don't remember what day or time. I wasn't even looking for Firefly. I had dismissed it out of hand. So, I'm flipping, and I stop. The camera pulls back through a window to show two people in space suits clinging nearby. The music was Western, but fitting. And there was no sound outside the ship. I sat up and paid attention. A quick fight with a mutilated bad guy, and a bit of drama that meant nothing to me. Then a shot of missiles streaking out and destroying a derelict in space. Again, no sound except the Western music which seemed to fit this scene as well as the Blue Danube fit in 2001. My god, I thought, someone actually opened a physics book and looked inside.
I didn't see another episode, until I heard a coworker talking about the series. He mentioned that it had been cancelled, but Fox was showing the unaired pilot. So, I did my best to see it. It took a lot of effort on my part because I've given up on commercial TV. I hate dealing with networks and commercials so much that I'd rather wait and buy a show on DVD than watch it in its commercial run. But I managed to remind myself often enough that I was there when Fox ran the pilot.
And the rest, as they say ...
Physics and science seems to be a dealbreaker for many people who prefer more science in their science fiction, while others don't seem to mind having less or even any emphasis on it at all.
How does getting the science right make the show more enjoyable for you? What makes you respect the show more when it's present?
Getting the science right shows attention to detail. Story is very important, but so is obeying the laws of the universe you create. Many writers set restrictions on technology or cultures in order to help tell a story. The good writers stick to those guidelines and, if necessary, rewrite a story until it works in that framework. In Doctor Who, if Tom Baker couldn’t do something in his day, then David Tennant couldn’t do it in his.
On the other hand, Captain Janeway had severe food and resource shortages in one episode when the story required it, and then had more than enough to share in the next when that story required it. There’s no set distance between worlds in Star Trek. Last week’s episode said that the Earth-Vulcan trip couldn’t be made in a person’s lifetime, while in this week’s episode, our characters walked to Vulcan. We can’t stop the redshirt’s hyper-aging this week, despite the fact that in TNG season 2, we fixed Dr. Pulaski’s using the transporter. The crew of Voyager lamented that it would take them 70 years to get home, while any halfway serious Trekkie could come up with a half dozen ways they could be home by the end of the week – a couple of ways they could be home by suppertime. It takes longer to list and explain the inaccuracies and plot holes of the 2009 Star Trek movie than it does to just watch the movie.
I’m beating on Star Trek because they’re such an easy target, but we also saw things like this in Firefly & Serenity. When a fan asked what Serenity’s top speed was, Joss once said in an interview that Serenity moved at “the speed of plot.” What does this mean? Well, it means that in episode 20 of Firefly, a trip from Sihnon to Ariel will take a week at best speed, despite the fact that it only took an hour to go from Bernadette to Miranda in episode 17.
While the movie Serenity is a great movie it does have one very serious problem: Miranda. "There's 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die." And then the entire 'Verse promptly forgot that Miranda even existed.
Not a chance. Mal's casual line about Miranda having a terraforming failure won't cut it, either. Thirty million people is the entire state population of Texas and New Mexico combined (population estimate 7/01/2015 from Wikipedia). In 'Verse numbers, it represents only 0.06% of the total 'Verse population of 50 billion, or the 2015 equivalent of Guam compared to the total population of the U.S., but it's still a problem. Thirty million family lines lost members and no one noticed? The Blue Sun system's current population is 15 million people, which means that the pre-catastrophe population of the Blue Sun system was 45 million. Two out of every three people in the entire system died, and no one noticed?
This is an example of a writer throwing out a number that sounds great (5 times the Holocaust! Cool!) without thinking about what that number actually means. Remember the beginning of the 2009 Star Trek [movie], the "lightning storm in space":
"Could this be Klingon?"
"No, you're 70,000 km from Klingon space..."
Wow, 70,000. Big number, right? No, not at all. A little less than 1/5 the distance from the Earth to the moon. At Warp speeds it's nothing, like stepping over a crack in the sidewalk. Could this be Klingon? Easily. Probably. Bet on it. I'd be surprised if it wasn't.
Many people would say “Who cares?” but they do care. The fans would complain if Castle and Beckett *walked* from the police station in NY to a café under the Eiffel Tower, or if the Sheriff got on his horse at 11:00am in Tombstone AZ, then stopped for lunch in Chicago. While fans did NOT care about such things in the 30’s and 40’s, fans today would care if the hero fired his trusty 6-shooter as if it was an Uzi.
Each time a writer creates a universe, he creates a framework of rules that define how that universe works. Some rules, he just assumes, like artificial gravity or hyperdrive. Some rules are fixed in reality because he’s using real world items or places that have their own rules, like the number of bullets a 44 magnum can hold, or the distance from Los Angeles to New York. A good writer stays in his universe, no matter what. The bad writer throws out rules when they become inconvenient. There are great Star Trek episodes in all five series (yes, I’m counting the animated series as well), and there’s trash that makes you want that hour of your life back.
What quality or characteristic of the show did you come to like (or love!) immediately? What did you come to like (or love?) as time passed?
The thing that hooked me was the silence in space in the episode “Bushwacked.” I’m a SF nutcase, as it says in my “about” blurb in Twitter. But one day in the mid 1970’s Dad came home with copies of the Franz Joseph Designs's Star Trek Technical Manual and the Constitution Class Blueprints for my brother and me. We went nuts over them because we were both Trekkies even at that age. But they made me a very techie Trekkie. I started watching how the crew did its job. I was also a science nut in school, and an Apollo kid. I watched Apollo 11 land on the moon (I was 4). It always bothered me when Star Trek got things wrong that they could have had correct if only they paid attention to detail. Stanley Kubrick showed space travel as a ballet of technology and motion.
I came into “Bushwacked” about 1/3 from the end, when Simon and River are clinging to the outside of the ship. I hadn’t seen any other episode and did not know or care who these people were. But they were outside and there was no sound. That showed an attention to scientific detail that was in no other SF show I’d ever seen. That alone made the show worth watching. The ship looked functional. It moved as if it was in space. The shot of the IAV destroying the derelict was spectacular. Orange blossoms of light in the silent darkness. The only sound was the Western soundtrack. The scene worked perfectly.
The characters and stories were fun, and I loved it that they had real-world problems. Captain Sheridan fought gods, but never had to worry about putting food on the table. Captain Janeway talked about resource shortages, but it was always part of the deep background, and almost never relevant to the stories of the week. Captain Kirk was a member of a military structure; yet he ignored any policy or rule that got in his way, and was never punished. But in Firefly, there were no aliens to soften the horrors that we face. As in all things today, the most evil creature in the universe is my fellow man. I absolutely loved those things, and still do.
But in time, the ship itself became what I wanted to see most. If I ever win a lottery, I’m going to build one and live in it.
What did you think of Firefly/Serenity's portrayal of shipboard life as a fan? Were there things you could accept as a fan that you couldn't as a science geek?
From a science standpoint, there’s good and bad.
The good parts are things like the crew toilet/lavatories being all-in-one units, the fixed passenger seats with web restraints under the dome, the fact that every hatch leading outside has a redundant airtight door behind it, that important areas of the ship can be isolated and sealed, that the cargo bay is filled with tie-downs and webbing, that all flight seating has harnesses and/or seatbelts, and that the galley area uses a secure locking-door-and-drawer arrangement (like the space shuttle). All the windows in the crew area are small and have thick frames. There are no windows in the crews’ quarters at all, not even little portholes – that’s VERY smart. Any star cluster with 70+ planets, 200+ moons, and three asteroid belts is going to have a load of free-flying junk—and that doesn’t even include all the crap that results from a society advanced enough for common, private interplanetary travel. It makes sense that a cramped cargo hauler would have common shower facilities. Passenger suites with sitting areas and private baths are all well and good for the big luxury liners, but they wouldn’t work here.
The bad parts are few, but they’re serious, and they’re all related. The table and chairs in the lounge are loose and can move freely. Any sudden movement by the ship, and you end up with ten very deadly missiles flying around the dining area. Despite the fact that a lot of cargo in the cargo area is under webbing, a lot of it isn’t. It’s oh, so sweet that Kaylee has an old garden hammock hung up in the engine room so she can be next to the thing she loves the most, but that hammock does not in any way fill the role of a space worthy bedding and its presence is both dangerous and stupid. The great big windows on the flight deck are dangerous, but there’s really no way to fix that without changing the shape of the front of the ship.
The passenger dorms are directly below the main reactor. That’s probably no big deal for a passenger who will be aboard for days or a few weeks, but our passengers have been aboard for months. Is the shielding thick enough? The passenger dorm doors need locks if they don’t have them.
And, quite frankly, the ship is dirty and cluttered. In space, an untidy ship is a deathtrap.
From a fan perspective, it’s great. I want to build one and live in it as my home. I love the flight deck’s great big windows. That would probably be my favorite part of the ship. While course plotting and cruising would be handled by the avionics, I could sit and watch the stars go by.
I like the closeness of the quarters. Since I’m the younger son, I always ended up in the smallest bedroom, and so I like having everything just a step or two away from the bed/bunk.
I love the efficient appliances like the combined toilet/lavatory. A combined lavatory/toilet/tub/shower bathroom “module” is a standard feature in my attempts at writing science fiction.
The common areas are warm and inviting.
If you encountered someone who hasn't seen the show or the movie, what would you tell them to generate their interest?
I would tell them about the science behind the show, about how there’s no sound in space (it really is a big deal, at least to me) and that the ships and people move as if they really were in space. I would tell them how there’s no faster-than-light travel and that the only “miraculous” technology you have to suspend disbelief over is the gravity manipulation. In addition, while there are some “fantastic” plotlines (River), most of the stories are about day-to-day problems we all face: food, fuel, money, and legal troubles (these are the bad guys, after all). There are great characters who have fun, and who react to danger the way we all would—remember in the pilot, when they encounter the Reaver ship? There was no stoic courage, no acts of selfless heroism; they were all terrified except Simon, and only because he had no idea how bad the situation was. That’s how most real people act in severe danger. There are no weapons on the ship, and the ship is beat up, like an old tramp steamer. There are no “useless women” on the show. Female characters are strong and equal to their male counterparts. Not even Kaylee would make a believable damsel in distress.
What about Firefly and/or Serenity encouraged you to become involved in the fan community and how did it influence your form(s) of participation?
I’m not really in the fan community. It’s my bad luck to live in places that have no organized fandom. The closest fan communities to me are in Greenville, SC and Charlotte, NC. If I wasn’t on Twitter, Facebook, or some other social media site, I wouldn’t know that anyone else liked the show. It was the internet that helped me find other fans …
Ever since I first discovered blogs (Waiter Rant , and The Barmaid Blog, if you’re interested) I’ve wanted to write one of my own. But I keep discovering that I don’t have much to say outside of a few topics. But I tried and tried. One of those attempts was on LiveJournal, “Yet Another Browncoat Blog.” I wrote about terraforming, evacuating the Earth, ship building, and so on. One of my articles was a very long critique of the Serenity Blueprint Reference Pack. On a whim, I sent a link to it to Andy Gore and Ben Mund at QMx. They asked me to join a fan “brain-trust” for The Complete and Official Map of the 'Verse. The brain-trusts are groups of rabid fans: subject matter experts who look for errors and inconsistencies, and who make suggestions that could improve the final project. And as they say, the rest is history.
Would you say that Firefly and/or Serenity has had a positive influence in your life? If so, how?
Apologies for yet another Star Trek digression, but…
The fans can do it better.
Oh, my acting sucks, and my 80 pounds overweight looks like 150 pounds overweight if I’m in spandex, but we know the material better than anyone in Hollywood does. Good, bad, or indifferent, “Get a life” or not, we live this stuff. Rick Sternbach’s 1701-D blueprints are fantastic, but there are errors everywhere: rooms that don’t have doors, corridors that lead nowhere, statistical data lists that still have the XXX or 000 placeholders instead of the correct numbers. Shane Johnson’s Mr. Scott’s Guide to the Enterprise is the same. Why? No fan involvement. There are tons of fans, but (as far as I know) no one seeks or even wants their participation when “official” Star Trek merchandise is created. And that’s funny because Franz Joseph (The Star Trek Technical Manual and his Constitution Class blueprints) started out as nothing more than a fan who wanted to draw up a set of plans for the ship. Erik Kristiansen, “Jackill,” makes some of the best fan-created blueprint sets out there.
By the way, the two products that started the whole blueprint and tech manual phenomenon that so many shows are part of, not just Trek, those two products made by the fan Franz Joseph, of Franz Joseph Designs? Yeah, those two. They are, to this day, still the best Star Trek merchandise items ever made, with the fewest errors and highest attention to detail.
Firefly is different, or more precisely, Quantum Mechanix, Inc. is different. They actively seek (yes, they still do) groups of rabid fans to tell them what they’re doing right, what they’re doing wrong, and how they can make it better. That’s what happened to me. I sent a link to a product critique, expecting nothing more than a form letter of a response, and instead, I was invited to join brain trusts for several QMx products: The Complete and Official Map of the 'Verse, The Atlas of the 'Verse Vol. 1, and the Serenity Architectural Cutaway Set. As a result, I got to have a direct impact on a show that I love – not the show itself, but the universe and merchandise created from it.
The fans can do it better. I know because I’m a fan and I helped make the world I live in.
By Mary McKay-Eaton - A happily married geek mother of two, she's an ardent fan of Firefly/Serenity and all things Verse-related.