Thursday, August 7, 2014

Into the Black: Review of Investigating Firefly and Serenity and Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity edited by Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran

Investigating Firefly and Serenity
By Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran (eds.),
London, I.B. Tauris, 2008, xiii + 290 pp., 13: 978-1845116545 and 10: 1845116542
$22.50, £14.99 (pbk.)

"Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity"
By Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran (eds.), Slayage 25, winter 2008 [7.1]

Books on the television and film work of Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-Blog, Dollhouse) continue rolling off the presses rivaling even those published on those old film warhorses Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles. Investigating Firefly and Serenity edited by Rhonda Wilcox and Tanya Cochran, the latest in Tauris’s Investigating Cult TV series, and its companion special issue (issue 25, winter 2008) found at the online journal Slayage: The Online International Journal of Whedon Studies focusing on Whedon’s hybrid sci-fi/western Firefly and the film based on that short lived television series, Serenity, are among the latest.

For those unfamiliar with the series Firefly (Fox, 2002) is the brainchild of creator/writer/director Joss Whedon and creator/writer/director Tim Minear (X-Files, Wonderfalls, Drive). The show debuted in the dreaded Friday night time slot on the Fox network in the US on 20 September 2002. It lasted for eleven episodes before Fox gave it the axe. The TV graveyard didn’t spell the end of Firefly, however. When Fox released all fourteen episodes of the show on DVD in December 2003 it became a hit in the first weeks it was offered for sale. Universal took notice and three years later released the Whedon written and directed film Serenity (2005) which reunited the Firefly crew in an adventure set sometime after the events of the television series.

Firefly, as I mentioned earlier, is a science fiction/western and more—Whedon’s shows are invariably genre blenders. The show is set in a 26th century where the two remaining superpowers, China and the US, have merged to form the Alliance. There are essentially two worlds in this future, the antiseptic “utopia” of the wealthy core planets and the “primitive”, “dystopian” poverty stricken planets of the new wild frontier (metaphors for the first and third worlds of today?). On these frontier planets settlers, out of necessity, live in frontier towns, ride horses, speak in a kind of nouveau western slang with a bit of Mandarin thrown in now and again for good often expletive deleted measure, and engage in an awful lot of good old vigilante “justice”. As we learn in the first episode (Fox didn’t broadcast this until the end of the shows run) there was a civil war between the Alliance and the Browncoats (many fans of the show refer to themselves as Browncoats). The Alliance won. The show centres around the crew of nine aboard the Firefly class ship Serenity (at least two of whom fought for the Browncoats) who sail “the black” trying to stay out of the way of the Alliance all the while trying to eek out a living through a variety of barely legal and not so legal means. Lurking in the background of Firefly is the mysterious Blue Sun corporation which, as we find out in Serenity, works in tandem with the Alliance to create the warrior/spies of the future. Like all of Whedon’s work Firefly is full of dense and complex narrative and character arcs and themes revolving around existentialist social ethics, chosen families, friendship, love, conflict, disillusionment, and the possibility of redemption. And like all of Whedon’s work it contains his trademark wit and humour.

The essays in both Investigating Firefly and Serenity and the Slayage Special Issue on Firefly and Serenity reflect a growing international interest in the work of Whedon. In both scholars from the US, Canada, the UK, and Italy explore the representation of gender (Beadling, Aberdein, Magill, Buckman), the representation of race and ethnicity (Mandala, Lerner), the representation of the “savage” (Curry, Rabb and Richardson), orientalism (Brown), contemporary politics (Jencson, Bussolini), genre (Battis, Jowett, Money), themes (Battis, Jencson, Sutherland and Swan, Wilcox, Erickson, Pateman), character (Gelineau), music (Lerner, Neal), design (Maio), rhetoric (Masson), fandom (Abbott, Cochran), the resurrection of Firefly as Serenity (Abbott), and even Whedon Studies itself (Cochran and Wilcox).

Some of the essays in both collections reflect unfortunate tendencies in some contemporary media explorations of television shows and films. Cynthea Masson’s “‘But She was all Naked! And All Articulate’: The Rhetoric of Seduction in Firefly”, for example, reflects a trend in media studies to use popular culture as a way to talk about academic subjects (a trend particularly prominent in Open Court’s Philosophy and Popular Culture series). Masson uses rhetorical analysis to explore the character of Inara in Firefly and Serenity and the nature of companionship in the Firefly verse. The essay reads more like an academic introduction to rhetorical analysis than an analysis of Firefly. Neil Lerner’s “Music, Race, and Paradoxes of Representation: Jubal Early’s Musical Motif of Barbarism in ‘Objects in Space’”, essay reflects the trend in much contemporary popular culture analysis to jettison primary source research beyond the text in favour of a kind of text as crystal ball approach, an approach which sees the text as a crystal ball revealing all about itself, its production, and its contexts. Lerner, despite having interviewed Firefly composer Greg Edmondson, focuses exclusively on a textual reading of the Firefly musical text and links musical motifs in Firefly to previous musical motifs and their ethnic and racial connotations in previous film and television texts. Not only does Lerner fail to explore the possible contradictory nature of musical motifs both from a production and audience perspective, but he fails to make use of the potentially rich vein of primary source material for television analysis.

Other essays offer insight but sometimes don’t go far enough or go too far. Wilcox’s and Cochran’s excellent “Introduction: ‘Good Myth”: Joss Whedon’s Further Worlds” and Mary Alice Money’s “Firefly’s ‘Out of Gas’: Genre Echoes and the Heroes Journey” rightly note the influence of John Ford’s Stagecoach on Firefly but fail to note the influence of Hawks (the chosen family of professionals), Anthony Mann (themes of revenge and damaged men—the latter stretches from Homer to Austen and the Bronte’s through film noir and to Mann and beyond), and Richard Slotkin (regeneration through violence) on Whedon’s work in general and Firefly and Serenity. Matthew Pateman’s outstanding “Deathly Serious: Mortality, Morality, and Mise-en-Scene in Firefly and Serenity” rightly points out the omnipresence of death in Firefly (and Whedon’s work in general) but fails to place it sufficiently in the context of Whedon’s humanist existentialism with its concern for social ethics. It is this that gives death its meaning in Whedon’s work.

Academic readers with an interest in contemporary textual criticism (what David Bordwell calls therapeutic criticism) will probably find much to like in the essays focusing on representation in both collections. Academics with an interest in using popular culture to explore academic disciplines and disciplinary concerns are likely to find some of the essays intriguing and helpful. Academics with an interest in auteurism are likely to find the essays exploring Whedon’s themes interesting. Academics who believe that sound textual analysis must be grounded in extra textual primary research (like myself) are likely to be somewhat disappointed in both collections—only a few of the essays draw, in varying degrees, on primary source material usually interviews with Whedon or other writers and DVD commentaries by Whedon and Company). Beyond the ivory tower I suspect that both collections are too academic and hence too arcane for readers interested in Firefly, Serenity, or the work of Joss Whedon. They are likely to find more insight into the Fireflyverse in the two Benbella readers on Firefly and Serenity, Finding Serenity and Serenity Found both edited by Jane Espenson (2005, 2007) and in the two volume Firefly: The Official Companion published by Titan (2006, 2007).

This review appeared in a slightly different form as “Review of Rhonda Wilcox’s and Tanya Cochran’s Investigating Firefly and Serenity: Science Fiction on the Frontier, Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV, 18 (October 2010).

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