Rewriting Firefly

In Uncategorized on March 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the questions I was asked when I was soliciting discussion topics for this site came from Ailelie on Dreamwidth (thanks Ailelie!) and read as follows:

How would you have written [X] had it been your idea/task? For X, sub The Jungle, Firefly, Emma, etc. And why?

So let’s talk a little about Firefly. Or a lot; this essay ran long.

I saw Firefly when it aired, because at the time I was a huge Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, so I’d heard the buzz about Joss Whedon’s new show. I was looking forward to it, and while I’m aware the show was aired out of order, I actually enjoyed that. The first Firefly episode that aired was the second episode which was supposed to air, The Train Job, and I thought it was super-gutsy to jump into the action that way, without spending a long time introducing any of the characters. What an innovative pilot, I thought.

But while I appreciated the show structurally, I ended up drifting away after a few episodes, disinterested and distracted by other things. I understand intellectually why it gained such a cult following, it’s just always been one of those shows I’ve never found much appeal in.

Part of the problem was how uncomfortable I found the show’s chosen theme, a Science Fiction and Western pastiche. There’s a reason you don’t see Westerns much on television anymore, and that is because they were a flawed, misogynist, racist genre to begin with; their central purpose has usually been to justify and legitimize the genocidal colonialism of Manifest Destiny.

I also personally just don’t find the Wild West that interesting, which could be a contributing factor.

I find it perfectly acceptable that the “pioneers” of space would be the same tough survivalist types as those that colonized the American West. I believe that oral history and folk arts would be exceptionally important, and a certain level of lawlessness would be the norm. But I think there are better ways to bring the Western into a postmodern viewpoint, which is necessary for the kind of metacommentary that the show seemed to want to make. When I rewatched the series and the film a few years back (which is when the bulk of this essay was written) I often felt as though the show left holes not only in the plot but in internal logic, for the sake of “the Western”. I’m okay with there being plot holes, but these seemed to serve the gimmick of the Western rather than any cohesive narrative.

So, as I sometimes do when dissatisfied, I started watching a story in my head, and I found it much more satisfying. I’m not saying this is better than what Whedon did. But this is what I wanted to see, and what I didn’t get.

Some of the problems that led to my rewrites may have been fixed if Firefly had stayed on the air. I know this, but it’s hard to find that a legitimate excuse, because none of what I’m suggesting couldn’t have come in right from the start. And, perhaps in part because it wasn’t fixed…Firefly didn’t stay on the air.

Firefly Redux

One of the biggest problems I had with the general ‘verse of Firefly is the war. The scenes set during the war are very evocative and they’re an excellent portrait of the brutality of battle. But…why was this war fought planetside? We’ve seen that they have space weapons, so was the Alliance taking each planet individually? Were the browncoats in space at all, or just planetary defense forces loosely organized under one umbrella? The Alliance is visibly ruthless; why not just bomb them into submission from the air? A galactic revolution that does not involve the majority of the battles being fought in space doesn’t work for me. So while I appreciate the scenes as works of art, and I understand their presence as driving forces in the lives of Mal and Zoe in particular, I can’t really incorporate them into the show logically.

What I wouldn’t give for a universe in which projectile weapons were only available inside a planet’s atmosphere, and other methods were used in space. Humanity of the future have obviously become masters of gravity, since they have ships with artificial grav that doesn’t appear to involve centrifugal force. Wouldn’t it be cool to see a space battle fought with gravity hooks and physics? I think so. I’m tired of PEW PEW PEW.

I understand that the Alliance in Firefly is supposed to be evil: corrupt, inefficient bureaucrats who plunder the pioneer planets of their natural resources and cheap labor. But we have no contrast to go by — we don’t know what the situation was like before the Feds came in. I really wish we’d been shown something pre-Unification so that we could judge better whether Mal was a hero defending freedom or a whiny asshole who didn’t want to get caught being a crook. We don’t get to see some of the Alliance ineffectiveness until several episodes in, which makes it harder to sympathize with the crew’s hatred of it. Especially when Inara said she voted for the Alliance, implying that not only was there a choice, but many rational people, if not the majority (was the “vote” fixed?) chose Unification. It’s hard to find the Alliance all that much more evil than recent American domestic policy, at least until we find out about Pax in the film. At that point we begin to understand the lengths to which they were willing to go to subjugate people, but to what end? And whose benefit? They already have a practical slave-labor force in the Indentureds. And considering how accepting society was of the concept of indenture, I’m guessing that pre-Alliance society wasn’t exactly a ball.

Cast of Characters

Firefly‘s crew were witty, but they failed to engage me on a level any deeper than “that was a funny quote”. I didn’t care about most of them. I wanted so much more meat.

In my head, I made Wash a severe agoraphobic. Possibly he steals downers from whatever medication they’re smuggling on any given trip, so that he can get through the times when they make planetfall. I think it would have been interesting to see how entire generations being born and raised on ships and stations would impact how we view wide open spaces, and Wash is a great doorway for that.

I think it would be fascinating to explore the idea of new religion in space, and I think Wash, as a pilot, is an ideal vehicle for this as well. Why shouldn’t he belong to a religious outfit of some kind? Most people do. I would love to see a group like the Church of Christ Cosmonaut from Rendezvous with Rama, who believe that deity came from the stars. Imagine that the crew contracts to carry a wealthy Spacer to their burial grounds: a huge field of caskets in an empty stretch of space, where signal beacons act as gravestones blasting out messages to the stars, awaiting the day the last man leaves the last planet so that all may be resurrected as stars themselves. It’s a great image and an easy plot; the crew vs. the grave robbers. I’d like to see that.

A more intent presence of faith in the narrative would give Book a function other than Being Mysterious, too. Shepherd Book was an interesting character — older than most of the crew and a man of the cloth, not just a religious man. I’d have loved to see some real commentary on religion using him. I joked with my friends that Book is “The space pope!” but really, why shouldn’t he be? After all, we know he has quite a bit of authority, thought we don’t ever find out why. There are also accusations amongst some critics that Book is the “magical negro” of the story, and while I don’t agree with that entirely, I can see where they’re coming from enough to be uncomfortable with it.

I would like Book to be the last eminent Catholic pope, the great leader of a dying cult. Faiths grow and flower and die — that’s not theology, it’s history. So I would like to see Shepherd Book, a respected theologian of a fading faith, on a pilgrimage to find a way to revitalise his religion — or at least keep its history from falling to dust. And how great would it be to see Book lead a Catholic Outer Space Tent Revival? I would love to see that.

I wish we saw more implication that Simon and River‘s parents knew exactly what would happen to her when they sent her away. I wanted to see a River who was rebellious, smarter than her parents, someone they couldn’t control — someone who intimidated them in a way their servile son never would, so that they’d send her away to be broken. I want for them to have sent her away believing that she would be tamed, lobotomised, so that they could have their nice gentle daughter and their good obedient son. It’s the only way their apathy makes sense, and their fury at Simon’s behavior. Suddenly their doormat good-boy isn’t, and it’s still River’s fault. I wanted River to be a survivor because she was a rebel first; that would be a biting indictment of the treatment of women in our culture today, where we are only fifty years out (if that) from institutionalizing women who didn’t bow to the patriarchy.

This also isolates Simon and River fully, because they become two brilliant children whose parents wanted to brutalise them into what they “should” be instead of what they could be. I want River to have an arc where she overcomes what people want from her to be who she is, and I want Simon to struggle with her process in that too, because he also has an idea of what he wants her to be.

I love the idea of the money-driven Jayne, but I wish he were more like Kyouya Ohtori from Ouran High School Host Club, who isn’t actively malicious unless there’s concrete benefit for him. I’d like to see a Jayne with a personal moral code, albeit a code completely detached from society’s. I’d like to see hired muscle that isn’t blatantly misogynist, hired muscle that can also think for itself: when the Alliance searched the ship, I wanted them to find his false wall, and then his false wall of guns, and a huge collection of contraband books on philosophy and sociology and religion behind that. And I want to see them burn the books, because then a money-driven man has a reason to hate, and we get to see just what kinds of assholes the Feds really are.

Most of the essay you’re reading today was written directly after my rewatch, several years ago, and when I read through it, I realized I’d basically left out Mal, Zoe, and Kaylee. There is some reasoning behind this, which is basically that I adore Zoe and Kaylee and I had no notes for them. I loved them and I wish I saw more of them. Because the thing I’ve noticed about Joss Whedon is that while his shows aren’t always as feminist as we’d like (or as people think), the women in them are often spectacular.

Mal is a bit more of a cypher, in part because he’s such an easy target. He’s the straight white male lead. It’s like he’s got a bullseye painted on. But there’s a lot you can do with Mal; for one, I started out wishing he was played by someone of African descent, because African-Americans had a huge role in the colonization of the American West, a role that has been largely erased. They were cowboys, soldiers, settlers, and everything in between, in large numbers, and rarely are their voices heard or their faces seen in modern history of the era. So I say yes to Mal Reynolds, Black Space Cowboy. But you know who else was hugely present in the American west of the time?


This was the perfect, most beautiful opportunity to put at least one Chinese character into the show and to give Mal some real meat to wrestle with — a Chinese man who disagrees with a culture he came from, an outsider both to his own people and to the people he finds himself among. It also reduces the Invisible Chinese Hegemony by making the bad guys an oppressing class, rather than an oppressing race. (More on this later.)

I’m going to talk about Mal some more, but I’m going to do it in relation to Inara. There are so many clouds of fail around Inara, so let’s work through a few and see how they might be fixed.

I’m not going to give you a history of imperialism, orientalism, and the fetishism of the exotic, but Inara represents all of these things. Whedon has openly said that Inara represents “Eastern” religion and culture, in a contrast to Mal’s representation of Western culture. What this means, in the text, is that some of the oldest and most complex cultures on on Earth, cultures which are still generally misunderstood by Eurocentrists or fetishised in Western media, design, and sexuality as exotic, are bundled up together into the generic “East” and represented by a prostitute.

And before we get into the whole “Companions are respected!” thing, please. If a union card is all that apparently separates a Companion from a regular and/or illegal sex worker, and Mal (who seems very much a product of his environment, and thus indicates that environment) doesn’t respect a Companion and definitely doesn’t respect sex work in general, I find it hard to believe that Companions are more than barely socially legitimate. People might smile at Inara and find it acceptable for men and women to ask for her services, but behind their hands they whisper about the kind of person who chooses a life like that. Given that she represents a generic Eastern Cultural Ideal, and she engages in what is generally shown to be a dubious pastime on the screen and is a criminalized, stigmatized act in our culture today, fail. So right off the bat, you have to strip Inara of the weird Eastern Fetish thing that’s going on with her. You stop exoticising her. Comparing Eastern and Western cultures can be interesting, I guess, but when it’s coming from a Western position it is generally inappropriate at best.

But above and beyond that, there’s something amazing you can do with her: you can make her a man. I promise this is not as crazy or misogynist as it sounds, and at least this makes Mal’s stupid “I want you but I won’t chase you” thing much more interesting.

I’m not suggesting that making Inara a man legitimizes her position as a sex worker. I’m suggesting that we start by acknowledging the real lack of legitimacy she already has; if you make Companions visibly straddle an uncomfortable line, then you’re actually exploring cultural attitudes towards sex, instead of pretending to, and making your audience think about their own judgments in that regard. Why should, for example, the prostitutes from The Episode Of The Besieged Bordello be so cheerful? Sexual servitude might be a fun kink if you’re into that but it’s hardly a good way of life if it wasn’t freely chosen. I’m not intimately familiar with the history of sex work, but I’m pretty sure if women chose to become sex workers in any culture at any point in history, it was most frequently because the alternative was worse. Why not acknowledge that?

So you remove the veneer of legitimacy, which was never more than cosmetic in any case, and then you present Inara as something other than modern-day heteronormative. (I don’t count the one woman we see Inara with, because it’s a creepy lesbian porn gag.) Women are commonly exploited for sex on television; men very rarely. On the few occasions you do see a male prostitute on your tv screen, they’re usually being murdered in a forensic crime drama. If Inara is a male prostitute, he is no longer safe or familiar or acceptable-in-spite-of-his-job to the viewer.

Make Inara a man, and leave Mal’s attraction to him intact. Homosexuality is still obviously somewhat contested if not taboo in this culture of the future. The foundation of social unease that began with a delegitimized sex worker begins to extend to sexuality and the nature of attraction. Yes, it could be considered fanservicey, and yes, I realize Firefly aired at a time when queer sexuality was even less acceptable on network television than it is now. But wouldn’t it also be more interesting to have the designated lead character attracted to a man? That means that either we have to witness Mal repressing his wants, or we have to witness him working out what his attraction to Inara means to him in terms of identity.

I realise that this drops a woman from our cast, but I have a fix for that. I want to introduce a new character: The Professor.

I began formulating this character after the crew’s first encounter with the Reavers, and while the film demystified the Reavers that actually only increased the legitimacy of this character in my eyes. So in order to talk about the Professor, let’s talk about the Reavers.

The Reavers

I was never that put off or frightened by the Reavers. In part, I think, because they came too early and showed too sudden. They were great as a myth, as a silent ship floating in the darkness, as a story to scare children with…but super-aggressive bicycle messengers? For me, when we first saw a Reaver he ranked as slightly less scary than the Futurekind from Doctor Who a few years back. And they were not that scary.

I liked the idea of the Reavers as ghosts in vicious, impenetrable ships, encountered in person only late in the series, and rarely seen even then. I liked the idea of them leaving blood spatters and bodies so hideously disfigured that all we saw were the crew’s reactions. And then I had to fix that too, because I realized that in the “cowboys and indians” universe of Firefly, the Reavers are the Indians. And I had a real “what the hell?” moment.

I like the idea of the Reavers, the mythical madmen from the edge of the Black. But the links between the old stereotypical barbarian Western Injuns and the Reavers are there, which is racist and hugely disconcerting. If you are going to take an incredibly racist trope and insert it into a postmodern pastiche, you can’t just say they’re monsters created by a drug and then let the tiny white girl kill them all. That’s not good enough.

So I came up with the Professor.

She is a defrocked academic, an anthropologist who became interested in the mythology surrounding the Reavers. The Alliance naturally didn’t want anyone poking too deeply, so she was eventually dismissed from teaching. She is a genteel fugitive — the Feds want to find her, but she’s low on their hit list. She spends much of her time tracking down myths about the Reavers and trying to work out their social structure without ever having encountered them. (The Reavers have to have a social structure: there are too many things that don’t work if they don’t, as many arguments about Firefly down the years have proved.)

The Professor fears the Reavers, but is the only one who sees more than fear in them. She wants to know about their culture: How do they determine social rank? How do they build weapons? Flying a spaceship is complicated, and I don’t buy that mindless rage-filled cannibal rapists could do it if they didn’t have some sort of social structure. How do they raise children? How do they engage with one another?

Some of these questions, of course, are mooted by the discoveries made in the film, but others are raised by those discoveries. At least, if we have the Professor, someone in the crew is capable of feeling sorrow for the Reavers, who are also innocent victims of Pax. In earlier episodes, when we first see their handiwork, there’s the potential for a wonderful crisis of faith: oh God, this is what I’ve been pursuing? Am I able to follow it any further?

So I personally think that The Professor would be a great addition to the cast.

Fixing the Alliance

Having talked about the racism of the Reavers, let’s move on to talking about the racism of appropriating Chinese culture. You guys know how this goes; one of the most common statements about Firefly is: “For a universe where China is a dominant cultural influence, you sure don’t see many Chinese people.”

There is a reason for this: Joss Whedon isn’t interested in China, at least not in Firefly. Firefly isn’t about multi- or inter- culturalism, not about introducing Eurocentrists to Chinese culture — religion, food, language, customs, any of it. The Chinese presence in Firefly is about two things:

1. A unique design concept
2. Being able to swear without getting beeped out.

And probably more 2 than 1.

There is a long history of this in comic books and even in other science fiction television shows, notably Red Dwarf, which invented the dumbest swear word ever: smeg. It pops up in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, and in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I will give points to the show for not making up words that the actors would feel stupid saying. Using Chinese is a relatively aesthetic way to go about it. But it also takes some pretty intense cultural appropriation to get there.

The theory is that Chinese culture rose to dominance in the handwave between now and the future where the show is set. It’s a reasonable idea, given the population of China and its growing economic power. But the result, in Whedon’s universe, is a bunch of white people who say Chinese words, a dominant Chinese class that is never seen, and some decorative arts that may or may not have been thoroughly researched. The fact that there are no Chinese people in Firefly is pretty bad, but also irrelevant to the fact that the cast speaks Chinese, because they don’t speak Chinese in order to incorporate Chinese culture into the show. It’s about the swearing.

To  fix this, you can of course recast many of the characters both lead and supporting with Chinese actors, and write scenes where Chinese culture is more than light-some-incense-oh-wait-it’s-a-bomb-fuse. But, as I discussed in the section on Mal, you can also diffuse the idea of “Us versus the Chinese” by setting up the Alliance not as an ethnic hegemony but as an economic one.

It is totally possible and actually really interesting to predict a future where China became the global superpower. But even if that were to be the case, China is no more unified or homogenous than any other country, and exploring the idea that not every Chinese person is an invisible moneyed oligarch responsible for the current dystopia takes a lot of the racism out of the subtext of the show. If you show Chinese people being oppressed alongside other races, it becomes less us-against-China and more poor-against-rich, which gives you a wide swathe of material for actual, meaningful social commentary.

The Problem

This show would never get produced.

With a radical anti-Capitalist (or at least anti-rich) philosophy built into the universe, a Chinese lead who may or may not be queer, a pansexual male sex worker, a Pope with only a few thousand followers, and a firm, intellectual voice continually reminding viewers of the attempted genocide of America’s indigenous peoples, there is no way this show gets made ten years ago. There is no way this show gets made now.

But, twenty years ago, there is also no way my voice describing this particular show gets heard by thousands of people, either, and right now, at this moment in time, it does. We are moving towards a society that is more capable of suggesting these things on a broad band, making them legitimate and normal, making them acceptable and hopefully, one day, desirable. One of the reasons I work in self-publishing is that I could write a queer communist novel full of people of color, and I can put a cover on it and sell it to you, and nobody can stop me.

As fun as this exercise was, the actual rewrite isn’t the event; it’s collateral. Firefly is just the trimmings on the big, mind-blowing fact that if I do commit the act, I can share it with the world, and hopefully the word will get passed on and on.

Because the one thing I would never change about Firefly is that you can’t stop the signal.

  1. […] speculate that the major reason Chinese culture was included at all was that the characters could swear in Mandarin and the censors wouldn’t bleep it. However, while this is a foundational world-building problem, there’s a relatively easy way […]


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