Firefly: Serenity (aka the pilot, not the movie)

I was more than a little nervous to start rewatching Firefly. It was my favorite show as a teenager. More than LOST (which I loved), more than Veronica Mars (which I really, really loved), more than any other show. But it's been several years since I watched it, and when I think of it now, one thing always pops into my head:

Combine that with the fact that Joss Whedon has been criticized more and more recently for the shallowness of his so-called feminist message, and I was really concerned that my favorite show would turn out to be heartbreaking, and not for character-death reasons.

Turns out the reality is a lot more complicated.

Because of the slow-burn nature of the pilot, this post is more a general musing on the world of Firefly and its characters than an episode-specific review. But I'm going to be posting episode reviews (with no spoilers for future episodes) every Wednesday until I've worked through all the episodes and the movie. The whole thing is on Netflix if anyone wants to watch along!

 

Half-Chinese World?

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Yeah, no. At least as far as the pilot goes, there are Chinese influences, but there sure aren't any Chinese people. Or any people of Asian descent. At all. Unless there was a random person in the background that I missed, the entire hour-and-a-half pilot passed without anything more than some Chinese writing, Kaylee holding a parasol, and characters bursting out into poorly-pronounced Chinese.

I suppose that, given the state of many show casts, we should praise Whedon for creating a diverse crew, with four female to five male main characters, and several non-white crew members. There's even an interracial marriage here. The Tams could potentially pass for half-Asian, especially given their name. But having characters with a Chinese surname who could pass for part-Chinese, maybe, is absolutely not the same as having Chinese-American actors in the cast. And as much as I love Sean Maher and Summer Glau (and I really, really do love them), it's almost insulting to have a half-Chinese culture, have characters whose surnames are Cantonese, and then cast dark-haired white actors to play them.

Once a show makes a commitment to show a fusion culture, where America and China became equally powerful influences, then the requirements for the "congrats, you're not being racist" card get considerably more demanding. If characters speak Chinese, wear Chinese-influenced clothes, and on and on, all because China became one of two equal powers that shaped this new civilization, then the show has an obligation to go above and beyond to ensure that a significant chunk of the cast is Chinese as well. It's a vital part of the story you're telling. It cannot say that Chinese culture is OK for the show (especially when watered down or used for mispronounced, censor-passing swearwords), but then say that Chinese people are not. What had the potential to be a cool, plausible vision of the future simply became cultural appropriation. And that's not OK, no matter how great the rest of the show is.

And that sucks, because the rest of the show is pretty great, especially when it comes to female characters. Like:

Kaylee, the girly mechanic

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Let's talk about how fabulous Kaylee is in this episode, shall we? I mean, just look at her. She is the heart of the crew, loved by all of them, even if Jayne takes his teasing too far. She's a genius mechanic, who finds that machines speak to her, and not a soul finds it at all strange that this mechanic is not just a girl, but a girly girl. She's sweet and friendly and cheerful. She's not chubby, but she's not rake-thin either. She certainly enjoys food when she can get it. She's certainly not afraid to start nursing a big crush on Simon. And she has a teddy bear embroidered on her overalls. She can be cute and cheerful and like yummy food and fuzzy things, and she can be smart and capable and help to save everyone with her genius at her messy, technical job.

So yeah. Go Kaylee.

Girls are friends too!

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Here's the next thing that struck me about the crew: even girls who are as different as Kaylee and Inara can be close friends, and get scenes together, where they talk about boys, sure, but also talk about work, talk about life and dreams and everything.

The Trouble with Companions

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Inara is the hardest female character for me to talk about. On the one hand, she's a powerful, dignified, sophisticated, successful woman, whose entirely in control of herself and her life, has embraced her sexuality, and does a job that she loves. And that's awesome. In fact, in many ways, she's the most powerful and important member of the crew, despite doing a job that is usually associated with a complete lack of power, as the "respectable" element who can allow them to dock places that would otherwise send them away. On the other hand, what is this vision of the future saying when the one powerful and respectable woman is a prostitute? Sure, Patience is powerful too, but as something of a rebel and a dangerous sort, taking control of a poor and struggling moon. We don't see women, for example, as commanders on the Alliance ship. Inara is the only woman that we see who has legitimately-gained power and influence. I remember in interviews, Joss Whedon saying that Inara's role was inspired by geishas. But, contrary to popular belief, geishas were not prostitutes, at least according to the western understanding of the word, and certainly not like Inara. Perhaps misguided cultural appropriation has struck again.

I feel like there's a lot to say about this. But I'll save it for a later episode, when we learn more about her and her world.

Although Inara was presented as a powerful and eloquent figure, some of her scenes in this episode were rather confusing to me. In particular, the sponge bath. Why was it necessary to show a mainstream-TV-naked woman washing herself with a sponge using a soft lens, while exotic music played in the background? It wasn't necessary. But of course, we cannot have a character like Inara without sexualizing her for the audience's benefit at least a little. Right?

Zoe is a total badass

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And no-one has a problem with that. Wash certainly doesn't have a problem with that, leading to a subversion of a typical warrior-and-spouse narrative structure, where the wife worries at home, powerless, waiting for her warrior husband to return safe. Here, even though Wash knows that Zoe is capable, and even though he has no problems with that, he's the one left sitting in the cockpit, worrying that she won't return home safe.

Not that he's useless, of course. When it comes to flying the ship, he's the best, and he teams up with Kaylee to save them all from the Reavers in the end. But he isn't threatened by Zoe's strength, by her skill with a gun, by her military past (except, of course, in her relationship with Mal). His own strengths and skills are not diminished by hers, even if her skills are in a more traditionally masculine realm than his are. And that's pretty cool.

The Genius in a Box

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Finally, there's River. My favorite character.

River has the potential to be a bit of a problematic stereotype. She is, after all, the gorgeous, waif-like, mentally-unstable genius. But, at least in this episode, she manages to escape all of that by actually being truly mentally-unstable, instead of just TV mentally unstable, where it's all cute fun and games. She is an absolute genius, much smarter than Simon, as he freely admits. And she is utterly broken. Not in a gentle, broken-girl-needs-protecting way. In a raw, horrific, unpredictable, heartbreaking way.

Again, there's going to be a lot to say on River... but I think I'll wait until we're further into the game, and know more about her than "the mentally damaged genius kid saved by her brother."

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Obviously, there are a lot of really important characters and dynamics I haven't even touched on here, but this review has already got really long, and there's just too much going on in this show to discuss it all at once.

So, after watching Serenity, here's my basic reactions: awesome banter, awesome female characters, but seriously, where are the Chinese people to go along with all this culture?

More next Wednesday, when we watch The Train Job. Can't wait!