Defending the Space Western: Firefly as Slipstream Art

March 9, 2009

Defending the Space Western:

Firefly as Slipstream Art

MAL: We’re still flying.

SIMON: That’s not much.

MAL: It’s enough.

Serenity, Part 2

When Joss Whedon’s short-lived series Firefly premiered in 2002, The Boston Globe called it “…a mess-a wonderful, imaginative mess brimming with possibility. About a dysfunctional family of space cowboys…” It may be hard to believe (for anyone who doesn’t know Whedon’s track record) that a “mess” like Firefly could explode into a dedicated fan following and inspire a major motion picture, but it has. Mixing genres and defying stereotypes was part of the mission statement of the show, and this unorthodox approach to science fiction has secured Firefly a place in the canon of slipstream art.

What is slipstream art? Basically, it’s the opposite of mainstream. It goes against the grain, challenges accepted norms, and experiments with artistic techniques. In a nutshell, slipstream art is Firefly. Since the first aired episode, anyone could recognize that there was something different about this show-and it wasn’t just that spaceships and horses were both common forms of transportation, or that every thief, whore, and homesteader spoke fluent Mandarin Chinese. Maybe it was because the characters were big damn heroes, or maybe it was because they were just too pretty to die.

The Space Western

Set in 2517, the series follows the crew of the small Firefly-class spaceship Serenity as they struggle to make a living in a solar system ruled by the bureaucratic and oppressive Alliance government. The crew, led by war veteran Captain Malcolm Reynolds, smuggles stolen goods, harbors known fugitives, evades psychotic space barbarians and officers of the law, performs Robin Hood-like acts of charity, and engages in Western-style gun fights, all before breakfast. Essentially, they’re a bunch of underdogs: They don’t always win, and they get kicked when they’re down. But at the end of the day they’re still flying, and that’s enough.

Here’s the catch: It’s a Space Western. What makes Firefly unique is that it mixes major thematic genres to create a setting that’s familiar, yet completely unlike anything we’ve seen before. The two seemingly unrelated genres (science fiction and western, as well as comedy and drama) joined together make up the overarching design of the show. Whedon explains, “…what it set out to be was a mixture of genres, a Stagecoach kind of drama with a lot of people trying to figure out their lives in a bleak and pioneer environment.” In the opening credits there’s a shot of Serenity flying over a corral of unshod horses, an image which epitomizes the show. Holograms and space travel appear side by side with lever-action shotguns and horse-drawn wagons.

In this universe, revolvers are worn low on the hip, concealed by a leather range coat; ballrooms are dominated by floating holographic chandeliers; herds of cattle are transported in the cargo holds of spaceships; and every frontier whorehouse worth its government-sanctioned Companions is covered in solar panels. This seamless mixture of genres in the show’s design and writing replaces the epic space battles, bizarre planets, and “bumpy-faced” aliens of conventional sci-fi. Firefly is a departure from the pristine, formulaic glamour of mainstream sci-fi like Star Trek. Whedon intentionally separated his creation from classic science fiction. “It was all designed to give you that feeling of ‘this is just something that’s happening and you’re there in the thick of it’, as opposed to science fiction which says, ‘Stand back, for this is a forbidden planet!‘”

And it worked. Born-again fans of sci-fi were intrigued by the show’s revamping of old stereotypes, while viewers who never considered watching a sci-fi series felt like they were watching real people with real problems… kind of like the viewers themselves. As with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon proved again that a show can have elements of the unreal and still be realistic.

The Melting Pot

Firefly wasn’t just about mixing genres. The show’s creators took inspiration from multiple cultures to create a unique aesthetic for their fictional future. The most obvious influences are Chinese and American culture, but there are also elements of Indian, Russian, Israeli, Japanese, and British cultures included. This mixture shines through in the dialog, costumes, and music. While the main characters speak in accents from the American West, there is a surprising amount of Mandarin Chinese thrown into the dialog. Dong ma?

The costumes were inspired by multiple cultures and eras, namely the American Civil War and Samurai Japan. In “Jaynestown,” Inara wears a delicate Japanese kimono-style dress while Mal wears knee-high boots, suspenders, and striped pants reminiscent of a Union cavalry officer’s uniform. The costumes of the Alliance soldiers and officials were designed to resemble Nazi uniforms, while the range coats, gun belts, and hats of the pioneer characters made them look like cowboys. In large crowd scenes there are Orthodox Jews walking next to turbaned Sikhs, and belly dancers entertaining cowboys and men who can only be described as Boba Fett lookalikes. The cultural menagerie represented by the costumes shows the foreseeable melting pot of the future: Cultures and traditions not only survive, but are borrowed from and adapted to a community.

The musical score was just as culturally varied as the costumes. Composer Greg Edmonson was inspired by traditional Chinese, Eastern European, classic orchestral, and the Appalachian folk music. Bluegrass guitar and Asian-influenced violin solos became standards of the Firefly soundtrack. The mixing of cultures was a departure from the science fiction stereotype, in which whole planets homogenize into one uniformed and groomed, almost ludicrously Western culture, represented by the overbearing yet benevolent Federation/Union/Alliance/Planetary Dominion. In Firefly the people are as visually diverse as their opinions, and the Alliance is not the good guys.

That Cheese Aspect

Because the concept of Firefly was so different from canon science fiction, Whedon didn’t want it to look as polished and refined as a normal sci-fi show. Thus was born the Cheese Aspect: a way of filming that would match the Space Western, multicultural, rough-and-tumble setting. Everything was handheld. There were purposeful lens flares, zooms, out-of-focus shots, whip pans, anything that would add to the show’s “down and dirty”, documentary-style cinematography. Tim Minear said, “Zooms are actually considered kind of cheesy, and that ‘cheese aspect’ really added to the show.” They used old camera lenses that tended to flare, lit scenes environmentally-anything to give each episode an organic texture. Rarely in mainstream television (especially sci-fi), have we seen camera operators purposely wobbling the camera, catching a lens flare, or miss-framing a shot.

But it didn’t end at the live-action scenes. The special effects in Firefly were developed to embrace the Cheese Aspect. Computer-generated shots contained re-focuses and deliberately shaky camerawork. It was as if the CG artists were trying to make mistakes. There were shots designed to look like the camera was mounted on the side of a vibrating ship’s engine, or like the camera operator was late in catching the action on a CG ship. The creative, messy cinematography matched the rustic, challenging environment in which the characters lived.

Action taking place in outer space looked bleak and dark, and lacked sound effects. This realism contrasted with classic science fiction, in which gaudy spaceships blast through the stars with loud sound effects and grandiose music. The Cheese Aspect was used to create something which was stylistically unorthodox, but which matched the tone of the series. But the real testament to Firefly‘s creative cinematography is that it was adopted by other innovative shows: the Sci Fi Channel’s award-winning series Battlestar Galactica makes use of the documentary-style Cheese Aspect throughout the show, giving the space battles that bleak, realistic look first pioneered in Firefly.

The Space Western is a mixture of genres, cultures, and themes, with cinematography as inventive as its plot. Despite trials and cancellation, Serenity is still flying because of the show’s slipstream techniques, and that might not be much, but it’s enough.

Interested in learning more about Firefly behind-the-scenes? Check out Firefly: The Official Visual Companion, or the “Here’s How It Was: The Making of Firefly” documentary. And of course, find out what happens after the TV series with the film Serenity and the Serenity graphic novels.

~Jess d’Arbonne


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