In our first Book Club book review, we look at "Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly," edited by Jane Espenson.
This book, filled with critical essays about Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” contains the kind of analysis you might expect from a textbook if you were watching the series for your college class (not a bad gig if you can get it). There are essays on portrayals of women and music in the series, the representation of Asian culture, chivalry, and “Firefly”’s early demise and the requisite comparisons to “Star Trek.” As far as I’m concerned, any book that reminds me of the most brilliant parts of “Firefly,” as this one does, is good.
Having said that, there’s a such thing as too much of a good thing. Overthinking “Firefly” may be a mistake, because (as with analyzing anything) it’s hard to enjoy the show so much if you’re always on the lookout for examples of the buffoonery of men or prejudice against Asians. And although I know many fans of “Firefly” were also “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” fans, and although I kinda like “Buffy” myself, I got a bit tired of comparisons between the shows. Yes, there’s some validity (and inevitability) in comparing two Joss Whedon products to one another. But enough already! I’d like to squelch a lot of that analysis because it seems misleading to me—the shows are very different—and frankly, it’s boring to hear it in almost every single essay. Like the fact that “Buffy” succeeded with audiences and “Firefly” did not hasn’t already been beaten into my brain a million times. Think about it: if Joss Whedon hadn’t created both shows, there’d be almost no basis for comparing them. Let’s face it—the two series had overlapping audiences, but they were not the same audience. There’s a reason for that.
Okay, so I’ve covered some of the bad. The good: Jewel Staite’s “Kaylee Speaks: Jewel Staite On Firefly" is an absolute gem. The actress basically reveals her favorite five moments of every episode, and she has good taste. Her passion for the show really comes through. Don Debrandt’s essay “Firefly vs. The Tick” was an unexpected and welcome comparison of two series that really don’t seem similar at the outset, but somehow the comparison worked. And not only was I reminded of how much I loved “Firefly,” I was reminded of how much I loved “The Tick,” too.
A lot of the essays, though I might not agree with them, were extremely thought-provoking and fascinating. As an Asian myself, I’ve always enjoyed the Chinese culture references in “Firefly,” but never really thought about what it meant that very few Asians were actually shown in the ‘Verse. I had also never really contemplated how capable all the women were, compared to, for example, Jayne. And it was interesting to hear other people’s takes on why the show didn’t make it. One funny essay by Glenn Yeffeth comes in the form of a series of e-mails (fake, of course) to Joss Whedon—from a Fox executive named Jubal Early. In another, “Mirror/Mirror” by Roxanne Logstreet Conrad, the crew of the first sleek Enterprise (headed by Captain Archer) gets switched with the crew of the held-together-by-bailing-wire-and–spit ship Serenity. (As a side note, I disagreed with the outcome of this one. I really think the Enterprise crew would have been capable enough to handle Serenity.)
In sum, I learned a lot from this book. I learned that “Firefly” is both feminist and backward in its portrayal of women. I learned that it comes from a long and vibrant tradition of Westerns, the form of which ultimately reduced the show’s chances of survival. I learned that “The Train Job” was written in a hurry and also reduced "Firefly"'s chances of survival. I learned that a key difference between the Enterprise’s crew and Serenity’s is the presence of the Shepherd Book. I learned about the Chinese words used during the course of filming, and I learned that Zoe and Wash’s marriage was about the most real-life one portrayed on TV.
This book also reconfirmed a few things I already knew. That, as Joss said, you take your own subtext into “Firefly”—and for that matter, into anything you watch. That the people at Fox were extremely shortsighted in canceling a show with such promise. That this is a ‘Verse so rich and varied that the things you can say about it are limitless. That “Firefly” was one of the best and most innovative shows to come along in some time, and that I still miss it.
The last word: Now that the film "Serenity" has come out and expanded our awareness of River's powers and past, I'd love to see a new essay or two that talks about her role and how it changes or enhances what we know about the 'Verse.
Let me know if you've read this book and what you thought!