Firefly and Western Literature
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May
08

The most recent episode of Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse had a special treat for Firefly fans, a special guest appearance by Alan Tudyk (forever Wash to Firefly fans), in what will apparently be a recurring role (well, at least for another episode). Tudyk plays Stephen Kepler, one of the designers of the Dollhouse, tracked down by FBI agent Ballard, who hopes that Kepler will know a way to break into the Dollhouse. I won’t say much more than that Kepler is more than he seems, but Tudyk’s turn as Kepler, a pot-growing paranoid stay-at-home environmental systems specialist, is delightful, very funny, and I’ve seen few bits of physical comedy funnier than Tudyk’s high stepping walk down a flight of stairs (lest someone reach a hand through the open spaces behind the steps and grab his ankle).

This episode also includes a moment when agent Ballard tasers scientific genius and annoying goof Topher, and, I can only say that I’ve been waiting a long time to see Topher get tasered, and it was absolutely worth the wait.

Mar
30

Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse suddenly got interesting, by which I mean, of course, Dollhouse just shifted into western territory, both literally and generically. Although the setting of Dollhouse has heretofore been unclear to me, the recent episode “Man in the Street” specifically places the series in Los Angeles, and much of the episode is concerned with establishing the relationship between the events in the story and its setting in this western city.

The episode begins with a clip of a news report, with the camera following a reporter as he walks away from the corner of 6th Street (moving perhaps down Hill Street?) and eventually beneath a street sign identifying the location as the Jewelry District, and indicating directions to reach Spring Street, Grand Central Market, and Pershing Square. “Dollhouse,” the reporter comments, “For some people in Los Angeles, those words have another meaning, a darker meaning. . . . The Dollhouse is one of LA’s most enduring urban legends.” Other clips show interviews of regular citizens commenting on the idea of the dollhouse, with different people offering different metaphors for what’s taking place at the dollhouse (a brothel, slavery, good work if you can get it, etc). In the video clip of an African American woman who asserts that the humans kept as dolls in the dollhouse are enslaved (“Volunteers! You must be out of your mind!”), the Palace Theatre is clearly visible in the background.

By placing characters in front of such well-known landmarks, by visibly (if not ostentatiously) including street signs in the shots, this episode represents a shift in the portrayal of the Dollhouse as a place that  heretofore  seemed hidden in plain sight, if not underground, then potentially anywhere, but specifically nowhere.  This attention to the details of a western place also coincides with (and may signal) a generic shift into the western, especially as this episode focuses on Paul Ballard, the FBI agent obsessed with finding and exposing the Dollhouse. From Ballard’s perspective, Dollhouse is a captivity narrative, and he is the searcher, the Ethan Edwards character seeking to free not Debbie Edwards but Caroline (Echo’s name before she became a doll). And Ballard is every bit as obsessed as Ethan Edwards (“Getting shot didn’t even make you pause, did it?” comments one of his co-workers).

Ballard has been involved in the series from the beginning, but this is the first episode in which he takes center stage. And the western elements of this episode may not indicate a general shift in the milieu of the series so much as they indicate that we are seeing the world from Ballard’s point of view, that we are within his fantasy, as it were, in which he is the cowboy hero who will redeem the captive and return her to civilization.

At this point in his investigation, Ballard has identified Echo as the missing Caroline. As a way of getting an inroad to the hard-to-find Dollhouse, he has started staking out potential clients (relatively few have the wealth to hire the services of the Dollhouse). He settles on an internet mogul named Joel Minor, who, it turns out, is indeed a Dollhouse client, and who has requested Echo be imprinted with the personality of his deceased wife. When Echo shows up at Minor’s house, Ballard almost has her in his grasp, but she is whisked away by her handler.

The motivation for Ballard’s quest is called into question during a conversation with Minor, after Echo has left the house. Minor suggests to him, “You have a fantasy. I think your fantasy is about my Rebecca” (the name of his wife, the role Echo was playing). This conversation suggests that the elements of the western that we see in this episode may in part be window dressing for Ballard’s fantasy, which we participate in, as he is our point of view character for the episode. It will be interesting to see if the series continues to take notice of the LA setting in episodes that aren’t centered around Ballard.

The emphasis on the LA setting also suggests another intertext to consider when thinking about Dollhouse, and that is the film Blade Runner, parts of which were shot (if I’m remembering correctly) in and around the Jewelry District (dressed up to indicate a future LA). There are similarities between dolls and replicants. How do you tell a doll from a real human being? How do we know thatthe  person beside us isn’t a replicant? We meet more than one person in Dollhouse who turns out to be a doll in disguise, carrying out the Dollhouse’s nefarious commands while seeming to be a best friend, lover, etc.

I also thought there were a few moments that visually suggested the street scenes from Blade Runner, which makes me wonder if Ballard and Blade Runner‘s Decker might have some things in common. At Joel Minor’s house, Ballard takes out 3 or 4 trained security guards. Do his extraordinary fighting skills suggest that he may be more than just your average human? Could Ballard himself be a doll? If so, whose agenda does he advance?

Well, I guess we’ll find out as episodes continue to air.

This post was originally published on The Official Blog of the Western Literature Association.

Mar
20

As a fan of Joss Whedon’s science fiction western Firefly, I’ve also been watching his most recent television creation, Dollhouse. Five episodes of the series have now aired, and some of the complex back-story is starting to come clearer. However, I’m still finding that I have mixed responses to the show, alternately disappointed and intrigued. And since I was particularly interested in the explicitly western elements of Firefly,  keep hoping that Whedon’s knowledge of the western genre will come out in Dollhouse as well. Thus far, that hasn’t happened, although I can see the possibility of a western “sensibility” emerging from the show. At the very least, “True Believer,” the most recent episode, was set in Arizona.

If you haven’t seen Dollhouse, the dolls are living humans who have had their personalities erased. They are kept in the “dollhouse” in a state of blank mindless activity (they spend a lot of time showering), physically functioning but personality-less. When the dolls are sent out on missions, they are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are then erased at the end of the mission).

The doll whose adventures we follow is Echo. In the first episode, she was imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In the episode that aired this past Friday, she was imprinted with the personality of a religious cult follower in order to infiltrate the cult. These missions are at the center of each episode, and because they are framed by the various goings on behind the scenes at the dollhouse (there are scientists and handlers and leaders and showering, lots of showering), the missions operate as a kind of episode within a episode, a play within a play, which sometimes leads to interesting “echoes” between the machinations within the bureaucracy of the dollhouse and the events of the mission.

However, the dullest part of the show thus far are the missions. Each mission is a short genre drama, with a different action genre providing the plot conventions each week. In addition to the Hostage Negotiation Plot, we’ve also had The Most Dangerous Game Plot (hunter client wants to hunt the most dangerous game of all—man, or, more precisely, woman, in the form of Echo), the Heist, and, most recently, the Undercover at a Religious Cult (in the past few years, I’ve seen both Veronica Mars and Monk use this plot device, both to much more interesting effect). Because the missions are mini-episodes within the larger episode, there’s not much time or space for exploration or innovation, and the missions as a result have been competent but bare-bones versions of genre set pieces that we’ve seen time and time again. Generally, this is what Joss Whedon does very well, take conventions of a genre and reinvent them, but the missions themselves are pretty straightforward repetitions rather than reinventions.

The interesting stuff seems to be going on in the frame. We’ve learned that there’s a character known as Alpha, a doll who has gone renegade, and who may be in the process of sabotaging the work of the dollhouse bureaucrats. And there are indications that Echo may be following in Alpha’s path. The most interesting part of the most recent episode was when Echo broke character, and rather than playing the devotee as she was programed to do, she punched the cult leader in the nose.

In the future of Dollhouse, we may eventually move away entirely from the missions (which is what I’m hoping for). However, before that happens, I hope Echo at least gets sent out on some sort of western adventure.

This post was originally published on the Western Literature Association Blog.

Feb
17

It’s with mixed emotions that I welcome  the premiere of the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. On the one hand, it’s good to see Whedon back in the saddle, but the placement of Dollhouse in Firefly‘s old time slot on Friday nights (at least that was the slot before the network started shuffling it around) is also a kind of sad reminder of Firefly‘s absence.

And I’m still clearly experiencing some heartache over the loss of Firefly. I watched the first episode of Dollhouse, but while I was watching Dollhouse, I was thinking about Firefly. Sorry, Dollhouse, it’s not you, it’s me.

Or maybe it’s a little bit you. To be fair, the series has a complicated premise that needs time to develop, and much of the first episode involved the difficult balancing act of telling a stand alone story and setting up that premise, which made for a dense episode that had more than its fair share of huh? what’s going on? moments.

Basically, the dolls in the dollhouse are humans who have had their personalities erased (how are they chosen and why?). They are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are erased, or perhaps naturally lapse, at the end of the mission). As with any clandestine operation, there is an array of insiders and outsiders, those in the know and those trying to find out the truth, and there seemed to be representatives of at least three or four different groups of insiders, allies, enemies, truth-seekers, etc., far too many for me to keep track of.

In Friday’s episode (be forewarned, spoilers follow), Echo is imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In what seems like it will be the primary formula for the series, the new personality has a back story that we learn as the episode progresses. According to head scientist Topher Brink (who, in his first appearance on screen, looks oddly like Joss Whedon, unbuttoned shirt over t-shirt, hair in slight disarray), the imprinted personalities are chosen not just for the skills but for their flaws, for it’s the flaws that drive these individuals to high achievement (and, as I recall, this is also Dr. House’s philosophy for choosing the members of his medical team). It’s the flaws that also provide the drama and spark the back story revelations.

Echo’s hostage negotiator turns out to have been taken hostage herself as a child. And (surprise, surprise, sigh, not really) the child she is working to release has been taken hostage by the very man that kidnapped and abused her.  This is the sort of genre cliche that Joss Whedon usually employs only to dismantle, but it plays straight in this episode of Dollhouse.

Compared to Firefly, there are two things that are missing in Dollhouse, at least thus far. One is humor, and the second is the explicit reference to the western roots shared by most action-oriented genre television shows.  The operative genres in Dollhouse are science fiction and spy/conspiracy. As for the science fiction roots, this is a variation on the Frankenstein story, complete with the sort of flashing flickering lights in the operating room where personalities are being implanted (or erased, not really sure) that would have made James Whale (director of Bride of Frankenstein) proud. I suspect that the visible facial scars on Dr. Claire Saunders will be revealed to be the result of some kind of Frankensteinian medical experiment. 

There are elements of the western here as well. Echo is, in essence, a gun for hire, except, rather than have gun, will travel, it’s more along the lines of have specifically tailored set of skills to address the crisis, will travel.  I can only hope that Dollhouse‘s affiliations with the western genre will be explored in future episodes.

So, while I wasn’t all that excited about Dollhouse’s first episode, it’s way too early to judge, and I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about future episodes, which, at the very least, is far more healthy than sitting by the phone hoping Firefly will call.

Feb
15

Episodes 11 (“Trash”) and 12 (“The Message”) on the Firefly DVD set are thematically linked by con games, with, in each episode, someone trying to con the Serenity crew. “Trash” is probably my least favorite episode in the series, and placing it back to back with “The Message” just further reveals how similar the two episodes are in structure and theme, and how far short “Trash” falls of “The Message,” which has a much more powerful emotional current, and which has a cleverer con game at its center.

It’s certainly good to see Our Mrs. Reynolds (aka, Saffron, aka insert alias here) again, but she is rooked too easily here. I also thought that the special effects sequence here (with Jayne and Kaylee standing atop Serenity to reprogram a trash-pod) was particularly uninspiring. Except for the opening sequence with Mal naked in the desert, an episode that should have been campy and funny just wasn’t—at least not to me.

“The Message,” however, plays out its con game with maximum tension, and it’s also one of those episodes that reveals more about Mal and Zoe and their background in the war. It also has Jayne receiving a knit hat in a package from his mother, and, in a series in which Adam Baldwin has had many fine moments, few can compete with the moments when he’s wearing that hat (“Man walks down the street in that hat,” comments Wash, “People know he’s not afraid of anything”).

Zoe and Mal receive a surprise package, a coffin with the body of their old army buddy Tracey in it. Touched by Tracey’s request that they carry his body to his home planet, they bring it aboard Serenity. When Alliance agents (or, at least, men claiming to be so) appear demanding the body, the crew figures something is up—a supposition confirmed when Tracey surprisingly comes back to life. The con is a clever one, with Tracey smuggling human organs, his own body serving as both a carrier and an incubator. As does Saffron, he makes the mistake of believing that Mal and Zoe’s shared code of honor makes them “saps” (“That stupid message. I was trying to play you guys”).

So, “The Message” is an all around good episode as Firefly nears the end of its run, funny, touching, great flying by Wash, lots of action, clever.

Feb
07

The Firefly and Western Literature blog has sprouted a new branch. The new blog is broader in topic, concerned with anything and everything related to the American West. Check out the new blog at The Official Blog of the Western Literature Association.

Jan
18

In the episode “War Stories,” we continue a run of Firefly episodes that emphasize the science fictional elements over the western ones. If earlier episodes have examined the issue of how far one can go out on the frontier and still survive, the frontier in this episode is not so much a physical space as a personal one.  As Rev. Book comments, discussing a philosopher on the art of war, this is about “war, torture, the limits of human experience.” The episode explores a different sort of frontier, the limitations and capacities of the individual human body, especially the body subjected to extreme pain.

Although the theme is quite serious, this is a fun episode, in part because it focuses on Wash, who in many ways is the exact opposite of the typical western hero, who is usually the strong silent type, and Wash is anything but silent. After he and Mal have been captured by old nemesis Niska, Wash continues to talk about how he can keep himself from talking: “Terse, I can be terse. Once, in flight school, I was laconic.”

Wash insists on going on the mission with Mal in part because he wants to have his own “war stories” to tell and in part because of jealousy over Mal and Zoe’s relationship (“What this marriage needs is one less husband”). The only explicit reference to the western is during the drop that goes wrong, which takes place on the planet’s surface in an identifiably western desert landscape.

For the most part, the western elements are thematic and structural, the exploration again of the idea of the frontier, “the limits of human experience,” and particularly the use of the structure of captivity, redemption, and rescue, a very common western plot structure. Zoe redeems Wash by paying a ransom, and, later, Zoe and the rest of the crew return to assault Niska’s space station and rescue Mal.

The episode also has one of the finest scenes in the series, as Mal and Wash talk out their differences over Zoe while being tortured by Niska, who they pretty much ignore as they carry on their conversation, punctuated by painful jolts of electricity from Niska. Seeing this scene again makes me realize (not for the first time) how much I miss Firefly and how it’s really a shame that it ended so soon after it started.

Jan
01

These two episodes of Firefly are arranged as episode 8 (“Out of Gas”) and episode 9 (“Ariel”) in the Firefly DVD collection, although their original air dates are nearly a month apart, with “Out of Gas” first airing on October 25, 2002, and “Ariel” on November 15.  The network airing order seems particularly unfortunate for a couple of reasons. “Out of Gas,” which sees Mal left behind on the immobile Serenity as he flashes back to the days when he first purchased the ship and first met the individuals who would become members of its crew, needs to have the characters well-established (something which had not been accomplished only four episodes into the series) in order to appreciate the episode’s nostalgic tone. We need to know the characters and the ship in order to feel Mal’s sense of loss. We also need to know the characters better to appreciate the humor of the flashbacks; seeing the characters the way they were back then is just not as effective when we haven’t had a chance to get to know them yet in the “now.”

“Out of Gas” is much more effectively placed in the DVD collection, not only because we’ve had more episodes to get to know the characters, but also because it makes a good companion piece for the episode “Ariel,” creating a thematic contrast showing just how difficult it is to survive under the Alliance, whether one is at its extreme edge or in its very center. Both places, savagery and civilization, prove to be just as dangerous, even if the natures of those dangers differ dramatically.

“Out of Gas” takes place on three levels, shifting back and forth between three distinct moments in time.  In the episode’s present, Mal is trying desperately (despite having been shot) to replace a damaged part and restart Serenity‘s engines (and its life support system). In the recent past, the episode traces the events that have led up to that moment–the decision to sail through empty space to avoid detection, a fire in Serenity, the discovery of the damaged part, the escape of the rest of the crew on shuttles, the arrival of another ship with a good part but bad intentions, the shooting of Mal, etc.). In the distant past, woven throughout the telling of the other events in the narrative, we learn the history of Serenity (Zoe: “You paid money for this, sir? On purpose?”), and we meet the crew for the first time (Wash with a cheesy mustache, etc.).

This is a story about the dangers of going too far out past the frontier boundary of civilization and savagery, out past the Alliance and  into “the black.” As Wash comments to Mal, “You wanted us under the radar, out of range of anyone or anything.” “Out of range” may mean freedom and safety, but it is also a dangerous place to be, free from society’s restrictions but also unsupported by any social safety nets either.

If “Out of Gas” explores the danger of being too far outside of society’s boundaries, “Ariel” explores the danger of being too far inside, as the crew visits the planet Ariel, one of the “core” planets, and (in a neat heist sequence) infiltrates an Alliance hospital so Simon can access equipment to see what has been done to his sister River (and the rest of the crew can steal Alliance drugs to be resold). Inside or outside civilization, of course, Jayne is not to be entirely trusted (but not to be entirely distrusted either), and “Ariel” is one of the more exciting episodes of the series, with its masquerades, double-crosses, and creepy (and deadly) men with “hands of blue.”

And, to me anyway, the episode seems all the stronger for being preceded by “Out of Gas,” as the pairing illustrates just how difficult the situation is for our crew, trying to find a point of balance between civilization and the nothing that lies just beyond the frontier.

Dec
20

There’s an interesting interview with popular culture scholar John Cawelti at SpaceWesterns.com. Cawelti wrote one of the classic studies of the western genre, Six Gun Mystique, and he has some nice things to say about Firefly in the interview. You can follow this link to the interview:

Cawelti Interview.

Dec
04

I’ve returned recently to my DVD set of Firefly, hoping to finish out the rest of the series before too much longer, and watched an episode that I hadn’t seen in quite awhile, “Jaynestown.” I remembered the episode as being entertaining but slight, but, I discovered after a more attentive viewing that it is really quite cleverly scripted as well as being entertaining, with even most of the asides reflecting on the main theme, which, surprisingly, turns out to be about faith, about the different strategies the characters use to hang on to their identities, their humanity, and to stay in touch with what keeps them civilized, even if the things they have faith in (as Kaylee puts it) “don’t mean nothing out here in the black.”

     As we’ve noted in earlier posts, the network was concerned about the western elements of Firefly, sometimes insisting on changes to eradicate western tropes. As a result, the western sometimes appears more as subtext than text in Firefly. In some cases, like the episode “Bushwhacked,” the western narrative is transformed into a general meditation on civilization and savagery, exploring a theme common to the western without using such explicit western motifs as cattle drives, train robberies, etc.

     “Jaynestown” is another episode that underplays the western elements of the series, at least in terms of the explicit use of western motifs that we see in episodes like “Heart of Gold.” Like “Bushwhacked,” “Jaynestown” is a meditation on civilization and savagery, a frontier story wearing clothing that is more science fiction than western, but, beneath the clothing is a story structure and situation that is identifiably western. The setting is a mining camp, a familiar enough western setting, but the commodity being mined here is not gold or silver but mud. The exploited workers are called “mudders,” and their hero, as revealed in a folk song, is a man who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor,” like Robin Hood or Jesse James, but this hero is “The man they call Jayne.” That the poor mudders regard Jayne a hero is such a shock that it drives Simon to do three uncharacteristic things, curse, drink too much, and flirt with Kaylee.

     The structure of this episode comes from revisionist westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which essentially reveal the story in reverse, presenting us up front with a legendary character and a legendary event (the shooting of Liberty Valance), and then slowly revealing the truth behind the legend. In this case, Jayne’s legendary selfless act of giving to the poor is eventually revealed to be unintentional. His craft damaged, he had to jettison weight just to make his escape, including the money he’d stolen (after he had first ejected his partner in crime from the craft). That the money wound up in the hands of the mudders was an accident transformed in retrospect into an heroic act—and thus the unlikely elevation of Jayne Cobb to the status of outlaw hero.

     However, the point of the episode is that sometimes the legend is more important than the facts, and the mudders’ belief in “The man they call Jayne” inspires other heroic acts, including one man who throws himself in front of Jayne to save him from the shot fired by Jayne’s old partner (who survived the fall and who is not happy with his partner). To Jayne’s horror, the mudder dies to protect him, and despite all that has happened and been said to tarnish the legend of Jayne, it’s clear that the mudders will continue to believe in that legend.

     Earlier in the episode, Rev. Book comes across River, who is in the process of rewriting the Bible (using his personal Bible for the task) so that it will make logical and scientific sense (a process that involves additions about quantum mechanics—how else to possibly get all the animals into Noah’s ark?). “It’s not about making sense,” Rev. Book tells her, “It’s about believing in something and letting that belief change you.”

     Faith, as Rev. Book has pointed out before, is what keeps you human, even on the farthest outskirts of civilization. When Kaylee asks Simon, “What’s so important about being proper?” she echoes River’s questions about the Bible. After all, neither Simon’s proper behavior nor the stories in the Bible make sense “out here in the black.” Simon responds, “It means more out here. It’s all I have.” Simon’s proper behavior is his faith, that thing from his former life that he must hang onto. “You don’t fix faith,” Rev. Book tells River, “Faith fixes you.” Faith also “fixes” in the sense of holds in place, stabilizes, keeps a fragile identity from completely fracturing.

     In the final scene, a conversation between Jayne and Mal echoes the earlier one between Book and River, with Mal making a point fairly similar to Rev. Book’s. “Don’t make no sense,” Jayne comments, “Why’d that mudder have to go and do that?” As Mal points out, it’s not about making sense, it’s about faith, and about the necessity of faith: “It ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.”

     In addition to being a well-constructed meditation on faith and keeping the faith (whatever it may be that you believe in) out on the frontier, this episode also contains one of my favorite scenes in the whole series, when River walks in on Rev. Book with his hair loose rather than pulled back. The sight of Book’s wild hair terrifies River, who screams and runs off and hides. Zoe tells her that it’s okay, “He’s putting the hair away,” to which River responds, “It’ll still be there. . . . Waiting.” For River, when it comes to Rev. Book’s hair, it’s not about believing—it’s about knowing!

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