On The Construction Of Artificial Families

We’re re-watching Firefly these days with a friend of ours. Not quite through yet, but I can’t remain silent any longer:

Firefly is incredibly awesome!


While this is a perfectly adequate description of Firefly, I think I need to elaborate a bit.

My three favourite series of all time are Firefly, Babylon 5 and Rome. Star Trek and Futurama also feature somewhere in the list, albeit further down.

What makes Firefly stand out among all those excellent series are the characters. Mal and Inara. Zoe and Wash. Kaylee and Simon. River and Jayne and the Shepherd. And Serenity, for Firefly has managed what few shows centering around space travel have ever done: it has given the ship a personality. Whenever Serenity gets hurt I hurt with her. Neither the Enterprise (A-E), nor Galactica nor the Andromeda has ever done that for me (and with Andromeda they tried real hard to give the ship a personality, literally). I could go on for hours about how wonderful the ship-set is, how organic if feels. How much love must have gone into its design. But I shan’t, because, well, this post is about families, not set design.

The thing that made Buffy so great (and that made Dollhouse so awfully mediocre) is Joss Whedon’s talent for creating families. Artificial families. With very few exceptions the characters in Buffy aren’t actually related by blood. The same goes for Angel, although in this case the term “blood relation” takes on a whole new meaning, I guess. Still, they function as a family. I haven’t seen enough of Angel to make an educated statement in this matter, but at least in Buffy Xander, Willow, Gilles and our dear Buffy form a tight-knit group from the very beginning. Dollhouse doesn’t have that; the very format of the show doesn’t allow for strong ties between the characters, and thus the show fails.

Firefly is easily Whedon’s Magnum Opus. In thirteen episodes it manages what other shows don’t manage in as many seasons. (A lie, but it sounded good. The two really long shows that I can think of at the moment, The X-Files and ER, manage quite well on the subject of character relations. Back to the topic at hand.)

I want to adopt every single one of these characters. They are all lovely, and wonderful and, most of all, good. The goodness radiates from them like heat. Not only Kaylee,who has often been described as the heart and soul of the Serenity, all the others too.

There is one scene, in an early episode, I can’t come up with the name right now, in which Simon asks Mal why he didn’t hand him and River over to the Alliance. Mal’s answer is short and to the point, only twelve words all in all, but to me it embodies the spirit of the show:

You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?

Two simple sentences, yet they manage to wrench my heart every time I hear them. Because for Mal that is really all there is to it. Simon and River are crew, they’re family, and that is all that matters. And this sentiment seems to fill the entire ship. Everyone, including Jayne (who could as a rule do with a little less greed and a little more brains), stands by it – come rain, come shine. They form a family that is stronger and closer than any ties ever formed by blood. Nine people, some of them so fundamentally different that one marvels how they can stand to be in the same room together, and yet each and every single one of them would rather die than forsake one of the others. Stealing and cheating seems to be okay though, just for the record.

It is a shame that Firefly had to end so soon. We are three episodes from the end at the moment and I dread and yearn in equal measures for every minute of it. I find some consolation, and it grieves me to say this but it is still true, that Joss Whedon frequently states that he wanted to go down a much darker road with Firefly. To make it edgy and base and bloody. And all in all I think it might be a mercy that Kaylee and Book and Inara didn’t have to go through that. And that we didn’t have to watch how Mal slowly turns on Jayne and Simon and Wash, one after the other.

Better to burn brightly and briefly than to go out in a slurred, ugly whimper, I think.