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Finding Serenity - Review
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lil_shepherd
Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's 'Firefly'.

Edited by Jane Espenson

Pitched halfway between the academic and the gosh-wow fannish this is a strange mixture of short essays on 'Firefly' (pre-Serenity). I come to this as someone who likes 'Firefly' but is no expert on the series, with the expectation of being entertained and gaining a few insights.

First of all, might I say that I love the production values on this book? It is a physical pleasure to handle and to read, with high quality matt paper and a great layout.

The contents are a bit of a curate's egg. Fans are still far too pre-occupied with why the series failed, and while the anti-Fox rant from Glenn Yeffeth is mildly amusing it is out of place in this book. As is yet another 'Mirror Mirror' skit from Roxanne Logstreet Conrad about why the 'Firefly' cast would take over the 'Enterprise Universe'. Yawn. Ginjer Buchanan the divides the blame between Fox, Whedon himself, and Gene Roddenberry (who is, after all, to blame for everything. What's more, he can't answer back.) Keith DeCandido analyses 'The Train Job' and decides that this rush-job script makes a bad first episode, contributing to the series downfall. None of this is news.

There is also the obligatory cast member (Jewel Staite) memoir, which is, I suppose, interesting for those who like that sort of thing, an essay explaining what all that Chinese actually means and how to pronounce it, which is a useful crib for fan-writers, if nothing else, and a piece by Jennifer Goltz on the music would be better as a lecture with illustrations.

However, there is some gold in there too.

'Firefly' vs 'The Tick' by Don Debrandt is one of those pieces you can't help but love. It draws lots of parallels - often involving facial hair and space monkeys - between one of my personal favourite cartoon series, 'The Tick', and 'Firefly'. And the reason for doing so is flagged at the beginning if you really know both series, and pointed out neatly at the end if you don't. It is both a send-up of this sort of essay, and one with a point in its own right. Cool.

More meatily, Mercedes Lackey takes a considered view of freedom in the 'Firefly' universe, which the film 'Serenity' rather upholds and Lawrence Watt-Evans tackles the Reavers, a brave thing to do with 'Serenity' coming up. While he is... er... wrong... he writes entertainingly about real and mythical cases of cannibals and picks up on some internal blunders.

John C Wright plainly annoys Jane Esperon and will annoy most feminists with 'Just Shove Him in the Engine or The Role of Chivalry in Joss Whedon's Firefly', but it is written by someone who is plainly deeply au fait with the Western as a genre. It argues that 'Firefly' is not really a Western because none of the characters espouse the Code of the West (I'm sorry. I can't hear those words without a picture coming to mind of a passle of cowboys and other Western folk removing their hats and looking skyward - all the result of a film called 'Red Garters', in which the catch phrase, "That's the Code of the West" inevitably provoked that reaction.) Wright suggests that 'Firefly' fails as a western through this lack of chivalry and through an overdose of PC. He also, rather mournfully, suggests that all attempts to revive the western must fail because no-one would stand for the original 'Western' attitudes to women, children and the old. (Of course, that was not the real attitude in the real West - but I digress.) That the current demographic of choice would not attracted to the male-only early Warner Brothers westerns for this reason is almost certainly true. Or is it? Perhaps modern westerns fail precisely because they try to bring the old formulas up to date? Who knows until someone tries?

To return to the main point, while I understand where Wright is coming from, I must humbly point out that Joss Whedon was not writing a western but a 'space western' which must, of necessity, be different from a western per se. After all, 'Star Trek' was sold as 'Wagon Train to the Stars' and as long ago as the 60s, people were running parallel 'Wagon Train' and 'Star Trek' scenarios with only a change of name. (Bob Monkhouse and Willis Hall: 'An A-Z of Television'.)

Good essay, though, that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

Nancy Holder complains about the use of the Western from exactly the opposite angle; that of the social restraints - particularly in regard to women - placed on 'Firefly' by the TV western genre. My response to this essay points up a personal failing - that of letting one piece of incorrect data undermine my judgement of a whole thesis. This is probably occurs because Holder isn't an expert on the TV Western and is relying wholesale on an essay by Ken Sanes. I'm not an expert on the TV Western either, but I watched an awful lot of them. Pointing to the non-existence of strong, capable women in the TV Western, she has to find a way to dismiss those which actually existed. In fact, 'Wagon Train' was full of them, but they were not on-going characters, so it doesn't get a mention. There were others, but the two obvious ones have to be dismissed. Miss Kitty in 'Gunsmoke' had to be rescued a lot, apparently (but then so did Chester....) However, it was Victoria Barkley in 'The Big Valley' that Holder really tripped over. That Victoria is the central character (the series was built around Barbara Stanwyck) could be quietly ignored in the midst of an excellent ensemble cast. (Victoria's daughter, Audra, is not mentioned at all.) That Victoria's grown sons do her bidding is admitted - but not that one of those sons who obey the orders of the majority shareholder is not her son at all but her husband's illegitimate son, whose loyalty (and love) she has won by her absolute fairness and kindness to him. However, it is Holder's dismissal of Victoria as a "trophy wife" who had not "wrested" her "vast spread from the wilderness" that sticks in the craw. It is untrue. The series made it very clear that Victoria had built the Barkley spread (which is within commuting distance of San Francisco!) alongside her man, and has much respect for doing so from local landowners, politicians, Indians, ranch-hands etc etc. She can still ride and shoot a rifle as well as any of her sons - and she can be ruthless in defence of her family.

It might have been better to say that there were some exceptions to the general rule rather than try and dismiss them. Unfortunately, this lapse immediately makes me wonder if there are other 'facts' in the essay which I haven't caught out but which have a similar spin. She's fallen into the trap of pontificating on something she knows very little about.

Ultimately, I don't agree with the theory in this essay, but I'm not sure if that would have been the case if I hadn't found factual holes. On the other hand, its whimper of disappointment that by making a space western Joss Whedon has failed to make another feminist powerful-woman icon is countered beautifully with Robert B Taylor's contention that it's the women who kick ass on 'Firefly.'

Larry Dixon takes a trained artist's eye to set design and shot framing. This taught me a good deal and is, I suspect, a useful essay for media studies students, too. I am going to quote him here because I'm shouting with delight that someone else has said this: "When you saw the interiors on the original 'Star Trek', you knew these were professional people working in a naval setting, as Spartan as the berths of a destroyer. 'Star Trek: the Next Generation', well, these were Highly Dignified professional people in a flying office building. And 'Deep Space Nine'? Eh, the space station's a rental. They never even repainted the thing." Dixon has other things to say about the characterisation, all of which are informed and from the heart.

David Gerrold writes wisely on the minutiae of world building - the devil is in the detail. I think we can all agree with that.

'Asian Objects in Space' by Leigh Adams Wright asks where the Chinese (and other Asian people) are in 'Firefly'. This is the sort of question that makes writers/producers/directors hate fans. My suspicion is that Whedon thought the idea of a Chinese/American alliance, with the addition of Chinese language and the odd cultural item (chopsticks etc) would be cool, left it as background, and didn't expect to be challenged as to why there are so few Asian actors visible. Lots of informed speculation, not negated by the film.

Michelle Sagara West's essay on the relationship between Wash and Zoe as an example of the way a marriage ought to be portrayed on the screen is just the sort of thing I love: a character and relationship study built lovingly from the evidence on screen. It is plainly right. I wish I'd written it. It is also well complemented by Tanya Huff's character study of Zoe.

"We're All Just Floating in Space" by Lyle Zynda is a close analysis of the episode 'Objects in Space, and another excellent fannish piece.

Sex therapist Joy Davidson takes a look at Inara and the whole Companion thing. She knows her history, but there should have been a few "one view is" and "the most recent theories" and "possibly"s in there, along with references to her sources. I'd've liked to have seen more on the use of courtesans in SF and fantasy, though. Lady Jessica in 'Dune' could be used in a compare/contrast with Inara, just for starters.


All in all, then, a book with a lot to think about, and a lot to dismiss. However, it's worth reading for the Dixon essay alone - indeed a number of these essays are worth reading whether you are a Browncoat or not. I'm not. Loved 'Serenity', though.
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