September 27, 2005

The very week that Fox TV finally deigned to broadcast the pilot episode of its unique, ground-breaking sci-fi show Firefly, they also announced its cancellation.
- Hank Parnell

Mid-season introduction. Virtually no promotion. Billing as an action-comedy. (Of course all shows must have readily classifiable templates, leaving only plotline blanks to be filled in. How else can they be sold to an audience cued to specific unthinking structures?) Introductory eight o'clock Friday night timeslot. Pilot unaired until more than halfway through the series. (Not to air the pilot first, especially in a series as viewer-intensive and beautifully detailed as any project of Whedon's, is to deliberately amputate the structure set up to establish initial understanding and foundations for future understanding.) Remainder of series shown continually out of order (and this for a writer known to create intense, detailed season-long story arcs where each episode builds on all of those before). Continual pre-empts for reality show pilots and other programming. Continual shuffling of timeslot thereafter. Cancellation when the ratings were growing each week despite the difficulty of finding it, even though at point of cancellation ratings echoed those a different show that was retained through a second season (Tru Calling).

I hear much dry and often bitter commentary about the Fox network's "usual brilliant decision making" etc etc ... but there are a startling combination and degree of coincidences here, several of which may well have cost Fox significant profit. It seems fair enough to say that Firefly was never given a fair chance, but this seems a tad beyond the scope of simple mismanagement.

Was Joss Whedon's Firefly deliberately sabotaged by Fox?

Add at this point that Firefly syndication rights (only) have been picked up by the Sci Fi Channel; but not new show rights, which Fox has thus far refused to sell. With their standard new television programme contracts, Fox owns the broadcast rights to any series they sponsor for ten years, whether or not they themselves choose to produce any further shows in that series. (Some variant of this type of clause appears to be fairly typical in the industry.) Fortunately for the viewing audience, the contract does not cover either big-screen film or direct-to-DVD film; nor does it seem to limit the actors themselves.

Ask, next: why? Why would Fox deliberately have set out to sabotage one of its own moneymakers? One more piece of televised background noise among so many others: why would Fox bother? and bother to the point of deliberately undermining its own profits? And further: why would a network presumably motivated primarily by profit not sell limited creative rights in a series it is no longer interested in pursuing to another network? (I say "limited", eg. to one year, leaving the option to raise the cost for subsequent years.)

Hank Parnell, the author of the opening quote, suggests that the inverted Civil War metaphor of a good and decent South which fought and lost over states' rights may not have been platable in the current era of "Yankee-dominated" political correctness. Actually, he calls the show "downright seditious".

In that last, I happen to agree with him.

Even as its soulchild Serenity is shaping out to become, Firefly was downright seditious ... as were Buffy and Angel for that matter, for what I see as similar reasons and Parnell would not:
But most of all, living "beyond the law" as Reynolds and his crew had to, the moral universe of Firefly depended not on the "rule of law," but on its much-maligned and deliberately-misunderstood alternative, the rule of honor. And Firefly made the case, through Reynolds, as persuasively as it has ever been made in American fiction, print, TV, film or otherwise, in my opinion, for the ultimate superiority of the rule of honor over the rule of law — at least for uncommon people, if not the run-of-the-mill herds of swine, sheep, slaves and robots held to be so dear today.

For you see, the rule of honor demands what law must defer: individual responsibility, personal culpability, what is fair and what is just, of every man (and woman) who lives by it.
Where we agree is that Whedon does not compromise his heroes to the rule of law. In all three series, the true heroes -- even as the true villains -- are somehow beyond the judgement of law: although the heroes can still be externally subjected to its effects, and the villains frequently make full use of the code of law and not infrequently aim to control its structures -- or even to create them in their own image and to their own ends (or re-create them, as the case may be). What rules Whedon's heroes is not something societally sanctioned, but something internal. Parnell chooses to call it "honour".

Where we differ is that unlike Parnell, I don't see "honour" as inherently either state-supporting or state-subverting. To me, "honour", like "justice" for that matter, is essentially a meaningless word: in that it can be internally defined to mean whatever you want (or find it convenient for) it to mean. "Honour" is understood individually, expressed individually, and can be the template of individuality -- but it is entirely possible to express individuality in a mass-produced and societally-sanctioned manner.

In the particular case of Firefly Whedon does choose to hang the choices and consequent actions of the central character upon the conceit of "honour": although it bears remembering that Malcolm himself does not perceive choice even where choice (and even choice that might lead to more superficially beneficial outcome) would seem to the audience to be objectively possible:
Sheriff: You were right, these are hard times. A man can get a job, he might not look to close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.

Malcolm: I don't believe he does.
- "The Train Job"
However, parallel choices and parallel outcomes can be found both in Buffy and in Angel, where it is not so easy to apply the concept of honour.

Alliance flag, a composite of Chinese and United StatesRather, I would suggest that the basic idea underlying all of Whedon's true heroes is a fundamental faith in themselves, willingness to place faith in others, and responsibility for the consequences of any personal actions taken or not taken as those consequences affect others. Consequences to oneself are secondary. Slayers die, but their death is a gift to the world which survives them. Malcolm would have had a far easier time of it without a sense of responsibility to other people, not only his crew, but even those those who are strangers to him.

Certainly the trappings of Firefly in themselves suggest a certain distrust of government, and a quiet romance and idealism in continually flying under the radar and fighting to keep one's freedom. There is nothing new in that ... nor is there anything seditious in that. Hang whichever flag you like on the Alliance -- and Whedon makes it easy to call it Chinese, should the viewer be so inclined. What makes Whedon's work truly dangerous to an individualistic societal structure which surface-maintains that law = right is the suggestion that a different basis for a code of conduct might exist, one which values one's own actions only against the measure of one's own capacity (of great people, great things are self-expected), which inherently values other people regardless of their personal resource-value to oneself, and which cares not at all for external trappings of what constitutes right action ... such as law, or honour.

Ask finally: what, exactly, constitutes censorship?
After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed and colonised. The central planets formed "The Alliance", and decided all the planets had to join under their rule. There was some disagreement on that point. After the war, many of the Independents who had fought and lost, drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggled to get by with the most basic technologies. A ship could bring you work. A gun could help you keep it. A Captain's goal was simple; find a crew, find a job. Keep flying.

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