Fired to Fly
Creator JOSS WHEDON discusses the various influences that led to his western-in-space, FIREFLY.
Words: Tom Baxter
When people think of Joss Whedon, they tend to think about the genius that brought us monsters from under the earth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer rather than anything associated with outerspace. That’s all about to change with his new show, however, Firefly is a space-faring drama that follows the down-and-dirty exploits of nine hardy voyagers toughing it out on a new frontier.
Dreamwatch: Do how did Firefly come about?
I’d always wanted to do a science fiction show and I got obsessed with that early frontier life when things were not so covenient as they are now. I wanted to do a show in the future that had that kind of feeling, that sense of history – the idea that it never stops, that we don’t solve all our problems and have impeccably clean spaceships in the future; that we’re all exactly they way we are now and were 100 years ago.
How does the idea of this being a ‘frontier world’ equate with the styles of language amd music you’ve chosen?
English evolves connstantly. I took a lot of older things, westerns in particular. The idea of the frontier was so important to what makes the show. That’s what I wanted to draw on the most.
The music – the whole idea there was, first of all, to evoke to some extent the western feel. Also, just to get away from the bombast of ‘space, space, space!’ It’s very much just normal life. I wanted to put something else in people’s heads when they see spaceships. I didn’t want the giant orchestral, Jerry Goldsmith thing. Not that I don’t love Jerry and all that stuff, but I just felt that it had become de rigeur. Like we expect to hear big explosions and hear great big orchestras evert time we went into space. For these people, space – it’s the wagon trail. It’s not that big a deal. That’s what I want the audience to feel.
How did you decide what to keep and what to discard from the ‘western’ tradition?
How we make the decisions is basically about what feels right and natural, and what we need. I wanted the violence in the show to feel violent. I wanted it to matter to us the way it matters to us now. The idea [is] that, yeah, they may have invented cool lasers, but not everybody can afford them. [That’s] sort of the premise on which we work. Sometimes we may get it wrong. But it has to ring true to us emotionally.
The thing about the West that people forget is that it was full of immigrants. Every time people are colonising or stealing a new area, they bring the old world with them – in this case every old world. Some of them have meshed, and some of them have stayed, and some of them have changed.
So with your latex history, can we expect to see some really funky aliens on this show?
Big NO! I believ that 500 years from now, we will still be the only sentient beings around. Aliens – that’s something everybody else has done, is doing. I don’t know a lot of the newer shows, but I know there are a lot of shows out there and they all share that kind of thing. It’s not really what I’m interested in. I need to spend some time away from latex!
So where do your antagonists come from?
The bad guys will change a lot. You know, we’ll introduce certain characters [which] are nefarious. At the same time, we have two opposing forces. We have the Alliance, who aren’t evil; they’re just a giant beureaucracy who, on occasion, do very good things and help planets, and on occasion go in and mess things up for everybody.
Then, of course, we have the Reavers, who are the polar opposite, the men who have gone completely savage, who are cannibalistic out of their minds, suicidal and destroy everything in their path.
Since this is set far in the future, have you updated everyday things?
We have a few technolgical innovations – generally we try and find something that [already] exists and stick something on it so it looks different! It’s really a question of what we can afford.
In every episode we try to bring something like that into it, something that we’ve never seen before, that looks familiar but isn’t quite. By the same token we can’t actually build every prop, so a lot is stuff that we recognise, but it’s such a hodgepodge that the context will give freshness.
What was your main thought when developing Firefly, other than the western theme?
I wanted to go low-tech. It’s not so much about being a western. It’s just about life when it’s hard, and it’s about the idea of people always being people, always having the same problems. Putting it in an exotic setting, having a spaceship, [I] get to tell some adventure stories – because I do love science fiction.
What I’m looking for is people to go, “These guys are me; I feel that. They’re cooler and they dress better, but they are [me].” They’re going through the same kind of struggles we are. They’re trying to get the rent; they’re trying to buy gas; they’re trying to get these things at the same time as, you know, gun fighting and stuff. I really wanted to get that more than anything else, that feeling of reality, which is why so much of the show is hand-held. I want to shoot this thing like it’s NYPD Blue.
Why is life so tough out there on the edge?
Because life is really hard. Because in this age everything is getting more and more convenient, I wanted to see that world that I miss. A world without the Internet! A world where things have to be made from scratch, including decisions, ethics. You create civilisations when you go into space. You bring it with you. How you do that is a really personal process and, to me, a really fascinating one. The harder things are, the more your ethics and your moral structure are tested. Plus, [there’s] more adventure.
When I pitched the show, I said, “This is about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” That’s really what I’m fascinated by – how they all react to this. What literal objects and what moral structures they bring with them into every situation. Sometimes Mal [Nathan Fillion] does have to make decisions that seem horrific to people who aren’t fighting for their lives every day, which these guys are in a way.
So is this future we’re going to be seeing connected to our own world in any way?
We’ll make some references every ow and then because that’s a part of our nature. But it’s not like Buffy, where it’s just a pop culture blender, because I want to maintain the reality of it. The reality is most of the things that we think of as really important will have disappeared into the dust long before these guys see the light of day. It’s not like we’ve forgotten everything. We used up Earth. We colonised a new galaxy. We’ve made it a bunch of little Earths, but we remember – we have written records.
Will the Serenity ever be revisiting Earth?
No, we won’t be going back to Earth, but every planet is Earth. That’s the one giant technological advancement that we made, they found a galaxy with a bunch of planets and moons, and were able to terraform all of them so there are no planets that look very bizarre. They’ve all been turned into little wannabe Earths!
What aspect of the show are you most satisfied with?
The thing I love about this show is that they’re not superheroes. They’re not bigger than life. They’re not fighting monsters. They struggle; thet have the same problems [as us today] and drama, action and all that stuff. But it’s really about people who are just people. It’s about the group. It’s about life on this ship. It’s really getting a chance to look at life from a lot of different points of view. That’s why we have nine regulars.
As science ficton’s new trailblazing stars, GINA TORRES and NATHAN FILLION reveal what drew them to their roles as frontier soldier Zoe and the Serenity’s irascible captain Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds.
Dreamwatch: Do you see yourselves as pioneers in space?
Gina Torres: I don’t necessarily see myself as a pioneer woman in this project. I think that by the time we get to this place in the future, I’m not the first woman that has blazed this trail. But women have had to fight, [and] I think she’s wonderful for today. I think it’s great to see her and think, “Oh, she’s special, she’s a pioneer.”
Nathan Fillion: Yeah, I see Malcolm Reynolds as a fellow who is just making his way in a frontier world where things aren’t great, things aren’t wonderful. Not everybody can have the advantages of wealth and what-not, and he’s just trying to make his way.
So what was the attraction of this show for both of you? How did you get involved?
Torres: The one thing that did attract me to this, having come [from] Cleopatra 2525 was, at the very end of this outline was a sentence that said, “There are no aliens; there are no mutants.” And I went “yes!” because I, too, have developed an allergic reacgtion to latex!
I was just thrilled that this was a woman who was clearly layered. It wasn’t just [that] she wasn’t a bad-ass.
You know, she has a relationship. She has a mission. She’s righteous. There are a lot of places to go with that. She’s great.
Fillion: I’d only read a treatment for the script, basically what was going to happen, and I was in love with it. I love this character, I love how dark he is. I love how he makes such hard decisions. I love what a tough-ass he is. I am so not this guy! But he [Joss Whedon] had me come in and audition anyway, and gave me the part!
This article originally appeared in Dreamwatch Magazine Issue #98