Firefly: a Master Class of Science-Fiction Worldbuilding

I recently watched all of the Joss Whedon series Firefly. Again.

The first time I watched it was still years after it was born, and died, on FOX. The series had only one season, and yet it was burned into the collective unconscious of the nerdgeist. The Whedon connection helped, of course. It was my love for the Whedon shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel that ultimately led me to Firefly, but only about a decade ago.

I’m always late to the party. I still haven’t watched Dollhouse.

There had been science fiction elements in those other Whedon series, of course, though the major thrust of their storylines was supernatural fantasy. With Firefly, we were getting fullblown science fiction. As good as the various Star Trek series were (and you needn’t go too deep into my archives to know that I am a Trekkie), the image they presented of the future was, in many ways, idealistic and clean, if that makes any sense.

Star Trek: Enterprise (although just called Enterprise back then) had premiered a year before Firefly. It attempted to take a lower-tech, grittier approach than its predecessors, and succeeded on some level. Of course, this was another series that I wouldn’t watch until after it was cancelled; I was a little busy for a few years. In fact, I didn’t watch Enterprise until after watching Firefly the first time. As good as the Trek series was—and I stand by my assessment that it was damn good, its sucky finale notwithstanding—it still wasn’t quite as gritty as Firefly.

Whedon, who has always kept his finger on the pulse of the nerdgeist, drew inspiration from many sources. Like any self-respecting nerd, he paid homage to Star Wars, where the viewer witnessed a touch of the realistic amidst the science-fantasy trappings.

Used tech is a term often bandied about when talk turns to George Lucas’s creation. The machines and space ships appeared used, often bearing the dings and scars you would expect in older tech. Even the Millenium Falcon was often unreliable, like a foreign sports car that’s difficult to find parts to repair. In fact, the order and immaculateness analagous to classic Starfleet was, in Star Wars, apparent only in the Empire. Their destroyers and space stations were positively pristine, and their trains always ran on time.

Whedon certainly adopted that stance for his science fiction series. All of the tech in the frontier seems to be well-used. At times, the ship Serenity itself seems to be held together by duct tape and baling wire. Right out of the gate, in the first episode, I loved the gritty aesthetic of the show.

I’ve been thinking about this subject for a while. There are different classes of nerds in our world. I haven’t bothered to give these classes names, but I’m sure some nerd has.

My particular class wants just enough details in the fictional worldbuilding for verisimilitude. I don’t want all questions answered right away. I prefer to help fill in the gaps in my own knowledge with inferences and deductions. It’s my love of mystery boxes that J.J. Abrams always finds a way to exploit.

In a strange way, this incomplete knowledge makes the milieu of a series seem more real to me, not less. I have an incomplete knowledge about reality itself, as most of us do. This gives the creative forces behind the show some breathing room, allowing the creation of new details to drop like so many bread crumbs along the way. This generates potential storylines and often necessitates the creation of new characters and settings.

Just enough details.

There is another nerd class that wants all the details, of course. Sometimes I find myself crossing over the line into that class as well. I want to know how the engines of the spaceships work. I want to know military ranking systems, or at least some sort of explanation for why gravity still seems to operate on an up-and-down axis, even when a ship is in space (gravity plates, really?). I want to know the distances between planets.

I don’t expect all of this information. Any lover of speculative fiction must be willing to suspend their disbelief. Doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes want this info, however. How else would Trekkies get to argue about warp-capable stardrives and matter transporter technology?

But, I’m patient. I’m willing to wait for further details over the lifetime of a series. Then, we get a series such as Firefly, cancelled way too soon according to most fans, including me. After the first season, very few details were forthcoming.

Sure, there was a movie, Serenity, but I choose to ignore that for the moment, because things happened in that movie that I didn’t like. There were also comic books, released by Dark Horse comics, I think, the first two of which were helping to bridge the gap between the series and the movie. There are also media tie-in novels that I’ve never read, and incredibly detailed online sites devoted to the show. There are many details about the universe of Firefly that are being generated or curated by that detail-oriented nerd class I mentioned before.

Everything that I really needed to know was in the series from the beginning. Whedon drew me in even deeper when I glommed onto the fact that he was basing a lot of his worldbuilding on the American Civil War and the Old West. Whedon had been influenced, in part, by Michael Shaara’s excellent historical novel, The Killer Angels, about the battle of Gettysburg. He wanted to focus his series on people who had fought on the losing side of a civil war, afterward to become pioneers and immigrants on the outskirts of civilization, much in the way that what we think of as the American Old West was originally settled.

This is a science fiction western, I thought.

Not a new concept, really, even then. That old Sean Connery sci-fi movie Outland was essentially High Noon in space. The original Westworld (and at least the first two seasons of the cable series) certainly existed in that same space. Even Star Trek couldn’t stay away from the Old West, since the original concept of the show was Wagon Train in Space, and several of its actors had appeared in television westerns. Star Wars: A New Hope hit on many of the western tropes as well, including barroom brawls and desert landscapes; think of the Tusken Raiders as Native Americans.

Like Trek’s “Space . . . the final frontier,” Firefly also offered the viewer an opening monologue. There were at least two separate versions: Shepherd Book’s and Malcolm Reynolds’s. I’m presenting Book’s here as some necessary worldbuilding background. Mal’s version becomes more about his ship and the characters on board. Important stuff, but this post is primarily about worldbuilding. A well-developed fictional world helps to generate characters, of course, but that’s a post for another time.

Book’s Monologue:

After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed and colonized. 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 would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain’s goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying.”

That, in a nutshell, is the premise of the entire series. There are other details, answers to questions generated by the premise, that follow in the show, but they all stem from the information imparted by the monologue.

The year is 2517, and humanity has settled in a new star system. Book’s comment about “hundreds of new Earths” in a single star system bothered me initially (it’s that class-two nerd thing again), but my head canon says we’re talking about planets and moons here. We never see evidence of faster-than-light travel on the show, so many worlds in close proximity was necessary to avoid that whole “Space is Really, Really Big” problem.

We have to whistle past a few details, such as how Earth was able to reach another system with sublight space travel and terraform and colonize hundreds of new worlds in only five centuries, give or take. Here, it may be best to invoke Hodgson’s Law: Repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”

At some point, apparently, the remaining superpowers of Earth-that-was—the United States and China—fused to form a central government, called the Alliance.

The Alliance originally controlled the “core worlds,” but fought the Unification War to gain control of all the colonized worlds. The Independent Faction, known as “Browncoats,” wanted the outer worlds to remain self-governed. After several years and heavy casualties on both sides, the Alliance emerged victorious. Since their hold on the outer planets, on the fringes of their new civilization, remains tenuous at best, this is where many of the former Independents gravitate to avoid the Alliance. Like the American frontier territories before they were tamed by the U.S. government.

The Sino-American Alliance is most often demonstrated through the casual use of Mandarin Chinese as a second language. Characters often mix in Chinese with English when speaking, and curse almost exclusively in Chinese. I’ve been known to drop an occasional “gorram” myself (it pairs well with the “frak” of the Battlestar Galactica reboot). Chinese logograms are often seen in the background of scenes, especially that of Blue Sun, the most powerful business conglomerate in this new system.

Whedon has suggested that Blue Sun is a combination of Coca-Cola and Microsoft. While I’d never suggest that these two real conglomerates are evil at heart, Blue Sun just may be. If not outright evil, at least amoral, reminiscent of such notable fictional corporations as the Umbrella Corporation or Delos.

This bit of worldbuilding results in a unique patois combining Mandarin with old-timey, dime-novel Western-speak. It works, even when it probably shouldn’t.

So, we have a rather broad idea of what kind of milieu we’re dealing with here. The series narrows that focus to a single location that appears in every episode, and where a lot of the series action takes place.

I’m speaking of the vessel Serenity herself, which one character describes as a “midbulk transport, standard radion-accelerator core, classcode 03-K64 Firefly.” Another clue bread crumb is the fact that the ship has a “gravity-drive.” Whedon has admitted that the design of Serenity came after the name of the series had been decided, and it does look a lot like a firefly.

Since the ship’s interior is represented in every episode—Whedon called Serenity the show’s “tenth character”—the lovingly detailed sets (one set for each level of the ship) represent the immediate milieu of the series. Since this is a vessel smaller than the Enterprise, we get to gain intimate knowledge of all of its separate compartments, from the cargo hold to the cockpit to the engine room, including the vessel’s two shuttlecraft. The current Amazon series The Expanse offers a similarly intimate setting in the Martian gunship Rocinante.

I’m not sure how much of the show’s special effects are digital, but the set design and decoration is practical, detailed, and makes you feel like everything that happens there is real.

I guess I’m going to close out this post here. My original premise for this piece was to talk about the two main reasons Firefly is an example of exceptional storytelling and has developed a huge post-cancellation cult following. The first reason I wanted to highlight, naturally, was fictional worldbuilding. A topic I just addressed.

The second reason was the creation of memorable characters who interact realistically with one another (or just “characters,” if you’re into the whole brevity thing). This is a subject good enough to warrant its own post, so I’ll wait a bit to talk about the characters in Firefly next time.

If you’ve never watched the series, you should find a way to do that. You’re missing out. I’ll give you more reasons why later.

Until then . . . find a crew, find a job, and keep flying.

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