So, I’ve started to re-watch Firefly.
I did not make the choice lightly. Every time I’ve chanced upon it over the last five or so years, whether it be Netflix or glimpses of the box set at home or elsewhere, part of me has very much thought “Hey, you should watch that again”.
And then, another part of me says “No. For me the grief is still too near”.
Because Firefly was (always emphasis on the ‘was’) the pinnacle of visual entertainment for me. No other show or film bested it. For storytelling, for acting, for direction, for wordplay, for music, for tone and themes and flavour and humanity, nothing can beat Firefly. Nothing. I watched first when I was 18, just leaving secondary school, a few years after it was cancelled, and not too far past the release of Serenity. I was late to the party, but no less willing to get sucked in. I can faithfully say that very little influenced me more than Firefly.
Time passes, and Firefly became more of an obsession than a diversion. The comics, the role-playing games (Oh my, the role-playing games) the fan-fiction and endless re-watches. And, ever and anon, the hope for a renewal of any kind, a second film.
Times passes. Hope wanes. Actors and crew move on, and Firefly/Serenity becomes this glorious memory, a candle burning five times as bright and five times as fast. Regret turns to cynicism. Talk of renewals and sequels become targets of derision from me. The brief Leaves On The Wind comic continuation was more an interesting peculiarity than a thing to be obsessed over. ‘Let it die’ becomes the new mantra. It’s the easiest way to deal with the pain.
Until the other day when, purely on the spur of the moment, I decided to go back. Maybe enough time had passed. Maybe I wanted to see if distance would change my perception of the show. But from that first glimpse of gunfire in Serenity Valley, through to River Tam being revealed – where I stopped – it all came flooding back. The brilliance in every scene, in every line, in every moment and movement, in every word said and unsaid. And with it, a heartache that cannot truly be put into words, impossible to explain to others.
For the next while, I’m going to slowly go through Firefly and Serenity, and find some topics to write about. Call it a quest for catharsis. I don’t know what exactly I’ll end up writing about, but it won’t be episode reviews, because that would get tired fast. I’ll find something though. It’ll help me deal.
Dong ma? Shiny. Let’s be bad guys.
Firefly of course, is clearly inspired wholesale by the American Civil War, a futuristic interpretation of the aftermath, as defeated Confederates drifted west, seeking new lives and new opportunities, away from the perceived oppressor. Eliminating the tricky issue of slavery – or, rather, moving it to the Union stand-in – allowed Whedon to create such a historical transference without significant moral constraints.
In particular, Whedon was inspired by the Michael Shaara book The Killer Angels, a sort of fictionalised re-telling of the Battle of Gettysburg, told from the perspectives of numerous key personalities who fought at the battle. Whedon is on record as declaring his fictional Battle of Serenity Valley to be the Battle of Gettysburg in space, the bloodiest clash of a new Civil War, which scars the land and the people who fought there.
But while Serenity Valley might fit as a future version of Gettysburg in terms of bloodshed and popular remembrance, in truth it more closely ties to a different battle of the Civil War, whether Whedon realised it or not. And that is the last significant fight of the War Between The States, at Appomattox in 1865. And there is a key moment that makes this true, beyond the larger similarities.
Appomattox was the death rattle of the Confederacy, but in truth they had been fighting a hopeless struggle for some time. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, driven from their positions at Petersburg by Ulysses S. Grant and his gargantuan Army of the Potomac, fought a running series of battles as they fled westward, losing men to bullets, diseases, starvation and desertion as they went, the Union hot on their heels.
By sunrise we had reached Appomattox Station, where we might cut Lee’s retreat. Already we heard the sharp ring of the horse artillery, there was no mistake. Sheridan was square across the enemy’s front, holding at bay all that was left of the proudest army of the Confederacy. It had come at last. The supreme hour.
-General Joseph Chamberlain
Serenity Valley, from what little is revealed, is a somewhat similar situation. Whether Malcolm Reynolds wants to acknowledge it or not, it’s a last stand for the Independent faction, trying desperately to slow an Alliance advance through the planet of Hera despite their paltry means in terms of men and supplies. The Independents, thanks to men like Reynolds, hold on grimly, but are fighting a losing battle by the time Firefly’s pilot “Serenity” catches up with them in its opening moments.
They were almost entirely surrounded, outnumbered nearly five to one, without hope of resupply or reinforcement.
Those are the words of Ken Burns, from his spectacular documentary series, The Civil War, discussing the fate of the Confederates at Appomattox, as they find themselves with nowhere left to run. It was his documentary, and it’s eighth episode “War Is All Hell”, that got me thinking about the Serenity Valley connection.
“We met in the woods at his headquarters, by a low burning bivouac fire. There was no tent, no table, no chairs, no campstools. On blankets spread upon the ground, or on saddles at the roots of trees, we sat around the great commander.
-General John B. Gordon
General Gordon, a cavalry commander and veteran of numerous campaigns with the Army of Northern Virginia (including Gettysburg), could easily be talking about Malcolm Reynolds, who in the dying moments of the fight at Serenity Valley, is the only person keeping his soldiers still fighting, and clinging to his faith in God to get him through another moment of deadly peril. He and his right hand woman Zoe seize control of an AA gun and use it to bring down an Alliance “skiff”, an aerial attack craft that has been plaguing their soldiers and preventing the arrival of their own air support. For Reynolds, laughing as he achieves the feat and then later trying to buoy up the morale of some troops on the cusp of breakdown, it’s another minor miracle worked, in a war that has, by necessity, been full of them for the Independents, who are just too damn pretty for God to let them die.
Meanwhile, in the real world, the Confederates were at their last ebb, but still not without hope.
April 9th was Palm Sunday. Lee Ordered Gordon to make one more attempt at breaking out. At dawn, just outside Appomattox Courthouse, Gordon’s men drove Federal cavalry from their positions, and swept forward to the crest of a hill.
In Serenity Valley, Malcolm Reynolds hears the sound of airplanes coming closer and imagines an unlikely victory – or maybe just survival for another day – within his grasp. We can well imagine John B. Gordon reaching the crest of that hill, driving the bluebellies before him, and thinking the same thing. It’s not over yet. Not yet.
But then, the reality, as Gordon surveys the scene before him, down the slope of that hill. As Malcolm Reynolds hears that his support is pulling out, and stands up to look out down the length of Serenity Valley.
Below them, a solid wall of blue was advancing: the entire Union Army of the James.
As the comrade is shot down beside him, Mal only has eyes for the scene before him, as Alliance fighters rain death down on the Valley and the first swelling of Firefly’s score spring up, a mournful accompaniment.
And I have always been struck, since seeing The Civil War, of what that moment must have been like for Gordon and his fellow cavalrymen, that awful realisation: there will be no more victories, no more daring-do, no more unlikely achievements and underdog success. No more will they turn Union flanks, no more will they succeed in battle. No more will they have what they see as their own free country, as just one part of the gigantic Union Army marches up the hill to easily blunt their brief offensive foray and drive them back into the ring of encirclement, there to await inevitable surrender.
How must Gordon have felt at that moment? Did he look at the wall of blue with that same ghastly defeat in his eyes as Malcolm Reynolds did, as his cause and his fight and his reason for living die within him?
It is impossible to put this feeling into words, but Lee came close, upon receiving news of Gordon’s repulse.
There is nothing left for me to do but to go and see General Grant. And I would rather die a thousand deaths.
-Robert E. Lee
If Firefly is an attempt to capture the spirit of those who fought the American Civil War within futuristic characters, I’d say it succeeds. In the opening minutes of the pilot, it is just basic CGI and some gun fire, mixed with a few catchy lines. Nothing you’d call mesmerising. But with that look in Malcolm Reynolds’ eyes, it suddenly transcends into something much more. Something great. It is the exquisite hook used to draw in its legions of followers. For me, it will always be tied to the men of Gordon’s unit, witnessing the final defeat of their army and the Confederacy, and left to wonder just what they will have in life afterwards. Some undoubtedly headed west, just as Malcolm Reynolds headed into the black.