On Firefly

Paul R. Potts

I love Firefly. I’ve watched all the episodes at least twice, and I’m looking forward to the release of the_Firefly_movie [note from 2022: it was called Serenity] this fall.

Lately, though, I’ve been contemplating the show’s structure, and its strengths and weaknesses as storytelling and science fiction. I’m not going to dissect the whole thing now, but one thing that has stuck in my mind is that in the world of Firefly, no accomodation is made at all to the reality of vast interstellar distances. The spaceship Serenity can travel between planets in a matter of a few days; I think the longest journey time they mention is a month. But there is never any mention of faster-than-light travel. It’s as if Einstein was just wrong in that world. Actually, the ship never even seems to accelerate very hard — the crew and passengers don’t have acceleration couches — so apparently they don’t believe in Newton, either!

Now, I have to say, I love Kaylee and her approach to spaceship drive repair — “that part doesn’t do much anyway; you can just rip it out.” I love the beautiful Firefly engine effect. I love the narrow escape from the Reavers in the pilot, where they ignite the engine in the atmosphere and create a huge reaction. I love that explosions in space are silent. I love the fact that most aspects of life in the world of Firefly are very low-tech. Firefly is “about the strawberry,” as Joss Whedon says in his DVD commentary — the Preacher’s bribe to Kaylee. It is a human story of loss and longing on a harsh frontier where the amenities of old Earth are rare and valuable, and life is cheap.

I don’t want Firefly to be Star Trek — an unrealistic world where there is no dirt, universal socialism and abundance seems to be the order of the day (people don’t even seem to use money), and there are apparently no “have-nots.” Human nature seems to have irrevocably changed in the world of Star Trek — is anyone convinced by this future? But I think it frustrates the viewer not to at least have some ready excuses available for all the various laws of physics that get left by the wayside.

On the good ship Serenity, the crew seems to have instantaneous radio communication available between planets, or while they are nearing a planet. They’ve got some equivalent of interstellar wi-fi. When approaching a ship or planet they can hold conversations with other people with pretty-much instantaneous response times; they don’t have to wait a few minutes for the reply to come. Even the round trip from the earth to the sun would be something like 14 minutes. They don’t even invoke some kind of alternate technology like “subspace.”

It is as if they just compressed the universe by a factor of billions; different planets seem to be closer together than the planets of our solar system. It is 240,000 miles to the moon and takes several days to get there with Apollo technology, and even assuming drive technology we haven’t invented yet, it would take a year or more to get to Mars: the distance to Mars varies from about 35 million to 260 million miles. It took Pioneer 10 eleven years to make it to the edge of our solar system.

Maybe the magical Firefly drive can do all this: accelerate the ship far beyond lightspeed, cancel gravity and inertia, and generate cool special effects as well. That seems a little much, though.

Serenity also has a strange habit of coming upon other ships, as they wander about in “empty space” on routes designed to avoid being detected by the Alliance. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

The ship can also apparently be taken into “atmo” and landed on a planet, apparently without worrying about burning up on re-entry. But yet the ship looks like it is made of materials that are available today: steel plating, prone to rust and all that. The situation with the space shuttle now shows how tricky that kind of thing is in real life.

There is one funny moment (I think it is in “Shindig”) where the pilot, Wash, has to struggle to correct his entry trajectory, but when I watch this I keep thinking about how the physics don’t make a lot of sense. At that speed, if he made such a dramatic error in the ship’s angle of approach, they would burn up or break up before anyone had time to react. (Think space shuttle Columbia.)

That said, I still enjoy the show, and hope it can be resurrected in some form. It is ultimately about human relationships, but ignoring both Einstein and Newton without even bothering to offer a hand-waving sidestep to the laws of physics just grates on me a little; it seems insulting to the viewer. There is an especially funny line in “Objects in Space” when Zoe is speaking to Wash about River:

Wash: “Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.”

Zoe: “We live in a spaceship, dear.”

Yep, they live in a spaceship, but some things are just silly!

Ann Arbor, Michigan
August 2005

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