Distal Muse Archives


by Mark W. Tiedemann


     Okay, it's time to gripe.  Things build up over time, often the same things, and a good gripe or even a major blow becomes necessary.  You move through life, thinking about why this and how come that, and to keep sane you shrug most of the inanities off.  But once in a while, you gotta give vent.
     One of the best new products television has had to offer since Babylon 5 is being cancelled.  In case you haven't noticed--and that may be the biggest cause of this tragedy, not enough people have noticed--a show came to us this past Fall with tremendous potential and an excess of substance to demonstarte that SF on television needn't be either Stupid or Golden Age retread.
     I'm talking about Firefly.
     Haven't seen it?  That's probably why Fox is cancelling it.
     They stuck it on Friday night, for one thing, which still seems to be the death night for most shows, especially on network, despite the utility of VCRs and "time shifting" and the fact that movies in the evening are massively overpriced.  Anyway, Friday night--and then they started broadcasting the episodes out of sequence, in the middle, even though there was an excellent two-hour premier that finally got aired at the very end.  What's up with that?  The first episode gets aired last!
     I said it's time to gripe.
     If you haven't caught this show, too bad.  Maybe they'll do reruns and it might get a remote second chance at survival.  If they do the reruns, for Seldon's Sake, watch it!  You will see what good tv SF can be.
     It took a few shows for me to completely get sucked in, I'm old and jaded and you have to really Do It in a big way to cut through my filters.  More often than not, after a few episodes of a new show I'm already bored with it because it's been done before or the way they're doing here is so lame as to be not worth taking up my reading time.  Rarely, I keep watching.  In this case, I really looked forward to the next episode.  This was Good Stuff.
     The premise is as basic and laid bare as a premise can be, and it's not even that original.  Five centuries in the future, we've colonized a lot of worlds.  Many are settled and rich, a bunch on the edge of the expansion aren't--rich, that is.  I use something like this premise myself.  Talk of a rebellion turned into a secession movement that got summarily crushed by the much larger Alliance.  So a lot of disaffected souls have survived to nurture their resentment against the Alliance.  Some fly independent trader ships.  The show concerns one of them, the Serenity, a Firely-class vessel, and its odd crew.
     These are not the clean-cut, ethically centered folks we've come to expect from a lot of tv space opera.  The captain, Mal Reynolds, is a hard-ass survivor of the wars who has a real bad attitude about the Alliance and a positive addiction to independence.  Aboard we have several folk of questionable pasts.  Motley doesn't even begin to cover them.  Their interactions make for some fine dialogue and emotional exchanges, because they are all on different pages.
     I could go on and on and on about the qualities of this show.  But it made me realize what the essential quality of good drama, what separates it from soap opera, and what really identifies it as opposed to the usual crap on television.
     Issues Matter.
     The stories work because the things at stake are important.
     Maybe not directly to us, but to the characters, and we're able to believe that under the same conditions these things would matter to us.
     See, in soap opera, we're told things Matter, but they don't.  The characters only care about getting one over on each other or getting out from under what's just been gotten over on them.  It's a game, and it's structured on themes that might matter given a believable context or some true-to-life characters, but since there's not really anything at stake--nothing five minutes' serious thought doesn't show us is just fashion or style or status--it's just a bunch of people making motions around each other.  But we're told and told repeatedly that things Matter in a soap opera, because if we're not constantly reminded then we might realize that what we're seeing (or reading) is profoundly substanceless and we'll turn it off.
     In drama, things really Matter.  Because the people are believable and what happens to them concerns us because we can see ourselves, in part at least, in them.  Sure, we'll never be in those situations--be they situations set in the Old West, New York, or Outer Space--but we recognize through them that if we were, then we'd identify with their feelings.  Add to this a danger, something important put at risk--what is at stake--and the drama transcends setting.
     Firefly is good drama because we believe that Things Matter and Something Real is At Stake.
     And it just happens to be excellent science fiction at the same time.
     What's at stake?  Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has picked a really fundamental something--Freedom.
     Not in some patriotic sense, though that's played with, too, but in the basic sense of being able to have a say about how to live your life.  What and how much are we required to give up to live, under what conditions does conformity become a cage, and how do we determine our price for a degree of comfort or security.
     Every main character on Serenity is asking one or all of those questions.
     And not blatantly.  They don't stand around making speeches about it.  If they did, the stories would pale and the polemic would take over and we'd stop giving a damn.
     No, it's built into the choices they make from episode to episode, situation to situation.  It's in the tension between them as they come to terms with the fact that they don't all share the same definition of freedom.  It's in the constant juggling for consideration as they try to get along with these differing questions.
     To make this come off as well as it does, these people must be believable as people even before the first plot element or sciffy aspect comes on stage.  Occasionally the writers push it a little close to the surface, but over a dozen episodes they have successfully shown the inherent drama in an assortment of people vying for a way to live with themselves and each other and achieve an understanding with the Universe at the same time.
     It's not always an easy show to watch.  Sometimes they make mistakes, bad judgements, they hurt each other, infractions occur, feelings get misplaced.  Sometimes they're proud, bullheaded, or just plain blind.
     Over the last couple of decades--much longer than that, but let's just talk about the near term--a great deal of discussion has transpired about the purpose of so-called Dark fiction.  The question--and it's a legitimate question, in some contexts--is why we often find it necessary to write such bleak stories, set in such dark worlds, with such unpleasant things.  Underlying that, though, is a more basic question--how come Dark makes for so much more compelling drama?
     These questions have been asked since the Greek tragedies.  Aristotle called it Catharsis.
     But how come we can't find similar qualities and equivalent benefit in Bright fiction, in pleasant stories?
     Who says we can't?
     But I'll grant it's harder.  Because Dark tends to feel truer to Real than Bright, the questions takes on a real force, have an edge.  How come the bleak dramas are so much more compelling and cathartic than the "nice" stories?
     Well, I have an answer.  Maybe not The Answer, but one that for the time being works for me.
     In the Dark its clearer what's at stake--because the threat goes right to it--and from that it's easier to see what Matters.  In loss, we learn very quickly what's really important.  Under threat, we decide what matters most.
     When everything is light and bright and pleasant, hell, everything matters just about equally.  It becomes very difficult to make distinctions.  It's hard to know what really counts.  Thus, dramatic impact is muffled, sometimes lost altogether.
     Granted, some work is Dark just for the sake of being dark.  As such, it's the twisted obverse of the soap opera.  Just motions in the gloom, blood for no purpose, threat without real substance.  Surface crap.  The creators of such dreck seem to believe that it's the trappings that make it work and forget that trappings have to be worn by a something--or someone--real before they matter.
     I've known this for a long time without ever bothering to define it.  Some things work and others don't.  You can tell.  But when pushed to explain the difference, that's not so easy.
     I figured it out from a one hour SF show that's been cancelled because not enough people watched the first dozen.  Or maybe a lot of people did and it just made them uncomfortable.  It wasn't Friends or some other inane sitcom confection of the week or "reality" show.  They couldn't just watch it, laugh, and forget about it till next week, or watch people tear each other apart and feel fortunate that they aren't them.  Dammit, they had reactions to it and some of them weren't altogether pleasant and their lives were just a tiny bit unsettled by the experience.
     I should have figured it would be cancelled.  The network tried to kill it and usually networks manage to do that everytime they want to.  It must have made everything else on their line-up look thin and insipid by comparison.
     Interestingly, I've seen a few newspaper columns bemoaning its loss.  Suggestions have been made that perhaps another network will pick it up and give it a chance.  In these days of franchise channels and syndication, with dozens of independent networks, it's more than a little possible.  But that just makes it ever more obvious that quality is a niche market.
     Maybe it always was.  I can't help thinking that the 20th century just past has been a time of emergent factors that simply never existed before.  The dynamic of a truly popular feedback mechanism for art and entertainment did not exist prior to the 19th century--late 19th century.  Oh, publishing had been a widespread phenomenon for a long time, and the bestseller was not an unknown thing, but for the most part we're still talking about isolated pockets of lower middle class consumers who had no real impact on sales in an era when the Buying Public was largely upper middle class to wealthy.  Economic conditions had to change, coupled with the incredible proliferation of communications technology in the 20th century to see the advent of a Billboard Top 100 kind of system that could actually be affected by the so-called Average Citizen.
     But we all grew up in the midst of exactly that phenomenon and so have known almost nothing else.  It requires an intellectual leap to realize that the much-lamented seige on quality is not an indication that public taste has changed so much as that public taste has finally mattered.
     We can go back to the origins of vaudeville, a musical theater form in the 17th and 18th century, wherein "common" tastes were catered to.  A lot of it was forgettable even by the standards of the day, but it was popular!  The so-called "good stuff" was performed for princes and the elite, in the grand houses, composed by the finest composers and writers.  The average citizen couldn't afford the ticket for such performances and even if he could he probably couldn't dress well enough to be allowed in.
     With the advent of radio and the movies, that pretty much all changed.  Everyone could hear or see what everyone else was hearing or seeing.  Classical programs on the radio were widespread.  The best theater was turned into motion pictures and the General Public got to see them.
     Some version of this had always gone on in limited ways.  Touring companies that brought Shakespeare to the Old West, individual dramatists doing lectures.  But as widespread as that was, I doubt anythng like the 20th century's populism and consumer targetting had ever occurred.  Suddenly the producers of all this "art" were concerned with what the average person thought.  Once a ratings system of some sort was established, it became a fight between feel-good, cheap-thrill, banal entertainment and genuine art.  The war continues.  It may go on like this until civilization falls or changes.  There may never be a clear victor.
     But the casualties of the skirmishes are legion.
     I draw back from my screed long enough to acknowledge that a lot of really bad work gets chopped by virtue of the same mechanism.  So it's not, as it sometimes seems, all one-sided.  But the shows that cause us pain to lose are those that really did something special.  They cause us pain to lose them because they mattered on some level the way drama should matter.  And often they fail because they weren't given a chance.  The odds were stacked against them from the start.
     So my gripe is just that--a gripe.  A personal opinion about the lack of vision displayed in a major business about something they clearly do not understand.  If I were king...
     It's probably just as well I'm not.  My first act would be--
     Never mind, you don't really want to know.  But my second act would be to abdicate, as all good philosopher-kings should.  And then we'd be right back where we started and a lot of people would have been made to fret needlessly.
     If Firefly gets a second chance on another network, watch it.  See what can be done with the form.  Connect.  You may thank me for the suggestion.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann