Really this post could have been written nigh on four or five years ago, but I only just got around to watching the television series Firefly. I missed its original run on account of doing more exciting things than watching TV, but over the years I heard many references to it, often along the lines of called it the best science fiction television show in recent years.
The thing is, it isn’t.
Not that it isn’t a good show, because it is. Aside from an annoyingly repetative soundtrack, it’s well done, with good effects and really entertaining characters. (I particularly like Kayley and Jayne, myself.) As a character driven show it certainly hits its mark quite well. The reason I wouldn’t call it the best science fiction show is because it isn’t science fiction. It’s space opera.
I first heard the term from Robert J. Sawyer in reference to Star Wars. Space opera are typically big cartoonish stories that have little to no actual science in them, even if they happen to take place on spaceships or distant planets. They’re just fiction that happens to be in space, which is not enough to be called science fiction.
In a television series like Firefly, I don’t expect a lot of hard science, or even much explicit science at all, in the same way you’d expect realistic medical problems in a hospital drama, although it would be nice. What I notice is that Firefly doesn’t make use of its setting at all. The point of science fiction is that it opens doors that wouldn’t normally be available. The best science fiction uses this to reflect back on real situations that we are familiar with in the real world, so that we don’t get lost in spaceships and laser blasts but remain connected to the story on a very human level.
Sure, this is just television, but aside from a couple specific (so far underdeveloped) instances, Firefly doesn’t even try to open those doors. The show is a western drama. You could replace the spaceships with horses and a stagecoach and for the most part still tell the same stories. In fact you’d even use most of the same footage—most of the planetary settings are all low-tech wild west style towns already. The only advantage of having a spaceship is that the wild west bandits can have something akin to a pirate ship to haul their cargo in from place to place.
The two aspects I would like to see a lot more of (and maybe I will—I’m only halfway through the series) are in the Reavers and the character River. The former is a great way of exploring human nature, what brings men to madness, and dealing with daemons within. The later could be anything—she remains very mysterious—but could effectively bring up questions of metaphysics or, through her experience in the Academy, all sorts of ethical problems. Maybe these are all high-falutin’ ideas that have no place for Average Joe Television, but they would make good science fiction.