“Mal: Ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is?… Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.”
River: “I do. …but I like to hear you say it.”
Mal: “…Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens, makes her a home.”
“You’d like Firefly. Forrest is a lot like Mal.”
My (internet) friend, Cathy, told me this several years ago, before I’d discovered Firefly. ‘Forrest’ was a character I’d written- an introspective, thoughtful, somewhat tortured sort.
Cathy had described some great one liners from the show, and I commented that this “Mal” actually seemed to resemble ‘Travian’ (another character I’d written) a lot more. Someone who was more prone to one-liners than Forrest.
I have a hard time describing why I love Firefly to anyone who’s not familiar with the show. It does hit a lot of my weaknesses: it’s science fiction, in space, with quick, clever dialogue, and characters that are more than they appear.
But one of the reasons was the main character, the captain, who was both thoughtful and sarcastic: Malcolm Reynolds. Capable of deep, resonating quotes like the above, and dispensing wit with a wink. The fact that he was an amalgamation of characters I already wrote and enjoyed greased the wheels for a love and appreciation I have a hard time explaining. But I’ll try anyway.
Simon: “I’m trying to put this as delicately as I can: How do I know you won’t kill me in my sleep?”
Mal: “You don’t know me son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”
Simon: “…Are you always this sentimental?”
Mal: “I had a good day.”
Cathy was close. It wasn’t just that he was what I was writing; it was that I was writing someone I wanted to be, in many ways, and he was close to that.
Malcolm Reynolds was a complex character. Looking and acting so much the hero, even as early on in the series it’s established that his ship and crew (on a SPAAAAAACEship) were criminals, acting outside the law, taking jobs to survive in a spread out universe. Are they right or wrong? It’s not black and white. In Firefly, the governing Alliance is presented as an omnipresent bureaucracy, cold and unfeeling, and would be easy to paint as the villains. But it’s not that simple. Even in the first episode, as Mal and the ‘good ship Serenity’ get away, it’s only because they trick the Alliance into thinking there’s people in trouble elsewhere.
When I first got into Firefly, I’d grown up on Star Trek, and was at a place where I was probably disillusioned with it. I’ve gone into that before, so I’ll summarize my problems with Trek here: I’d seen all the stories, and knew how they were going to end. There was nothing new in the universe that could be presented to me. The conflicts were flat, and the characters mostly repetitive. Occasional brilliance could not mask what I saw as a lack of creativity.
The characters I wrote, even in the Star Trek setting, were something of a reflection of that frustration: they were good, but not without their warts. One character I wrote, Forrest, was with a rebellion, but a “good person”, and constantly debating his own place in that rebellion. Travian, the other one, was with Starfleet (the “good guys”), but a mischievious, wisecracking person, who didn’t always play by the rules, and had dark secrets of his own.
I could easily overanalyze the how and why of the characters, the Trek universe, and what it had to do with me liking Firefly. Were those characters my own frustration, playing out in prose? Or did I see my own universe as complex, as more than rules and regulations and good and bad? Was I trying to figure out my own life through art? Was I seeing what I wanted to see?
Perhaps that was the case. But Firefly didn’t need my existential conflict for me to love it, and nor did Mal Reynolds need my own fictional avatars for me to admire him.
Mal: “Well, would you look at this. Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?”
Mal: “Ain’t we just.”
Cathy was right: I liked Mal. I liked his cleverness, his steel, his smirk, the way he inspired people. I admired the complexity of the character, of the Firefly universe, how even in the middle of a normally dramatic situation (as above, during a rescue), they were cracking one-liners. It was a perfect reflection of the age I grew up in, which prized sarcastic detachment in any situation.
I wanted that detachment. I wanted Mal’s toughness, his leadership, the way he inspired people. As someone who struggled socially, who struggles in relationships, I wanted to seem cool, and collected, because I was never that. Mal was who I aspired to be, in a lot of ways. I fed off his wit, and through the lens of the show, saw how that detachment really affected him, how emotional he really was. I saw his struggle with intimacy, with relationship, and saw so much in there that I related to. That was me. Or least, that was who I wanted to be.
I would never be the hero, the leader who got respect like he did, strapping and decisive and clever. I would never live on a spaceship. But there was so much of Mal Reynolds I admired, so much I wanted to be, and so much of him I stole without even knowing I had. I knew the character before Firefly, in the avatars I’d already written.
Simon: “You had the Alliance on you. Criminals and savages. Half the people on the ship have been wounded or shot at- including yourself- and you’re harbouring known fugitives.”
Mal: “We’re still flying.”
Simon: “That’s not much.”
Mal: “It’s enough.”
Mal was a lone wolf, or at least he tried to be. That hit me too. Growing up, I isolated myself in some ways. Sometimes due to anxiety and fear, and sometimes because it was what the loner in me wanted. I got more comfortable in my own skin as I grew up, but I still wanted the ability to separate from a situation when it was murkier than I wanted. It was easier to stew in my thoughts and emotions than confront them. That caused me trouble, and more than likely cost me some friends.
One way good characters really impact me when I see myself reflected in them, or see what I want to be embodied in them. Firefly had wonderful characters, much beyond the lead, who were all relateable, in their own strange way. And the stories, for the one season it existed, were both familiar and original. There was a depth to the universe, to the plots, that hooked me right away. For a time, I could escape and get caught up in this place, this futuristic, wonderful universe, that was still somehow down to earth (that-was). The fact that it was only one season and one movie probably enhanced the legend, made the quality of it stand out more.
I would probably have enjoyed Firefly even if Malcolm Reynolds was different, or less effective. I’d probably still go to Firefly marathons every few years, and start Firefly quote trees on my Facebook wall every so often, and share these terrible in-jokes about the series with fellow geeks who loved the show. There was a lot to love about it, and I probably didn’t go enough into that here, for this post that will likely be my manifesto for Why I Love Firefly.
But much like the crew of the good ship Serenity, I found myself drawn to Mal Reynolds- the character, the man, and what he represented. He and the other characters on Firefly drew me to it, as much as anything else there. I can still easily get lost in Firefly; in a fun, imaginative, but still very relable universe, which still inspires me to this day.
Mal: “Y’all got on this boat for different reasons, but y’all have come to the same place. And now I’m askin’ more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything, I know this- they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. But I do not hold to that.”