Scapers vs. Browncoats: The Battle for Sci-Fi Supremacy
Yes, I am a pleebing heretic.
I was inspired to write this little diatribe after reading another Hub that ranked the top space-themed sci-fi shows of all time. Firefly was listed at number one, which didn't surprise me, but Farscape did not even crack the top five! I could not let this injustice stand.
Before I start making people angry, I should stipulate that I love Joss Whedon and Firefly. If I was ranking shows, Farscape would be 1 and Firefly would be 1A. So it is not a case of Firefly not being a great show.
That being said, I will compare the two shows and explain why I prefer Crichton and the gang to Mal and his misfits. I know that asking sci-fi space fans to compare shows is a bit like asking Whovians which is their favorite doctor (do you like attitude, impeccable hair, or fezzes and bow ties?), but daunting a task as it may be, I will press on.
Two Drad Shows
Farscape and Firefly have a good deal in common and a lot that is different, so it might be wise to set the stage.
Farscape follows the journey of current day human John Crichton, a scientist and astronaut. While in orbit around Earth testing a theory that could help humans develop long range space flight, he is sucked into a worm hole and comes tumbling out on the far side of the galaxy. Crichton is picked up by a band of escaped prisoners on a living ship named Moya and finds himself in the middle of a conflict much larger than anything he could imagine. Over the next four seasons (and one mini-series), Crichton works on adapting to his new environment, makes a few friends and A LOT of enemies, and generally just tries to find a way home. In the process he ends up changing the galaxy forever. And of course he falls in love.
Firefly, unlike Farscape, takes place in the distant future. After the Earth was "used up," humanity took to the stars to find new planets to live on. As new worlds were settled, some became very rich, and some stayed quite poor. The interior rich planets (the Alliance) unsurprisingly decided that everyone should be under their control, to which the independent planets took exception. A war was fought, and the Alliance won. The protagonist of Firefly is Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who fought on behalf of the independents (called "Browncoats"). After the war, a disillusioned and scarred Captain Reynolds takes to the stars as a smuggler, petty criminal, and classic chaotic-good rogue. The show follows his adventures as he and his crew make their way through the verse - on their Firefly-class transport Serenity - trying to stay out of the Alliance's way and live free. Of course, circumstances involve them in something much larger and involve them in conflict with the Alliance once again. That's when we find out that there is more to these criminals than meets the eye.
Both shows are character driven space operas involving a group of people travelling on the same ship, but at this point they begin to diverge. Farscape takes place in present time, and spans the entire galaxy. There are aliens - lots of aliens - and a lot of the show has to do with how these different cultures interact. Though Farscape takes place in present time, the technology is much more exotic, with laser beams and living, sentient bio-ships.
Firefly, on the other hand, has no aliens. Humanity has encountered no other life forms while colonizing space. And despite being set in the future, technology has a much more dated feel. This is partially do to the Alliance strictly controlling money and tech, but it is also because the technology in Firefly, rather than exotic, feels like a natural evolution of the technology we have now. Some things, like weapons, just didn't need that much improvement.
Obviously, the paths these shows take have a tremendous impact on the themes they explore. Ironically, Farscape has more to say about the future, while Firefly says more about the present.
Even a frellwit knows - it all comes down to the characters.
When it comes down to it, characters are why we watch shows. We care about them, we invest in them, and they are what keeps us coming back. Both Farscape and Firefly gave us indelible characters that have stood the test of time. Let's take a look at how they compare.
1. John Crichton and Malcolm Reynolds
Crichton and Mal are both the protagonists of their shows, and as such they take on even greater importance than other characters. They are the fulcrum around which each show pivots.
Crichton is handsome, charming, brilliant, and compassionate. He also has a very cheesy sense of humor. Crichton is a get-along-with-everyone kind of guy, though he's not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. When Farscape begins, he is lost. The other members of Moya's crew consider him a useless liability. Over time, as he adapts and learns, he becomes indispensable. Crichton is a lover before he is a fighter, and he helps the other characters be more than they originally thought they could be. He serves as the conscience of the crew of escaped prisoners and outcasts, and keeps them united despite all their differences. His relationship with Aeryn Sun develops into one of the primary story threads. In the end, Crichton's uniqueness puts him in a position to change the entire galaxy for the better, though not without major conflict on the way.
Captain Mal is a very different animal. Whereas Crichton is optimistic by nature, Mal has seen the worst the verse has to offer, and it has left him disillusioned. He has a biting wit and keeps people at a distance. He has a good heart that he usually ends up following, but he would definitely not be described as the conscience of Serenity (that role would most likely fall to Shepherd Book). He has no other goal than to keep flying and keep working. This makes him something of an aimless character early in the show, though circumstances change that pretty quick. He has a paternal love for his crew and his ship, and it is this that keeps him going. That, and the chance to stick it to the Alliance every once in a while.
Mal is an awesome character, but the complexity of Crichton makes him more three dimensional and thus a better protagonist.
2. The Crew
Interestingly enough, each character in both shows has a parallel in the other. Let's briefly take a look at each.
Aeryn Sun and Zoe Washburne both provide powerful and independent female characters. Aeryn starts out as one of the "bad guys", stuck with the crew of Moya only because she has no other choice. Over time, she slowly sees that there is more to the galaxy than she realized. She also becomes the primary love interest of John Crichton. Zoe, from the beginning, is a "good guy". She fought with Mal as a member of the independents, and has been with him ever since. She is devoted to him as a friend and a captain, but not romantically. Aeryn is a character in transition, she is always changing and growing. Zoe is pretty comfortable with where she is.
Ka D'Argo and Jayne Cobb are the muscle of their respective crews, but other than that they are very different. D'Argo is a warrior with a quick temper, but ultimately he is a gentle soul that wants to be a farmer. The conflict between these two sides presents telling drama over the course of the series. With Jayne, for the most part, what you see is what you get. He is a big dumb ox of a man who likes to handle things with violence and acts as comic relief due to his frequent imbecility and neanderthal-like qualities. There is a sense underneath that Jane is a decent guy, but for the most part he is not very complicated.
Dominar Rygel XVI and Hoban Washburne provide the primary comic for Farscape and Firefly. Rygel is a Hynerian, a small amphibious alien whose size becomes the butt of many jokes. As a former emperor, he is condescending, selfish, and used to the finer things in life. Self-preservation is his defining characteristic, even at the expense of his fellow crew. Like Jayne, though, there is a sense that there is heart underneath the obnoxious exterior. Wash is the pilot of Serenity and husband of Zoe. Unlike most of the crew, he is not used to conflict and definitely is not a tough guy. His sense of humor leads to a great number of quotes that are some of the best in the show. He is lovable, and people still cry over his death in the post-series film. No one would have cried if Rygel died, so Wash wins this battle from the point of view of sheer likability.
Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan and Shepherd Derrial Brook are both clerics, and both at times act as consciences for the other characters. Zhaan, however, is a much more complicated character with a violent past and sometimes questionable motives. Book shows some signs of this, with veiled references to his past, but since it was never developed, it can't be taken into account. Book ends up being much more of a stock character, never approaching Zhaan's depth.
Chiana and Inara Serra are similar in that both of them are very sexual characters who end up providing many of the spicier moments in each show. Other than that, though, they are very different. Chiana is a "tralk" who will use sex to get her way. She is a wild child who just loves to have a good time. Inara is a professional sex worker in every sense of the word. She is elegant, compassionate, and complex. Between the two, Inara stands out.
Finally, there is Pilot and Kaylee Frye. They are both responsible for caring for their ships, Pilot for Moya and Kaylee for Serenity. They both tend to stay out of the conflict and keep their hands clean. Of course, for Pilot it is necessary, as he is physically grafted to Moya. Pilot's history and his relationship to Moya and the rest of the crew is endlessly fascinating, and while Kaylee is a likable character, she can't compete with that.
3. The Bad Guys (and Gals)
This is one area where Farscape wins hands down. It presents some of the most memorable and complex villains in the history of sci-fi. Captain Bilar Crais, Scorpius, and Commodant Mele-On Grayza all present captivating character studies without giving up their awesome bad-ness. Each one also presents a direct foil to Crichton, and the dynamics of how they relate to him help drive the show.
Firefly doesn't really have bad guys. There are some bad entities, like the Alliance and the Reavers, but no stand out individuals. The only real villain Serenity's crew comes up against is Adelei Niska, but as evil as he is he never comes across as anything more than small-time. Without a doubt, the existential conflict in Firefly never receives adequate personification.
Speak Your Peace
Which show do you like better, Farscape or Firefly?
The Story: You can do a lot more in four cycles than in one.
I won't spend a lot of time here, because there's no getting around the fact that Farscape had four seasons and Firefly only had one. Who knows what would have happened if Firefly had gotten more time. Both universes have a rich backstory that is ripe for development. If I had to guess, I would say that given the same number of episodes I still would have preferred Farscape's more pure science fiction to the mythological archetypes of Firefly, but that is far from certain.
The tie breaker is the relationship between Crichton and Aeryn Sun. In my opinion, it is the greatest love story in sci-fi television history. I would watch Farscape just for that. Would Mal and Inara eventually have developed a relationship as compelling? Perhaps, but I have my doubts. Anyway, we will never know, so I'm going with the sure thing.
Technology may also have been affected by the length of time each show was in production, but this time I am not giving Firefly a pass. The tech in Firefly is very understated, and I think that's intentional. It rarely plays a prominent role. In Farscape, on the other hand, fascinating technology is front and center.
Farscape covers a sprawling galaxy filled with all manner of life, so it is no surprise that the technology is also varied and unusual. It starts with Moya, the ship on which the Farscape characters travel. Moya is a Leviathan, a living, sentient, and space-faring creature that lives to serve others. She is bonded to a symbiotic species that acts as a liason between Moya and anyone who may be living aboard. She generally does what she is told, but she has a will of her own and doesn't always obey orders. The rest of the tech in Farscape runs the gamut, from pulse weapons - fueled by an organically grown root - that shoot energy blasts to hetch drives, wormhole generators and time travel.
In Firefly, tech is very pedestrian. Once again, this is intentional - Joss Whedon is trying to show the discrepancy between the rich Alliance planets and the poor border planets - but it doesn't change the fact that it is still largely boring and unremarkable. Even the snippets of Alliance tech we see hardly take the breath away. And there is no attempt to explain the tech we do see, like propulsion mechanisms for ships. With the exception of Serenity herself, there is little noteworthy for gear heads in Firefly.
Farscape fans are fahrbot, and Firefly fans are feng le.
It's really difficult to decide which show has better fans, because both groups are awesome and there is a lot of overlap. Both fan bases extended their respective shows through public outcry after they were cancelled. Both shows have a wealth of fan fiction and are regularly celebrated at cons. I think the edge, however much it pains me to say it, goes to Firefly. If you ask a non sci-fi fan if they've heard of Firefly, there's a decent chance they'll say yes. The same is not true for Farscape. Firefly flans have been more vocal and demonstrative, and they have done a better job of keeping their show in the public eye long after it was taken off the air. It has become much more of a cult phenomenon than Farscape ever was, and Browncoats deserve credit for that.
Blez, it's only my frelling opinion!
And my opinion is that, if you look at the big picture, Farscape is the superior show. The story is broader, and the characters are deeper and more complex. There are fascinating creatures, compelling villains, and one heck of a love story. The technology is more interesting (translator microbes and dentics, anyone?), and the stakes are bigger - the fate of the entire galaxy hangs in the balance, not just the fate of humanity. Firefly, given enough time, may have caught up with Farscape, but I doubt it would have surpassed it. Firefly is not a bad show, it's just not quite as good.
To snurch a quote from a fellow Scaper:
"In [Crichton] we have a man forced to adapt. He doesn’t have time to freak out, he just has to survive. And in time, as the series develops, so do the rest of the crew. Maybe Firefly would have matched up, had it not been so prematurely cancelled, but that’s a what if for another day. Farscape boasts genuine character development, with the transitions of enemies to friends and then sometimes back to enemies again.
Firefly, for all its strengths, lacks that development. Its characters are, mostly, static, with little growth or journey as part of the unfolding story. Joss Whedon writes witty, poignant TV — Buffy and Dollhouse spring to mind — and as I said maybe he would have managed it. But the one season and a film that exists do not deliver on that." (http://matthewsdent.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/heresy-of-the-week-farscape-is-better-than-firefly/)
So what do you think? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to share with other Farscape and Firefly fans.
Thanks for reading!