Sep 1, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Different

Yup, nothing depressing this morning. I'm going Full Geek Gonzo. Sci-Fi, babes.

You see, I've been forced to discover Firefly.

Yours truly has always been a big fan of Westerns, particularly that strain called the Spaghetti Western. Realism, that's the key to a good Western. Grueling, dirty realism. The West in the late 1800's was not a pretty place. Ladies rarely wore calico dresses, and if there was a shooting it was likely not done in the street separated by twenty paces. Gentlemen did not exist then. Survivors, however, did.

I also love science fiction. Space travel, vast alien worlds, incomprehensible messages from distant planets and 400 meter long sandworms, that's the ticket. The entire open vista of our future, ripe for the describing.

So why not a Science Fiction Western, you ask? Because it sounds damned silly, on the face of it.

But Gene Roddenberry hisself called his new show Star Trek "Wagon Train To The Stars" when he was pitching the idea to the execs at Desilu. And Joss Whedon took that idea and ran with it.

Humanity spread to the stars, most planets barely terraformed and the people living there are on the bare edge of humanity. Settlers. Painful simplicity. No one settling a new planet is going to have the latest and greatest technology available. They're going to have simple and easy and above all, lasting. No laser guns, no digital watches. Cast iron pots and open fires and cattle and clothing that's more denim and leather than silk and rayon.

But the best part of it, the hook that landed this particular jaded fan? No noise. One of the biggest stumbling points EVER in the science fiction movie/television show is ships, elegant ships, huge ships, making tons of noise in space. Hello, you're in SPACE. No air. Noise, if you've forgotten your basic physics, is air vibrations carried to our ears, which vibrate in harmony with the air, which our brain translates into recognisable words, noises, or whatnot. Space is a vacuum, therefore people cannot hear you scream there, nor can you hear a space ship's motors, no matter how big or cool or funky they are.

Every time I see that beautiful opening sequence in Star Wars IV, with the miles-long Star Destroyer going overhead forever and forever, then those massive blue flaming drives go by and the theater shakes and rumbles I cringe. It's wrong. Utterly wrong. Every time a ship in the Star Trek universe makes a long, banking turn in space, engines rumbling, I want to toss something at the screen. On board, sure. Air = vibrations = that thrumming sound of engines working. Outside = no air = no roaring motors.

J. Michael Straczynski got it kinda right with Babylon 5. His 5 mile long space station didn't make noise outside, but the Cobra fighters, tiny one-man gunships, did. The flight physics were right; reaction motors and thruster-driven turns, direction changes by applying thrust, all the hallmarks of inertia, and no long, sweeping turns like an F-15. The pilots had to wear space suits inside the cockpits, because they weren't even pressurised. That's military for you--spare the comfort in favor of performance. But they roared and snorted and made noises. His creative consultant, the epitome of mean Mr. Harlan Ellison told him at the beginning that the ships should be quiet. JMS reportedly replied that he knew that, and Ellison knew that, but that the Public would expect noises, and that quiet would be too much for them to accept and the show would lose credibility. And sadly enough, he was probably right. So the Cobra fighters made it almost all the way there, but not quite.

Joss Whedon got it dead on right. So did Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but we're not talking about THAT classic. So, I think, did James Cameron in Aliens with the Colonial Marines dreadnaught, but I'd have to watch it again. But. The first time I saw the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity go sailing by against a star-speckled expanse she was dead quiet. As she has been every single time I've seen her in space. In atmosphere she roars and trembles and makes all sorts of strange hoots and bangs. In space--nothing.

Joss did me one better last night--watching the episode "Our Mrs. Reynolds," Jayne the mercenary and Capt. Mallory are standing, suited, in a decompressed (no air) cargo bay. Jayne's got Vera, his gunpowder cartridge weapon inside a space suit, because as he pointed out earlier, it has to have air around it to fire. Gunpowder burns in air, not in vacuum. One point for Mr. Whedon. So, weapon in suit, airlock door open, he fires. We see the muzzle flash, we see the faceplate of the suit explode outwards, and we hear....nothing. YES! Thank you physics! Even the follow up shots are just visual, no slap, no bang, no inappropriate noises.



Matt Saye said...

Paul, I LOVE LOVE LOVE Firefly. It's such a great show. I love how Joss makes it look like he's following a formula, and then completely fucks with it. (i.e. "THe Train Job" at the end where it looks like he's setting up a recurring villain and then Mal kicks him into an engine. genius)

Irrelephant said...

Utterly fun stuff. I had to watch the engine thing about three times on The Train Job. I laughed until I peed a little. The best part of it is that there are those little moments all through the show. Whedon is a damned fine writer.