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A Sense of Place in Firefly

First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 14
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton

A Sense of Place in Firefly

By Helen Eaton

Well now. That has an effect on the landscape.

If the title of this article sounds like a school essay, that’s because it’s been inspired by one, or rather several. School was a good few years ago for me now, but I remember well being set essays in my English classes that included the phrase “a sense of place” in the title. “Discuss the sense of place in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles”, for example, or “How does the sense of place contribute to the power of the narrative in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird”. I’m not sure I ever really understood properly then what the teachers meant by a “sense of place”, but now having watched Firefly, the phrase means a lot more to me.

I find it easiest to understand the term “sense of place” by looking at those places which do not have it. If a place lacks this sense, it is generic, bland and does not relate in any meaningful way to its surroundings. An example would be a fast food restaurant which looks more or less the same whether it is located in Hong Kong or Helsinki. In contrast, somewhere which has a sense of place is clearly distinguishable from other places by virtue of its characteristics. These characteristics might be natural features in the landscape or cultural features relating to the people, or often a mixture of both. Places with a particularly strong sense of place can be said to have a character of their own.

In some sci fi – whether it be due to budgetary constraints or simply laziness – supposedly exotic alien planets all tend to look very much the same as each other, and very much like Earth. In Firefly, terraforming gives us a valid in-‘Verse explanation for why the planets and moons we visit look like Earth. What I find particularly interesting though is that whilst clearly resembling Earth, the different planets and moons we see in Firefly do not fall into the trap of bland placelessness. Each has a strong sense of place which is part of the richness of the ‘Verse Joss Whedon created.

Think of Serenity the pilot episode, for example. We start in a flashback to Serenity Valley, a desert place strewn with boulders. The next time we make landfall it is at Eavesdown Docks on Persephone, described in the shooting script as “filled with people of all races, modes and languages. It’s chaos: trade, theft and outright violence all happening amidst the jumble of humanity.” We head into Badger’s den and rather than it being a generic office, it is an underground room with a grating in the ceiling giving us glimpses of ships flying by overhead. Then later we’re on Whitefall to meet Patience and looking down over a wide scrubland valley.

Nice place for an ambush.

Each place we come across in the pilot episode has a look, a feel and a sound of its own. Although we are just getting glimpses of the different places, they appear to be fully-realised and authentic.

The same is true of the places we come across in other episodes. Take the town of Paradiso in The Train Job, the gardens on Bellerophon in Trash or the ice canyons in The Message. None of these settings is in focus for very long, but all have a clear sense of place and a genuineness that adds depth to the Firefly ‘Verse.

It is not just exterior locations that have a sense of place in Firefly. There is also great variety and great character in the buildings and interiors. Compare the bar in The Train Job with the one frequented by the mudders in Jaynestown, for example. Both establishments serve the same purpose, but couldn’t look more different. Furthermore, these differences are not the result of random set dressing choices, but natural consequences of clear differences in the sense of place of the two locations. It seems appropriate, for example, that the downtrodden mudders would have an underground, mud-coloured tavern.

Homes also look and feel very different. The Tam family home in Safe and Magistrate Higgins’ house in Jaynestown are grand and tranquil. In contrast, the hill settlement in Safe and the solar sheeting-clad brothel in Heart of Gold are rough and raw. The contrasting clothing of the people inhabiting these different styles of home also contribute to the sense of place.

It is not just on land that a sense of place can be felt in Firefly. There is the bazaar shown in The Message, which feels like Eavesdown Docks condensed into a space station. Niska’s skyplex is a similar structure, but has its own foreboding character. Perhaps the best example of a sense of place out in the black is Serenity herself. Within her walls we find clearly defined spaces such as the warm and friendly dining area and the cold and clinical infirmary. The crew members’ quarters are similarly distinct. Even if Kaylee’s cheerful room sign were removed, no one could mix up her quarters with those of Jayne, for example.

Some ships, however, do not have a strong sense of place. The different Alliance ships we come across are faceless and placeless and very much interchangeable. The Alliance hospital on Ariel has a similar quality. Despite this, or perhaps partly because of it, Alliance facilities do as a whole have a particular character, which at least for Jayne is not a pleasant one:

This place gives me an uncomfortableness.

When I reflect on what I love about Firefly, I usually think first of the stories and the characters. I do not often think about the clarity and strength of the sense of place in the different locations and how that adds to my enjoyment of the series, but it is that sense of place which contributes to the richness of the world in which the stories and the characters live and breathe, and Firefly would certainly be the poorer without it.

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