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A Firefly Safari

First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 10
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton
We're in no rush. I like an easy, languorous journey.

From time to time I have to take a bus ride from where I live in south-west Tanzania down to the city, Dar es Salaam. On a good day, the trip takes twelve to thirteen hours so it is always a good idea to bring your own entertainment. As I don’t have a video iPod or portable DVD player, I normally load up my trusty MP3 player with a selection of music and podcasts to help me while away the hours. But when I had to do the trip recently, I decided to try a different approach – Firefly: the audio marathon. So I loaded up my player with MP3s of all fourteen episodes of Firefly plus the BDM, which conveniently total up to pretty much exactly the length of the journey. And off I went.

Without the accompanying visuals, the first thing that struck me about the audio was just how many dialogue-free moments there were. Take the first forty or so seconds of the pilot episode, for example, or the first thirty of The Train Job. Listening to the pilot, I noticed the variety in gunshot sounds for the first time and listening to The Train Job, it was the music that I found myself focusing on and hearing layers that I hadn’t been aware of before.

Another thing that I realised quite quickly was that not having the visuals in front of me didn’t mean I couldn’t have them in my head. Just as I hear the appropriate actors’ voices in my head when I read the comic books, the pictures accompanying the audio could easily be brought to mind. I found myself smiling at the expressions I knew would be on various characters’ faces at certain points of the dialogue, even without actually seeing them.

I have never watched more than four Firefly episodes in one sitting so going through all the episodes in quick succession gave me some insights which perhaps others have gained from watching multiple episodes in one go. One thing I gradually began to notice throughout the course of the day was just how varied the series is. I was not remotely bored as I listened to episode after episode and this was partly because the series is simply that good, but also because of the great variety in the stories told. As the day wore on, I was switching between heist and rom-com, family drama and war story, Western and horror. Yet somehow there was nothing jarring about these switches. Every story is set in unmistakably the same ‘verse and all the characters are so well developed and well portrayed that they never seem out of place, regardless of the genre.

By the time the bus stopped for a quick lunch break, I was so immersed in the Firefly ‘verse that it felt very odd to take my earphones out and hear Swahili spoken all around me, jolting me back to Earth-that-still-is. There is definitely something rather incongruous in listening to a sci-fi Western while driving through a Tanzanian landscape, especially when there are elephants and giraffes wandering through that landscape, not far from the bus windows. But it does occur to me that in another way, I am perhaps closer to the truth of Firefly out here in Tanzania than I would be back in the UK, where I come from:

I hear a lot of the border moons are in bad shape. Plagues, and famine...
Well, some of that's exaggerated, and some of it ain't. All those moons— just like the central planets, they're as close to Earth-That-Was as we could make 'em: gravity, atmosphere and such, but...
Once they're terraformed, they'll dump settlers on there with nothing but blankets, hatchets, maybe a herd. Some of them make it, some of them...

Life out here on the rim can also be tough. There’s no Bowden’s Malady or Damplung, but there’s plenty of malaria and AIDS. A bad rainy season can mean going hungry and a disease wiping out your herd can mean you won’t be able to afford to send your children to school. As Sheriff Bourne would say, “These are tough times”.

For all the snippets of dialogue that struck me in new ways throughout my audio marathon, and for all the sound effects and bits of music that I noticed for the first time, what struck me most is this new perspective I gained from experiencing Firefly out in the world for the first time. It is one thing to watch Firefly at home, safely tucked away in my flat with the world shut outside, but quite another to listen to the audio while watching the world go by, a world full of people trying to keep flying and with very real struggles not at all dissimilar to those of Mal and his crew.

Like anyone, I have my own struggles, but they are very different from most of the people around me and that gives me an insight into Simon’s life in Firefly. Although the reasons are obviously very different, there are certainly parallels between Simon leaving the core for a life out on the rim and me leaving the UK for Tanzania. We both only fit in up to a point in our changed circumstances and are apt to think about what we have left behind.

When I decided to do my audio marathon, I thought that I would probably write about the experience for The Signal, but I had no idea what the experience would prompt me to write. And it certainly didn’t occur to me that it would give me a new perspective on my own real-life situation, rather than simply some new insights into the series and film themselves. As I write this now, I’m smiling to myself at how Firefly and Serenity can still surprise me, even after so many years.

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