Jose Molina wrote two of the best episodes of Joss Whedon's Firefly, "Ariel" and "Trash." Now he's written a new original story, in the book Firefly: Still Flying. He talked to us about Jayne's betrayal, and returning to the 'verse.
How did you get involved with Firefly? How did your previous experience on Dark Angel prepare you for the Whedonite creative process?
I'd known Tim [Minear] and Joss for a while from my assistant days, and was obviously eager to work with them as a writer. When they were looking to staff Firefly, I threw my hat in the ring and luckily came away with the job.
I don't know that my time on Dark Angel necessarily prepared me specifically for the Whedonite creative process, but it certainly taught me some important lessons about surviving life on a staff. I'd say the most important thing I learned was how to write fast. When you're writing on your own, you have no deadline and you can take your sweet time. Which, of course, is the stupidest thing you can do when you're trying to learn a craft and get a job! When you're on a staff, the creative train doesn't stop moving. From the moment the season starts, you have to crank out a script every 8 days until the season is over. On Dark Angel, I learned that — when push came to shove — I could produce a solid draft in four days. I wrote "Ariel" in four and a half.
Reading your essay in the book reminds me that during the time Firefly was coming together, Joss Whedon was also hard at work on Angel and Buffy. How involved was he in Firefly on a day-to-day basis? Was it mostly left up to Tim Minear to keep the ship sailing? Did the bustle of having three shows going at once mean you had more freedom to take risks?
Joss was very involved, but he was spread wicked thin. (He wrote and directed episodes of all three shows that year.) There was a smoking patio in the courtyard at Stewart Street, and the Buffy and Angel writers would wander out at given times and ask us Firefly guys "did you get any time with Joss today?" We'd be like, "yeah we got half an hour," and they'd shake their heads and go "lucky bastards, he loves you more than he loves us."
We got more time with Tim than we did with Joss, but he was pretty swamped himself. He was providing a bit of a net for Jeff Bell — who had just taken over showrunning duties on Angel — and was busy directing Firefly as well as spending a fair amount of time covering the set and rotating through post production. Running ONE show is a massive endeavor; running three is madness.
Did I mention Joss was having his first child and remodeling his house at the same time? No joke. Just thinking about it right now makes me want to take a nap.
I don't think the bustle gave us any more freedom at all. Firefly was Joss' baby, and he was very protective and nurturing of it. It wasn't like he birthed it, handed it off and walked away from it. On the contrary — I think we got more attention than Buffy and Angel during our brief run just because we were the shiny new toy.
It's pretty amazing that "Ariel" started out as just "Simon commissions the crew to do a heist," when it turns into so much more. How did you come up with all the twists, including River's brain scans and Jayne betraying the Tams? Was the thing about River's brain scans mandated from above, since it was such a crucial plot element?
I had a vision that a man came to me on a flaming pie and said "you shall write an episode based on 'The Little Mermaid,'" and four days later the script was done.
Honestly, a small notion like that is not an unusual way for an episode to start. You (or someone) come up with a nugget of something interesting and then mold it into the structure of an episode. Some stuff comes from above, some comes from the room. Amazingly, the idea that Jayne betrays the Tams was one of the last things to go into the script. We had the beginning (Simon hires the crew), the middle (they get caught by the Alliance) and the end (the Blue Gloves take over from the Alliance), but it was just a lot of running and jumping and chasing that didn't amount to anything. The idea of Jayne betraying the Tams was originally rejected because it was too early in the run of the show to have the "interesting day" promised in the pilot. At the end of the day, though, we knew the fate of the show hung in the balance; we decided there was no point keeping a great idea in our back pockets "for later" when there might not be a later.
With "Ariel" and "Trash," were there things you wanted to do that went too far? It seems like the humor in "Trash" goes a lot farther than some of the other scripts — were you encouraged to run with the funny, or was there stuff that people felt went too far?
Sounds like YOU think it went too far, eh? You're not seriously gonna give me notes on a script I wrote eight years ago, are you?
"Trash" was an honest effort to make the network happy. They'd complained that they didn't want dark, moody, complicated episodes like "Out of Gas" or "Objects in Space," they wanted fun, action-adventure, accessible Sci-Fi. So we set out to make a real crowd-pleaser that fit in the Firefly universe. I don't think we ever resorted to pandering, but we set aside our high-falootin' hats for an episode, stripped Nathan naked and wrote a good ol' fashioned caper.
Actually, I didn't feel like the humor went too far in "Trash" at all - it's one of my favorite episodes. But I was curious as to whether the network had issues with it. Changing the subject completely, your Wikipedia page says you got your first internship out of college by writing a Star Trek: The Next Generation spec script. Do you remember what it was about?
I do. I was 21 when I wrote it, so obviously I was engaged in one existential crisis or another. I've always been hugely inspired by Frankenstein, so I took one of the foundations of that book — a creature raging at his creator for his miserable existence — and went to town. (I mentioned I was 21 and a big fat whiner, right?) I actually even have Data recreating Frankenstein in the holodeck at one point! It was melodramatic and amateurish, but I got to write Lore and Data and essentially do a sequel to the TNG episode "Brothers," which is one of my favorites.
I love your story in the book, even though it's a bit of a downer. How did you come up with those fates for the characters? Did you talk to Joss Whedon or anybody else about where Mal or Jayne might end up?
I didn't talk to Joss or anybody about it, and didn't even pitch the idea to Titan. I didn't want anybody to give me notes!
In terms of the story being a downer... I actually don't think it's a downer at all. I think it's heroic. You ever read Ambrose Bierce? Now THAT guy's a downer.
The idea that the events of the movie, Serenity, could have transformed our Big Damn Heroes into celebrities is a really fascinating one. Where did that come from?
It made sense to me. You look at how celebrities are treated nowadays and it boggles the mind. You don't even have to DO anything to get hounded by the media. For crying out loud, you have octuplets and you'll have helicopters circling your house. Imagine if a person single-handedly brought down a global institution... say, the Catholic Church or the United Nations... that person would never breathe a private sigh again. Your life as you know it would be over. It makes you NOT want to be a hero. That's what really drew me to the idea.
Also, the "celebrity" thing gets to the heart of the society and pop culture in the Alliance, something the show barely delved into. I feel like "Ariel" is maybe the only episode of the show where we even get to glimpse how people in the Alliance actually live. Did you do a lot of thinking about how media culture and everyday life in the Alliance might function, either while working on the show or while writing this epilogue?
Everyday life in the "grip" of the Alliance is something that informs every single episode, so it's something that we talked about a lot. Our guys live on the rim of the Alliance, and the minute they accept Simon and River they are fugitives, so everyday life is something that's present in their lives simply because they choose not to have it. Every time the crew lands on a planet, they're confronted with a life they can't have — Kaylee's dress in "Shindig," Simon's career in "Ariel." Even something as simple as picking up mail in "The Message" is dangerous.
I never thought much about pop culture's place in the Firefly universe, but the idea of the media is something that you're going to run into when you're dealing with an oppressive regime like the Alliance. Freedom of Speech doesn't really exist in the 'verse, and you have to assume that whatever passes for the media is just a tool of the government.
Also, "Take the Sky" isn't an epilogue. Unless you want it to be.
Images from Firefly: Still Flying, from Titan Books. All images by Danny Nero, except the top one of Morena Baccarin courtesy 20th Century Fox, and the "Serenity" storyboards below, by Charles Ratteray.