Having enjoyed the first four seasons of Babylon 5, I found myself in a science fiction mood. I found that a new two-disc set of Serenity had been released, and so I ended up revisiting Firefly from the very beginning. I realized to my surprise that I had not, in fact, watched the series again after the first time. Of course not... I had been lending my copies out to everybody who I could get to watch them (it worked, too; jailnurse was among the many who benefited from this and ended up buying the set himself). And so, while I had watched the series through, saw Serenity opening night and even got myself a copy of Those Left Behind, I never really had the chance to watch the story unfold again, this time enjoying the familiarity with the characters that viewing a series (especially one as short-running as this) may not offer the first time around. In some ways, I think that that Firefly works better the second time around.
It's interesting to have viewed it in such proximity to Babylon 5 to see how genre television had evolved in the interim. There's no way around the fact that the primary interest with Babylon 5 is its storylines, not the characters or performances. The complete opposite is true of Firefly, where much of the enjoyment of viewing the show is indeed in watching these actors play these roles.
Furthermore, it is interesting to gape at just how far CGI has come. While many of the special effects on Babylon 5 looked cool (the Shadow vessels were awesome), they could not at the time achieve the kind of photorealism that one sees with the effects on Firefly. My television is not kind to sloppy digital effects, and while there is some fuzziness in some of the CGI scenes, for the most part it blends well with the surrounding footage.
I definitely wish that Joss Whedon had kept Greg Edmonson on when he made Serenity. Newman's score works fine, but it doesn't have the same juice that Edmonson's music does. Newman underlines the situations, but Edmonson's music seems to emanate from the characters than the stories, which works well for the show.
I also can't express my utter joy that there was at least one science fiction television series to depict no sound in space. I have always felt that the dramatic possibilities of this had been left untapped, and this is proven by how effective this silence is in several episodes, most notably Out of Gas. While I do indeed understand why something more fantastical like Star Wars relies so heavily on sound effects in space, I don't get why every time we cut to an exterior of the otherwise oh-so-accurate Apollo 13, we hear its engines roaring as though it were in an atmosphere. Silence can be extremely effective, as Stanley Kubrick demonstrates in the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey seen below:
Now, there's a lot going on in that scene. Man playing God and and being destroyed by his creation, a struggle for survival in a hostile environment, a basic conflict between two distinct points of view... I could go on with the dramatic possibilities, but what I would like to focus on right now is the sound design.
What you hear throughout the sequence is always what you would hear if you were in the setting that is being depicted. While this is not necessarily unique, it is interesting to note that not only are you in the room, but you are listening from the vantage point of the camera, which is fairly unusual. This is even more apparent in the (very) discrete stereo mix, which features heavily directionalized dialogue and effects; this was the only film other than Spartacus and Eyes Wide Shut in which Kubrick brought his meticulous attentions to a multichannel sound mix; all of his other films were monaural.
However, note that when we cut to an exterior shot, the only sound on the audio track is the radio transmissions. There are no rumbling engines or spooky ghostlike tonalities, just silence. This is contrasted sharply with the extremely different room tones heard on the Discovery and in the pod. Character voices are filtered to signify that they are on the radio if they are not on screen, a further contrast past the desperate voice of Keir Dullea and the ever serene Douglas Rain. All this is background, of course, secondary to the dramatic content of the scene but supporting it by lending a very tangible sense of reality (and no little of voyeurism - this is Kubrick, after all).
But then the dialogue ends, and the scene shifts focus. Bowman can't reason with HAL, and he must take drastic action. The absence of dialogue (and music) emphasize the complicated nature of his tasks, ironically intensifying tension by not drawing attention to it. The silence during the space shots is more noticeable here because the pod arms and whatnot would in almost any other film have whirring hydraulic noises, and big metallic 'thunks' would be heard as the hands open the airlock. Instead, the silence is almost crushingly oppressive, reflecting how hazardous space is, especially when Bowman releases Poole's body.
Then something really interesting happens. As Bowman prepares to blow the hatch on the pod, alarms start going off in the pod. Now, while this does, in some ways, add to the tension in a manner similar to the way a score might, it evolves naturally from the story. These alarms ring out harshly for us to suddenly cut to a completely quiet shot... which contains the explosion that was the alarms' crescendo, so to speak... the soundless explosion being so much more striking for what isn't there.
Space is, after all, the most hostile environment there is. The unnatural feeling of "otherness" that the lack of sound in spatial sequences of both Firefly and 2001 evokes in the viewer, that sense of emptiness that is completely appropriate. It is something that few filmmakers are willing to work with, which, while an understandable move in a space opera, is, unfortunately, a well trodden, very safe route. This silence can be very effective if it is used with care, and I really wish that more science fiction films and television shows would give it a whirl.
But I find it really annoying in shows and films based on true events.