Old and new friends

I recently came across a cool quote along the lines of:

A new book is like a new friend.  An old book is like an old friend.

I’ve no idea who said it, and I’m not even sure where I found it (though I think it was in a book I was looking at), but I think it’s worth thinking about.  In honour of my former life as a mathematician, I’ll leave that as an excercise for the reader. 🙂

It’s not actually books that I particularly want to talk about today, although my main point applies just as much to narratives of all forms as to the specific TV series that I’m relating it to.

That TV series, which I happen to think is just about the best one ever (possibly even better than Doctor Who, although I’d say they are sufficiently different to defy a straight comparison, and both mighty fine), is Firefly.  It’s one of the works of Joss Whedon, probably best known as the guy who brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and can be roughly summed up as a Western in Space (or a cross between the Western and Sci-Fi genres), although that label doesn’t really do it full justice.  It focuses on the lives of a group of 9 people who fly around between planets and moons (many of them recently terraformed and resembling frontier towns of the American West in the 19th century, with a curious admixture of more modern technology) in a Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. If you want to know more about Firefly, you can check it out on Wikipedia (in the article linked a couple of sentences back, amongst others) although I’d recommend actually watching it (and the follow-up movie, Serenity – though I’d definitely try to see the series first) if you get a chance.

One thing I particularly like about the Firefly universe (or ‘verse, as they usually refer to it in-universe) is the blending of eastern and western cultures, one manifestation of which is the way that phrases of Chinese liberally pepper the mostly English speech of the characters that we meet (and, although neither language is named within the show, it is fairly clear that both are meant to represent themselves – presumably as they would be spoken in several centuries’ time by the descendents of those from earth-that-was who have settled in the far reaches of the galaxy (or possibly even an entirely different galaxy – the location and timeframe are not specified).  Since I’ve been having a go at learning a bit of Chinese this month, it gave me  a perfect excuse to dig out my Firefly DVDs and watch them again.

This is at least my third, and probably my fourth or fifth, watch-through of Firefly, and the first for at least a couple of years.  As with revisiting an old, familiar and well-loved book (to link tenuously with where I started) it does indeed feel very much like getting back in touch with an old friend.  And that has led to my musing, not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time, on the difference between encountering a story for the first time and re-encountering it on subsequent occasions.

Firefly is quite a good example of this difference because it has quite a few twists and surprises that jump out and catch you on the first viewing in a way that they never can again (assuming you’re not blessed with a sufficiently bad memory to entirely forget what happens by the next time you see it).  I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoilers but, for example, in the pilot episode (called “Serenity” and not to be confused with the later movie) the crew pick up several passengers; it soon becomes evident that one of them is a bad egg but there is plenty of misdirection thrown in so that, until the last possible moment, you don’t know which one it is. There’s also a section in the same episode in which one of the crew members is seriously wounded and it’s not clear whether or not they are going to pull through.  When you watch the episode for the second time, or even if you come to it for the first time after having seen later episodes (as actually was the case for those who watched the original TV broadcast since, for various reasons, the pilot wasn’t actually aired until near the end of the series), you know (or at least have a good idea of) the answers to those questions, since you know who’s going to be flying on Serenity for the rest of the series.

(Incidentally, there was only one series made because the network executives pulled the plug on it after that; given how popular it later became I suspect that a few of them must have come to regret that decision.)

While the genuine surprise of the first encounter can never be repeated (without some form of amnesia), things are not all bad from there on out as (certainly in the case of something as good as Firefly – both in terms of story and production values) there’s a lot of goodness to be had on repeated viewings.  For one  thing, you get to notice cunning foreshadowing of certain events and to appreciate details that previously eluded you.  One small example is in a scene that takes place in an early episode (“Safe”) in which a couple of the characters find themselves at a dance taking place in a field on one of the planets they visit.  There is a small band playing the music for the dance and it was only on my latest viewing I noticed that one of the instruments in the band was a balalaika!

Whereas some books, films, TV series or whatever are things that I start out only marginally impressed (or, in some cases, completely unimpressed) by and only gradually come to appreciate deeply, and others are ones which I enjoy encountering once but wouldn’t want to revisit (or, perhaps, I do revisit them and find the reality failing to live up to my memories), Firefly is a series which I fell in love with pretty much at first sight (and certainly by the time I was halfway through the series for the first time) and which I continue to enjoy and anticipate enjoying for a long time to come.

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