Joss Whedon is best known for creating the popular, long-running TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and its off-shoot, Angel. However, blink, and you, too, might have missed the launch of Whedon’s next show, Firefly, when it aired briefly the last three months of 2002, just like I did. The premise for the show is a blend of science fiction and Western. But there’s more. As Whedon states, the point of the show is “to make space like now, like you’re caught in it, rather than something grand and unapproachable.” The Fox network ordered an initial 13 episodes, but only ten episodes aired before the network cancelled the show.
Firefly seemed in trouble from the start. The original two-hour pilot, “Serenity,” was rejected by Fox as too slow, and a more action-packed episode was written over the course of one weekend. While “Serenity” introduced the cast and milieu, its replacement, “The Train Job,” consisted of nice visuals but revealed little of the characters and their roles.
For fans of Firefly, and those who missed it, the complete series appeared on DVD in December 2003. Along with all filmed episodes there are some behind the scenes featurettes, four deleted scenes, a small gag reel, and a few other tidbits. Seven of the 13 episodes feature commentary from writers and actors. Each episode runs around 43 minutes (minus commercials, but with the fade-outs still in place). Watching the episodes for the first time, and in the order envisioned by Whedon, I came to realize what thousands of fans saw in the show: Firefly truly is an entertaining experience.
Set 500 years in the future, the events center around the crew of Serenity, a Firefly-class space ship. The show’s events occur six years after the major superpower, called the AngloSino Alliance (aka, the Alliance), fought and defeated the last hold-outs to their regime, the Independents (also called “browncoats”). The captain of Serenity is Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds, who along with his first mate, Zoë, fought on the losing side. Unwilling to integrate fully into the Alliance, they work the fringes of known space, trafficking in legal and illegal goods while trying to avoid the Feds. The pilot, Wash, who is Zoë’s husband, stayed out of the war. The engineer is a cute, back-planet girl, Kaylee, who sees good in everything. Counter-balancing this is Jayne, a hulking mercenary serving aboard Serenity as long as the paychecks continue to flow. Rounding out this bunch, though not properly part of the crew, is Inara, a companion (in the future, licensed and trained prostitutes are highly regarded). Inara rents one of the ship’s two shuttles to use for business, and also lends an air of respectability to Mal’s operations.
In the original pilot, the crew took aboard three passengers: Book, a preacher or shepherd with a mysterious past, including hints of a connection to the Alliance; Simon Tam, a genteel doctor from the Alliance worlds, and the doctor’s younger sister, River. One of the major story arcs centers around these passengers, in particularly the Tam siblings. It turns out that River is a refugee from some horrific Alliance medical experiments. These experiments appear to have made her strongly psychic, yet also somewhat psychotic.
There are no aliens in the Firefly universe, but humanity is alien enough. There are the dreaded Reavers, pirates of the deep, who mutilate themselves and others, killing and possibly eating other humans. The Alliance worlds are totalitarian heavens, yet while clean and orderly they contain an oppressive air. On the other hand, time seems to have stopped for the outer worlds, which resemble the old American West in vernacular, clothing, manners, economics, and law. Did I mention everyone curses in Mandarin Chinese?
While each episode focuses on one or two exploits of the Serenity crew, usually dealing with their current cargo, or avoiding the Alliance Feds, we slowly begin to learn more about what makes River special, and why the Alliance is so interested in her. Mal Reynolds wears his values on his sleeve, and his fierce loyalty to his crew and sense of honor compels him to keep River on board, despite the huge bounty offered for her return. We learn that the original crew has been together a little less than a year. During the course of the series we see the three new members of the crew begin to bond with the others, and even current crew members gain a greater sense of fraternity and loyalty to each other; there are betrayals, trust is often fragile, but the final episode, “Objects in Space” reveals the crew as quite close, even ready to listen to requests from someone no one trusted earlier.
It would have been interesting to see the direction Firefly would have headed given a full season of 22 episodes or so. Intriguing arcs and threads run through the series that only hint of what’s to come from the crew’s relationships, to the possibility of the browncoats rising again, or discovering the truth about the Blue Sun corporation, and River’s talents.
These and other questions soon may be answered, for word of mouth and a huge fan-base kept Firefly alive in the minds of fans, its actors, and the show’s creators. A feature-length movie, Serenity, is due in movie theaters on April 22, 2005 bringing what Whedon calls “a powerful statement about the right to be free” to the big screen.
Firefly lets us cheer for freedom and endears us to a very personable crew. Humor is rife, especially in Jayne’s character—though I doubt Jayne intends the humor. (I just wonder who made the decision to airbrush out Jayne’s goatee on the DVD covers, and why?) There’s much to recommend in these four discs and you won’t regret the hours of entertainment. You’ll experience both a sense of wonder and a sense of regret as to what might have been.
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