The Delight of Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Last October I posted a review of Joss Whedon’s movie Serenity. I found the movie to be wonderful. It was exactly what I wanted to see in the voluminous space operas out there, but never quite found. It was not long after the movie that my wife and I decided we had to go back and see the original thirteen episodes of the Firefly TV series, upon which the movie was based. We ordered the Firefly DVD set as a Christmas present for ourselves. We have now watched all but the last episode. We know we will have to watch the last episode eventually, but right now, it pains us to know there is only one left to discover. Like being in denial over a lover’s death, right now we cannot go there. It hurts too much.

Firefly had a sporadic but brief life on the Fox Television network. I was amazed it developed a cult following at all, since many episodes were shown out of sequence and were frequently preempted by Fox. After the show was unwisely canceled, episodes were rebroadcast on the SciFi cable TV channel. Having given up television, I was blissfully ignorant about the Firefly series.

With only thirteen episodes (including a two-hour pilot), you would wonder why I would even bother to invest myself in this universe. Barring a miracle, new episodes of TV show will not be filmed. (Brownshirts, i.e. Firefly fans, though have not given up hope.) Even another Firefly movie looks dicey. While the movie attracted most of the Firefly fans out there, it did not get much box office attention. Reviews like this one were generally very enthusiastic. The timing of the movie’s release might partially explain its lackluster box office numbers. September is not prime time at the box office, and movie receipts in general have been declining. The reason that many like us went through the trouble of buying the Firefly DVDs is that though the episodes were few, each one was a sparkling diamond. If TV could be this innovative and interesting, the networks would never worry about their bottom line. For in Newton Minow’s vast wasteland of television and cable TV, Firefly demonstrated the full potential of the medium when the right ingredients are present.

The Firefly universe postulates a Wild West solar system. Most of the solar system is controlled by The Alliance, a totalitarian-lite form of government not unlike what George W. Bush seems to want the United States to become. The outer planets and moons are full of largely untamed but terraformed worlds suitable for human habitation. Each of these worlds look uniformly look like the Old West and are often populated by associated ruffians and misfits. The technology is a mixture of high and low tech. On these outer planets and moons, 20th Century pistols and rifles integrate well with various second and third-rate space transport vessels like the Firefly class ship named Serenity that is captained by Mal Reyolds (Nathan Fillion).

Mal is no heroic starship captain bringing a utopian vision to the uninformed masses. Mal is more like an officer in the Confederate Army five years after the Civil War. He is a conflicted soul, still licking many painful wounds from helping lead a valiant but doomed war against domination by The Alliance. He is trying to remake his life by earning a marginal living carrying dubious cargo from the various planets and moons that make up this solar system using a spaceship that is the equivalent of a ten-year-old Chevy Suburban with 200,000 miles on it. In short, Mal has issues. It would be easy to typecast him as another Hans Solo, but Mal has many more dimensions than Hans.

The same is true with the entire cast. Creator Joss Whedon has placed inside one spaceship a small collection of complex and often troubled characters. He lets them develop and play off against each other in his rough and tumble solar system where humankind is technically more advanced but is still mired in our modern hatreds and prejudices. Also on board is Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), a no nonsense woman who fought with Mal against The Alliance, and who acts as the ship’s second in command. In addition, there is Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a gunslinger of his day who can barely operate in the civilized world. Keeping the ship running is Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s engineer. Kaylee is a sweet and wholly inoffensive young woman who never attended engineering school but nonetheless has amazing skills keeping the aging ship from moving toward total dysfunction. At the con is “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk) who is married to Zoe and quite jealous of her long-term relationship with Mal. So much for the ship’s official crew.

Also on board are a number of paying and non-paying passengers picked up along the way. These include Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a “licensed companion”. She is the equivalent of a very high-class interstellar call girl. She keeps her shuttle docked in one of Firefly’s bays and takes opportunities at various ports of call to attend to the intimate needs of selected high-class clientele. The ship even has its own preacher, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), and a brother and sister team: the brilliant physician Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his crazy but even more talented sister River (Summer Glau). As in the movie, he helped her sister escape from the clutches of The Alliance and they live their lives as fugitives aboard Serenity.

All these characters appear in the movie, but in the TV show, we get to watch their characters develop and morph over time as this Wild West solar system throws everything it can at them. There is not a bad episode in the whole series. As the series progresses the relationships between characters and the characters themselves morph. What we viewers get is a fascinating set of characters and dynamics made more interesting by the complex situations they get into. The choice of actors is inspired, and it is clear that the cast had developed real synergy.

The lovely result is a series that in just thirteen episodes is so packed with character development and plot that it still feel like several seasons worth. Joss must have had some inkling that, like a real firefly, his dream show’s life on network TV would be brief. Consequently, every episode is a rich smorgasbord for the viewer.

Just as the Old West was raw, the show can be very raw too. Between the graphic violence, adult themes and sex it borders on being R-rated TV. This is at least PG-13 TV. It is not suitable for young children at all, and I would have hesitated to let my daughter see it age 13. This realism though just adds to its plausibility.

Fans like myself who discovered the series years after it was shown may have to resign ourselves that there will simply be no more morsels of this universe to savor. Nevertheless, I do know that this DVD set will get many viewing from me in the years ahead. Just like there are only ten novels in the Hornblower series, yet I feel I have to reread them all every few years, so I will periodically go back and marvel at the unabashed excellence in thirteen episodes of Firefly now permanently in my DVD collection.

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