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.

Serenity: space opera done right

This is probably anathema to the legions of Star Wars fans out there, but wasn’t there something missing from the movies? If you are of a certain age, it is hard to see the Star Wars movies (at least the first three movies) with an uncritical eye. Undeniably they were exciting movies with lavish special effects, memorable characters, cute (or annoying, depending on your perspective) robots and a satisfying conclusion. (Good won over evil, or at least was staged to make a comeback.)

I pose a similar question to the legions of Star Trek fans out there too. Certain “generations” of the show were better than others. Which ones were better depends on your perspective. However, there was something missing from all of the series. You accepted some of the absurd premises and the reused plots. Again, it was a neat (and hopeful) premise but it did not quite feel right. Attempts to turn the shows into movies were hit and miss. When they succeeded, they did so largely because we were already comfortable with the characters, which we had seen on many TV episodes.

Space operas have similar plot lines that require suspending disbelief. First, somehow humans have traversed the galaxy with amazing space ships, and have found an escape clause from the Einstein’s two theories of relativity. There is generally an us vs. them premise. There are often aliens. Artificial earth-like gravity is a given. Even in the middle of great space battles the gravity fields never seems to fluctuate. The vast enormities of space that actually exist between stars and planets collapse. Everything seems within shooting range and is at best a couple days away at Warp Nine. When phasers, photon torpedoes or their equivalent hit the spacecraft, sparks fly from instrument panels. Generally, the spacecraft pulls through and the good guys win. The formula has not changed too much since Buck Rogers.

We have all seen plenty of space operas in both the movies and on television. Indeed the SciFi Channel seems to have become largely the space opera channel. Success spanned a plethora of imitations, most of them mediocre. Some, like the Alien movies, seem part space opera and part genuine science fiction.

You will not be surprised to learn then that I noticed well, defects, in both the Star Trek and Star Wars movies, along with many of the shows that imitated them. Therefore, when a movie comes along that has the best of a space opera without the deficiencies then I sit up and take notice. Good news: Serenity is such a movie.

Serenity is a movie version of the Firefly TV show, which had about a dozen episodes before the SciFi Channel Fox Network unwisely canceled it in 2002. As I have largely given up television I never saw these shows. I clearly was missing something. (Since they are on DVD, I am now likely to own them.) The show is directed by Joss Whedon, the clever man who gave us seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and a few of its spinoffs. Clearly, Whedon had an axe to grind with the SciFi Channel Fox for canceling his show. He sold Universal Studios on financing a full-length version of the Firefly universe. Back too is the original cast of the TV show.

Whedon is clearly a cut above the usual television director. The success of Buffy and its consistently fine directing, writing and acting proves the man has oodles of talent. (Whedon wrote and directed most of the Buffy TV shows.) Serenity will remove any doubts that exist that he can also direct for the big screen.

Fortunately, as my experience attests, you do not need to have seen the TV show to follow the movie. It moves briskly and is full of eye candy. Serenity is the name of a space ship piloted by “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of a half dozen or so. Serenity exists in another solar system. Most of the planets have been terraformed to make them habitable for humans. “The Alliance” consists of a number of planets that have formed some sort of government that appears utopian but chokes off creativity and individual expression. Supposedly, a war with rebel planets in the outer rings has been long won by The Alliance. Nevertheless, there are a few lawless outer planets out there where rebels can still be found. Mal and his crew pilot a rather ragged Millennium Falcon-like spacecraft. They spend most of their time doing unlawful things to survive, avoiding man-eating Reavers (berserk human cannibals) and agents from The Alliance. In the movie, The Alliance is especially anxious to bring Serenity down. Why? Because Serenity has onboard a young woman named River (Summer Glau), who can see the future, and who is desperately wanted by The Alliance.

The result is a taut, superbly directed, excellently acted and very engaging space opera. If it has faults, they are the ones you would expect of any space opera. For example, you have to suspend disbelief that the outer planets have a sun that is so darn bright. You also have to wonder why Serenity has to maneuver through a huge fleet of Reaver ships to reach another planet, instead of just going around them. Heck, anyone who knows much about celestial mechanics has to wonder why all these planets seem to stay in the same position relative to each other. So of course, you suspend disbelief. This is after all a space opera, and not something that purists would call genuine science fiction.

Anyhow, once you have thrown off this mental baggage and accepted its surreal aspects then gosh, what a terrific and engaging story! Like with most space operas some of the characters seem a tad on the shallow side, and Mal clearly is channeling Hans Solo. Nevertheless, they are not cardboard characters. Scratch them a little and you find depth missing from most space opera characters.

The result is a space opera classic. It has a lot of competition out there. However, from my perspective it is the sort of movie Star Wars should have been but was not. This movie deserves sequels. I hope it catches on with cinemagoers so we can have many more sequels. You can do your part by suspending your own disbelief and going to see the movie. If you are a space opera buff, this is probably the one for which you have long been waiting.

3.4 on my 4.0 scale.

Star Trek: It’s Dead Jim. Let it Lie

I didn’t think it would happen to me. But I’m finally Trekked out.

Star Trek was so 20th Century anyhow. It’s a new millennium. Let’s evolve. Let’s acknowledge that Star Trek was one fairly cool TV show and surely a powerful meme for a lot of us. But its time is over. It’s time for Trekkies to get a different life and move on.

Admittedly I’ve been on the downward slope for a long time. I usually wasn’t allowed to watch the original TV show it, and caught most episodes on reruns. Much of it was, and still is, excruciatingly bad, but for its time it seemed brilliant. (Compared to “Land of the Giants”, “Time Tunnel”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” and “Lost in Space”, the competition, it was positively brilliant.) Now the sets look cheap. William Shatner is a horrible actor and painful to watch play James T. Kirk. Occasionally a really good director could make him convincing. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan managed to do it. But usually Shatner reverted to form. After a while it was increasingly painful to watch the wreckage.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was a vast improvement, but even it stumbled in its first year and suffered from some continuity problems. (It got better when Riker got a beard.) STTNG revived my interest in the show. As a liberal Democrat I was very much a Jean Luc Picard fan, and to this day I am astonished by the quality of Patrick Stewart’s acting. I know there are a lot of Captain Kirk bigots out there, but Jean Luc was the captain that Kirk was not. Kirk was hot tempered and emotional and survived on tricks. Jean Luc was compassionate and thoughtful and you felt the presence of his command.

The movies were off and on. The even ones tended to be good, the odd ones sucked. STTNG movies have suffered from a similar fate.

I knew I was in trouble when the Star Trek: Nemesis came out and I couldn’t be bothered to see it. My loss I guess. I’ve heard it was pretty good. But as happened to the original cast, STTNG cast is old now too. Even my heartthrob Marina Sirtis is suffering from a sagging face and breasts.

The one thing that might bring me back is a movie with the Borg in it. Star Trek: The Borg Encounter is in production right now and should be out this year. The Borg were absolutely the creepiest villains ever created. I loved all the shows and the movies with the Borg in it. Even Sauron (from “Lord of the Rings”) cannot seriously compete with the Borg for the dubious title of most awful enemy of all time. Klingons and Romulans don’t even raise my eyebrow anymore.

I didn’t like it when STTNG ended but it had seven years and it was about time. I was seeing the same plots over and over again. It went out well.

I tried to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine but couldn’t get into anything other than the Ferrengi. It was too shoot ’em up for me, but the Ferrengi were hoots:Republicans and Libertarians of the 23rd century run amok! They were the perfect way to laugh at the Reaganism and neo-conservatism of the time.

I was disgusted with Star Trek: Voyager. I thought it was cool to have a female Captain but that was about it. Blasting them across the galaxy was just a gimmick. But it didn’t take long before it became more plot repetition. We’d seen these plots before. Actually we had seen them many times. The words were spoken by new characters, but nothing had really changed.

I watched a couple episodes of Enterprise but other than the Vulcan’s curves and one cute dog there was not much there to spur me to watch more. I got out of the habit. Going back in time didn’t seem to make it any more interesting.

Its time is up. Thank you to Gene Roddenberry and the rest of the crew for a nice ride. I enjoyed the couple of conventions I attended. It was nice to meet Majel Roddenberry one time, and lots of cool Trekkies. I’ve enjoyed some of the better fan fiction. When you were good you were really, really good. Sometimes you were really bad. You also had a lot of mediocrity. But it’s dead Jim. It’s time to put Star Trek into its historical package and evolve.