The nameless insect is brightly lit, but it doesn’t last long. This ironic sign speaks volumes about what happened to its Renewed TV Series Firefly. Joss Whedon’s space-western was posthumously better on DVD than it was during its short, disorderly broadcast on Fox in 2002 and 2003. Gene Roddenberry might have described his Star Trek as ” Wagon Train up to the stars”, but JossWhedon’s Firefly has the same arid aesthetic. In the year 2517 A.D. Mankind colonized a new star system, terraforming moons and planets to resemble America’s Dust Bowl. One hopes not. These new worlds are the result of a conflict between the “Alliance”, consisting of Earth’s American superpowers and China’s superpowers, and the defeated Browncoats of distant worlds who fought to be independent.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is a veteran of the “Unification War”. He’s a brawler and smuggler who named his ship “Serenity”, after a famous battle. Mal’s loyal crew includes his wartime comrade Zoe, Gina Torres, her snarky pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), Inara, a pre- V Morena Baccarin, and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a tomboy engineer, and Jayne Cobb, a pre- Chuck but post- Predator2 Adam Baldwin. After the tragic events of the pilot, they are joined by the pious Shepherd Book, a calm man of faith, and the fugitive siblings Simon and River Tam (Summer Glau), the former a gifted physician, and the latter a young girl with extraordinary combat skills and psychic abilities.
Firefly is as sharp and creative as you would expect from the wordsmith behind Buffy. Angel was also a prolific writer. He has a knack for spotting the clichés in the genre and uses fresh creative options and polished dialogue. Although “Whedonesque” patois may sometimes turn characters into puppets that spout witticisms, it’s the same level of reality Quentin Tarantino has imprinted on his characters. It may seem like every ad-lib Cap’n Mal has been chewed over for days by a stressed-out staff writer. But diamonds require crushing.
Firefly’s premise mirrors Blake’s 7’s. (Does Whedon draws regular inspiration from British classics as his Dollhouse also developed the concept of Gerry Anderson’s Joe 90?) It succeeds in creating a sense of camaraderie among its cast. The cast feels like they have been friends for years. It’s amazing how quickly Firefly became a family to care about, considering how long it took for most of Trek to build chemistry. Casting is the most important factor. This group of actors, many of whom were not well-known at the time, has gone on to do better things than they did in the past. Only a few will likely be condemned to a Galaxy Quest-style existence at fan conventions. But I’ll let you decide which ones will be practicing Grabthar’s Hammer speeches over the next 20 years.
Firefly has its flaws, but that’s not as hard to believe for intransigent Browncoats. Its clear Firefly was primarily responsible for emphasizing its dry viscose background over the sci-fi. The only constant reminder of the show’s half-a-millennia-old future is the presence of spaceships rather than stagecoaches, considering its setting. While I don’t think Firefly required a continuous string of space battles and a time-travel adventure to keep it alive, I thought it would have been refreshing to see more sci-fi ideas explored beyond River’s brain surgery. Don’t forget about the inscrutable villains “The Reavers”, who were whispered about ad nauseam and had to wait until the spin-off movie Serenity to get their moment in sunlight.
The basic concept of Space Pirates is clear and engaging. A motley crew of “space pirates,” smuggle contraband, while avoiding the “space navy”, and any other ne’er do well rivals. It’s no surprise that audiences were baffled by the show’s mix of styles, influences, and ideas, which include Star Wars, Star Trek, and Cowboy Bebop, as well as Buck Rogers, Mad Max, and perhaps BraveStarr, inexplicably dropped Firefly’s pilot.
That cast is amazing! Fillion is as bug-like and maligned as Mal’s beloved ship; Glau is the younger, shrewder brother to Casey from Chuck; Tudyk is a lot of fun as the pilot; Torres is quiet and feminine with her quick draw and bee-stung lips; and Glass almost manages not to become a complete drip as the reliable doc, although he is less of a foil than I thought. Some of the relationships feel fresh in space-faring contexts, with brother/sister, husband/wife duos, and both given opportunities to play those roles naturally.
The episodes are all of high quality, with only a few weak hours (Shindig”, Bushwacked”, Safe”, and “The Message”) — but they managed to reach a noteworthy peak in the third quarter. “Serenity”, the pilot, is a confident introduction. Fox did not air it. Episodes 6 and 7 are just serviceable. Saffron, pre- Christina Hendricks, is a sexy swindler who proves to have stimulating fun. She may be the inspiration for Doctor Who‘s mysterious archaeologist River Tam Song. They share “sweetie-talk” and poisoned lips. The trio of episodes that will make you regret Firefly‘s death arrive soon with “Out Of Gas”, which is a flashback as the crew experience a life-threatening engine breakdown; an undercover mission to an Alliance hospital to brain-scan River, “Ariel”, and “War Stories”, where Mal (and Wash) are tortured and beaten by a mobster.
Perhaps Firefly was lucky to have its brevity, network mistreatment, and success unexpectedly on DVD. Fox’s chaotic scheduling was a great excuse for the show’s failure, but it never had enough time to confront creative challenges. According to the old saying, “Live fast, kill young, and leave behind a beautiful corpse” and that’s what Firefly did, whether or not it wanted. People still visit the grave of Firefly and leave flowers.