Firefly, if you don't know, was a TV series made in 2002/2003 by Joss Whedon. Whedon's the beloved, but ultimately over rated, creator of TV shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and has written the graphic novel The Fray (and currently scripts Astonishing X-Men) and has also written scripts for films like Alien Resurrection. There will be many who won't like the idea that I think Whedon is over rated, but the quality ratio of all those things I've mentioned is patchy, with the two TV shows Buffy and Angel being where Whedon lovers can push quality issues onto other writers and directors. Granted, Whedon episodes such as the musical in Buffy are often the highlight of a season, but since he's the man in creative charge of the shows, blame of the failing of creative ideas (like Glory in Season Five of Buffy)) falls to him. And since I find large tracks of said shows unwatchable, my opinion on his output, though capable and often interesting, is that it tends to be over rated. Still, I guess you can say that about anyone with a fanatic following.
Still, this is why I approached Firefly carefully. Canceled half way through its first season, the early conversation about it can be explained as people getting into the potential that the show had. Having seen the fourteen episodes that form the show, that is still the case. What exists is a tease, a hint at something that could have been excellent... but you will, ultimately, never know. Instead, what you are left with are the ideas you have in your head, and you can get caught up in that potential, especially before the movie Serenity was announced, thinking that there would never be a continuation of the show. (Serenity, for those who don't know, is the film Whedon has made from the ruins of Firefly. Same world, same characters, but a kind of restart, I think.) That said, I wasn't caught by the early conversations of the TV show, because lets be honest, science fiction on television is a fucked up pony at best. Maybe it's just the scars of Star Trek and Dr. Who talking, but outside anime, I've never been able to get into live action science fiction on the telly.
What I'm saying here is that Firefly was facing an uphill battle with me. In what turned out to be a stroke of luck, a channel here in Sydney started playing the show at one o'clock in the morning, and I caught a few episodes by accident. The theme song is ridiculous, but the show itself is a surprising and workable and enjoyable beast, so much so that based off the episodes I saw, I picked up the box set for cheap one day.
The best way to describe Firefly, I think, is that it is a mash of cinema influences. It's Star Wars in that the crew and ship, named Serenity, are essentially Han Solo and Chewbacca and their friends making a living in space with The Millennium Falcon. It has a healthy shot of Aliens by the way of James Cameron thrown in, and the final shot in the mix is the stage filmed westerns such as The Magnificent Seven. I heard, before I watched the show, someone make the comparison to Sergio Leone, but I'll shoot that dead right now. Firefly and Leone aren't existing on the same page in Westerns, if for no other reason than because Leone could show a beautiful, dry American West of myth, while Whedon is capable of showing the same strip of dirt on a back lot again and again in his show. After three or four visits to the same scrub and dirt planet that Whedon populates his universe with, you'll be having back flashes to the sets of films where the sky is a screen in the background, and the rocks look fake. It is, really, the only fault in Whedon's mix, and it probably has more to do with budget than it does his intention, but I was always grateful for the fact that not every episode took me back to those little dusty back lot images.
Still, from my point of view, the fourteen episodes are quite strong.* It follows Mal Reynolds, captain of Serenity, as he and his crew work the fringes of space to avoid the Alliance, the winners of a large galactic war. A solider in that war, Reynolds has named his ship after the nasty stretch of range where the war ended, and he saw thousands of men die. He and his second in charge, Zoe Warren, walked out of that war and into work for themselves as smugglers and thieves. The crew is rounded out with Kaylee (mechanic), Wash (pilot and husband to Zoe) and Jayne (comedy relief and action, occupying much of the same space that Spike did in Buffy, but more on that later). The last member of the crew is the companion, a registered prostitute (a respectable position in this future) by the name of Inara. For my money, she's probably Whedon's most ambitious character in the series: a strong, sexual female without an judgment associated to her sexual actions with men or women. The crew find themselves in a future where unfortunate references to the Earth That Was (or whatever they call it) plague the script, and mar the otherwise interesting concept of a mash of China and America culture in the stars. My one complaint of this, of course, is there's not one main character who is Asian. I know I complain about the whiteness of science fiction a whole lot, but really, if you're going to have Chinese culture, would it be too much of a stretch to see a few Asian characters with large speaking roles? Maybe a title role? Come on, they're int he stars, they're right there with the Americans--
I'm sorry, I'm getting side tracked by this again. Still.
At any rate, the series kicks off with Serenity setting down on a planet to pick up new passengers and a new job, which brings Shepard Book, the priest, and Simon and River Tam, brother and sister, into contact with the crew. Book, like Jayne, suffers from being a character type that we've seen Whedon produce before: the just past middle aged wise man who has a secret of violence and is, perhaps, the most capable of the crew outside the Mal. Think Giles from Buffy. When coupled with Jayne's Spike like position in the crew, the viewer can have a few moments of thinking that they're not really seeing anything new from Whedon in the way of characterisation, but I wouldn't focus on it too hard. Truth is, if you peel back all the layers of Firefly, you'll not be seeing anything 'new', but the same thing can be said of just about everything produced. All you need to do is know the key sequence into the influences and genre history, and you're there.
From there, the fourteen episodes twist into the over arcing secrets of the Tam siblings, while also including train robberies, gunfights in brothels, an Alien spin that works quite well, and some general misbehaving. With the exception of the final episode, you're hard pressed to find one that stands out from the rest, or has that distinctive Whedon mark that set episodes of Buffy and Angel apart from others. The final episode, though, called 'Objects in Space', that's just a fine little thing, perhaps the most perfect of all the episodes made in Firefly. Still, I don't want you thinking that the final episode was the only one I liked--I actually liked them all, and if you've been reading this blog for a while, and known how much I enjoy telling people that they're wrong when it comes to their beloved TV shows, you'll figure, like me, that it means something.
Because of this, I actually find myself looking forward to the film Serenity. I caught the trailer the other week, which looks really quite promising, and I suspect that the plot from it will be a condensed and finished version of season one with River Tam in the centre, but that's okay. You can't have her in the first film and not make it about her, because she is the obvious mystery, and even the series couldn't avoid dealing with her first. That probably means that there will be some overlap with the series and film, but I don't mind, really. I find myself looking quite forward to it.
Bit of a shock, I guess.
* Technically fifteen, though in the box set the first episode is movie length, and plays as one. So I'm counting it as such.