Thursday, May 5, 2011

TV – Firefly (2002 - 2003)

While he had two successful shows already on the air (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel), Joss Whedon decided to try his hand at science fiction.  The result was Firefly.  The FOX network quickly picked up the show and almost as quickly cancelled it.  This was shown to be a stunningly bad decision when the story was turned into a major theatrical movie – Serenity (2005.)

The best description I heard for the show was that it was Star Wars, but with Han Solo as the main character, and with him shooting first.  Who wouldn’t want to ride around space with Han Solo on adventures?  Apparently a lot of people would.  Firefly now enjoys what I would consider to be the third largest collection of adult fans (aka “Browncoats”) in the world, only behind Star Trek and Star Wars fans in their numbers.

So why did FOX cancel it?  Low ratings.  Why did it have low ratings?  Because FOX did just about everything possible to kill it.  They aired it Friday nights at 9:00, which is where networks put shows to die.  Not only that, but its lead in was another new show.  Not content to leave bad enough alone, they refused to air Whedon’s two hour pilot that set up what the show was about, who these people were, and what they were doing.  Instead, viewers were just dropped right into the middle of the story, not understanding what was going on.  Even that wasn’t enough for FOX.  They decided to air the shows out of order so that from week to week the interactions of the characters made no sense. 

Despite all this, there still were millions of people who tuned in every week to watch it.  FOX deemed those numbers to be not high enough, though, and cancelled the show after only 10 of the 14 produced episodes had aired.  They refused to even show the rest of them.  They did finally air the two hour pilot long after the show had been cancelled.  When people saw it it illustrated just how stupid the FOX people were because it was everything you could have hoped for – entertaining, funny, good action, and most important, it was a great introduction to the show and the characters.

So what was the show about?  It was literally a western in space. Most science fiction space operas are westerns in disguise.  Take Star Wars, for instance.  A young farm boy gets caught up in trying to rescue a kidnapped girl.  He falls in with an old gunslinger who trains him, and a disreputable man who is out for himself.  He learns that his father was killed by the man they are after and wants revenge on him.  That’s a western through and through.  It just happened to take place in space and used lightsabers instead of guns.

Well, Firefly was overt.  The characters spoke in accents and used words that would be very fitting for a western.  Some carried guns on their hips, although there were some very modern energy weapons, too.

The premise was that a ship’s captain and his crew earned a living ferrying people and goods from one planet to another out on the frontier of human civilization.  Sometimes what they were doing was not strictly legal.  They could usually get away with it because they plied their trade well outside the tight sphere of control of the central government.  The planets further away from the center were the equivalent of the wild west in westerns.  People took care of themselves out there.

It was an ensemble cast.  Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds is played by Nathan Fillion (Castle.)  He owns the ship.  His crew consists of First Officer Zoe Washburne, played by Gina Torres (Matrix Reloaded), pilot Hoban ‘Wash” Washburne, Zoe’s husband, played by Alan Tudyk (Dodgeball), mercenary Jayne Cobb, played by Adam Baldwin (Chuck), and mechanic Kaylee Frye, played by Jewel Staite (Stargate: Atlantis).  Traveling with them on pretty much a permanent basis are Dr. Simon Tam, played by Sean Maher, his sister River Tam, played by Summer Glau (Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles), companion Inara Serra, played by Morena Baccarin (V), and Shepherd Book, played by Ron Glass (Barney Miller.)

Captain Reynolds and Zoe Washburne were on the losing side of a civil war.  They were fighting to get freedom from the repressive central government.  The turning point in the war was the Battle of Serenity Valley where Sgt. Reynolds ended up being the highest ranking survivor.  He held the valley for weeks, losing many of his soldiers.  Zoe was one that survived with him.  Just when it looked like help from his side had arrived, the people leading the rebellion gave him up to the enemy to line their own pockets.  He named his ship Serenity in remembrance of this battle.  The title for the show comes from the fact that it was a “Firefly class” ship.

When the paths of the doctor and his sister intersect with Reynolds they are on the run from the government.  The sister had been the subject of experiments by the central government and her brother had rescued her from them.  The sister is problematic since those experiments have left her not wholly in her right mind.  The government very badly wants her back.  Reynolds has no love for the government so he gives them a place to live on his ship in return for the doctor providing medical care for him and his crew.  Some of the missions prove to be quite dangerous (it is the frontier, after all) so having a doctor around is welcome. 

Not so welcome for Reynolds is Shepherd Book, a holy man.  After Serenity Valley, Reynolds has lost all faith in God, and doesn’t have much patience with those that want to convert him.  In addition to verbally sparring with Reynolds, Book has a mysterious past and seems to know an awful lot about military tactics – something no holy man should be experienced with.

The love interest/antagonist for Reynolds is companion Inara Serra.  In this time period “companions” are men or women who have been trained in the arts of pleasing people.  Think of them like futuristic geishas where those arts are far beyond just sex.  Reynolds, however, sees it as prostitution.  It is a highly respected profession, though, and her presence on the ship actually opens more doors for him, since his profession of ship’s captain is seen as disreputable.

The show did not get many episodes to shine, but what did get produced is outstanding.  When the show was cancelled the outcry from fans was intense.  The show’s legend only grew when it was released on DVD.  Two important things came from this release.  For the first time people could see all 14 episodes in the order they were supposed to be shown.  The result was a show that went from entertaining to truly outstanding.  The second major thing was that the DVD set was a huge seller.  It moved hundreds of thousands of copies in a very short time.  I couldn’t even find a copy at Best Buy the day it was released.  They had sold out within hours.  As I write this, eight years after the show went off the air, the DVD set for the series is still in the Top 100 sellers of all Movie and TV DVDs at Amazon.

That kind of response convinced a movie studio to greenlight a theatrical movie.  That turned out to be Serenity (2005).  Please see my separate post on that.

Many people consider Firefly to be Whedon’s best creation, even better than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is considered to be one of the best shows ever on television.  I place Firefly a close second among the TV shows Whedon has done. Even though this show only had a fourteen episode run, I still give it my highest recommendation. 

Chip’s Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

           DVD                      Blu-ray

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