Friday, August 5, 2011

Before Watching Serenity . . . Why Firefly Is Must-Watch Television!

The Good: Excellent acting, Good character development, Intriguing "universe"
The Bad: Takes serious investment of faith in Joss Whedon, Simplification of special effects.
The Basics: With a wonderfully diverse cast, Firefly tells the compelling story of smugglers in the future on the run from an authoritarian government.

Once upon a time, there was a show by Joss Whedon on the Fox network. Fox did not promote it and soon it was canceled. Fans of Joss Whedon's work were sad. But then, television shows on DVD became the highest grossing entertainment source in the United States and all sorts of television shows made it to DVD. DVD sales were responsible for the return of Family Guy. And DVD sales were responsible for a movie called Serenity!

Serenity (reviewed here!) is the movie that continues the story that was begun on television in the series Firefly. Firefly is a fairly unique view of the future. Unlike Star Trek's utopian vision or Alien's dystopian vision or Star Wars' vision of somewhere else entirely, Firefly's basic view of the future is this: humanity survived long enough to visit the stars. But then, the bureaucracy and governments stretched too far and a civil war broke out. And in the end, the powerful government - the Alliance - won and the outlying colony worlds basically get shafted. Left on their own to fend for themselves, the places most distant from Earth are basically rogue, making do with what they can. It's the West. Firefly looks and feels like a Western. With spaceships. And curses in Mandarin Chinese.

Captain Mal Reynolds is a man who was a leader on the losing side of the civil war which has been over for over half a decade. He has become a smuggler, soaring around the galaxy in his Firefly-class ship Serenity. Barely making ends meet to keep fuel in the ship, Mal and his crew take whatever work they can get, usually moving illegal cargo. When they take on a fancy doctor and his deranged sister, Serenity becomes targeted by the Alliance and is forced to flee deeper into space, where opportunities are fewer and the threats are more horrific.

The series is about the flight of the ship and the interactions of the characters who are forced together. As Serenity flees from the Alliance, the crew's lives are complicated by the fugitives in their midst and the secrets River has locked in her head.

One of the most intriguing and well-conceived aspects of Firefly is that this is a show with great range and appeal. It is hard to define as it takes place in the future with a space ship, but everyone looks like cowboys. It's a work without real genre and that takes a lot of faith to stick with. Joss Whedon has a lot of street credibility with the successes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel; it's easy to see how he got the pilot made based on that. However, unless one is a fan of his earlier works and willing to take on that faith that the show will continue to go somewhere that is going to pay off, it's easy to see why network executives would be freaked out by it and not know what to do with it.

Fortunately, I am a fan of Angel and Buffy The Vampire Slayer and I was willing to invest some of that faith Whedon had built up in watching this series. It was worthwhile. Firefly succeeds because of the distinctive character interactions and the compelling situations those characters are put into. As Serenity flees the Alliance, various characters have their mysteries explored and revealed. Mal thinks twice about some of the jobs he takes and the straight-laced Simon illustrates he will do anything to save his sister by mapping out one of the most dangerous jobs for the crew; stealing medical supplies from the Alliance. And while they work together or fight, there are other threats. On the frontier, there are insane, mutilated humans who fly around in ships killing anyone they find. They are called Reavers and one of the most impressive aspects of Firefly is that the viewers only see their effects, never the actual villains.

In fact, one of the most impressive leaps Whedon takes is to create a barren universe for the viewer. Humans are it in this vision of the future. There are no aliens, no mystical portals. We're out there, we are the heroes, we are the villains. Fortunately, Joss Whedon is clever enough to pull it all off.

Like all Whedon shows, this is a character-driven story and here are the principle characters:

Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds - The leader with moral ambiguity. A striking anti-hero, Reynolds is devoted to his crew and keeping his ship safe and as independent of the Alliance as possible. He still feels loss over the outcome of the war and while he does not always do the morally correct thing, he always does what he thinks is best. With wit and charm, Reynolds is the one who runs the boat,

Zoe - Mal's first officer. She served with Mal in the war and is loyal to him and Serenity in a way that almost borders on love. She is married to Wash and her loyalty to Mal creates some tension between her and her husband. Efficient and clever, she is Mal's right hand,

Jayne - Mal's security officer and a big, dumb brute. Jayne is the most treacherous of the crew whose purpose seems to be effectively the muscle. He is always prepared to take the ship away from Mal and sell the crew out for more money. With his love of weapons and conflict, Jayne is a dangerous man to know,

Kaylee - Serenity's chief engineer and the heart of the ship. She is shy and charming and an expert in what keeps a Firefly flying. What Mal is to the crew, she is to the ship and her down-to-Earth demeanor leads her to an awkward attraction to Simon,

Wash - The ship's navigator. He has a sense of humor and a quick wit. His marriage to Zoe is one the rocks over their lack of privacy and time alone,

Inara - A Companion (high-class hooker, a very reputable position in this universe) who has a great deal of dignity. Despite herself, she finds herself often attracted to the oblivious Mal. She brings an air of class and legitimacy to the scoundrel crew and is useful in more than one pinch,

Shepherd Book - Essentially a traveling priest. Despite Mal's devout atheism, Book pays his way and joins the crew as a moral compass. However, Book seems to have a past and a certain amount of influence with the Alliance that makes others question if he is all that he appears,

Simon - The brilliant doctor. He is an amazing physician and his love and compassion overflows for his sister, River. He has sacrificed everything for her and while he loves her and seeks to protect her, he finds himself attracted more and more to Kaylee,

and River - A genius with a shattered psyche. River is an enigma. She is apparently a genius of amazing proportions who was the subject of cruel and invasive experiments at the hands of the Alliance. Her mystery leads Serenity into most of its difficulties.

The characters are very distinctive and very likable and interesting. Unfortunately, they are also not entirely segregated from other Joss Whedon characters. Mal, for example, has several lines that could have come from Angel and, sadly, Nathan Fillion delivers them in a way very reminiscent of the other show's star.

Truly, though, the cast is extraordinary. Veteran actor Ron Glass portrays Book with dignity and charisma. Summer Glau, formerly a ballerina, is surprisingly good as the awkward and crazy River, managing to create a unique performance that is not based on anyone else's work. Adam Baldwin plays Jayne with great physical presence and a subtle wit that is a great deal of fun to watch.

Gina Torres is absolutely fabulous as Zoe. Torres is a wonderful character actress and must be one of the most beautiful people on the planet. The irony of that is that at many times, Torres is supposed to look haggard or weary in Firefly, but she's unable to pull it off because of her flat out beauty. That is not to say Torres is simply a pretty face. Indeed, she has a great deal of character and ability that is utterly convincing in this role. She can make her eyes sag and her shoulder's slump to look exhausted, but she's still Gina Torres and she's still gorgeous.

Jewel Staite is wonderful as Kaylee. She brings a youth and exuberance to the role that keeps the mood of the show from descending into utter depression or futility. Staite has awesome ability to light up a scene with her smile and her control for the expressiveness of her face and eyes is amazing. As Kaylee, Staite is required to go from expressing simple joy to disappointment (usually in differences with Simon) within an instant and Staite executes such turns impressively and with utter convincing. She's a treat to watch and while her character is the soul of the ship, this actress has much of the soul of the show.

But the one who moves the show and makes it work is Nathan Fillion. As Mal, Fillion projects a casual air mixed with a strange, all-consuming authority. There is not a single moment of the show that the viewer does not believe that Mal is the king of his own little realm and much of that comes from Fillion's portrayal. He is tough and likable in a way that makes for compelling viewing.

Who will like Firefly? Certainly anyone who likes Joss Whedon's other works. Anyone who likes Westerns and science fiction will enjoy this show. Anyone who enjoys strong character-driven works and is willing to give the show a chance to build where it is going, will find much to enjoy in Firefly. And the show is going somewhere.

It's too bad it got canceled before it could get there. At least it will continue in the theaters . . . and in graphic novels like Those Left Behind (reviewed here!)

For other shows that originally aired on FOX, please check out my reviews of:
Family Guy Presents: It’s A Trap!
Glee - Season Two, Volume One
Fringe - Season Two
Arrested Development
The Lone Gunmen
The X-Files
The Adventures Of Brisco County Jr.


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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  1. Nice rewiew...."Anyone who likes Westerns and science fiction will enjoy this show. Anyone who enjoys strong character-driven works and is willing to give the show a chance to build where it is going, will find much to enjoy in Firefly. And the show is going somewhere."... I fit into both of those categories, and I wholeheartedly agree with the closing statement, Firefly is constantly on the move, at least in our hearts and minds, and it still has places to go.

  2. Thank you!

    I am glad you enjoyed the review! The "Firefly"/"Serenity" graphic novels try to fill in some of those gaps; I've reviewed most of them.

    Thanks again for reading!