Movie: There's something about the Wild West that appeals to people of all generations. Perhaps it's the way times were (seemingly) simpler compared to the many complexities of modern life or maybe it's just the way that men were men and sheep were afraid, but the bottom line is that over the years, westerns have been a staple of television and feature movies. In a show that borrowed heavily from the western theme, yet retained its own flair, series creator Joss Whedon (known for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel) had a short-lived little show called Firefly.
The show debuted on Fox during the 2002 season to mixed reviews, partly due to the way its episodes were shuffled out of order and partly due to the societal mores our country had after the terrorist attacks the year before. The show was set about 500 years in the future. Mankind had spread across the galaxy by means of technologically advanced spaceships; perhaps spread a bit too fast as a civil war resulted. In what could only be an allegory towards the American Civil War, one side fought to unify the colonized planets under central control, the Alliance, and the other for individuality. The Alliance won and subjugated the losing planets under its rigid rules and order.
The main protagonists of the series were actually the losers of the war. Numbed by the loss of not only the war, but of his ideals as well, Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, struggles as the captain of a small space freighter, willing to take whatever types of jobs come his way in order to preserve a way of life outside of the regimented Alliance. By keeping to the fringes of known space, he leads a crew of interestingly diverse characters on a series of adventures, keeping just one step ahead of those who'd do him harm.
Mal's right-hand man, actually a woman, is Zoe. Her loyalty to him is absolute; if he says to do something, she'll do it (although she'll always consider his welfare above his word if the situation arises). She's exceptionally skilled with weapons and tactics, having learned by Mal's side during the war when he saved not only her life, but also a great many comrades too. Joining them is Zoe's husband, Wash, a talented pilot with superior piloting skill but no hand to hand combat skills; Kaylee, a cute engineer with superior mechanical skills and a heart of gold; and Jayne, a mercenary who's loyalty is with whomever pays the most.
Joining the crew in order to help defray costs are Inara, a registered companion (extremely high priced call girl); Book, a preacher who becomes the moral compass of the cast but has a dark, secret past; Simon, a young and brilliant doctor, and his sister River, a gal with a superior mind that has been enhanced to the breaking point by Alliance scientists. Each passenger brings something different to the show's dynamic, as do the crew, and I can only hope that the show gets resurrected in the future since it had so much going for it. Here's a breakdown of the four DVD set by the episodes in the order they were SUPPOSED to be aired in, as placed by Mr. Whedon. Note that the subtle differences of the crews interactions made a lot more sense this way, leading me to believe that the critics initially panning the show might've had a different take if allowed to see the show as it was intended to be shown.
Serenity Part 1 & 2:
This was the two-hour premiere show that actually aired last (12/20/02), due to a faulty network decision. Written and directed by creator Joss Whedon himself, it introduced the cast and outlined the universe in which they lived. The Alliance is viewed in a dim light by the crew as an organization that would interfere with their plans and a group known as the Reavers are described as a threat to all thinking people. There was a great audio commentary by Whedon and Nathan Fillion (Malcolm Reynolds) to increase the replay value.
The Train Job:
This was the first episode that aired (9/20/02) and was also directed by Whedon as well as co-written by him and fellow executive producer Tim Minear. In it, the crew is hired by a Mafioso type who gives them what seems to be an easy, well paying job to steal some cargo from a train but it quickly goes sour when the details of the cargo come to light. This episode had a commentary by both Whedon and Minear who discussed the technical aspects of the shows beginnings as well as some criticism about what happened to get them cancelled.
Coming across an apparently abandoned ship in space, the crew tries to salvage anything of value they can until a survivor is found aboard. The ship's crew was attacked by Reavers and as the crew of the Serenity attempted to leave, they were boarded by an Alliance cruiser, with a captain that accused them of an illegal salvage operation and began processing the crew as prisoners. When the Reaver problem reappears, only cooperation will save both the Alliance crew and those of Serenity. This episode was written and directed by Tim Minear and aired on 9/27/02.
In an episode written by Jane Espenson and directed by Vern Gillum, the crew attempts to use a social event in order to get hired for a job and Mal gets in hot water defending the honor of Inara to a wealthy duelist. While not the strongest episode of the series, it did have an interesting commentary by Morena Baccarin (Inara), writer Jane Espenson, and costume designer Shawna Trpcic.
Upon delivering the questionable cargo from the preceding episode (cattle), the crew is ambushed by local law officers while Simon and River are kidnapped. With Book critically wounded and no doctor in sight, Mal decides that he must leave the couple to their fate and find an Alliance hospital to save the preacher from death. The episode was written by Drew Z. Greenberg and directed by Michael Grossman, airing on 11/8/02.
Our Mrs. Reynolds:
In another episode written by creator Whedon, although directed by Vondie Curtis Hall, Mal finds himself married to a local after a big celebration in their honor, having saved a small town from bandits. All is certainly not what it appears to be and the race to thwart some space pirates (not unlike themselves in a sense) shows how the crew can work together when they have to. The episode aired on 10/4/02.
In an episode that aired on 10/18/02, written by Ben Edlund and directed by Marita Grabiak, the crew winds up on a planet where Jayne had been active years before. Needless to say, he disguises himself in order to remain low until it's discovered that he has become a folk hero in his absence due to a misunderstanding about a heist gone bad. When his past confronts him with the truth, will he be able to escape it or become another casualty of the harsh mining town?
Out Of Gas:
In one of the best dramatic episodes of the series, an explosion causes Serenity to float dead in space with no air reserves. The rest of the crew split up in order to find the needed part to repair the ship but Mal is left aboard when there's a lack of seating aboard the escape pods. As he clings to life, will he run out of time before the crew return? The episode aired on 10/25/02, was directed by Tim Minear and written by David Solomon, both of whom contributed to the audio commentary.
In an episode airing on 11/15/02 and written by Jose Molina, Simon suggests the next operation. Dumbfounded by the straight-laced doctor's offer, the crew decides to steal from a hospital on an Alliance world in trade for taking him there to run tests on River (in order to determine exactly what the Alliance scientists did to her that's causing her mental instability). As the old saying goes, "The best laid plans…" The episode was directed by Allan Kroeker and really deserved a commentary track of its own.
The mob boss from The Train Job episode finally catches up with Mal and the Serenity. Against all odds, the crew attempts to save both him and Wash from the gangster's clutches but they are unprepared to protect their friends from horrific torture. The episode aired on 12/6/02, was directed by James Contner, written by Cheryl Cain, and had a lot of background material of the two leads in the form of flashbacks. There was also an audio commentary by Nathan Fillion (Mal) and Alan Tudyk (Wash).
This was the first of the unaired episodes and was directed by both Ben Edlund and Jose Molina, with Vern Gillum handling the writing. It reunited Mal and the crew with Saffron, Mal's "wife" from the Our Mrs. Reynolds episode who offers to cut them in on a great heist. They don't trust her for all the right reasons but their prospects had been so limited that they considered her offer (out of greed). The episode included some male nudity for the female viewers.
In the second episode that never aired in the USA, Mal and Zoe get a large package from an old war buddy of theirs that they took care of during the war. Sadly, it contains his dead body and a note to take him to his parents so he can be laid to rest but all is not as it seems when an Alliance captain seems intent on getting the body into custody. The episode was written by both Joss Whedon and Tim Minear with Tim directing. There was an audio commentary with Alan Tudyk (Wash) and Jewel Staite (Kaylee).
Heart Of Gold:
In the third, and last, episode that never aired domestically, writer Brett Matthews and director Thomas J. Wright, presented their version of the Dirty Dozen as the crew came to the aid of an old friend of Inara's, the Madame of a backwater bordello. With corrupt local officials trying to get custody of a newborn baby, can the crew protect their charges before tragedy ensues?
Objects In Space:
In the last regular episode aired, director/writer Joss Whedon presented a show about a street-smart bounty hunter intent on capturing River after incapacitating the ship and crew. This was another particularly exceptional episode with a lot of replay value due in part to the commentary track.
The show was definitely a paradox for me in that it glorified a group of people who were not only outside the law, choosing to live by their own personal code of honor instead of societal mores, but willing to do almost anything in order to keep afloat in a harsh universe. At first, I thought the series was going to be about the usual clean cut cast that fought the good fight but creator Whedon made sure to blur the distinctions between the leads and the people of the sanitized Alliance. In many ways, the Alliance seemed to be slight parodies of the entire Star Trek universe-lots of rules, keepers of the faith, high technology users, while the main part of the show focused on what would certainly be the underbelly of that type of society-the ones that didn't fit in, didn't want to give up their individuality to become what amounts to a collective hive mind (like the Borg from ST: TNG). That made the potential for Firefly to be so much more interesting then the Roddenberry franchise and explore areas that have barely been touched by science fiction television.
Contributing to the quality of the show was the characterizations as portrayed by the actors, all of who seemed comfortable by the third or fourth episode, and the writing, which wasn't shy about showing character flaws of the characters. Contrast that to most of the pie-in-the-sky shows where the biggest flaw the characters have is so minor as to be totally unidentifiable to most normal people. Let's face it, people are not perfect and shows that suggest otherwise quickly become boring. Rather than make us resent the characters for being something no one could ever truly attain, Whedon made sure that we got to see that flawed people could be generally good too.
If the writing, direction, acting and basic premise itself were so compelling, why did the show fail? Like most science fiction, it takes time to develop a loyal fan base and get decent ratings. Fox never gave the series a chance to succeed and appear to have aired it in order to keep Joss Whedon happy, later pointing to low ratings as the reason for pulling the plug early. The mixture of Chinese and English, along with some of the other concepts, probably made it a bit less accessible to casual viewers, and the order the episodes were televised sure didn't help engage such viewers, nor did placing the show on an intermittent schedule (not to mention on a Friday night!!!) make it easy to follow.
For all it's merits, I'm rating this one as Highly Recommended based as much on the content as the extras, technical matters and willingness to buck the standardized format broadcast television is known for. I hope Mr. Whedon can get financing to revive the series or at least make a movie or two based on the characters. I think he has a lot of worthy ideas worth exploring and it'd be a shame if the suits won this battle.
Picture: The picture was presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen as originally shot (although it was broadcast in full frame 1.33:1 ratio on Fox). The colors were not always perfectly displayed as the show was supposed to reflect a certain look (Whedon mentioned the technical matters a lot in his commentaries) but on an artistic level, they worked quite well. Further, the various camera work was purposely designed to look a bit edgy, rather than the picture perfect shots that are visually pleasing but ultimately boring as most shows use. I saw no artifacts in multiple viewings, the CGI effects were usually well done and the overall impression I got was that this set was a labor of love for all the people involved with it.
Sound: The audio was presented in Dolby Digital surround 2.0 with a choice of either English, Spanish or French tracks and optional subtitles in English and Spanish. The special effects and music sounded better than average for a television show but weren't state of the art by any means. The vocals were clear and crisp, although again, it seemed as though the visual art direction was also used on the audio tracks (although Whedon never mentioned it in his commentaries). If a feature film is made, I hope a 5.1 track will really add depth that was missing here but it's tough to complain since the audio track did lend some ambiance to the visuals.
Extras: There were a bunch of audio commentary tracks, as described above, that really added a lot of value for me. Instead of just one person contributing them, there was a nice mix between creative staff and actors although I wish more of the cast had been in on them. The best featurette was the half hour making of Firefly show. It was a behind the scenes look at the show and was easily the best of the bunch but the gag reel by Nathan Fillion was also pretty good, Alan Tudyk's audition (lasting just over a minute), a special on the CGI/special effects used to make the ship, Serenity, and Joss Whedon touring the set a bit were all worth watching at least once. The short bit where Joss Whedon sang the opening song and an Easter egg of Adam Baldwin (Jayne) singing the Hero of Canton song were less thrilling for me. Lastly, there were four deleted scenes with a brief description as to which show they came from, why they were deleted, and each was pretty good. The DVD box was cardboard but the individual discs were in the thin plastic cases like the first set of The Man Show (rather than the onerous fold out boxes most series have been using).
Final Thoughts: The technical matters were well thought out, the extras solid and the content enough to give fans something to cheer about until the show can either be revived, a feature released, or maybe a series of books started to continue the story Joss Whedon attempted to show. The series handled a lot of territory, going so far as to explain how come revolvers and other low-tech devices survived so long in a way that made a lot more sense than critics seem to be willing to accept. In that way, the attention to detail seemed a lot more intelligent than I've come to expect and it was all done with ample amounts of humor (sometimes in the form of innuendoes) which kept the show fresh during its short run. Even though the episodes often borrowed heavily from other works, they usually combined aspects that have been overlooked far too often and that made fans willing to invest some time into the show come out winners. If you have any interest in science fiction, westerns, allegories of historical events, or simply intelligent television (I know that's almost always an oxymoron), you'll want to check this one out.