December 3, 2001
Joss Whedon’s brilliant sci-fi/western is set 500 years in the future and charts the adventures of a mismatched crew of smugglers.
Firefly had an odd gestation. In 2002 Fox came to Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon with the chance to make a brand new show, yet when he delivered a smart, off-the-wall western set in space, they didn’t know what to make of it. The two hour pilot episode, which set the scene by introducing the nine main characters, was dropped at the last minute and replaced by a hastily re-written third episode. Other episodes where shown out of sequence and despite the pilot finally being broadcast (last), a further three episodes never even made it on air. This sort of trouble suggested the show wasn’t going to work, so audiences were left baffled when A) they discovered it was the best thing Joss Whedon had ever made and B) the network dropped it two thirds of the way through the first season.
Firefly begins with soldiers Mal and Zoe caught in the middle of a war zone, pinned down and short on hope. But back-up never arrives and they’re forced to surrender just when it seemed they had a chance to turn things around. Fast-forward five years later and Mal is captain of the Firefly-class ship Serenity, with Zoe his second in command and her husband Wash as pilot. Also on board is Jayne, a muscular hulk of a man who is about as trustworthy as Bugs Bunny in a carrot shop, but who can be counted on in a fight. Kaylee is the ship’s soft-hearted mechanic – a girlie-girl who has a gift when it comes to fixing engines. And Inara is a serene beauty who is regarded throughout society almost as highly as a political ambassador.
Oh, and she’s a prostitute.
Mal is short on money and has some stolen cargo which he needs to get rid of quick-smart before the nasty Alliance track it down. He arranges a deal with an old friend on a distant planet and gathers up a handful of passengers to take with him on the trip for cover. There’s Shepard Book – a preacher who seems to have more to him than meets the eye, Simon Tam – an upper-class doctor who is unnaturally interested in the ship, and lastly Dobson, the resident clutz.
Needless to say, backs are stabbed along the way and things don’t go according to plan at the drop-off. Simon and Book reluctantly decide to stay aboard Serenity and through the course of the series, grow to be considered full members of the crew. Each episode involves Mal planning a big steal and more often than not, he ends up in the desert with no clothes, or strung up in a torture chamber for his troubles. As with Buffy, Whedon uses the science-fiction aspect merely as a launching pad to tell human stories. So we can relate to Mal being hopelessly in love with Inara and vice versa, but their backgrounds dictate they can’t be together. It’s the universal themes of fear or greed or morality that make all the great shows…well, great.
Each of the characters are wonderfully written by Joss Whedon and brought to life by the largely unknown cast (Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres have had guest spots on Buffy and Angel respectively), pulling you into the story more than the special effects, which are also surprisingly good. The chase sequence in the the pilot episode is a stand-out, and it’s no wonder it won an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Series last year. Another interesting decision was to make the exterior space shots silent. So instead of the usual Star Trek whoosh! as the engines fire, here we have the realism of absolute silence (you need air to hear soundwaves, and space is a vacuum). Another TV first.
Firefly may go down in history in the same category as Fawlty Towers or The Prisoner – legendary shows that only lasted for a single series. The DVD boxset contains all fourteen episodes (in their proper order) but seeing as a full season usually runs to twenty-two episodes, the story is left unfinished. So take heart that Whedon is taking the show to the big screen, with the film hopefully due out in 2005. Maybe after that we may even see the series resurrected on TV. You’ll have to wait a while for your answers then, but they are on the way. So buy the series now and see just what you’ve been missing.
Considering Firefly’s troubled production, the care that has gone into making this boxset is exceptional. In the three behind the scenes featurettes you soon see just how commited everybody was to the show, from the cast, who would hang out on set during shooting when they weren’t needed, purely because they enjoyed the story so much, to the crew who embraced Whedon’s attempt to make something completely different. Example: The camera-work is deliberately ‘old school’ to give the show a 70’s feel, with no fancy filters or lenses, and mostly shot hand-held for an almost documentary-style realism.
There are informative commentaries on seven of the episodes by Joss Whedon and/or various other people involved with creating the show, who never miss a chance to slate the stupidity of the Fox network or point out amusing trivia such as Alan Tudyk miming piloting the ship just so they could get a better camera angle.
Also included is a gag reel, deleted scenes (including the original, more sombre opening to the first episode), Alan ‘Wash’ Tudyk’s audition tape, Joss Whedon singing the original version of the Firefly theme song (which he wrote) and an easter egg with Adam Baldwin (Jayne) singing his own theme song from the episode ‘Jaynestown’.
This DVD is nothing short of an essential purchase.