Our review of Firefly: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray), published November 17th, 2008, is also available.
"You got a job, we can do it, don't much care what it is."—Captain Malcolm Reynolds
In the fall of 2002, Fox premiered Firefly, the new science fiction series by Joss Whedon, creator of the pop culture juggernaut Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its Angel spin-off. Received with critical and popular acclaim, Firefly went on to garner the kind of fanatical devotion among viewers that Buffy didn't achieve until its third year. Fox had an instant classic on its hands, a show that not only brought something fresh and original to television, but enjoyed an eager, loyal fan base ready to turn Firefly into the next Buffy. So the Fox powers-that-be, holding this golden goose in their laps, took the next logical step:
They cancelled it.
Facts of the Case
Taking place 500 years in the future, Firefly follows the exploits of the crew of Serenity, a small run-down cargo ship, as they hop from planet to planet looking for work, both legal and otherwise. The ship is captained by Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, who played the "false Ryan" in Saving Private Ryan), a cynical, war-weary veteran on the losing end of a devastating civil war. Among his crew is loyal first mate Zoë (Gina Torres); her husband, wisecracking pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the incongruously adorable ship's mechanic (like Scotty, but cute); Inara (Morena Baccarin), a "companion," sort of a cross between a geisha and a Babylonian temple prostitute; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), an oafish thug with even less scruples than brains; the ship's handsome but stuffy doctor, Simon (Sean Maher) and his touched-in-the-head sister River (Summer Glau); and a benevolent but mysterious clergyman named Shepherd Book (Barney Miller's Ron Glass).
I'll let Mal explain the show's premise himself, quoting from the show's narration:
"Here's how it is: Earth got used up, so we terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths, some rich and flush with new technologies, some not so much. Central Planets, them was formed the Alliance, waged war to bring everyone under their rule; a few idiots tried to fight it, among them myself. I'm Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the Serenity. Got a good crew: fighters, pilot, mechanic. We even picked up a preacher, and a bona fide companion. There's a doctor, too, his genius sister from some Alliance camp, so they're keeping a low profile. You got a job, we can do it, don't much care what it is."
The twist that Whedon brings to this space opera is blending the sci-fi elements with a look and feel straight out of a Western. While most series set in outer space are homages to Westerns on some level, Firefly makes the theme much more explicit. And just to make the whole thing that much odder, Whedon throws in elements of Chinese culture (in the Firefly universe, the U.S. eventually forms an alliance with its sister superpower China) and has his characters blend Chinese expressions into their dialogue. (It's a great way to let the characters curse without running into trouble with the censors, although I imagine the show takes on a bit more spice for Chinese-speaking viewers.)
Firefly: The Complete Series contains a two-part pilot and 12 regular episodes spread out over four discs, packaged in a format I wish would be standard for multi-disc sets—four individual plastic mini-cases housed inside a cardboard box. I much prefer this packaging to the fold-out Digipak, which usually ends up creasing the box.
"Serenity (Parts 1 and 2)": The crew of Serenity is eager to rid themselves of an easily traceable cargo they salvaged from a vessel adrift in space, totally unaware that a passenger has brought an even more dangerous cargo aboard. This series pilot was rejected by the network and remained unaired until the very end of the show's run. The cast and crew on this one were clearly settling into their roles and refining their production techniques, so this first episode comes across as a little uneven in comparison with the others. But it does the job in terms of laying out the premise of the series and introducing the characters. Features commentary by Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion. Grade: B
"The Train Job": Mal has second thoughts after discovering that two boxes of Alliance goods his crew has been hired to steal are full of badly needed medical supplies headed for the mining town of Paradiso. After Fox rejected the pilot, this episode received an 11th hour rewrite to serve double duty as Firefly's unofficial introduction. The result isn't as awkward as one might expect, but it's far from the finest moment of this series. On the plus side, this episode features one of the most hilarious and startling gags ever. Features commentary by Joss Whedon and executive producer Tim Minear. Grade: B-
"Bushwhacked": After encountering a booby-trapped spacecraft carrying the lone crewmember of a horrific Reaver attack, Serenity is boarded by an Alliance Commander looking for Simon and River. Grade: B+
"Shindig": In order to secure a job transporting cargo off-planet for a client, Mal attends a social event where a dance with Inara leads to him being challenged to a swordfight in defense of her honor. Features commentary by writer Jane Espenson, Morena Baccarin, and costume designer Shawna Trpcic. Grade: A-
"Safe": When Simon is kidnapped by a group of villagers in need of a doctor, Serenity is forced to make contact with an Alliance ship in order to seek medical help for the critically wounded Book. Grade: B
"Our Mrs. Reynolds": After a celebration in which the crew is honored for ridding a planet of a group of bandits, they return to Serenity to find a woman named Saffron who claims that Mal married her during the festivities. Grade: A
"Jaynestown": When the crew returns to a planet where Jayne participated in a heist gone bad, they're shocked to discover that Jayne's past actions have turned him into a local hero of Robin Hood-like proportions. Grade: A-
"Out of Gas": After an explosion leaves Serenity crippled, Mal orders everyone to abandon ship while he stays behind in an attempt to make repairs—and reminisces how he found the ship and picked its crew. A powerful character-based story that cements the family bonds between the characters, "Out of Gas" is a high point of the series. Features commentary by Tim Minear and director David Solomon. Grade: A+
"Ariel": Simon offers the crew a proposition: if they help him sneak River into a hospital so he can run tests on her, he'll tell them where to find medical supplies that will fetch an enormous price on the black market. One of the great things about Firefly is that it never falls back on easy moralizing or black-and-white heroes and villains. The characters in this episode do some questionable things, and to Whedon's credit he doesn't let anyone off the hook. Grade: A
"War Stories": Wash regrets insisting he be allowed to accompany Mal on a mission after the two men are captured by Adelai Niska—the client who previously hired Mal to steal the medicine bound for Paradiso. This ep contains the best line of the whole series. Zoë, stopping Jayne from aiding Mal in a fight: "This is something the captain has to do for himself." Mal: "No! No it's not!" Features commentary by Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk. Grade: A+
"Trash" (Unaired): Mal is shocked to discover his new friend is Saffron who, although furious after Mal blows her cover, offers to cut Mal in on what she calls the perfect, big-time scam. Fans of the sexy but black-hearted Saffron will be delighted to see her back to her old tricks in this never-aired episode, one of three brand-new episodes in the set. Grade: A-
"The Message" (Unaired): While Jayne opens a mail package from his mother that contains a wool cap with ear flaps and a pom-pom, Mal and Zoë open their package to discover the body of their old war buddy, Tracey. Another never-aired episode, featuring some of the finest performances and music of the series. Features commentary by Alan Tudyk and Jewel Staite. Grade: A
"Heart of Gold" (Unaired): The crew comes to the aid of a bordello when its madam, an old acquaintance of Inara's, asks for help after a gunslinger claims a prostitute's baby is his and he's taking it because his wife's barren. The third unaired episode, more of a conventional action story along the lines of Seven Samurai. Grade: A-
"Objects in Space": The crew is caught off-guard when a bounty hunter, eager to claim the enormous reward on River's head, sneaks aboard Serenity and methodically begins taking the crew prisoner one by one. The last new episode to air; Fox belatedly ran the pilot following this one. With sharp, funny dialogue that encapsulates the quirkiness that made this show something special, Firefly goes out on a high note. Features commentary by Joss Whedon. Grade: A+
As interviews and comments Whedon has given since the demise of the series make clear, Fox simply did not know what it had on its hands with Firefly. The studio never properly supported the series from the beginning, first by nixing the pilot and forcing the series to begin in mid-stream, then by airing episodes out of sequence (deadly for a series that focuses as much on ongoing stories as this one) and constantly pre-empting the show in favor of baseball games. Despite all these bungles (and the Friday night Timeslot of Death), Firefly quickly attracted a loyal audience, who fought tooth and nail to keep the show on the air (even taking out a full-page ad in Variety pleading their case). In true industry fashion, though, it wasn't the lousy decisions of studio execs that was blamed for Firefly's low ratings, but the show itself.
I missed Firefly completely during its short run, so this boxed set was my introduction to the series. After watching it, I have to wonder exactly what Fox was thinking in not putting its entire weight behind the show, and giving it the axe after only a handful of months. But then, this being the Fox network, I'm sure the prospect of putting money into an expensive science fiction series was much less attractive than simply slapping together some zero-budget reality show like Joe Millionaire or American Idol. Whedon is too diplomatic to fully vent his frustration, but the more he reveals of Firefly's cruel studio treatment (Fox was apparently expecting a light comedy along the lines of…Buffy, which it apparently believed was a sitcom), the more evident it becomes that everyone involved with this series was royally screwed.
The beauty of Firefly is its original take on the science fiction series, coupled with Joss Whedon's unique brand of quirky, cliché-overturning storytelling. Most "skiffy" series, from Star Trek to Babylon 5, tend to be stately, grandiose affairs, dealing with galaxy-shaking matters and led by noble, heroic figures chock full of honor and high ideals—in the words of Mozart in Amadeus, "People so lofty, you'd think they shit marble!" Firefly, by design, flies in the face of that tradition, giving us characters who aren't so much heroes as survivors. They're not seeking out new worlds, or saving the galaxy from alien hordes. (In fact, the closest Firefly comes to featuring aliens is the unseen space-pirate Reavers, and even they're nominally human beings.) Instead, the crew of Serenity spend most of their time making shady deals and scrabbling for cash. In other words, this isn't so much about epic adventure as it is about our own everyday lives. But, you know, more exciting.
As with all of Whedon's series, Firefly is really about family, and that's the most compelling aspect of this ensemble-driven show. Some of its most effective moments are simply shots of the crew eating supper or playing basketball together, engaging in easy banter and just hanging out. Whedon has created great roles, peopled them with terrific actors, and put them into episodes that aren't notable for their storylines so much as their opportunities for character interaction and growth.
Not that the stories themselves are lacking. If you've seen even one episode of Buffy or Angel, you know much of what to expect in Firefly. Whedon loves to usurp expectations and deflate self-importance, and that subversive attitude provides some of Firefly's most memorable moments, as when Mal deals with a hostage-taker in a way that's not just surprising but shocking in its offhand nature; or when one villain that, in any other series, would become an ongoing nemesis, is dispatched with such abrupt swiftness that I was completely caught off guard. But Firefly isn't just about snark and humorous anticlimax; Whedon knows when to play it straight. He obviously feels deeply about these characters, and his passion brings every moment of the show to life.
Another distinctive element of Firefly is its visual style. Whedon made a point of instructing his cameramen and visual effects crew to make their work a little messy, to lend a realistic quality to the show. As a result, instead of the clean visuals that typify the science fiction genre, we see lens flares, shaky handheld cameras, zooms, and sloppy rack focuses even in CGI shots. While initially the handheld stuff is a little annoying and distancing, these artless, vérité techniques give Firefly an immediacy and realism you'll never see on an episode of Enterprise. The show feels raw and lived-in, and that rough quality really sells the frontier premise.
That exciting visual style is nicely captured on this DVD set; Firefly is presented in a gorgeous 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that captures every nuance of the grime that covers most everything on the show. Firefly doesn't feature a particularly broad color palette—it's mostly sepia-tinged, with lots of browns and tans, and when it's not sepia it's gunmetal gray—but its limited palette is beautifully rendered. About the only flaw I could detect is some excessive grain in darker scenes (probably a result of low-light digital photography). In short, this is a good-looking series, and it looks terrific on disc.
As with most top-flight TV series on DVD, Firefly gets a Dolby 2.0 Surround audio track that is energetic and active but doesn't do the kind of justice to the show that true 5.1 surround would have. As it is, the 2.0 surround is more than serviceable, with a lively sound field and rich, clear tones on both ends of the dynamic range. About the only complaint I had about the audio is that the voices tend to get a little buried in the busy mix.
Fox must have felt some remorse for the way it treated the show, because the Firefly box set itself is an impressive package, with far more in the way of extra features than one would expect from a series that didn't even make it past midseason. Leading things off are seven (count 'em) audio commentaries, featuring various members of the cast and crew, including Whedon. Between the quirky weirdness of the show's Chinese-Western Space Opera premise and its tragic demise, there's a lot of explaining that needs doing, and Whedon and company step up to deliver informative commentaries that lend a great deal of insight into the show's history and the thinking behind Whedon's artistic decisions.
Chief among the other features are three "making-of" featurettes: one detailing the origins and fate of Firefly, one focusing on the good ship Serenity herself, and one brief clip of Whedon touring the Serenity set. There are four deleted scenes, two from the pilot, one from "Our Mrs. Reynolds," and one from "Objects in Space," all with text introductions briefly explaining why they were snipped. (The scenes from the pilot really ought to have been left in, since they lend valuable context to the somewhat confusing opening, as well as giving us welcome character-development moments.) We also get an amusing snippet of Alan Tudyk's audition video, a fairly awful but funny clip of Joss singing the Firefly theme song (which he wrote), and a gag reel shown at the production's holiday party, which takes on some poignant overtones since it ended up being their series wrap party.
Finally, on the fourth disc, there's a hilarious Easter egg featuring a singing Adam Baldwin. To find it, just go to the special features section, highlight Joss Whedon's name, and press "left."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although I found Whedon's offbeat combination of the Western and science fiction genres an interesting change of pace, the cowboy motif, at least initially, might strike viewers as a little artificial and heavy-handed. It isn't until later episodes that the Wild West theme begins to feel more organic. Also, the frequent Chinese expressions dropped into the dialogue might seem confusing at first, but it feels more natural as the series goes on, and its Eastern influences become more apparent.
As much as I like the crew of Serenity, I could have done with a little less wackiness from River, the young sister of the ship's medic. She's the show's idiot savant, a genius whose brain has been tampered with by a sinister government agency, turning her into sort of a cross between Delirium from Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Wednesday Addams. When Joss did the "weird waif" thing in Buffy with Drusilla it was kind of cute in a warped way, but it's starting to get old. After a few episodes of River wandering around in her nightgown babbling as everyone exchanges puzzled looks, I was praying for the crew to pack her back in the crate she came in. Fortunately, she gets less annoying as the series progresses, and by the final episode, I actually came to like her.
Watching this Firefly collection with the knowledge that this is all there is, I found myself becoming angrier with each successive episode. From a strong if uneven start, the show just gets better and better. The characters deepen and the identity of the crew, individually and as a group, becomes more defined, their stories more appealing the better we get to know them. The overall story begins to emerge, and it's a fascinating one, filled with possibilities under the direction of this sharp creative team. And then it just ends, with all those tantalizing threads left dangling. This was clearly a deeply personal labor of love for Whedon, and as special as these episodes are, they only point to the larger potential of the series. Once again, what was Fox thinking?
The dedication of Whedon and the show's fans is such that there is apparently a Firefly feature film in the works. It's great to hear that the show may be getting a new life in theaters, a la Trek, and I hope it inspires some other network to pick it back up, because if any TV series deserves a second chance, it's Firefly.
The crew of Serenity is cleared on all charges, and the court sentences the Fox execs who axed Firefly, in the words of Shepherd Book, "to burn in a very special level of Hell, a level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater."
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