It’s very difficult being the creator of a hugely successful TV series. For when all the plaudits have died down, the press coverage has faded away and your show enters syndication, you are faced with that oh-so-tricky question: what do I do next? The difficult-second-series syndrome has affected some of American TV’s biggest auteurs, from Chris Carter to JMS, and so it was with some apprehension that the world greeted the news that Joss Whedon, creator of the seminal Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was launching a new series. Although he had already kicked off a second series in the form of Buffy spin-off Angel, this was his first foray outside the comfort zone of the Hellmouth, and everyone waited with baited breath to see what he came up with.
And what he came up with was Firefly, a show that continued his interest in genre subversion. Just as Buffy turned all the usual vampiric clichés on its head, so Firefly had a look at what every other science fiction show has ever done, and then completely ignored it. In this future you will find no aliens, no transporter beams, no planet of the week, even arguably no heroes. Following the adventures of Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew of smugglers onboard the ship Serenity (a Firefly class ship, which is where the show gets its name), the series concept owes more to the Western as it does to Star Trek and Babylon 5. From the moment the opening sequence ends with the ship rounding up a group of horses, through to the way that nearly every planet they land on has the appearance of a frontier town, Whedon makes clear that here is a show with its roots firmly planted in the old West, albeit an old West some five hundred years in the future. The idea is simple: as man heads out towards the stars, there will come a split again – just as the North and South went to war in the middle of the nineteenth century, so again people will come into conflict in the future, creating a schism just as far reaching in its consequences.
Science-fiction as Western is not a new concept. From the moment the pulp magazines of the fifties changed over from titles such as “The Lone Ranger” to “Amazing Stories,” through to Gene Roddenbury’s infamous description of Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, there has been this dynamic of science fiction being the new west – as the Wild West was slowly civilised and conquered, so man had to find a new outlet for exploration, for tales of mysterious places and alien cultures, a new metaphor for man’s ever-reaching grasp towards the future which is tinged with fear and trepidation at what he might find there. But never before has the idea of the two being symbiotically joined been realised so literally. The crew of the Serenity dress as though they have just walked out of Dodge City, they carry old-fashioned guns in holsters, they use words like “ain’t” and “critters.” Their main occupation is transportation, and more than once their cargo consists of livestock, a commodity just as precious on new frontier worlds as it was to old frontier towns. Just as the wagons of the old time used to have cross dangerous plains with a potential Indian tribe hiding behind every rock, so the Serenity must cross deep space, ever fearful of running into the Reavers, a society of men gone quite insane who roam the galaxy looking to “rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing”, as Zoe describes it in one episode. Preacher men travel round but have to be handy with a gun, while prostitution is seen as a legitimate, and even respected, form of business, something to be aspired too (although, to be fair, the Companions seem to share as much in common with geishas as they do with their Western equivalents). And, as a clincher, horse-riding seems to be the most popular form of transportation on planet, appearing far more times than the slightly dodgy looking hovercraft things. There is also an Oriental tinge to the culture we find ourselves in (the theory being that of our present world America and Chinese dominance will eventually fuse) but the basis is more Zane Grey than Sun Tsu. On paper this sounds a rather ridiculous concept – I admit that when I first sat down to watch the show I was deeply sceptical that I was going to be able to believe in this world from what I’d read – but it works, and, in a gritty, realistic way that Star Trek’s antiseptic future just does not. You can really believe that this is how man is going to live in five hundred years time, whereas looking at the exploits of Jean-Luc Picard et al belief does well and truly have to be suspended.
This is not to say that there is no technobabble to be found in the show. One of the nine main characters is a girl called River (Summer Glau), a girl with a genius-level IQ who has been rescued by her brother, Doctor Simon Tam (Sean Maher) from a secret government initiative who have been experimenting on her brain to test how far her powers can reach. The tests, which have been going on for years, have left her severely traumatised, and for the first few episodes she is an ethereal figure, almost autistic, removed from the world the rest of the characters inhabit and unable to communicate effectively with them. As the episodes progress, however, she starts to demonstrate an ability to foresee future events, labelling her a “seer”. This is one of the few allowances to a traditional sci-fi staple. Others include an evil Alliance government which proudly wear its Star Wars inspirations on its shoulders, down to the uniforms and look of the interior of their ship (although lacking a central Darth Vader figure). The Serenity herself, is also quite Star Warsy, with the retro control panel with flashing lights and knobs, and the rogueish captain who runs on the wrong side of the law but is a Good Man at heart.
This is Captain Mal Reynolds, and in Nathan Fillion we have a very different style of central figure than we’re used to. This is a man who has no hesitation in shooting first and not bothering to ask questions later, a man who, when told he’s going to be hunted down and killed, has no compunction in pushing his aggressor into the terminal arms of his engines. Originally a man of faith, his experiences in the war have made him construct a hardened shell around him, which fights with his natural charm and wittiness to come to the forefront. One minute he can be prepared to hand over a former army buddy to get his crew out of serious trouble with the law, the next he can be doing everything he can to protect someone he has only just met. He is a complex, interesting character, perfectly embodied by Fillion, who imbues the man with exactly the right amounts of toughness and humour, and makes for a wonderfully charismatic lead.
Indeed the cast are, without exception, superb, portraying their characters with exactly the right tone needed. It is difficult to single any of them out for special praise, as in their own way they all give superlative performances, but perhaps special mention should be given to Adam Baldwin who portrays a ruthless but slightly dim mercenary called Jayne, and Morena Baccarin, who is the ship’s resident Companion (or “whore” as Reynolds bluntly describes it). Baldwin’s rogue, a man who is quite happy to sell out his shipmates for the money or take full advantage of a brothel’s workers in exchange for protecting them, might have been in danger of becoming a caricature in lesser hands – the dim heavy is a staple of just about every genre you can think of – but here is played with enough nuances to be convincing and great fun to watch. He has a tough exterior and probably tough interior too, but he loves his mom and speaks his mind, and is all the more refreshing for it. Equally Baccarin brings to her role an exotic, otherworldy quality exactly right for her role, giving both her character and, more importantly, her character’s profession a dignity and grace that was vital for the role to work. She and Reynolds have a chemistry between them that they reveal through their belligerent, acidic dialogue (him calling her whore is protection against how he feels, she keeps a distance she doesn't want to) and her portrayal reveals a conflicted woman, torn between her profession and her personal feelings.
As said, though, it is unfair to single out one or two people, as all the nine principals are excellent. Ron Glass brings both gravitas and a down-to-earth attitude in his role as Shepherd Book, and is able to get across easily the fact that there is a lot more to him than meets the eye. Sean Maher as the doctor has both a clinical professionalism and a wide-eyed naivety that is both believable and human (watching him chat to potential love interest Kaylee is painful, as you can just feel him about to put his foot into it again), while Jewel Staite, the aforementioned engineer Kaylee, has a sheer joie-de-vivre that is infectious – no matter what is going on, she lightens up the screen with her presence. Summer Glau as River has less room for manoeuvre, being required mainly to wander around looking detached from what is going on, but there is one heart-stopping moment which reveals that she could have blossomed into something much more – the scene where she shoots three enemies dead before turning to Kayleigh and stating simply that “nothing in the verse can stop me” is both powerful and unsettling. Here is a woman you wouldn’t want to cross. If there is a weak link, you could argue it is Gina Torres as second-in-command Zoe. She is perfectly convincing in her role, but never does anything that makes you sit up and take notice – her role as tough cookie is fine, but aside from that we don’t see a whole lot of her, and that is a shame. It is also a little unfortunate that there is not as much chemistry between her and her husband, Wash, played by Alan Tudyk, as we would have liked. On Tudyk’s part, he does his best with the limited material he’s given, but his character is by far the most undeveloped – “I’m the funny one,” he explains at one point, although he doesn’t seem to get any more humourous lines than anyone else. Aside from displaying a rather unconvincingly written jealously of Mal and Zoe’s relationship in one episode (coming from nowhere, it feels crowbarred into the script rather than natural) his role is to fly the ship and that is all.
The writing, as you could expect on a Joss Whedon show, is first rate. Whedon’s style is instantly recognisable – the fast, witty dialogue, the unusual character names (Wash, River etc), the twists and turns of each episode – but it is interesting to note that the thematic approach to this show is somewhat different. Whereas Buffy (and, to a lesser extent, Angel) had a metaphoric episode style, here the plots are, on the surface, much more straightforward knockabout stuff, but with an attention to characterisation that is arguably much deeper than anything Whedon has done before. These people are complex, fully realised three-dimensional people, with layers that are only slowly peeled back. The viewer is never patronised, with subtle nuances laying down any number of future storylines that sadly now may never see the light of day – witness the way, for example, Jayne’s crush on Kaylee is never once overtly alluded to and yet is there, or the hints we are given about Book and Inara’s past without ever once coming close to knowing the truth. Character interaction is spot on as well, with only the Wash jealously incident striking a jarringly offkey note, and while a couple of the people are recognisable types from previous shows – Whedon himself compares Kaylee to Willow, for example, and Jayne to Cordelia – the fact that they are more fully fleshed individuals means that this is by far his most mature show. It is easy to see that these characters could easily have sustained five, six, seven seasons without the need for any new people, and it is annoying to think that we have been denied that.
The episodes themselves have traces of many different shows for their inspiration. As well as Star Wars, it is easy to spot episodes that resemble both Mission: Impossible and The A-Team (although infinitely superior to anything those two shows produced), with villains that have stepped out of films such as Marathon Man and Oliver Twist. Although there is occasionally a danger of falling into formula – the majority of the episodes run along the lines of the crew get a job and something goes wrong with it – there is enough variation to ensure that this never palls, and there are at least two episodes which lead the viewer completely down the garden path in terms of what it appears to be about before turning around, which is always a good thing. Pick of the bunch includes Our Mrs Reynolds and Objects in Space while the only episode not to really hit the mark is Shindig, a meandering tale that goes nowhere fast from the pen of the normally excellent Jane Espenson.
The direction is closer in approach to NYPD Blue than a Star Trek, with the camera roaming the ship apparently at will, hunting out the story and filming it on hand helds, zooming in and out of shot, almost giving it a voyeuristic look. There are scenes with the action happening in one corner of the screen, or looking up from down near the floor, as though we are spying on the characters, a feeling accentuated by the grainy roughness of much of it. This documentary feel adds to the sense of realism the show generates, and makes sequences in which we apparently walk right through the Serenity much more believable – at times it’s difficult to accept that this is just a collection of sound stages and not one massive interconnected set. This approach to camera work also helps in giving the special effects extra credence – witness how in one sequence the camera searches for the Serenity as it flies over a surface of a planet before, when it finally finds her, zooming in to get a better shot. The special effects, in general, are excellent with only a slightly wobbly-looking hovercraft in Heart of Gold letting the side down. There are many subtle touches – the electronic leaflets, for example, or the fake pool table – which are carried off so well and just help to emphasise what century the show is in.
Inevitably, though, the feeling you get on reaching the end of the episodes is one of frustration. Here is a story only just beginning, one that richly deserves to go on and develop into what could have become an epic equally on par, and perhaps exceeding Whedon’s previous creations. Instead, we are left hanging, with so many plot threads unresolved that you can’t help but feel cheated by the network. Although I don’t think it would have ever reached the same level of success as Buffy, simply because its concept is not as accessible or easy to grasp, I do believe it could have gone on to become a classic and, fittingly for its theme, a trailblazer for others to follow. It is of some comfort to know a feature film is forthcoming, but really this is a show designed to be a long running series, and as it is, we are left with a case of what-might-have-been, an exemplary cast denied the chance to flourish. It turns out that that-difficult-next-series curse hit Joss Whedon too, but in this case, unlike those of his predecessors, it was anything but deserved. A crying shame.
The series comes on four dual layered disks which are encoded for Region 2. All episodes are subtitled and, pleasingly, so are the commentaries, a feature I wish a lot more disks implemented. (It is amusing to note, however, that the subtitlers did not attempt to translate the Chinese, which is used in the show in replacement for swearing, instead preferring to subtitle it as "Speaks in Galactic language"). The menus open with a montage of the nine principals in iconic pose before going on to show some clips from the pilot episode. All extras bar the commentaries (naturally) come on the final disk.
A transfer that’s all over the place. The show is shot in a challenging manner, with a lot of flares and heavy light contrasts, which at time come over rather harshly on the disks, and emphasise the level of grain. As well as this, the disk occasionally struggles with flames, presenting them as a white blob rather than the textured colours we might otherwise expect. As said, some of this is down to the way the series is shot, and in general the picture is okay, but it is not the most attractive to look at.
A nice clean soundtrack, with decent base levels. There is no muffling on voices, and the scenes of fights and battles get the speakers going. Very good.
Commentaries - Six commentaries, with a mixture of producers, actors, and, for Shindig, costume designer. It's interesting to note that the actors spend the majority of their time reminiscing about things that happened during the shooting of the episodes, while Whedon and Minear concentrate on character concepts and stories and so on. Very entertaining.
The Making of Firefly: Here's How It Was - Touching half hour documentary, mainly made up of talking heads, which covers such diverse subjects as the Chinese swearing, the characters, the music, how much fun it was to work on and the sheer disappointment when the show was cancelled. Very nice, the only thing missing being more on-set footage.
Serenity: the 10th Character - A touching ten minute featurette on the set of the ship, from its conception through to what it meant to people. Nice.
Deleted Scenes - Four, two from the pilot (including the original opening scene), one from Our Mrs Reynolds and one from the broadcast version of Objects in Space that Joss Whedon wanted removed from the DVD version. Of the four, the Mrs Reynolds one is the best.
Alan Tudyk's Audition Tape - A minute-long tape Tudyk sent in when auditioning for the role of Wash. Amusing, but a little random.
Gag Reel - Two and a half minutes of on set japes and corpsing. Fun.
Joss Tours the Set - A (very) brief look at the set. This must have been some kind of promo, but it's so short that you don't get time to either get a proper look at the sets or appreciate the fast bevy of clips that runs by.
Joss Whedon Sings the Theme - The opening sequence with Whedon singing his version of the theme. Truly awful. He might be a talented writer-director-producer-composer, but he sure as hell can't sing...
Easter Egg - Not a difficult one to find, and I won't ruin the surprise, only to say it involves Adam Baldwin, his hat, and a tribute to a certain episode.
The fact that Firefly was made at all is a cause for celebration. The fact that the show was cancelled is something to mourn, a tragic waste of an excellent cast, sharp writing and fascinating possibilities. At least we have these disks to remember the show by, complemented by extras that demonstrate the passion and commitment that went into the show. Buy, fall in love, but beware that, come the end of the last episode, your heart will be broken.