Ah, Firefly, You Burned Bright at Both Ends

Year(s): 2002
Network: FOX
Creator: Joss Whedon
Principal cast: Nathan Fillon, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Summer Glau, Ron Glass

Summary: The crew of a renegade spaceship does its best to survive in a totalitarian future.

I have to admit that when it comes to television, I’m a pretty hard sell.

It’s not that I’m anti-television, it’s just that I’m pro- so many other things, that it is difficult to convince me that I should give up one of my other passions to sit long enough in front of a television to become engaged in a show. This is especially true of a series that might require me to commit to a given time frame in my week on a regular basis.

So I haven’t missed having a television for the past 20 years that I’ve been without one. At least, most of the time I haven’t missed it.

Lately, there have been some offerings that tempt me toward that tubular box. And if I hadn’t become so completely enamored with Joss Whedon’s Firefly, I might actually be glad that Fox canceled the best thing I’ve seen in decades before I ran out and bought myself a television set. However, the show was so incredibly good that I would have considered the intrusion of that small screen into my home a blessing were Firefly only still showing.

My introduction to it came through the complete series on DVD — loaned to me by a friend who insisted that I had to see it. She was right.

It’s a Space Show. It’s a Western. It’s…darn good storytelling.

What is Firefly? It’s space opera. It’s a Western. It’s a drama. It’s a comedy. Actually, it’s irrelevant what genre you put into it because what it is is fantastic storytelling supported by some incredible character development.

Serenity is the name of the Firefly-class ship in which a crew of renegades is taking on any job that they can to earn enough money to stay footloose in a universe ruled by the totalitarian Alliance. The captain, Malcolm Reynolds, and his first mate, Zoe, are veterans of the losing side of a war against the Alliance.

Whedon has something to say.

What makes this show fantastic? Ah, where to begin. The themes are certainly what lift it from being ordinary to stellar. Choices aren’t always easy in this universe, but they are almost always ones that we can relate to. Firefly explores loyalty, ethics, freedom, and humanity.

But despite the lofty themes of Firefly, it isn’t a sermon you’re watching. The writing on this show, as I suppose previous fans of Joss Whedon could have told me, is incredible. I don’t think there was a single episode in which there wasn’t something quotable. Nor were they above poking fun at themselves and the conventions of the genres that they were creating in. The repartee was so witty that I even found myself laughing to tears during an otherwise nasty torture scene.

Whedon also had a knack for making you laugh through an entire episode only to punch you in the gut at the end. After more than one episode, I had to remind myself to breathe as the closing music played.

Speaking of the music, that’s another area where this show excelled. Whether it was the folksy, longing ballad at the beginning or the constant soundtrack through each episode, the composer always had the perfect music playing. Perhaps one of the more touching moments comes in the never-aired episode “The Message.” Everyone working on the show knew that it had been canceled at this point and the closing scene had music that was less about what was going on on screen — though it fit that perfectly — and more a farewell to the entire series. If art is supposed to form connections and evoke emotions, this is a scene that must be called art.

It’s the people who make the show.

Ultimately, though, dialogue, music, and costuming are just the frills that support a good story. The backbone of a series comes in the characters and once again, Firefly comes through. From the start, I was hooked on the characters and was left frustrated that in a show that was canceled after one season, there were too many stories left untold.

Through the 14 episodes, the characters underwent tremendous growth. In fact, it might have been a challenge for the series to keep up such growth, especially in those places where tensions were moving toward resolutions. However, I have complete confidence in Whedon when he says that he had many more seasons of stories to tell about each character.

Who were the characters? It’s hard to mention just a few, because it really was an ensemble of nine characters, all of whom took the spotlight at various times and played critical roles in the story.

Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was the captain, a man who first appears bitter and cynical. What you learn instead is that he is a good man who is committed to his ethics and willing to die for them. Included in those ethics is a fierce loyalty even to those he doesn’t like. He also has a sense of humor and while he tries to keep from getting too close to people, it is an attempt at which he fails.

Zoe and Wash made up two of my characters in part because of their relationship with each other. Zoe is a warrior woman and first mate. Incidentally, she’s played by Gina Torres, real-life wife of Laurence Fishburne. In the show, she’s married to Wash, the hot-shot pilot who is perhaps the most laid-back and unassuming member of the crew. He’s played by Alan Tudyk. They have an amazing relationship for a married couple, one not too often seen on television. They’re madly in love with each other, loyal as the day is long, and still have to deal with the tensions and arguments that any long-term couple faces.

Preacher Book (played by Ron Glass, an actor who had previously stayed far away from science fiction) is the conscience of the series. Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the young, innocent engineer who always has a smile on her face, provides a sense of family. Inarra (Morena Baccarin) is the beauty of the ship, Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is the brawn. Then you have Simon and his sister. Simon (Sean Maher) is the uptight doctor who isn’t quite at home with this crew, though he eventually comes into his own. His sister, River (Summer Glau), has been experimented upon by the Alliance and she’s become rather creepy as a result. Eventually we start to catch on that perhaps she has telepathic abilities.

Nor do all these people get along harmoniously. Jayne is all for tossing Simon and River off the ship, there is plenty of unspoken tension and attraction between Mal and Inarra, and Kaylee is falling in love with Simon, who is oblivious and can’t ever manage to say the right thing.

DVD offers presents to series fans

If you were fortunate enough to catch the series when it aired, then you’ve probably already gone to pick up the DVD. If you’re dithering, let me toss a few temptations in your path. There are three never-aired episodes on the DVD collection. There is “Trash,” in which Saffron from “Our Mrs. Reynolds” makes a repeat appearance and you get to see Mal almost completely nude (he hides the bits that would make it X-rated). Then there is the very touching episode of “The Message,” which underlines many of the themes shown throughout the show and really serves as a farewell episode even though there were two more after it. Then there is “Heart of Gold,” a hilarious episode that takes place in a whorehouse and sees some major developments in the relationship between Inarra and Mal.

The DVD collection also contains the usual additional features of behind-the scenes events, deleted scenes, an audition reel, Joss Whedon singing the Firefly theme, a gag reel, and several commentaries by actors, writers, directors, and others.

It was something special

In an interview, the actors said that often in television, people look back years later and say, “Hey, that was pretty good stuff we were doing.” In Firefly, the actors knew while they were doing it that they were creating something special. It was something they were able to appreciate while they were doing it. Joss Whedon said he is as proud of it as anything he’s ever done; Nathan Fillion says it is the best things he’s ever done or ever will.

It’s hard to argue with them. Looking through the list of episodes, I realized I couldn’t pick out a favorite. Every one of them had something special and memorable about it. Every one had something that made you think. Sure, there were Western-style shootouts, bar brawls, sword duels, dance, and cattle rustling. But what made Firefly unforgettable was the incredible storytelling executed by a whole crew of talented actors and technicians.

Fox, what were you thinking when you canceled the best thing to appear on television for decades? Ah well, at least now I needn’t figure out where in my house I could put a television.

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