Perhaps you’ve heard of a guy named Joss Whedon. Long before he led ‘The Avengers’ on their first gathered cinematic mission and cement the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the way to do superheroes right, he was the creator and guiding hand for such televised fare as ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ ‘Dollhouse,’ ‘Angel,’ and he even helmed the genesis of ‘Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’ as well. Oh, and did you know that he co-wrote the original ‘Toy Story’ film back in 1995?
So, long story short: the dude has earned his geek cred. In 2002, he had another of his creations appear on Fox, one that resonates with many fans who have had the chance to experience it: ‘Firefly.’ The science-fiction show only lasted one season on TV – technically, not even a full season, as Fox yanked it off the air after only eleven of the fourteen episodes in the first season. It’s a move that fans have widely criticized the network for; ‘Firefly’ ended up winning a Primetime Emmy Award after its cancellation, in 2003, for Outstanding Special Effects for a Series, and the show was ranked #5 on TV Guide’s list of “Shows Cancelled Too Soon.”
If you’re not familiar, the show is best described as a “space Western drama” – and that’s “Western” as in yee-haw, horses and shootouts and what have you, not “Western” as in American culture. The action takes place in the 26th Century, in a vast star system that has populated by humans after a mass exodus from the “Earth-that-was.” In this system, the corporate-esque and heavy-handed central government system, known as the Alliance, rules supreme, but since the system is so large, many of the outer planets and moons that were terraformed for colonization have been left to govern themselves in a “Wild West” type of situation.
A group of freedom fighters, called the Independents or Brown Coats (after their uniforms), attempted to break free of the Alliance and gain autonomy, but the rebellion was quashed, with the final and decisive battle coming at the Battle of Serenity Valley. The show picks up its “current” action after this, focusing on a small cargo starship named the Serenity after the battle site, as its commander, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), was an Independent freedom fighter who is now forced to work as a mercenary-type “gun for hire.”
“Mal” has quite an eclectic crew on-board the ship with him. His compadres include first mate Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) and her husband/pilot Hoban Washburne (Alan Tudyk), a sometimes-present Companion (aka legalized sex worker) Inara (Morena Baccarin), mercenary “muscle” Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), and engineer Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite). In the series premiere, the ship acquires three new passengers: Shephard (aka pastor) Book (Ron Glass), who seems to be simply out to see the universe, and Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who brings his sister River Tam (Summer Glau) on-board unbenknownst to the crew as “cargo.” River, you see, has been the subject of genetic experimentation by the Alliance; Simon rescued her, and now they are on the run from the government as the Alliance tries to reclaim their “property.”
The knowledge of this puts Mal and his crew in a bind – but seeing as they hate the Alliance and want to do what’s right, they agree to protect the Tams, and most of the show’s action takes place in pursuit of this goal. Oh, and avoiding the Reavers, a group of space-faring humans who became crazed by life in space and now attack and eat any “normal” humans they can find. Neat!
It’s a highly entertaining show and one that does not always explain things easily and clearly to the viewers. The inhabitants of this universe speak a sort of Chinese/English hybrid language, and even though the dialogue is 85-90% English, the phrases and sentences where the characters speak in the Chinese-ish language are not subtitled. Much of what is learned about the war between the Alliance and the Independents is given via flashback as the series progressed, leaving a lot of questions and unknowns about certain characters and their motivations early on. These are not necessarily bad things, mind you – just part of the reason why the show may not have immediately resonated with fans as quickly as Fox would have hoped.
From a production standpoint, the show is excellent. In addition to winning awards for visual effects and writing, the show has a few unique presentation features: when ships are shown in outer space, there is never any sound, as Whedon and the creative team wanted to stay true to the tenet that sound doesn’t travel in space. Also, scenes involving Mal and his crew are shot in a haphazard, semi-“shaky cam” style of visual presentation, but any scenes of the Alliance – the bureaucratic and sterile government entity – are shot with fluid, traditional camerawork, to better highlight the disparities between the two ways of life.
The episodes that were aired garnered an audience average of less than 5 million viewers per episode; Fox shuffled the show around in its schedule, eventually dropping it in the dreaded “Friday Night Death Slot.” After the show’s cancellation, the series received a DVD release where the final unaired episodes were included, and it found new life in the form of a 2005 theatrical film entitled ‘Serenity,’ courtesy of Whedon and Universal Pictures. The film served to wrap up a few story lines that had been left tantalizingly dangling in the series, as well as provide definitive closure for several characters’ story arcs – some positive and happy, and some… not so much.
The franchise has lived on in a series of comic-book miniseries and a planned video game called ‘Firefly Online,’ although this game has been “in production” since 2015, so there are questions as to whether it will ever see the light of day. When it’s all said and done: for me, ‘Firefly’ is definitely something that you should check out!