The Fox & Sci-Fi channels' series Firefly was not originally shown in consecutive order, but begins chronologically with a pilot movie (initially shown as a two-part episode) titled Serenity (2002), a title later recycled for the entirely different theatrical film release, which is bound to lead to some future confusions. The pilot film introduces an array of fairly interesting characters:
Ship's captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is an S.O.B. with a heart of gold. Woman warrior Zoe Washburne (the gorgeous & genuinely strong-looking Gina Torres) is completely convincing in her sexy-butch role. Her husband Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the Serenity's pilot, the weakest character in the cast & quite rightly a bit insecure. Book (Ron Glass) is the "shepherd" or future-monk, from an abbey where they apparently teach martial arts. Standing in for Scotty from Star Trek is the "sweet young girl" Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) with a great love of & genius for spaceship engines.
Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) is something of a Yojimbo character, whose trustworthiness is debated but who seems always to hang in there when the tough get going. Inara Sera (Morena Baccarin) is a "Companion" or high class licensed prostitute who turns tricks throughout the solar system. Her occupation has enough reluctant respect that her type are referred to politely as "Diplomats," but our snotty Captain Reynolds abusively calls her the ship's resident whore.
And then there's the brother & sister team, a young physician Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) who gambled & lost everything to save his sister River (Summer Glau) from an institute where they were doing awful experiments tinkering with her super-intelligent brain. It takes many episodes to reveal what those nasty experiments have made her capable of, & through most of the series she's scarcely more than crazy dead weight.
For "plot" is always that the Firefly-class ship Serenity has to get from here to there avoiding trouble. This set-up got it through a pilot film plus 13 episodes for television (2002-2003), followed by a theatrical film that attempted to sew up the ends of the prematurely cancelled series.
It's set 500 years in the future when outlying terraformed "colonies" have deteriorated into (for the most part) wild-west outposts & societies difficult for a formerly unifying government to regain even slight control over, with our Serenity crew just trying to make ends meet as shippers & smugglers.
Trouble includes the Reavers (super-ghouls from space standing in for the Borg); policing officers of the totalitarian Alliance who're not as much in control of the rim-worlds as they are on the central-worlds but would stop at nothing to capture the experimented-on girl River if they ever find out she is on board the Serenity; & getting into knock-down drag-outs with anyone else our intrepid crew of anti-heroes annoys along the way.
On dvd, the first of four first discs contain the pilot movie & two 43-minute episodes. In the pilot feature-length opener Serenity, after an illegal salvage operation they were hired to undertake, the gangster who hired them refuses to pay up because the goods are molecularly marked & traceable. So the Firefly crew has to make a much more deadly deal on a wild-west-like terraformed moon ruled by a dangerous hag of a mayor.
"Train Job" is about a successful crime our anything-for-a-buck crew so guiltily regrets swiping that they want to return what they stole, which might cause them more trouble than stealing it in the first place. It's patterned after a wild west train robbery story.
"Bushwacked" has our bickeringly heroic array of misfits bringing on board the survivor of a ship that has been assaulted by the once-human Reavers, who never leave survivors, & this chap turns out not really to be a survivor after all. Not a great tale, but at least it isn't just another wild west caper pretending to be science fiction like most of the episodes.
Neither series episode is as involving as the pilot movie, but they are certainly entertaining. Now & then I spotted minor plot glitches but just decided to ignore those & enjoy the interesting cluster of characters.
The FX are as good as any done on shows like the sundry Star Ship series, with enough originality in the art design that the series doesn't seem too much inspired by the various Star Treks.
The premise that all the outlying worlds have been "terraformed" & colonized by cowboys keeps the budgets low by requiring little or nothing extraterrestrial to be concocted. That doesn't make the planets at all interesting; they're largely like that Shoot Out at OK Corral episode of the original Star Trek over & over again.
The main novelty is the characters who are definitely not Star Trek hero types, but true anti-heroes, easily capable of crime. Though they try in their own demented way to be moral criminals, & would like to take honest work if there was enough of it, survival is too difficult on the rim of civilization among the terraformed outworlds. Beggars can't be chosers when it comes to paying work. They'll pick up passengers, scavenge ships of less successful rim-runners or would-be pioneers, or just accept criminal commissions from known psychopaths.
The second disc consists of four 43 minute episodes. These continue the tone of "horse opera/space opera" with most of the planets looking like Westworld (1973).
One of the cleverer things about the world(s) of Firefly is everyone no matter how ill-educated speaks Mandarin as a second language. This is a left-over feature of Earth's history before terraforming began, when only the American & Chinese superpowers were of consequence. This is also supposed to explain why the terraformed worlds are all pretty much alike, the terraforming having apparently been done by wild west enthusiasts of the American Southwest.
The show's stated & purported intent was to make the planets a mishmash of cultures, though frankly you'll see more stuff that is Chinese or Arabic or Japanese or West African in any major city of America today than you will see in any of the western-movie-environments of the Firefly series, where the white america-centricism excludes any possibility of encounters with cultures other than those for whom Roy Rogers & Dale Evans serve as Adam & Eve.
The first episode of the second disc is "Shindig" which tries to be slightly Regency rather than strictly Wild West. So instead of a quick-draw duel at dawn, there is a badly choreographed sword duel for our captain, who has never even held a sword before but wins against a champion, like I'm convinced.
"Safe" has a shoot-out with six-guns amidst cattle by people whose aims are as bad as in any B western.
"Our Mrs. Reynolds" has our captain accidentally getting married on Celtic Wild West World, but his slave-like wife is more than she pretends. It was done better when this theme was done as an episode of "Red Dwarf."
The best if still not very good episode is "Jaynestown" set in a wild-west town with saloon. Our space yojimbo cowpoke Jayne had been to visit this place a couple years prior & is at first alarmed, then delighted, to discover he has in the meantime become something of an object of worship, & a cheapy-ass statue of him is everyone's key religious icon. This was done more extravagantly in the very first Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when Arthur Dent finds an entire world shaped like himself with his towel.
Not one of these episodes is good enough to justify the small cult following the series had, nor their deep sadness when it was quite properly cancelled. Indeed, the promise of the appealing pilot movie has in six follow-up episodes not come close to telling even one quality story, though the characters remain interesting enough to keep it from being dull, & of course many other sci-fi series are much worse & by comparison this one's not all that bad.
Disc 3 has four 43 minute episodes. "War Stories" follows up the botched "Train Job" episode with gangsters seeking revenge for never receiving the goods our crew returned to their victims. The woman warrior Zoe has to save the day while Inara, the high ranking courtesan, meets with a client the crew is surprised to find out is a woman. A soap opera element addresses pilot Wash's jealousy of the captain's close friendship with Zoe. A weak episode overall with more motion than substance, but Zoe in action is invariably fun.
"Ariel" is the name of a planet where our space hooker has to check in annually for a physical to make sure she's not spreading venereal diseases. Ariel is among the core planets so everyone's at particular risk of being captured by the Alliance, which is aggressively pursuing the Tam siblings. A heist to steal drugs from a hospital Simon Tam formerly worked for is undertaken despite the dangers. Another flashy but substanceless outing for our misfits.
"Out of Gas" focuses on Kaylee's attemps to fix the dead-in-the-water spaceship with spit & chewing gum, while flashbacks reveal how the Firefly came into the Captain's personal possession.
"Trash" is a comparatively strong episode, best of these four at least. It's a sequel or follow-up to "Our Mrs. Reynolds." Mal's Celtic Westworld "wife," Saffron (Christina Hendricks), returns & proves herself still a first-rate scam artist of the "fool me twice" variety, shame on Mal.
Disc 4 of the set has three 43 minute episodes plus some extras of passing interest. These three episodes are the best of the whole lot. The "western slang" approach to the dialog is for the first time written & performed with conviction instead of at inconsistent intervals in a cartoony manner, with bits of Mandarin integrated less clumsily than earlier episodes. It is kind of sad to see the creative team finally hitting their stride & achieving their vision & then getting the show cancelled out from under them.
"The Messenger" is told mainly from within the confines of the ship Serenity & not as much "cowboy planet" as most episodes. While transporting the corpse of a friend toward his parent's home world, he springs back to life, but is pursued by a renegade police officer of the Alliance. Seems Mal's old buddy from the war is a courier for specially cloned internal organs which are not legally transportable through space so people are hired to have their own organs temporarily replaced.
Supposedly this is quite safely done & the courier will get his organs back when the cloned organs are transported; the story in no way explains if it would be legal to transport non-cloned organs, why the government might forbid transport of cloned organs but not natural organs, or how a courier with smuggled organs could possibly have his own organs awaiting him at the new planet to be re-installed. The story over all makes no bloody sense & is the weakest of the three on the disc, though alas better than most episodes earlier in the series because the silliness of every terraformed moon or planet being Westworld doesn't crud up the character performances.
"Heart of Gold" is another western cliche. A frontier bordello is being harassed by a colony's biggest landholder, a psycho with an aircar & a posse of eager horse-ridin' gun-totin' psychopaths who happily shoot up the bordello to help their evil fearless leader get his infant son away from a harlot.
Again, storywise, the scriptwriters didn't know how to tell one. We have to believe that in order to kidnap one's own child from the bordello in which said child is at that moment being birthed, pappy can come up with no better plan than shooting the bordello full of holes, top to bottom, with every likelihood of killing the harlot-mother & her baby. The plot even posits that the bordello would be burned down if our piratical heroes didn't prepare to put out the fires.
So we're asked to believe every damned man on the planet is insanely like the psychopath they follow & consider the best way of kidnapping a baby to be shooting it up & burning it. As a story, utter rubbish, but once again, charming characterizations well played within the nonsense story.
Mal gets laid by the bordello's chief whore, a nice woman who is an unregistered Companion (hence "only" a whore & not having the protections of the Companion guild). As soon as prudish Mal screwed the hooker with the heart of gold, making Firefly's companion character Inara unhappy, I remarked, "These screenwriters are so devoid of insight, they'll probably have to do the Hollywood Morality thing & have that woman die because she slept with the hero who isn't supposed to get laid unless he sleeps with Inara." Sure enough, she's summarily killed, everyone's sad, but by then the chief psysho of the world is dead & the rest of the psychos go home leaderless.
And once again, interestingly played characterizations in a story that makes no sense.
The final episode "Object in Space" is by far the best as a story & it's surprising how wonderful the series suddenly seems when a tale is actually worth telling for a change. It's again set largely on Firefly so the problem with all the terraforming being Westworld doesn't interfere with credibility or interest.
River, the nutty girl who for the whole damned series is scarsely consequential to the plot with her static character remaining an idle mystery, is being sought by a way cool bounty hunter, physically beautiful, witty, a better warrior than any of the three fighters on board Firefly, & of course psychotic like everyone on the frontier except our main cast. How he takes over Firefly to kidnap River & how only River is clever enough to defeat him makes for a whopping good tale.
And so ended the series. Except! It was continued with a theatrically released film confusingly with the same title as the original pilot movie. Serenity (2005) was little more than a gift to hardcore fans who wanted to see the ending of the prematurely cancelled series. It's better than most of the television episodes visually, but it still feels made-for-tv, & the story is only so-so.
Because the creative team knew perfectly well that this was their last shot & it was not going to continue ad infinitum as did Star Trek, they felt free to kill off a couple primary characters if that would provide an exciting moment or two.
The death of Sheherd Book fails to resolve the mysteries set up in the series, as apparently there never was an overall vision for Book or any of these people, & there were no revelations to provide. Book doesn't even get to go down heroically. Much of the film has exactly this "get it over with" feeling, synoptic & insufficient. Other deaths are played for tearjerker or failed shock value rather than for heroism or story strength.
The amazing superpowers of the previously experimented-on girl River Tam provide the key plot interest, but for someone mentally enhanced, her abilities boil down to martial arts ultra-kill capacity. Even the best assassin the Alliance can send (Chiwetel Ejiofor) cannot defeat her once she gets her rattled senses tuned in.
Honest jobs are still hard to come by & criminal jobs may have to suffice. he cannabilistic Reavers are still nasty, & their horrific origin is revealed.
Trufen (true fans) of this series allege that anyone who doesn't adore & worship everything about Firefly the series is just too much a muggles to grok how perfect-o-mento it all is. I found it an okay diversion & it makes for a worthwhile little dvd set, but still & all just television.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl