Firefly : The Complete Series

by Aaron on September 29, 2005

in Uncategorized

Frankly, Fox Network’s scheduling snafus aside, I can see why this fan-favorite was cancelled, as it’s a show that doesn’t know what it wants to be, nor does it handle its unwieldy ensemble cast well. However, I think had it been given life on a network with a better track record of stewarding young shows, Firefly had the potential to become a rather solid piece of storytelling and a mainstream success.

Firefly : The Complete Series
2 & 1/2 Stars

Let’s get this out of the way right now: What I’ve seen of Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t impress me, and am not to be considered an overall fan of creator Joss Whedon’s work. Some of my acquaintances consider that strange, since he and I are of the same age and grew up with all the same comic book influences, but the fact remains that I’ve yet to really be impressed with Whedon overall. So when we decided to spend a week discussing his work here on RazorFine, I volunteered to review Firefly, as it was a show I knew nothing about and hadn’t seen.

So what’d I think? Frankly, Fox Network’s scheduling snafus aside, I can see why it was cancelled, as it’s a show that doesn’t know what it wants to be, nor does it handle its unwieldy ensemble cast well. However, I think had it been given life on a network with a better track record of stewarding young shows, Firefly had the potential to become a rather solid piece of storytelling and a mainstream success.

But before we get to those aspects, let’s just cover the basics.

 

Firefly takes place near’bouts 500 years from now, when human beings have been forced to find a life in a new solar system. Overseeing this life is a Sino-American Alliance made up of the remnants of the last two superpowers China and the US. Though we’re not given much evidence of it, we’re led to believe that the inner planets are high-tech and as futuristic as you’d imagine, but the outer planets are barely livable rocks that aren’t that much different from Deadwood.

Scrapping together a tenuous existence in this wild west of space is Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of the Firefly class ship, Serenity. Reynolds and his second in command Zoe (Gina Torres) fought on the losing side of a separatist war with the Alliance, and they’ve no compunction about breaking the winning side’s laws. The crew of Serenity hits all the typical character types with only slight variations: the tortured leader (Fillion), the no-nonsense soldier (Torres), the wise-cracking cowardly pilot (Alan Tudyk), the dumb strong-man (Adam Baldwin), the cheerful mechanic (Jewel Staite), and the haughty courtesan (Morena Baccarin). It’s an unlikely group of people living and working together to say the least.

In the pilot episode (which Fox, in all their wisdom, decided to air after the show was already cancelled) Serenity picks up a few more passengers in the form of Shepard Book (Ron Glass from the great Barney Miller), a wandering missionary who may be more than he seems, and siblings Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), who are on the run from the Alliance for reasons that (in Whedon style) won’t be made clear until much farther along in the season.

Over the course of 12 episodes, the crew of Serenity take pot shots at the Alliance, bicker among themselves, and pull illegal smuggling jobs that invariably go awry. Occasionally there’s some backstory on the various characters, but mostly we’re asked to just accept the characters as they are, which is where some of the problems set in.

Whedon sets up Reynolds as kind of a Jesse James in Space. He’s a rebel both figuratively and literally, but without any political beliefs (or say holding any socially unacceptable practices like slavery) to bog down or give a reason for why he was fighting the Alliance in the first place outside of a vague concept of ‘freedom’. Having lost the war, Reynolds contents himself with being a criminal (running black market cattle, stealing payrolls, smuggling goods), but his morality won’t let him get away with pulling a job any more criminal than the harmless pranks Bo and Luke Duke pulled off in Hazzard County every week. Once it comes to behavior that would truly make him a bad guy, the morality kicks in and the crew of Serenity invariably does The Right Thing, sometimes at the urging of Shepard Book, but often due to an inscrutable changing of mind from Reynolds.

It’s easy to dismiss Firefly as a ‘what if’ take on Han Solo, except for the fact that Han Solo actually was a bad guy. Remember kids, that whole bounty thing came about because Han dumped a shipment of drugs he was smuggling. And he didn’t dump ‘em for moral reasons. Whedon has pretty much admitted as to what influences he’s cribbing from, but it’s done in a fan-boy homage way, so that element isn’t bothersome outside of it’s diminished quality. Maybe an easier comparison would be ‘What if the Sci-Fi Channel had come up with Deadwood?’ There’s a lot of the same double-dealing and bucking against the authority of yonder city folk, and there’s no escaping the fact that this show was far more a western than it was a Sci-Fi show.  Occasionaly that causes some problems even though those two genres have historically been easy to reconcile, but the real issues lay in some more basic areas of screenwriting.

This is an ensemble show, but all too often the supporting characters are left behind (and both literally and figuratively) to make room for more internal angst from Reynolds. While each character has maybe one episode with enough of a subplot to steal the spotlight, the show is firmly and fully focused on Capt. Reynolds, which ultimately proves a disservice to the show as a whole. Any backstory is filtered through his perception, and even in those moments where the show is focusing on another character, it’s always Reynolds who acts as the catalyst.  Sure he’s the captain, but he’s one with a very tenuous grip on his crew, who act more like a rather eccentric extended family than wiling followers of Captain Reynolds.

The fact is Mal just isn’t that interesting of a character.  Angst only goes so far as a character trait, and it damn well should never be used as a plot device.  Gina Torres’s Zoe is passionately dedicated to Mal, but we’re never given any clear reason for her devotion, outside of the fact that they fought together.  More than once I thought ‘she’d have left him for that’ after a couple of particularly boneheaded choices by Mal.  Sounds like they’re together, doesn’t it?  That did make for one of the more interesting episodes in which Zoe’s husband (the oft-wasted Tudyk) takes his wife’s place on a mission to see why she’s so devoted to Mal, but in the end no sufficiently offered.  Maybe the focus on Mal was due to the rather thinly sketched out nature of the rest of the cast, as they all fill pretty standard (okay, cliched) roles.  The wise man, the thug, the gear-head, etc. etc.  It’s sad really, because a writer more focused on exploring the dynamic might have come up with some very compelling stories to explain why these people stayed together as a crew.  It’s even more sad that such great actors were delegated to such bare-bones characters.  The potential of Firefly’s cast is astounding, and I for one would have like to see that promise made good.

 

I’d like to think that, had Whedon been given time to develop his concept (and characters) more fully, Firefly might have evolved into a truly engaging and entertaining hunk o’ television, but my experiences with the rest of his body of work doesn’t lead me to put much faith in that.  Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, as I’ll soon be giving in to some of my fellow RazorFine reviewers suggestions and sitting down with the entirety of Buffy and Angel, but seeing as Firefly was his third television show I think that will take some serious convincing.

At the end of the day, Firefly can still be entertaining, but it’s far from being among the best of either the Sci-Fi or Western genre.  (It’s certainly not going to win any ‘opening theme’ awards from me, either.  I died a little inside each time I heard the atrocious theme song. Joss, stick to dialogue.)  There are some chuckles to be had as well as some interesting episodes, but mostly it’s just kind of ‘okay’.

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