Firefly

Review by
Robert W. Franson
and David H. Franson

Creator & Overall Director: Joss Whedon
Writers: Joss Whedon; Cheryl Cain, Ben Edlund, Jane Espenson,
    Drew Z. Greenberg, Brett Matthews, Tim Minear, Jose Molina
Theme Song: Joss Whedon
Music: Greg Edmonson

Cast:

  • Nathan Fillion — Malcolm Reynolds, captain
      
  • Morena Baccarin — Inara Serra, registered companion
  • Adam Baldwin — Jayne Cobb, marksman
  • Ron Glass — "Shepherd" Book, chaplain
  • Summer Glau — River Tam
  • Sean Maher — Simon Tam, doctor
  • Jewel Staite — "Kaylee" Frye, engineer
  • Gina Torres — Zoe Washburne, 1st officer
  • Alan Tudyk — "Wash" Washburne, pilot
    etc.

Fox Television: September-December 2002
11 episodes (abridged series)

Fox DVD: 2003
14 episodes (complete series)

675 minutes — plus extras on DVD September 2005

  
Firefly most shiny

Firefly is the finest science fiction we have ever seen on screen.

In the galaxy about five hundred years in our future, a firefly is a type of spaceship, a smallish cargo vessel with some passenger capacity; a firefly makes a good tramp freighter. Malcolm Reynolds' ship is named Serenity. The frontier worlds are terraformed moons or planets, often brought to livability it would seem on a minimal budget: bring it up to the level of a desert on Earth-that-was, holding breathable air and some hardy plants; dump a bunch of settlers and herds of cattle and horses (which don't need parts or processed fuel); and do the rest yourselves, good luck. In this frontier milieu, the rare and desired goods for trade or smuggling are natural foods and medicines.
  

The complete 'verse on DVD

The Firefly planets, like the ship Serenity, look lived-in. Worlds and port-cities feel like real places, some dusty and gritty and a few luxurious or park-like, but where real people have real lives. The dominant culture is an American-Chinese semi-fusion, but with lots of surprises, both exotic and down-home. While there is plenty of humor in the series, it is not at the expense of the creation — as too often mars science fiction on screen. In addition to the planetary scenes, the beautifully detailed interior of Serenity conveys the sense of a working space-freighter in which real people live daily lives. The complex interior, busy and cluttered while variously and creatively illuminated, quickly comes to feel like home.

There are fourteen episodes in the complete Firefly series, over eleven hours:

  1. Serenity  (parts 1 & 2)
  2. The Train Job
  3. Bushwhacked
  4. Shindig
  5. Safe
  6. Our Mrs. Reynolds
  7. Jaynestown
  8. Out of Gas
  9. Ariel
  10. War Stories
  11. Trash
  12. The Message
  13. Heart of Gold
  14. Objects in Space

The DVD set also includes episode commentaries: extra copies of seven complete episodes with interesting voice-over discussion by some of the writers and cast. In another extra, Joss Whedon himself performs the Firefly theme song, a kind of musical proof-of-concept. There are other goodies, most valuably a deleted discussion between Zoe and Simon with background on the war between the Alliance and the Independent planets that Mal and Zoe fought in (on the losing side), a half-dozen years previously.
  

The Rebel after the War

Which brings us to the ancestry of Firefly. If there is one television series that jumps to mind, it is The Rebel (1959-1961), with Nick Adams as Johnny Yuma, a dusty but solid Confederate veteran roaming the American West in the aftermath of the Civil War. No, it does not have intrusive science-fiction elements or special effects; what The Rebel has is adventure, character, and values on a frontier where the most important values are the ones you bring all by your lonesome. As Johnny Cash sings The Rebel theme song about Johnny Yuma:

He was panther quick and leather tough
If he figured that he'd been pushed enough —

Malcolm Reynolds and Johnny Yuma would understand each other very well. Serenity operates on the galactic frontier, the High Frontier that is our great future if we have more racial brains than hop-toads: the wild and free Big Empty, the open endless spacetime in which we may find, and develop, who we truly are.
  

Buffy and the backstory of Firefly

The great success of Joss Whedon's series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (145 episodes from 1997 to 2003) made Firefly a possibility, although Firefly was not well-handled by Fox Television in its original cast-adrift appearance in 2002, so if you watched the series then, you saw only part of it, and not in sequence. These fourteen episodes really must be watched in order for full understanding and enjoyment; they are thoroughly and subtly integrated.

For additional background on Firefly, its history and virtues — for those who have seen the complete series — see Jane Espenson's anthology of essays, Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly.
  

Big Damn Heroes — in their own way

The Firefly main cast is excellent, and with the wonderful writing, the human interactions intertwine (and clash) beautifully. Some particular felicities of characterization to note, of the nine continuing crew-folk:

  • Captain Mal Reynolds is a warrior, and also a motivator and team-builder; his method of dealing with each person on Serenity's crew varies instinctively according to the other's individuality and the particular situation.
      
  • Shepherd Book sometimes seems the one reasonable and moral fellow in a den of thieves, but draws on his mysteriously powerful past alongside or athwart his religion.
  • Jayne Cobb is an inadvertently witty antithesis of subtlety, but a brawler and marksman real useful in most any kind of a fight.
  • Kaylee Frye is the ship's engineer, a romantic mechanical genius, youngest and sunniest of the crew.
  • Inara Serra's graceful self-possession as a therapeutic kind of hetaera, crossed with her quick-change facial expressions (in Jaynestown, to pick just one episode), is great.
  • River Tam is a mystery girl, a dancing wild card, and is given to barefoot oracular comments on the brink of crisis — but her comment is about something else.
  • Simon Tam, River's brother and a doctor of great intelligence and considerable wit, is in a rocky process of mutual adjustment with Serenity and its crew.
  • Wash Washburne is the boyishly funny pilot — and Zoe's husband — most calm in the tightest flying scrapes for Serenity.v
  • Zoe Washburne is the captain's leather-mailed right hand, with a mutual trust and understanding forged in the civil war, unswerving loyalty edged with dry wit — and Wash's wife.

The supporting cast is also very, very fine. We'll mention only several who are fortunate enough to play starring roles in more than one episode: Christina Hendricks (as the seductively marriageable Saffron); Mark A. Sheppard (as the weaselly businessman Badger); Michael Fairman (as the philosophically vile Niska). The single-episode guest stars and other cast members perform to the same high standard.

We want to point out that the humor in Firefly, just as it is not at the expense of the creation, also is used to illumine rather than undermine the characters and their conflicts. The main people are given opportunities to act or speak against type, leading to often-surprising depth and richness.
  

Writing as well as faces & special effects

Firefly - Joss Whedon - dvd set cover Perhaps we should mention that the Firefly stellar system (as known to us) is peopled exclusively with humanity. Contrary to the presumptions of some other science fiction attempts on screen, the science-fictional tradition does not require alien species; not even humanoid aliens with warty faces or pointed ears, nor spaceport-bar musical animoids. Enough said.

In the nature of Hollywood, pretty faces and striking scenery — and for science fiction, special effects — so often trump writing and plot. In very happy contrast, Firefly is deliciously well-written and carefully well-plotted. As a screen production, it stands above its contemporaries as Forbidden Planet (1956) stands above its own period's. The presence of everyday but futuristic technologies, with three-dimensional people living among their technologies, working with them and depending on them, lends a strong feeling of a solidly reasonable future.

Most unusually for a Hollywood production, Firefly can stand with some of the best printed science fiction. Thoughtful interplanetary adventure and romance in the tradition of Edward E. Smith (Lensman series). A vibrant sense of individual freedom on the High Frontier as forecast by Robert A. Heinlein (Future History series, etc). And soaring in a rarefied sky indeed, Serenity voyages with four ongoing, quite different, complexly strong feminine characters worthy of James H. Schmitz (in the fabulous The Witches of Karres; Trigger Argee in A Tale of Two Clocks; and his Demigoddess of the Mind, as we may call her, Telzey Amberdon).
  

Speaking in tongues

The speech of the characters is richly evocative, textured, and often witty frontier lingo, done just right. There are many foreshadowings and echoes, as well as the Cassandra-like miscues from River Tam.

A warning: parental judgment should be exercised. There are sexual as well as romantic activities and language; lovingly presented, but often more sexily than some parents will want younger children to see or hear. There are also some violent passages, rough for little ones. On the other hand, most of the swear words are in Chinese, which shields the tender ears of non-Chinese speakers. China is an old-time experimenter in rocketry and related arts, and the Chinese language in time to come may reasonably contribute space-faring terminology (joining English, Russian, and German). Already this has been predicted in song, carrying forward the historical trans-national space pioneering:

You too may be a big hero,
Once you've learned to count backwards to zero.
"In German oder English I know how to count down,
Und I'm learning Chinese", says Wernher von Braun.

Tom Lehrer
"Wernher von Braun" (1965)
  

Firefly shines on

Firefly at eleven hours certainly is decidedly too short. There are depths only hinted at. Luckily — we may thank Joss Whedon for such great good fortune — there is a big-screen movie sequel to Firefly, with his excellent direction and carrying forward this wonderful cast, titled for their ship: Serenity (2005). If at all possible, see the Firefly DVD series first, in order as listed above.

Firefly is a truly excellent show, and the writers, directors, cast, special-effects crew, and other supporting staff are justly proud of it. There are many subtleties of setting, special effects and actions, speech and music, which become apparent in repeated viewings. We already have watched it multiple times. You should see it.

  

© 2005 Robert W. Franson
and David H. Franson


  
Thanks to WHS & SF for good advice.

The superb movie sequel to Firefly:
Serenity

Watching Off-Center
Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity
  

  
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