Saturday, May 23, 2009
You know, every so often I find myself wondering what all the fuss over Firefly is about. It was a show canceled almost out of the starting gate, and viciously tampered with in its brief run on the air. When the suited monkeys at FOX pulled the plug after airing only 11 of their initial 14-episode order -- and most of them wildly out of sequence -- they received an astonishing amount of fan reaction, given that they did everything in their power to prevent this show from gaining a following. Why then did it resonate with people? Why did it sell so many DVDs that Universal bought the rights to make a proper blockbuster out of it? And why do fans continue to hold conventions to express their appreciation for the actors and crew who barely got the time to establish their characters and the universe they inhabited?
Then I sit down with it for a few days, and all those questions just seem silly. Yes, it never got to build on its potential, and as such remains no more than a fascinating experiment, but I firmly believe that Firefly, not Buffy, would be Joss Whedon's defining creation had things worked out differently. It may have only had 14 episodes with which to set down some sort of Orson Scott Card-cum-Western universe, but damned if it didn't work. Frankly, I don't know how something this ambitious even made it to the air in the first place, especially on FOX.
Whedon sets the bar impossibly high with the two-hour premiere, titled "Serenity," an episode that did not air until 9 others preceded it, because -- you know, what, if I stop every time to point out where FOX did this show wrong, I'll never get through this review. Suffice to say, it makes no sense to dump this pilot, as it is one of the best and deepest series premieres ever made. Then again, I didn't get the full impact of its brilliance until at least the third time I watched it, so perhaps the decision wasn't made entirely out of greed and stupidity.
I don't know why exactly it took so long for the pilot to click with me, as Whedon doesn't waste a single second of its two-hour length. The opening battle introduces us to then-sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres), two rebel soldiers on their last legs as something called the Alliance sends in ships to bomb them to oblivion. Whedon drenches these moments in shadow, lighting the scene up only when a bomber puts another crater in the planet. Six years later, Malcolm's the captain of his very own ship, a deteriorating, Firefly-class cargo ship, Zoe's married the pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), and an innocent little pixie named Kaylee (Jewel Staite) keeps the hunk of metal running. They may not have much, but this ragtag crew will follow their captain to the ends of the 'Verse. Well, except for mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), who will happily sell the rest into slavery if the money's good.
Mal and co. make their living salvaging derelicts and delivering smuggled goods to buyers and sellers. When an Alliance cruiser busts their raid, the Serenity has a hard time offloading their booty, and they stop on a planet to pick up some passengers: a "shepherd" (preacher) by the name of Book (Ron Glass); Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a young doctor looking to get off-world without Alliance attention; and some mystery dude who is bound to cause some sort of trouble. Also accompanying the crew is Inara (Morena Baccarin), a member of the ultra-high class escort class known as the Companions, who uses the Serenity's built-in shuttle to meet her engagements. When mystery dude turns out to be a Fed, we discover that Simon smuggled his sister River (Summer Glau) on-board, and the two are fugitives running from the Alliance.
The pilot wastes no time fleshing out these characters. Despite a story that takes some big turns, "Serenity" is so great because it's really made up of countless tiny moments, from Wash at the helm playing with toy dinosaurs, to Book quickly disabling the Fed: Whedon, the man responsible for a great many of the best-developed characters to ever grace television, makes hs earlier efforts look like child's play. There's more development in this single pilot than the entire first season of Buffy.
But the pilot is no fluke; Whedon and his writers packed each episode so full of character development that attempting to discuss the show on an episodic basis is futile. Believe me I know: there's a 5000-word version of this post that's as much a tribute to wheel-spinning as it is a review of this show. The plots, good as they are, come a distant second to the characters; this is true of all of Whedon's shows of course (well, not Dollhouse, but that's new and not yet fully explored), but Firefly plays like 5 seasons worth of Whedon T.V. rolled into one.
Book, the kindly preacher, has a murky past, bits of which surface in was that simply make the details even fuzzier. Jayne loves his guns so much that, when Mal somehow finds himself married to a subservient farm girl, he offers the Cap his most prized possession -- a gun he dubs "Vera" -- to trade for the attractive stowaway. His loyalty to the highest bidder comes into play when he betrays the Tams for a fat bounty in the gripping "Ariel," and even in Mal's oxygen-deprived flashbacks in "Out of Gas." Simon, who comes off as foppish and sheltered, reveals a deep love for his sister and a willingness to lose everything to protect her. Zoe and Wash have just about the most stable relationship ever seen in the Jossverse, but occasionally Wash can't help but feel jealous over Zoe and Mal's extremely close -- and extremely platonic -- relationship.
Mal, of course, is another beast entirely. As objectively as I can view a piece of entertainment, I'd without a doubt rate Mal as one of the best-written, most interesting characters in Joss' or anyone else's shows. (Personally, I'd rank him second only behind Fred in my list of favorite Whedon creations). He's always interested about getting the job done and isn't at all afraid to make some seemingly heartless decisions, yet he cares for anyone under his charge like family: when Simon and River are kidnapped by zealous hill folk in "Safe," Mal comes to rescue them and, when Simon asks why the Captain came back for them, he simply responds that Simon and River are a part of the crew. But for all his professionalism, he has an unflinching ability to turn even the calmest situation into a brawl, at which point his ability to take an obscene amount of punishment benefits him: these altercations range from hilarious (the duel in "Shindig") to terrifying (the torture in "War Stories"). Even more interesting are the moments when his steely resolve comes to the fore, such as the downright fearsome coldness in his eyes when he breaks free of his torturers in "War Stories."
As with the rest of Whedon's "families," one person keeps everyone else together, no matter how bad things get. Buffy had Willow, then Xander, Angel had Fred, and Firefly has Kaylee, an irrepressible ray of sunshine who just so happens to be a mechanical genius. As Mal so rightly puts it, "I don't believe there's a power in the 'Verse that can keep Kaylee from bein' cheerful." When the Fed shoots her in the gut in the pilot, the entire crew rallies to save her and no one seems a mite concerned about killing Simon for indirectly causing it all -- as with Willow in the early seasons of Buffy, Joss isn't above putting her in jeopardy constantly to ratchet up the drama. Though Jayne makes a number of crass jokes at her expense, everyone clearly cares for her, particularly Inara, who constantly fields Kaylee's doe-eyed wonder without a hint of condescension.
As a matter of fact, my single favorite scene in the series involves Kaylee. In "Shindig," Kaylee spots a, frankly, gaudy dress in a window shop but nevertheless regards it as she does Inara's finest clothing. When Mal needs to sneak into an upper crust party to speak with a potential client -- the fact that Inara's there has nothing to do with it, of course -- he shows up with Kaylee, frilly dress and all, in hand. Now, I'm a very empathetic person: pretty much everything but non-Whedon television can move me to tears, and I feel shame for those too drunk or dumb to feel it for themselves. I literally watch Ricky Gervais' shows through my fingers as if they were horror films. Yet when Kaylee stumbles into the middle of high society wearing what looks like a pink Christmas tree, it never once occurs to me to be embarrassed for her. Jane Espenson turns the cliché on its head, instantly shutting down the snotty aristocrats who jeer her and making her the star of the ball without resorting to some insulting Pygmalion-like "transformation," with men listening rapturously as she gives them the skinny on the best and worst ships you can buy. I can't tell you how thrilled I was that they never paraded such a sweet character around for a cheap laugh.
As I've already noted, picking highlights from this set is a fool's errand. If you're in the mood to laugh, try "Jaynestown," in which Jayne returns to a planet he raided years ago, only to find out that the money he unwittingly dumped to break out of the atmosphere made him a folk hero. Or you can go with Whedon's own "Our Mrs. Reynolds," in which Mal wakes up from a drunken celebration to find himself betrothed to the sort of woman Joss has made a career to "liberate." Quotable lines abound as the rest of the crew reacts with various degrees of amusement and disgust, but the choicest quote has to go to Book warning Mal of taking advantage of the girl who seems so anxious to please her new beau: "You'll go to a special level of hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater."
But, as with all Whedon, the cream of the crop comes with pitch blackness. The de facto finale, "Objects in Space," casts River's madness and bounty hunter Jubal Early's sadism against the cold nothingness of space, giving the whole thing a certain existential feel without ever letting itself get too smart to neglect the well-paced plot. Early himself is a masterstroke of a one-off villain, providing a nice contrast for River but with a terrifying lack of morals -- he casually threatens to rape Kaylee if she, and later Simon, do not help him. The aforementioned "War Stories" turns Niska from the somewhat cartoony Bond-esque villain from "The Train Job" and makes him truly frightening, though not as scary as Mal when we meet his "true" self (though the attempted group therapy Mal and Wash hold as they're being electrocuted is pretty gorram funny). Jayne's betrayal in "Ariel" sets up one of the best thrillers in the Jossverse; one of the chief problems of Joss' shows is that the writers hold back as much information as they can so they can sucker punch you all at once, but by knowing that Jayne is selling out River and Simon long before it happens, the entire episode is chilling, and it only gets better when two mysterious agents start killing everyone in their path to get to their targets -- including fellow Alliance personnel).
If I must pick a favorite, though, I'd have to go with Tim Minear's hallucinatory "Out of Gas." Kaylee spent the first few episodes casually mentioning something about a faulty catalyzer, and it dies at last, leaving the ship with no power and no life support. Pieced together out of sequence, in some ways it strikes me as representative of the constant tampering with the show, only here it's put to artistic use. And now that I revisit the show after going through Joss' other series, I can't help but think of it as Firefly's version of "Fool for Love" or "Selfless": it acknowledges the Serenity as a character all its own and, like Spike and Anya, charts its evolution, though instead of clothes or relationships, it advances as each person joins the crew.
For many people, the show's mixture of cyberpunk and classic Westerns made it unpalatable, but I fail to see the problem: at their cores, science fiction and Westerns are about explorations, of lawless, unexplored frontiers where man is only answerable to his conscience, or the conscience of a mob. The characters certainly fit easily into Western archetypes: Mal as the ex-Confederate (though he never fought for the right to keep slaves) making his way in the desert -- or space, as the case may be; the Alliance the bureaucracy seeking to tame the wild beauty even as it also conforms to an Ender's Game-like evil government; and Book, the man of God with the terrible past. The Reavers of course stand in for the "savages," though you could truly call these men savage. Even the guns are a throwback, with Zoe's weapon in particular being a direct rip from Steve McQueen's rifle in Wanted: Dead or Alive (the actual gun was the same prop used for Brisco County, Jr.). While it can be jarring to go from mining dead ships in space to a dusty frontier town, the overall tone never shifts wildly enough to create a disparity between the two styles.
So yes, Firefly will go down as the greatest "what if?" series in T.V. and not the best show ever made. Its fans will eventually give up entirely on the possibility of a sequel to either the series or the spinoff film, though they'll still host convention after convention (good). I don't know how it could have ever run for more than a few seasons, even if its massive budget wasn't an issue. Nevertheless, I've never seen a show so abused and so short make such a good argument for its greatness. As much as I can't simply dive into the middle of Buffy or Angel, I find myself glued to my TV for a few days every time I break this out (and I've been watching Firefly a great deal longer than the rest). The show's rich tapestry of character interaction and an ingrained sense of continuity only made Dollhouse's disappointing failure to establish a solid mythology for itself with its first season more glaring -- I'm not casting aspersions, mind you; Dollhouse is an entirely different show. Dollhouse might be Joss' most ambitious show thematically and stylistically, but Firefly more than matches it in scope. What a shame it only got to be the martyr.