There are times when a television network completely destroys a good show. Typically this is done by not giving it a consistent time slot, the required promotion or even airing the episodes out of order. In the case of Firefly it was all of the above. This is the tragic case of a show with excellent potential that was completely robbed of any chance by the short sighted network executives. Now at least with the release of the DVD and subsequent release, the Fox network has attempted to atone at least in part this mistreatment that strongly resonated with its fan base. Firefly was the latest effort to merge two extremely popular genres, science fiction and westerns. This is not as far-fetched as some may think. If you examine the resumes some of the most popular actors, writers and directors that were responsible for the golden age of sci-fi movies and 50s, it will quickly become obvious that the talents were equally applicable to both forms of entertainment. When Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek the network executives he envisioned it as a reinvention of ‘Wagon Train ‘in space. The film ‘Outland’ also took on this combined genre in a much more direct fashion by taking the themes in situations of ‘High Noon’ and retooling its location to Io, where the main moons of Jupiter. Since then much of the focus point habitable worlds to the moons that will gas giants throughout the galaxy.
With Firefly the western feel is far more overt. The cities visited are not super modern, they are broken down old west type towns even to the juxtaposition of the typical archetypes found in the old west, prospectors, Asians, fortune hunters and small time crime lords. At the helm of the firefly class transport Serenity is former army sergeant Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He leads a rag tag group of people that scrape out a meager living ‘salvaging’ what they can from derelict space ships. In his crew are Zoe (Gina Torres), an army subordinate of Mal’s, her husband and ship’s pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), the mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and the overly cheerful Kaylee (Jewel Staite). There is even a beautiful young woman the 'Ambassador', Inara (Morena Baccarin), actually a ‘companion’ a politically correct term for the ships resident prostitute. Rounding off the crew is Shepard Book (Ron Glass), a man of the cloth that becomes the spiritual conscious of the group. What works here is how the characters, although forced together, are given the time to meld together. The different back stories get to simmer, merge and combine while each are permitted to retain their own distinctive qualities. There is an undercurrent of spirituality, a sense of tradition and purpose set amidst the rough and tumble action sequences. Here is a television show that is written in an intelligent manner, perhaps beyond the abilities of those that were charged to bringing to the network. I found myself getting drawn into this world almost immediately. The writing was such that was emotionally vested into the characters less than a third of the way through the first episode that I watched. It’s a shame the network never gave this show the proper attention it so richly deserved. So many people complain about what a waste land television is but when quality comes along it is all too often ignored.
This was an interesting selection for the cast, an eclectic bunch of actors with each highly capable of contributing something special to the series. Fillion is well cast as the captain. His portrayal of Mal is cynical, bitter and hard, and understandable psychological defense to a righteous course that was ultimately sold out. Despite this was able to hold on to ab ember of humanity buried under the gruff exterior necessary to survive. As a military man who was ultimately betrayed by the side he fought for he is relegated to earning a living through any means possible. He also takes his role as leader seriously, fiercely loyal to his crew. One really inspired selection in casting was Ron Glass as the Shepard. While Glass is best known for television comedies like the classic Barney Miller, here he demonstrates that he has the acting chops necessary for roles that are more complex that the typical sit-com afforded him. Baccarin as the companion also brings more to her role than the typical television show would have permitted. There is a pride in her character’s makeup, although nominally working as a prostitute she holds to a sense of honor and tradition. Even Baldwin as Jayne breaks free of the stereotype normally imposed by a weekly television show. While he is the least likeable of all the characters he is necessary to supply contrast to the noble aspects of Mal’s character. Even the best scripts require a cast that can deliver and here, for a brief moment, we had such a cast.
Joss Whedon made a name for himself with the cult classic television show ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Say what you want about the show, its production values were paramount. He cut his teeth in writing with such gigs as Rosanne, Alien Resurrection and of course, Angel. For one thing, Whedon does not write down to the lowest common denominator of the viewing audience. He shows respect for the audience. People watching television is capable of intelligent thought, a fact lost on most series writers. Whedon is aware of this and created a world where you have to pay attention to the story and appreciate the character development. This was television that did far more than filling the time between commercials. As the primary director and creative force behind the series, he frames each scene more like a film than television. There is attention given to the effects of the lighting and set design. One thing that impressed me was in a scene where the crew was outside the ship. There was silence, an explosion with absolutely no noise. While most of us are used to sound in these situations, there was a little touch of reality.
While Fox all but ignored this series when it was in their lineup they did make a concerted effort to appease the fans with the whole release respectfully. The original DVD release with individual slimline cases for each disc. It anamorphic 1.78:1 video was clean although there was noticeable distortion at the edges. This was corrected in the subsequent release. The subdued color palette was a stylistic choice made by Mr. Whedon. Although this is a culture that is used to space travel and very much retains the frontier look and feel. Pulling back on the brightness provides the production the loss of the usual right readily distinguishable tolls that is usually indicative of high technology. In the societies that have taken hold in most of these worlds theologically cut off necessities of replacement parts for many high-tech devices. It is much more practical to breed horses for transportation; they can be bread not manufactured is far easier to grow the brain they required to replenish any high-technology energy source. Frontier society the American Old West would be an ideal template for expanding humanity to suitably inhabitable planets. Even on board the Serenity the use of sepia dominates much of its palette. This provides a visual reinforcement for the mood established by the writing and talented portrayal of the cast; grim, chaotic but permeated by a sense of family, albeit a dysfunctional one. With the new high definition transfer necessitated by the Blu-ray release, the audio was improved from the Dolby Digital surround the DVD to an exceptionally robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 on the Blu-ray edition.
Fortunately, Fox decided actually to restore the proper story order here. The out of order disarray is gone, and you can watch the series as it was intended, including the three episodes never aired. Since most episodes refer to previous ones, this is important in helping the viewer understand the flow of the overall arcs and see the progression of the characters. The commentary tracks are straightforward and informative. There are seven commentaries included featuring the viewpoints of the cast and crew. Some of the backstories is provided in the making of featurettes that shows the details of the ship and interrelationship of the crew. This show deserved a lot better than it received. At least now it is presented with pride and respect.
Posted 07/28/2015 (Blu-ray) 10/12/017
For those that are interested, the broadcast order did not reflect the order the writer intended. Below is a chart of the broadcast and correct order.
Take my love, take my land