Monday, April 30, 2012

Oh How We'd Cry

So I finally did it. Ten years after it aired, I watched the first, and only, season of Firefly--all fourteen episodes.  The show was created by Joss Whedon, best known for the series Buffy The Vampire Slayer (which I haven't yet watched), and though it flopped, it still has a cult following.  I can see why.  It's pretty good. Maybe not a classic, but at least at the level where enough people should have watched so there'd be more seasons.

The weird thing is I saw Serenity, the movie based on the show, when it came out, so I knew the basic characters and, more importantly, where the show was going.  Still, I hadn't seen the movie since it was released in 2005, so Firefly still seemed pretty fresh. ("Serenity" is the name of the spaceship in the show, and "Firefly" is the class of the ship.)

The story is set centuries in the future, when humanity has left Earth (though no faster-than-light speeds allowed) and lives on the planets and moons of another star system.  People speak English mixed with a little Chinese, often for swearing.  There are the inner planets solidly controlled by the Alliance, and the more wild outer planets. Just as Star Trek was sold as Wagon Train in space, so is Firefly a western with sci-fi trappings.  In fact, much of the appeal is in the dialogue, which is not only witty (in Joss Whedon style--which can get a little precious), but mixes the futuristic lingo with archaic locutions rarely heard outside Westerns.

The Serenity operates mostly outside the law, smuggling and taking on other questionable jobs in opposition to the Alliance.  It's run by Captain Mal Reynolds.  Along with his second-in-command, Zoe, he fought against the Alliance years ago in a losing cause.  The others on the ship are Wash, the pilot; Inara, a Companion, or courtesan, who rents one of its shuttles and actually makes the Serenity more respectable; Jayne, an old crook and tough guy; Kaylee, master mechanic; Book, man of the cloth; Simon, brilliant surgeon and his sister, River, who's even more brilliant but crazy.

The pilot (which I understand was not shown first since Fox wanted to get to the exciting stuff faster) sets up the history of Mal as well as how he gets his passengers, while a later episode "Out Of Gas," shows how Mal assembled his misfit crew.

Though there are serial aspects to the show, the episodes are self-contained stories.  And considering there are only 14, it's amazing how many recurring villains they have.  First, there's the Alliance in general, but then there are the Blue Gloves chasing after River for some unknown reason (that the movie explains), Adelei, a violent mob boss whom Mal double-crossed, and Saffron a con woman (played by Christina Hendricks) who shows up a couple times trying to fool the crew.  There's even Badger, a fellow smuggler, who can't really be trusted (played by Mark Sheppard, who was also Romo Lampkin on Battlestar Galactica, one of the worst characters ever).  On top of which you've got the Reavers, animalistic humans who live on the fringes of civilization.

Another major aspect is the relationships between the regulars.  Wash and Zoe are married (which may be a mistake, since it takes them out of the running, but perhaps gives Mal a freer hand).  Inara and Mal love each other, but can't admit it.  Jewel pines for Simon, though he's a bit too awkward to usually even notice, and is mostly concerned with taking care of his sister.

The adventures are fun, but it's Nathan Fillion as Mal who holds the show together.  He's an outlaw, but he's got a code.  He demands the crew be loyal, but he also inspires loyalty with his basic decency, not to mention his talent for getting out of jams.

Most of other characters are okay, though Simon is a bit dull, Book is all but worthless, and, even with his penchant for taking in strays, I don't see why Mal would keep aboard Jayne--a man who'd sell you out soon as look at you.

Many of the actors have gone on to success in other shows.  For instance, Nathan Fillion has the title role in Castle, Alan Tudyk (Wash) is now on Suburgatory and Morena Baccarin (Inara) can be seen on Homeland.  They've also done other sci-fi stuff, such as Summer Glau (River) in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Jewel Staite (Kaylee) on Stargate Atlantis and Moren Baccarin again on V.  But I admit, for most of them, after watching Firefly, that's the part you'll associate them with.

I think the characters and the relationships could have deepened, and the plots could have gotten more complex, if the show had been allowed to continue.  I wonder if it could have been a hit if it got a new time slot and another season to prove itself?


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I also missed Firefly when it first aired, and saw Serenity in the theaters. I think that it was just a different era in TV is the only explanation why it didn't get at least a full first season run. Today, perhaps because there are so many cable networks, the majors seem more afraid to let go something that might succeed given time.

5:13 AM, April 30, 2012  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

P.S. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is also a recurring anti-hero on The Mentalist.

5:16 AM, April 30, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

Back in the 60s, and there was no cable competition, it was common to get a full season commitment. If they had no faith in you, they'd only give you 13 episodes.

Now, if the numbers are bad, they've been known to bail after an episode or two. But if something shows any promise, they may take a chance, in this era where lower numbers are more acceptable.

Who knows why in some cases. It may be the TV exec has a kid who likes (or doesn't like) the show. I guess Firefly was expensive and, for whatever reasons didn't look like the audience would grow. On the other hand, they're still making fringe, so it's a crap shoot.

10:14 AM, April 30, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

Excellent! I'm glad you watched Firefly. It still holds up after all these years.

I didn't actually love the show until the third time I watched the series through. Maybe that is because the first time I saw it, I watched every single episode in one sitting, from noon until 3 AM, at a house in Seattle full of computer nerds and other SF subculture folks (most of whom I hadn't met before) -- not the most comfy environment. But I think another reason is that, unlike most TV shows (including Joss' other shows), the characters were fully fleshed out from the get-go. So there are scenes in the first episode that I didn't really appreciate the first time around, because I didn't know the characters yet.

Also, the first episode is dramatically problematic. It's a double-length episode that attempts to introduce all nine major characters. This is a mistake, in my opinion.

That being said, some of the episodes are truly brilliant, and only two of them are less than great. In fact, I think that the Serenity movie was a step down in quality, because for some reason they dropped the western lingo, the bluegrass-tinged soundtrack, and gunslinging.

Did you notice that the upper-class folks have Chinese last names (Simon & River Tam, the rude swordsman Atherton Wing) and the lower-class ones have Anglo names? Also, Buddhism is common in the upper classes and Christianity in the lower. Yet despite this, there is a complete absence of anyone who looks ethnically Asian! I never understood why.

6:37 PM, April 30, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I guess I'll have to watch it again in a few months to see if it still holds up. I haven't listened to the commentaries so maybe I should try that. I think the first episode broadcast, "The Train Job," is one of the weaker ones--ironic because Fox chose it to go first to get to the action as soon as possible.

I didn't notice the last names. In fact, since they seemed to reserve Chinese for swearing, I'd have guessed that's the low-class language.

You can't say there are only two less-than-great episodes and then not tell us which ones.

7:37 PM, April 30, 2012  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I noticed the lack of Asians as well. Since the implication was Chinese culture had a great influence in the future, I wondered if in a future episode we would learn that Chinese space explorers had their own planet and isolated themselves from the rest of humanity. Maybe an earth war had caused the split.

This was sort of the story in Clarke's book "2010", where Americans and Soviets engage in a joint venture to the obelisk inn space, but the Chinese launch their own secret mission.

Personally, I find the "Blade Runner" world more interesting, where the writer tries to guess how the major earth cultures will intertwine in the future.

4:46 AM, May 01, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

The two I didn't care for were the episode where Mal is wounded and dying and all the flashbacks occur (the flashbacks were funny, but the framining story was drab), and the story with the prostitutes. Joss Whedon clearly has seen himself as a feminst pushing for strong women's roles and yet he usually avoids preaching -- but in the prostitute story the preaching became too obvious and the characters absurdly one-dimensional.

The two with Christina Hendricks were among the best. I wonder if Whedon gets the credit for "discovering" her? -- Looking at IMDB, I just learned she had a guest spot in Angel three years before Firefly.

By the way, when Firefly was cancelled, Whedon promptly sent Nathan Fillion to Buffy and Gina Torres to Angel, where each of them played the major villain of the second half of that season of the respective shows. And of course, Dollhouse was full of Whedon alumni. As is How I Met Your Mother, for reasons I've never understood.

9:28 PM, May 01, 2012  
Anonymous Lawrence King said...

I assume that the explanation of the Reavers was always going to be the finale, but the explanation of the guys with blue hands was dropped. (They don't appear in the movie.)

But there are various tidbits that can be learned if you spend enough time surfing the web. Remember the episode that begins with River slashing Jayne with a knife, apparently for no reason? In that scene, he was wearing a shirt with the Chinese characters for "Blue Sun", the big bad corporation that was apparently one of the forces behind the school where River was modified. She cuts him by slashing the knife directly across the Chinese characters, and says, "He looks better in red."

I believe that the Blue Sun corporation, not the government per se, was behind the hands-of-blue guys. They actually reappeared in a "canonical" Firefly comic book after the series ended, but weren't as scary in the comic as in the show....

9:35 PM, May 01, 2012  
Blogger LAGuy said...

From reading some fan stuff, I get the impression the episode with the prostitutes is not a favorite (I didn't think much of it, either) but the flashback episode is liked because it has so much of the origin story.

I don't know much about HIMYM or Buffy but I thought perhaps the creators would have some connection, so I checked and Whedon, as well as Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, are all graduates of Wesleyan. That connection may have something to do with it.

The specific Hands Of Blue stuff isn't explained in the movie, but the bigger mystery of why everyone is chasing after River is.

10:27 PM, May 01, 2012  
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