Review by Diana, MaceVindaloo, Bunchbox
Creator: Joss Whedon
Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Rating: Victory Star Destroyer (packs a wallop)
Once in a while, you see justice not being done and being done simultaneously. Maybe sort of being done ... or not? In this instance, a good premise is given a nice budget and 14 episodes are made. But then the braintrust juggles things around, and cancels your show halfway into the season ... people openly mourn the loss of the show because it's really, really good. So there was justice served in that a great show saw the light of day; then life is unfair because its taken away.
But we are better off for it! The 14 episodes are gems ... when people tell you that new shows don't stand up to the old days, they never took the gos se time to look out for such gems. Oh sorry, did I just swear ... in Chinese? And bet it floats right by the censors, too!
It's about 500 years from now and the "Earth-that-was" has been wasted. Other planets have been "terraformed" and colonized. Like in other space operas, there are "core" planets which are civilized and full of amenities and advanced technology. They tend to have names like Persephone, Hera, Ariel ... ancient Greek derivatives. And though everyone speaks English, they all seem to swear profusely and explicitly in Chinese; sometimes they murmur endearments in Chinese, too. That's because the central government is called "the Alliance" which binds the two major powers that be in those days: America and China. Signs, rituals, clothing, labels, etc. show Chinese-ness. It's quite a clever depiction of how things might have become.
But at its heart is the plain fact that everyone wants to be Han Solo. Captain Malcom Reynolds is a man lucky to be alive, and he intends to keep himself flying as far and as fast as he can. He was on the wrong side of the Unification War, and now tries hard to stay away from the Alliance, taking on jobs for hire, whether it be hauling cargo or pulling off thefts. It's very wild west, being that this is all new territory. It's rather lawless, a lot of guns, a lot of vengeance and loyalty issues. But like Han, Mal has a good heart and loves his crew, whom he looks after with an affection stronger than that enjoyed by most families. And though they may be thieves and some of them are particularly unscrupulous folks, they do have ethics and morals, and they do bleed. Dong ma?
Mal's Chewbacca is Zoë, who fought beside him during the war; they're nearly the sole survivors of the Battle of Serenity Valley, after whom their firefly-class ship is named. You know that the "boat's" great-grandpapa must've been the Millennium Falcon, being in the "reliable hunk of junk" category who "has it where it counts." Serenity looks like a living thing, and when she's thrusting for speed, her butt glows like a firefly's. Zoë is dependable, loyal, and is the yang to Mal's ying .. and yet they can't deal with each other as love interests. Those feelings are meant for others, which is nicely refreshing.
The rest of the ensemble cast are thieves, sweet things, loverboys, preachers, doctors, and insane people. They are each a lot more than their stereotypes give them credit for, and being on a "piece of junk" you know they are all hiding something. The drama comes from the story of these people and their relationships. Another refreshing thing: there are no alien species; the greatest threats are savages called Reavers beings who had once been human, but had turned insane on the edges of space, and only live to rape, pillage, cannibalize, hunt and the Blue Sun group of the Alliance. It's as if they are saying that humans are the most dangerous things we can encounter ... and the show doesn't need to even use the Reavers or the Blue Sun boys very much, for the reactions of the human actors says everything you want/need to know.
It's a little like Trigun or The Magnificent Seven, or The Incredible Hulk where ever-moving drifters, vigilantes, fugitives, and guns-for-hire expose themselves to all sorts of dodgey situations to make a living ... and may inadvertently make a real difference in the lives of those they touch. The writing is polished, the sets and acting are excellent. They really took a page out of George Lucas's Star Wars when they decorated their sets everything looks real and lived in and is carefully thought out.
Some episodes are better, some funnier ... all are intriguing and well done. Even the civilian passengers are absorbing. Bit by bit, we learn about Inara's life and why a high-class "companion" who was in line to become High Priestess would choose life on a dilapitated old transport to run her business. We see the Shepherd Book knows way more about guns and hand-to-hand combat than his monastic life should have taught him. And the brilliant, talented surgeon who is willing to lose everything for the sake of his addled, uncontrollable sister ... what's his story? Add to that Jayne, the thug who really isn't anything that he seems; and Kaylee, who not only is cheerful and young and sexy but a brilliant mechanic; and Wash the dorky genius pilot who managed to marry Zoë over the orders of Captain Reynolds ... this is like the intelligent, much more interesting, and sometimes even funnier version of Gilligan's Island.
The casting is quite perfect, even though you've seen these actors in other movies and shows, which can nag at you while you're watching. Once a Whedonite, always an Wedonite it seems, and these people do show up in his other shows. They also show up on movies and you'll find yourself realizing, "Hey, that's Mace Windu's wife! I mean, Morpheus's ..." Shepherd Book is most famous out of Barney Miller, Fillion was the "wrong Ryan" in Saving Private Ryan, Torres was in The Matrix: Reloaded, Tudyk was in A Knight's Tale, etc. You can't help but make the associations, a variation on the "Kevin Bacon game." Even so, everyone from Nathan Fillion to Sean Maher and Summer Glau wears their role so well that you're pretty convinced that this is how life is for them when the cameras aren't rolling. They transcend themselves as actors and become their characters, no matter where you'd seen them before.
The music is strong and evocative, using American Ozarky country fiddles, plunky guitars, banjos. The wailing style voice with appropriate accents for the themesong is unexpected and really works well. The music gives the setting an amazing richness and a familiarity so that nothing seems incongruous or too strange to believe. It makes everything earthy and "down home" and yearning, too. Amazing what good music can do; it especially gives a good balance of hokiness.
And the effects are great the ships, the fires, even how that guy gets sucked into the engine like a Tatooine pit droid ... this show had a hefty budget, indicating a big investment. Still can't figure out how or why they got cancelled. Maybe it was too cerebral? It does seem more like a series of drama movies than a dumb weekly. Maybe it stood out too much in the stupid landscape that is what we expect of television? Maybe dumb sitcoms get more advertising dollars because the type of people who'd love Firefly are less consumers and more cult fans?
These very fans mourned the grounding of the Serenity so loudly and so long that when creator Joss Whedon (who also created television's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and co-wrote the screenplay for Toy Story) went to Universal to pitch a movie idea, it got picked up. Fans of the firefly-class boat may yet find out the fate of the ship and crew (though there are rumors of a trilogy of movies ... hooray for Star Wars for setting that precedent).
Then again, maybe it's okay that the series was cut before all 14 episodes could even be broadcast. The last episode does leave us hanging ... but perhaps that's the way it should be. Captain Reynolds probably wouldn't have it any other way. Wouldn't you rather just know that a show exists where you can hear Ta ma duh! (F*** me blind!) or Nee ta ma duh tyen-shia suo-yo duh run doh gai si! (F*** everyone in the universe to death!) on what was primetime? Or hearing the captain refer to his best customer as a whore ... repeatedly. Or even seeing the whore with customers ...
Yes, better to die in a blaze of glory than to spiral downwards into lameness! But better it existed at all. Tzao gao or Xi Xie, we're glad the whole series is on DVD. It'll run you under $30 on Amazon (not including shipping) ... at just over $2 an episode, it's the best deal in episodic television that should have been. So Hoo-tsuh (shut up!) and get one! (Don't worry ... there are lots of websites dealing with the show and the Chinese bits. Fun! Wei!)
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