As a fan of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but not a fan of television in general, I was aware of but unexposed to his "space western" series, Firefly, which was cancelled in December 2002 after 14 episodes. Easier to consume was the 2005 feature film adaptation, Serenity, which I enjoyed last year, prompting me to recently, finally, watch the original show.
Holy cow. How was this ever cancelled?? I've been enjoying Star Trek for 20 years now, but I've never seen anything like Firefly. What a breath of fresh air!
To understand the show's uniqueness, you should know its background:
Earth-that-was got used up.
We moved out — terraformed and colonized hundreds of new earths; some, rich and flush with the new technologies; some, not so much. The central planets — them as formed the Alliance — decided all the planets had to join under their rule.
There was some disagreement on that point.
After the Unification War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of civilization, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggle to get by with the most basic of technologies. A ship will bring you work; a gun will help you keep it.
A captain's goal is simple: find crew, find a job… keep flying.
Unlike Deep Space Nine, which was a space opera, Firefly is a space western. I'd heard this term bandied about, but I didn't understand until I saw it: this show is rough, coarse, and violent. You thought Star Trek: Enterprise was rudimentary — the ship Serenity doesn't even have weapons or shields, so forget about holodecks or warp drives. (All the show's activity seems to occur within just one or two solar systems in the backwater of the galaxy.) There are no medical tricorders or dermal regenerators; doctors work their craft wielding crude tools and adorned in bloody aprons. It's as if locomotion progressed at an inversely proportionate rate to all other technology. Heck, the second episode even has a train robbery.
More important than the low tech is the equivalent low standard of living. This is not some Federation utopia: anyone who isn't government is a dreg of society. And these are their stories. There are no spatial anomalies, no aliens, no technobabble… just people whose lives are dependent on cattle and horses. The captain and his crew struggle not with engines, but with moral and legal dilemmas. The setting may not be real, but the people and their problems are infinitely more relatable and realistic than anything most Star Trek crews would encounter. The resolutions aren't always happy; two of the last three episodes end in funerals.
Don't get me wrong — I like Trek, and Serenity's crew can be likened to the Enterprise's makeup. We have a captain, a first mate, an engineer, a doctor, a thug (chief of security), a pilot (helmsman), a priest (ship's counselor), a prostitute (uh… ship's counselor), and precocious (dangerous, on-the-lam) youth. But the parallel structure doesn't dictate equal characters: this crew have deadly secrets or tendencies. When a new crewmember states his lack of trust in his mates, the most defining line of the pilot comes from the captain: "If I shoot you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed." What does that make him — lawful neutral? Neutral good? Picard never made such a strong — and morally ambiguous — first impression.
Firefly is definitely an ensemble show. The young engineer, Kaylee — who reminds me of Willow — is so cute. I don't mean sexy or gorgeous — I mean adorable. She brings a ray of sunshine to this dark show. And the pilot, Wash, wryly lightens the mood like Zander, but is far more capable than his Buffy counterpart. Often complicating matters is his marriage to the first mate. Has there ever been a Star Trek show with two married principals?
Despite any similarities, this isn't "Vampire Slayers in Space", and Whedon isn't a one-trick pony. What he is good at, though, are long story arcs. Each episode of Firefly is self-contained, while providing us with more and more detail about each character… yet for every fact we learn, a new mystery arises. Who is the preacher, really? For what secrets is River hunted by the government? For what price will Jayne turn on his crew? Will Simon and Kaylee ever get together? Some of the stories are tough to swallow — everyone has an incredibly high pain threshold, as the crew (especially the captain) regularly make heroic comebacks after being shot, sliced, tortured, and even killed. But the storytelling, character development, and plot are Whedon's trademarks, and I regret that he could never realize the full vision he had for this crew. (A fan-made documentary, Done the Impossible, examines the impact and story of the show.)
With the entire series in one affordable box set, Firefly deserves to find the audience it didn't the first time around — and you owe it to yourself to become a fan of this fantastic fiction. Having already seen the film Serenity, I found it a melancholy experience to trace the path of this show, knowing how it would end. Since the series finale was not intended as such, the film provided the closure it needed. Now I want to see it again, since I feel I know the characters better. Of course, this time it'll be even harder to say goodbye…