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Psychic, though? That sounds like something out of science fiction.

We live in a spaceship, dear.


– Wash and Zoe, Objects in Space

Joss Whedon writing a science fiction show – a science fiction western, to be precise. Doesn’t that excite you? Just a bit? Well, it should, because they’re just so… very… pretty. Huh? Look at that chiselled jaw!

And yes, I am already quoting it. It’s going to be a fun review.

Male bonding... Or bondage, I'm not sure...

You sanguine about the kind of reception we’re apt to receive on an Alliance ship, Cap’n?

Absolutely.  What’s “sanguine” mean?

“Sanguine”. Hopeful. Plus, point of interest: it also means “bloody”.

Well, that pretty much covers all the options, don’t it?

– Zoe and Mal, Safe

I grew up on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer. I’m the right age to. I thought it was great. I still do – I think it’s a fantastically written show. However, it’s a series based around teenagers and clearly written for teenagers. I felt a tremendous connection to it growing up, dealing with all the wonderful little quirks of being not quite a kid and not quite an adult. I recently caught some repeats and I’ll confess that some of the spark was gone. I don’t intend on being melodramatic, it was still as funny and well-written as it was before, but it just didn’t click as well. Somehow I had moved further away from being a teenager in the past five years than Joss Whedon had in a decade or so.

I had tried to watch Angel and it was good. It was fun. It just didn’t gel with me – I’m not sure why.

So you can understand my interest in Firefly. I wanted a show aimed at a slightly older market than Buffy, but with the same great writing and characterisation going on. Did I get it? At the risk of cutting the review short, I did.

There are some bumps along the way (many of which are due to the series’ very tragic cancellation), but Firefly is a tremendously fun science-fiction show. It’s primarily good, old-fashioned entertainment, and what’s wrong with that? It’s very hard to sit through an episode of the show without at least a smile on your face and at least one of the witty zingers will land and give you something to laugh out loud about.

Science fiction on television has a long association with the Western. Star Trek was pitched as “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Even early pulp film serials like Buck Rogers reflect an action-adventure sensibility that bears more than a little resemblence to the Western adventures. Here, Whedon – apparently inspired by reading books on post-Civil-War American reconstruction, makes the connections explicit. Sure, his crew fly to the sky in a Firefly-class ship, but they ride around on horseback when they land planet-side. The entire series takes place in the shadow of a galactic civil war, and Whedon alludes to the show’s roots in history with the assurance that the losing side of that conflict “will rise again” (at the start of the second episode – and first to air, no less). Firefly is, at its core, a story of frontier smugglers and husslers under constant threat from corrupt or sinister authority.

But is it an American model hovercar?

Whedon freely and wonderfully borrows the iconography from sources in both genres. The faceless Alliance bears more than a passing resemblance to the Empire from Star Wars – though you can also catch a glimpse of the TARDIS aboard their ship in The Train Job for a split second. Equally, bounty hunter Jubal Early (and his ship) in Objects in Space look suspiciously like baddass bounty hunter Bobba Fett. On the other hand, Heart of Gold may as well be The Magnificent Seven (even though the badguy drives something which looks suspiciously like Luke’s hovercar from Star Wars). Western-style bar brawls open The Train Job (complete with holographic – and thus unbreakable – tavern window) and Shindig.

The two genres work surprisingly well together. It feels near-perfect and it’s a credit to Whedon’s skill as a writer.

However, Whedon’s primary strength lies with characters and dialogue. And what a “pretty” bunch he’s put together. Like with Buffy, Whedon assembles all the stereotypes one would associate with the genre – in Buffy it was the combination of high schools cliques and social groups, but here it’s the traditional characters from westerns. There’s the more caring than-he-lets-on captain, the warrior woman, the plucky comic relief, the niave engineer, the big dumb warrior type, the preacher, the sophisticated doctor, the woman-child and the woman of class living beneath her means. Of course, there clever subversions thrown in and all of these characters are more than they appear, perhaps much more – of the preacher in the crew, a bounty hunter in the final episode somewhat teasingly suggests ,“that’s no shepherd.” Of course these ideas are prevented from developing beyond basic hints and suggestions by the simple fact the show only ran thirteen episodes.

Hair-raisingly good television...

Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin’?

Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.

– Zoe and Shepherd Book, War Stories

In case you’re wondering, the intriguing suggestion for Shepherd Book, the surprisingly badass preacher who knows more of organised crime than one would expect, was that he was formerly a very bad man who had simply taken on the identity of a man of God he had killed. It’s a shame that ideas like this were nipped in the bud.

Still, that doesn’t stop Whedon from ensuring that most of the cast have their day. Across the thirteen episodes, we get to spend time with each member of the ensemble. In fact, all of these creations end their run with more development than the entire cast of Star Trek: Voyager (which ran seven years). This method of storytelling is great – it immediately allows the actors to stand out – but it comes at a cost. Basically, the first thriteen episodes of the show are character-driven rather than story driven. It’s a matter of personal preference, but a lot of these stories are simple straight-up science fiction conventions from sagas of hero worship (Jaynestown) to the introduction of a frightening and unknowable enemy (Bushwhacked).

What really matters is how they are written. Firefly doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It isn’t a grand meditation on mankind, like Battlestar Galactica – though philosophy does filter through, like in the final episode Objects in Space. These are fun and exciting stories. There are hints that, unlike most episodic television shows at the time, these individual and exciting episodes will play into one another (the connection between The Train Job and War Stories, for example). However, these connections remain seeds and just add to the collection on tantalising promises the series was not allowed to follow up on.

There are a whole host of unanswered questions – such as what was done to River and why – that plague the series. I don’t think Whedon was wrong to count on his show running longer than the episodes collected here (it certainly deserved to) and I realise most are resolved in Serenity, which I am looking forward to catching – still, it casts a large shadow over these thirteen episodes. It helps, however, that a conscious choice was made to encase the mythology within standalone stories, so that (unlike The X-Files) arc-related episodes, such as the superb Ariel, are fun to watch for their own plots rather than for their contribution to an over-arching plotline.

Taken as they are, they are thirteen fantastic episodes. There isn’t a stinker among them. Perhaps the most complimentary thing that can be said is that they are simply entertaining. Whedon has, as ever, assembling an astonishingly brilliant cast. The fact that the vast majority of them are significantly more well known now than when they started (and are holding steady jobs) is a testament to that fact. Nathan Fillon in particular is amazing as the lead character, Malcolm Reynolds. Fillon has an incredible and undeniable charisma whcih calls to mind that of a young Harrison Ford, and he’s gone on to considerable cult success (holding down his own show Castle, which I must check out, and as the third lead in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) – though I think he deserves to crack the mainstream. But saying Whedon has drawn together a talented ensemble is a bit like suggesting that the sun might shine in the sky – it’s something that comes naturally.

I’ll reserve judgement on whether Firefly is a classic until after I check out Serenity. What it does represent is a wonderful and well ahead of its time attempt to inject some life into televised science fiction. Realising that CGI can only carry a series so far, Firefly predates the wonderful character-drive work we’ve seen within the genre recently. It’s a huge shame it was canceled (and it’s a travesty how Fox treated it and Whedon), but at least we got these 13 episodes lovingly written, acted and directed.

Jayne. This is somethin’ the Captain has to do for himself.

No! No, it’s not!

– Zoe and Mal, War Stories

13 Responses

  1. It’s my second favourite show ever. The Blu-ray is a must have for any fan of sci-fi.

    Castle is also really worth watching. Nathan Fillion is just so darn likeable. (I’m a big fan though, I even have a bowling shirt belonging to him :))

    • I must try to find it – being honest, DVD is how I watch most telly I don’t catch with the family (and that’s Lost/24/House/The Pacific that we watch together or in groups).

  2. Nathan Fillion sells what Whedon created. I still claim Whedon’s made some of the best writing and characters ever on TV or film.

    • That may be the most perfect metaphor I’ve ever heard.

      And, you must concede, Fillon is one hell of a salesman.

  3. um….random person here…..there was 14 episodes of firefly….and it is my 2nd favorite whedon show ^^ next to angel….. and also i think whedon had a bad situation that’s why he got cancelled firefly aired on fridays i believe and also out of order…. and serenity is a good movie ^^

    • Pleased to hear from you, random person. I just went by the BluRay box, which I think counted Serenity, Parts I & II as a feature-length episode. And I agree – Whedon was very much screwed by the network. It’s actually hard to believe Fox wasn’t actively trying to kill it, moving the episodes around and not airing all of them and insisting Whedon rewrite and film the pilot (so The Train Job aired first). That’s a perfect storm of bad luck right there, that is.

  4. Great review, Darren. If you liked it that much you should sit down and watch Serenity today. It takes everything that’s great about the show, trims the fat and delivers one hell of a film.
    Also, it’s always nice to see Venus Flytrap from WKRP in Cincinatti get work.
    I’ve doted on this film and show alot so I will say the one thing I don’t like about Firefly… the theme song… written by Joss Whedon… Eastwood style… I mean, DAMN!

    • I’m going to order it at the end of the month (payday! woot!). I noted that it made a lot of ye olde desert island discs (including your own), and I’ve heard it described as the best sci-fi adventure movie since The Empire Strikes Back.

  5. Beside STAR TREK VOYAGER, NEW GENERATION and ENTRERPRISE, FIREFLY is my favourite sf show of all times. But I found SERENITY quite confusing as a movie.

    • I’ve heard that there’s an issue with how much you can comfortably fit in a two-hour movie. Still, I’ve (as I noted above) yet to see it, so we’ll see.

      I loved Next Generation, but was more of a Deep Space Nine man than a fan of Voyager (though I will confess to liking the last two years of Enterprise – which i understand is enough to get us both exiled from the nerd community).

  6. “Firefly” forever! I will never let go, no matter how much “Castle” wants me to! I’m not a big sci-fi fan, but I fell hard for “Firefly” thanks to the eclectic characters and of course Nathan Fillion. That man could make reading the phone book hysterical.

    “Serenity” was a mighty fine sendoff for the gone-too-soon series, if you ask me.

  7. Through Firefly, Joss Whedon truly unleashed Nathan Fillion on the world. I came at the show through Serenity, although I confess that I did watch about 2 minutes of it on TV before changing the channel in disgust of yet another primetime cowboy show, even if it was a bit sci-fi. I just hated freakin Lonesome Dove and was just opposed to the genre further branching out on the small screen. Talk about a channel flip I totally regret.

    A great analysis of both Whedon and the show, worthy of how gretlat both of them are. Really excited to see what magic he can accomplish with The Avengers in 2 years.

  8. Oh, my, then I’m in danger of being exiled from Nerdistan as well 🙂 since I’ve never got fond of DS9. So according to law you have to love all STAR TREKS in order to get a Nerdistan citizenship? :))
    PS ENTREPRISE had just two seasons, as far as I remember so you basically love the whole series 🙂 They were canceled quite quickly, but I liked the show when I got used to the idea of going back into future instead of going forward.

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