Thursday 26 May 2011

Review: FIREFLY - The Complete Series (2002)

Thursday 26 May 2011

The eponymous insect burns brightly, but doesn't live long; an ironic omen of what happened to its namesake television series Firefly. Joss Whedon's space-western was posthumously more successful on DVD than during its brief, disorderly broadcast on Fox between 2002 and 2003. Gene Roddenberry may have pitched his venerable Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars", but Joss Whedon's Firefly delivers the arid aesthetic that description brings to mind.

The year is 2517 A.D. Mankind has colonized a new star system; terra-forming planets and moons to resemble the Dust Bowl of the United States. Not intentionally, one hopes. Adding a soupçon of melancholy is how these new worlds exist in the aftermath of a conflict between the victorious "Alliance" (comprised of Earth's American and Chinese superpowers) and the defeated "Browncoats" of outlying worlds who fought for independence.

One veteran of this "Unification War" is Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a swaggering hero who's named his scrappy ship "Serenity" after a notorious battle, which he uses to smuggle goods between worlds. Mal's loyal crew are comprised of tough wartime comrade Zoe (Gina Torres); her snarky pilot husband "Wash" (Alan Tudyk); beautiful Inara (a pre-V Morena Baccarin), the ship's resident "companion" (ahem, prostitute); tomboy engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite); and bonehead thief Jayne Cobb (a pre-Chuck, post-Predator 2 Adam Baldwin.) Following the events of the pilot, they're joined by pious Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a tranquil man of faith, and fugitive siblings Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau)--the former a gifted doctor, the latter a young woman mentally-scarred by experimental Alliance brain surgery that's endowed her with psychic abilities and extraordinary combat skills.

As you'd expect from the wordsmith behind Buffy and Angel, Firefly's whip-smart, littered with fresh creative choices, polished dialogue and a knowing approach to the clichés of its genre. "Whedonesque" patois can occasionally turn characters into glove puppets spouting witticisms, but it's the same kind of heightened reality Quentin Tarantino imprints on his own litany of characters. You may sense that every ad lib Cap'n Mal delivers has been chewed on for days in the mind of a stressed-out staff writer, but diamonds need crushing.

Firefly's premise is similar to that of Blake's 7 (does Whedon take regular inspiration from British classics, as his subsequent Dollhouse also evolved the concept of Gerry Anderson's Joe 90?), and succeeds in delivering an immediate sense of camaraderie from its crew. Indeed, the cast slot together like they've spent years in each other's company. When you recall how long it took most of Trek's spin-offs to develop tangible chemistry, it's incredible how quickly Firefly's gang become a "family" to really care about. The excellent casting should take most of the credit; a group of relatively unknown actors at the turn-of-the-century, who've mostly gone on to bigger, if not necessarily better, things. Only a few are likely condemned to a Galaxy Quest-style existence of fan conventions; but I'll leave you to decide which ones will be brushing up their own Grabthar's Hammer speeches in 20 years...

There are flaws with Firefly, of course--unthinkable as that may sound to intransigent Browncoats. I think it's safe to say Firefly's main fault was emphasizing its parched viscose backdrop over the sci-fi. Considering the show's set half-a-millennia into the future, the only regular reminder is the presence of spaceships instead of stagecoaches. I'm not saying Firefly needed a constant string of space battles or a time-travel adventure, but I may have been nice to see stronger sci-fi ideas being tackled--beyond River's brain surgery. And don't get me started on inscrutable villains "The Reavers", unseen boogiemen whispered about ad nauseum, who had to wait for spin-off movie Serenity for their moment in the sun.

Alleviating some of that, the basic concept is crystal clear and engaging: a motley crew of "space pirates" smuggle contraband while avoiding the "space navy" and any ne'er-do-well rivals. But given the fact Fox inexplicably decided not to air Firefly's pilot first, it's little wonder audiences were bewildered by the show's jumble of influences, styles and ideas--which range from Star Wars, Star Trek, Cowboy Bebop and Red Dwarf, to Mad Max, Buck Rogers and, perhaps, '80s cartoon BraveStarr?

But boy-oh-boy, that cast is golden: Fillion, face as bug-like as Mal's beloved ship, channels a wittier Han Solo; moon--faced Glau debuts the "violent swan" act she's reprised to various degrees ever since; Baldwin's essentially playing the tougher, dumber, unscrupulous younger brother of Casey from Chuck; Tudyk's a bundle of amusing tic's and twitchy energy as the prodigious pilot with a Hawaiian shirt obsession; Torres personifies quiet, feminine toughness with her lethal quick draw and bee-stung lips; Glass makes for a pleasantly whimsical, genial "mystic"; then-newcomer Baccarin manages to turn a potentially uncomfortable live-in "geisha" into a beguiling character of subtle depth; Staite initially annoyed me as a perky grease monkey, but became rather adorable; Glass is effortlessly likable, even if his character suffers from the least development (a late-season reveal he has scarily long hair is about it); and Maher just about manages to avoid becoming a total drip as the dependable doc--although he remains less of a foil for Mal than I think was intended. A few of the relationships also feel relatively fresh in a space-faring context--with brother/sister and husband/wife duo's involved, both afforded opportunities to act those roles naturally.

The 14 episodes themselves are of good quality with only a handful of weak hours--"Shindig" (*½), "Bushwacked" (**), "Safe" (**), "The Message" (**)--and managed to hit a notable high in the season's third quarter. The pilot "Serenity" (***) is a confident intro, so goodness knows why Fox didn't air it first, but early episodes are mainly just serviceable escapades, until episode 6's "Our Mrs Reynolds" (***) introduces sexy swindler Saffron (pre-Mad Men Christina Hendricks), who proves to be stimulating fun--and the possible inspiration for Doctor Who's mysterious archaeologist River Tam Song, as both share "sweetie"-talk and poisoned lipsticks. However, the trio of episodes that make you lament Firefly's passing arrive soon after with "Out Of Gas" (***½), a flashback hour as the crew suffer a life-threatening engine failure; a daring undercover mission to an Alliance hospital to brain-scan River in "Ariel" (***); and hostage crisis drama "War Stories" (***) where Mal and Wash are tortured by a mobster.

Perhaps Firefly's brevity and network mistreatment worked in its favour, helping it find unexpected success on DVD? The show had a fantastic excuse for failure with Fox's disorderly scheduling, and never lasted long enough to face creative struggles. "Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse", as the saying goes, and that's exactly what Firefly did--whether it wanted to, or not. At least people still visit its grave and leave flowers.

written by Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, Jane Espenson, Drew Z. Greenberg, Ben Edlund, Jose Molina, Cheryl Cain & Brett Matthews / directed by Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, Vern Gillum, Michael Grossman, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Marita Grabiak, David Solomon, Allan Kroeker, Jim Contner & Thomas J. Wright

"Serenity" (***), "The Train Job" (**½), "Bushwacked" (**), "Shindig" (*½), "Safe" (**), "Our Mrs Reynolds" (***), "Jaynestown" (**½), "Out Of Gas" (***½), "Ariel" (***), "War Stories" (***), "Trash" (**½), "The Message" (**), "Hearts Of Gold" (**), "Objects In Space" (**½)

Screenshots kindly provided by Tyler Scruggs.