I bought “Firefly” in 2003, as soon as it became available on DVD in the UK. By that time, the show had been cancelled, with only eleven of the fourteen season one episodes aired.
I watched it and was once again forced to wonder why people with no understanding of what made good Science Fiction and great television got to be TV executives.
I was not alone. The DVD sales were so strong that the show’s creator, Joss Wheadon got funding to make a movie, “Serenity” to feed fan’s appetite to know what happened next. I saw the movie in 2005. It was pretty good but it was very different from the TV show. “Serenity” was focused on plot and the Big Picture. “Firefly” was all about the people, which is why I loved it.
So here we are, sixteen years later, and my wife and I are going through the DVD mountain, trying to decide what should be kept and what should be quietly released back to the wild, when we come across “Firefly”. We both loved the show. But then, we’d both loved “Buffy” and “Angel”, the shows Joss Whedon made his name with, and neither of them had aged well. Maybe we’d just gotten too old or the material was thinner than we thought. We decided in the end to say that those series where “of their time”, honour the memory and move on.
We settled down to watch “Firefly” and two things became immediately apparent: firstly, we had remembered disturbingly little of the details of the episodes (some of which may be due to the passage of time and some due to having our memories over-written by the plot of “Serenity”), secondly, we were watching some of the best TV we’d seen in a long time.
As we watched all fourteen episodes, I asked myself what it was that made the series so compelling. Well, it had a stellar cast that did the ensemble thing perfectly; it was peppered with Whedon’s usual humour; each episode told a story and told it well but most of all, the story being told was a very human one.
During the course of the series, Serenity, a Firefly-class spaceship, becomes home to nine very different people. Why they’re on Serenity and what they want from it and each other is so varied that it’s as likely to bring them into conflict as to unite them. This is not a democracy. The Captain is in charge. It’s not even a team, because their agenda’s are so different. Yet it becomes a family. A family most of us watching would probably like to join.
Let me introduce you to them:
Captain Malcolm Reynolds is the anchor of the show. His is the will that shapes life aboard Serenity.
A sergeant on the losing side of an interplanetary war and unable to abide the side that won, he spends his time in the outer-planets, recently populated places with lower levels of tech but higher levels of independence, where he makes his money hauling, trading and smuggling.
Reynolds has a strong personal code which often gets him into trouble, which he seldom backs down from. He leads with humour but does not accept anyone challenging his authority.
He’s played by the inimitable Nathan Fillion ( God, did he look this young the first time I watched this?) who had featured as an evil preacher in Whedon’s “Buffy” and later went on to be the star of “Castle”.
Zoe Washburne is the second in command on Serenity. She served with Reynolds in the war and was with him when he bought Serenity. She’s a warrior with a cool head and deep loyalty to Reynolds. But the centre of her life is her husband, who pilots the Serenity.
She’s played with strength, passion and perfectly judged dry humour by Gina Torres, who I first saw in Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” music video in 1989 and who is now best known for her role as the lead Partner in the law firm in “Suits”.
Hoban Washburne, normally called Wash, is on Serenity because it’s where his wife wants to be.
He’s a talented pilot, with a light-hearted attitude that gets him through the stress of getting Serenity to do the almost impossible. He uses humour to deflect conflict. He’s deeply in love with his wife and is jealous of the closeness between her and Reynolds and resentful of Reynolds’ willingness to put his wife’s life at risk when she does her job.
He’s played Alan Tudyk who brings a remarkable range of facial expression and vocal tones to deliver a subtle, very believable portrayal of a nice guy following his heart to uncomfortable places.
Kaylee is Serenity’s mechanic. She’s in love with keeping the ship flying. She’s had no formal training but she has an insatiable curiosity for how machines work and an intuitive feel on how to fix them.
She’s open, optimistic and friendly, which occasionally makes her vulnerable.
She’s played by Jewel Staite who delivers a wholesome and sweet performance that is neither weak nor ironic. She went on to star in “SG 1”.
Jayne Cobb is a mercenary who has joined the Serenity but feels no allegiance to it except as a means to make money and use his guns.
Jayne is a fierce fighter, not very bright and not as mercenary as he portrays himself as being.
He’s the voice of self-interest for whom the answer to every problem is to use the biggest weapon available.
He’s played by with beguiling subtlety by Alan Baldwin who turns Jayne by turn into a threat, a source of comic relief and a man using what he has to get what he needs. He went on to “Chuck” and “The Last Ship”.
Inara Serra is not a member of Serenity’s crew. She’s a Companion, a travelling courtesan, part of the Guild of Companions, who selects clients from the worlds Serenity is visiting. She rents one of Serenity’s shuttles and operates independently of Reynolds’ authority.
Reynolds is attracted to Inara but does not approve of her profession. Inara is also attracted to Reynolds but values her independence too much to admit to it.
Part of the humour of the show is that, as a Companion, Inara is seen as a respectable and valued member of society whereas Reynolds is seen as (and is) a criminal.
She is played, with quiet, almost demure, humour by Morena Baccarin who went on to star in “V”, “SG 1” and “Homeland”.
Derrial Book claims to be a Shepherd, a minister of sorts and is a passenger of the Serenity but has no clear itinerary. For a Shepherd, he displays a remarkable proficiency with weapons and has an in-depth knowledge of politics.
Book prompts a number of spiritual and philosophical discussions about the problems and options that face the crew of Serenity but he doesn’t really become a fully developed character in season one.
He’s played by Ron Glass.
Dr. Simon Tam is a surgeon, a member of the Alliance elite and should be on a central planet earning a lot of money.
He joined the Serenity as a passenger while trying to smuggle his sister away from captivity. He’s unable to leave because there is a warrant for his arrest.
His character is used to show the attitudes and expectations of the privileged on the side that won the war. He is often unintentionally patronising and causes offence with other crew members. Reynolds keeps him onboard because he won’t hand anyone over to the Alliance and makes his Ship’s Doctor to pay his way.
He’s played with carefully crafted stiffness by Sean Maher who went on to star in “The Playboy Club”.
River Tam is Simon Tam’s younger sister. She was a child prodigy who was sent to a special school which was a cover for a covert program with a sinister but unspecified agenda (that becomes the main plot in the movie “Serenity”.
While at the school, River’s brain was repeatedly operated on, making her perceive things differently to other people and also making her unstable.
Her brother rescued her and smuggled her onboard Serenity where she is now under Reynolds’ protection.
She’s played by Summer Glau who is perfectly cast. She can go from charming innocent little girl to fey and weird through to scary psycho killer in a single scene.
She’s gone on to be Sci-Fi regular in “The 4400”, “The Sarah Conner Chronicles”, “Doll House”, “Alphas” and “Arrow”.
So, if you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a fan. If you’ve read this far, I recommend the series to you.
I looked for a good trailer to give you a flavour of the show. This is the best I could come up with. I think it shows the same nuanced understanding of “Firefly” that lead to the show being cancelled but at least it lets you see the actors in action.