Saturday, December 23, 2006

Created by Joss Whedon

Relatively few people have seen one of the best science fiction tv series of the 21st century. It lasted half a season before FOX dropped it, if you blinked you most likely missed it. It was called Firefly and it took space opera places it hadn’t been in a while.

Joss Whedon created a genre-busting universe that mixed the hard-boiled with the comedic, the horse opera with the space opera, the heist story with cannibals from outer space. If they’d given Joss Whedon another season, he’d probably have thrown in Bollywood. The result is delirious fun that takes viewers from high drama to low comedy in a flash.

Earth-that-was is gone, mankind dwells on far-flung worlds scattered across the ‘verse. Those at the Core are sophisticated, prosperous, and powerful. Those at the edge are poor, backward, and weak. Things came to a head when the Alliance, the ruling system of the Core, imposed its rule on the Independents. A bloody war followed and the ‘verse came under the rule of the Alliance.

Some fellows never come home from war, one such is Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a happy-go-lucky veteran with a dark side. He and his sister-in-arms, Zoe (Gina Torres) own the Serenity, a “Firefly-class” tramp freighter named for the war’s bloodiest battle. Their crew consists of Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot & Zoe’s hubby, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the engineer, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a hired thug. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a “companion”, a very high-class courtesan, who lives on the ship and transacts her business on the backwoods planets they visit.

And I do mean backwoods. Though man is capable of terraforming planets to create habits, most of them look like West Texas on a bad day. In effect the ‘verse is an ever expanding trailer park. The hill-billies that dwell on the outlying planets make Serenity’s crew of hicks and misfits look sophisticated. While Mal is a most charming space captain, he is also a smuggler and part-time pirate. He also runs a cruise line, although his clientele are more likely to be fugitives from justice than fugitives from The Love Boat.

The pilot begins when the Serenity takes on three passengers, Shepherd Book (actually a preacher, though sheep wouldn’t be out of line in this ‘verse), a young doctor named Simon Tam, and a nebbishy traveler. In short order the Shepherd (Ron Glass) turns out to have a wicked punch and a mysterious past, Simon (Sean Maher) is a fugitive with his sister (Summer Glau) in a box, and the traveler is a federal lawman. Mayhem and comedy ensue.

The doctor and his sister, Simon and River Tam, are the heart of the series. They are fugitives from the Alliance, which is sophisticated enough to perform gruesome experiments on River that turned her into a telepath while making her quite insane. The tension between Simon and River’s claim for sanctuary and Mal’s antagonism for outsiders drives the action forward. But make no mistake, every character is essential to the whole. Mal and Inara are in love but unable to admit it, so they trade jibes about petty crime and harlotry. Kaylee, a space engine genius and trailer park queen has a crush on Simon. He is too sophisticated and too obsessed with saving his sister to see love when is staring him in the face. Jayne ups the ante on Mal’s antipathy for the wealth and privilege he envies in Simon, and pushes it all the way to outright betrayal. Zoe is a calm counterpoint to Mal’s impulsiveness. Wash is the ship’s jester and Shepherd Book is its conscience.

In addition to refurbishing the Western via space opera (or is Whedon refurbishing space opera via the Western?), Joss Whedon has created a dark satire on class and politics. He has appropriated the mythic terrain of Star Trek, Huckleberry Finn, and Blood Meridian. Like Huck or the James Boys, Mal has lit out for the territories. Instead of Judge Holden or Apaches, he meets the Reavers, cannibal space pirates.

This mix and match kaleidoscope approach allows some amazing explorations of the expectations of genre. “Jaynestown” is about a backwoods hell-hole that just happens to think Jayne is a hero. The story is a comic deflation of Eric Hobsbawm’s “social bandit” thesis, a thesis that explains the appeal of stories such as Robin Hood or tv shows about charming space-outlaws. Many tv shows parody themselves, few do it so thoughtfully. “Ariel” is a classic heist story, one that could have come from W.R. Burnett or Jean Pierre Melville. The story questions the basis of honor among thieves, and rather than taking it as a given, explains why a man must live by a code. “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Trash” form a duo of tales about an interplanetary gold-digger who outwits the crew in a hilarious pair of stories of low cunning and high crime. The last episode, “Objects in Space” is a tour-de-force, the ship is boarded and seized by an off-kilter bounty-hunter named Jubal Early. Beautifully composed images form a perfect backdrop for a story where the villain and River fight a battle of wills and wits that is deeply revealing of character. TV drama does not get any better than “Objects in Space”.

This is one of the longest Fire and Sword reviews, and nonetheless I feel I have slighted this series. I watch these shows again and again because they are a textbook for creating characters that live and a world that is not just a tinsel and paint backdrop. The four DVD set comprises a mere thirteen episodes and a double length pilot. Three of the episodes were never aired and the pilot was shown only after the series was cancelled. While I certainly enjoyed the series when it was aired, I found my appreciation reached new heights when I could see it as an integral whole, each part related and forming a true series. One can only wonder at what heights it could have scaled had this series been given the chance it deserved. We are fortunate to have Serenity, the theatrical follow up, but the richness of the original series is unparalleled. It is a lush world of wonders I yearn to inhabit. On DVD, I still can.
-Dave Hardy

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