“Live like real people. Small crew, them’s that feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come. Ain’t never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get… we just get ourselves a little further.”
–Captain Mal Reynolds, his first time on board the Firefly-class ship Serenity
Unless you’ve been living in one of the more distant settlements on the farther reaches of colonized space, you’ve likely heard of Firefly. It’s the poster child for short-lived TV series canceled far too soon, quite possibly the best, most remembered television show that never got the chance it deserved to succeed. It has inspired incredible devotion in fans, amazing passion in actors and creative personnel, and maybe it’s done the one rare thing that television can sometimes achieve: it’s made lives better. And as the characters in Firefly said about cool, special, great things in their corner of the ‘verse: it was “shiny”.
Firefly debuted on Fox on September 20, 2002. It was an odd combination of science fiction and western, portraying a universe that was almost wholly human, spread amongst the stars with frontier worlds more similar to cattle ranches and border towns instead of alien spaceports and advanced technology. What this really meant was stories focused more on the characters instead of “high-concept” tech ideas, and it was through the characters that Firefly truly did shine.
“I like a hard world, but I like a hard world that molds good people and people with a sense of humor about the world they’re in.”
–Joss Whedon, creator of Firefly
Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the Captain of that “little spaceship that could” known as Serenity, a Firefly-class ship carrying a variety of crew and passengers (plus what cargo they could hold, legal or illegal). Reynolds is a man of dubious and selective honor, who thought nothing of taking jobs involving smuggling and outright theft. He is a good man (despite his claims to the contrary at times), involved in situations where good isn’t always an available option. Mal’s trying to eke out a living on the frontier of space, keep his precious ship flying, and (mostly) stay under the radar of those in charge.
“Those in charge” were the Alliance, who had defeated the rebels (and Reynolds, collectively known as the “Browncoats”) a few years earlier in a war to unite the various planets under their heavy-handed authority. That authority may perhaps work for the more central planets, but those on the farther reaches have a much looser law. Mal sought his freedom and livelihood there, and found whatever work (legal or otherwise) would keep his ship in the air. Passengers, contraband, legitimate cargo runs, as long as the job paid, it was a job worth taking… most of the time, anyway. And hey, if Mal could happen to tweak the nose of the Alliance a bit in the process, then that was well worth doing along the way.
“When I pitched the show, I said it was about nine people living in the blackness of space and seeing nine different things. That’s what I’m fascinated by, how they all react. They must make decisions that are horrific to people who aren’t fighting for their lives every day. It’s about a group of people who are living hand-to-mouth, and are heroes, day-to-day.”
Mal’s second-in-command is Zoe (Gina Torres), who’d fought with him against the Alliance years earlier. She’s devoted to Mal, although she’s also not afraid to question his actions or motives when necessary. Zoe is a more-than-capable fighter and a crack shot with a gun, abilities that come in very handy out on the Rim worlds where technology takes a back seat to brute force and hard work. Zoe is afraid of neither, but she also has a softer side, best shown with her beloved husband Wash (Alan Tyduk).
Wash is the pilot of Serenity, a man with a smile and ready quick wit, although not always the first to grasp exactly what is going on. He’s deeply in love with his wife, and although he’s occasionally jealous of the devotion Zoe gives to her commander, he realizes there’s a difference between allegiance of the mind and allegiance of the heart, and Zoe’s heart is his alone. A clever pilot and inventive tactician, Wash tries to be an optimist but isn’t always successful, as the situations the crew of the Serenity comes up against aren’t always the most conducive to optimism. But that doesn’t stop Kaylee.
Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the always positive heart of the ship, both in character and job. She’s eternally sweet, gentle, and almost always has a smile on her face. Kaylee is most comfortable when she’s with her engines, as they give her a feeling of belonging and importance, more than anything else in the world. She’s had no formal training as a mechanic, but engines seem to “speak” to her (she says), and there are few in the ‘verse who know their way around a propulsion unit like she does. After living a quiet, uncultured life on a backwater planet, signing up for the crew of Serenity was the first time she’d ever been off her homeworld. She sees the adventure of Serenity’s voyages with the wonder of new eyes and the joy of new experience, a welcome difference from some of the jaded views of her comrades.
“I don’t believe there’s a power in the ‘verse stop Kaylee from being cheerful. Sometimes you just want to duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month.”
–a slightly sarcastic Mal, about Serenity’s Kaylee
Jaded is where Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) comes in. He’s the muscle of the group, motivated by one thing only: cash. While he’s not the brightest person, he’s handy when heads need knocked together. He joined up only because Mal made him a better offer than he was getting when his former team tried robbing Serenity, so he switched sides. His allegiance is tested (and found wanting) in the series, but after he’s threatened with being dumped from the upper atmosphere, his loyalty to the rest of the crew now falls under “enlightened self-interest”. Jayne has a tendency to end up in opposition to whatever situation is at hand, antagonizing the rest of the crew. But while he can make the best situation turn into the worst with his mouth or his fists, he can also fall into shit and come up smelling like a rose. He even became such a hero a song was written about him… too bad the people who wrote it didn’t know he was only trying to save his own skin, not become their champion… but he became that anyway.
Adding a veneer of respectability to Serenity is Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a “Companion” who leases one of Serenity’s two shuttles. In the world of Firefly, the business of “Companion” is a well thought of and regulated vocation, and Inara is not some common whore or prostitute. She’s had significant training in both the physical and emotional aspects of her trade, and her profession is licensed and respected. While used to the finer things in life, she sees her time on Serenity as helpful both as a symbol of manners to the crew, and to give her a base of operations to service the many worlds they visit. Although she tolerates the crew’s slightly less-than-legal efforts during her transport to those worlds, she also has an unrequited romance with Mal, even if she’d likely never admit it to him. She provides balance and a calming influence, as is proper for one in her profession.
“Preacher, don’t the bible have some pretty specific things to say about killing?”
“Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of… kneecaps.”
–Zoe and Shepherd Book, as the crew takes up arms to rescue Mal
During the 2-hour Firefly pilot episode Serenity, the crew takes on passengers. These include a wandering Preacher (or Shepherd, in Firefly parlance) known as Book (Ron Glass). A bit of a mystery, Shepherd Book is in search of something, although he is never quite cornered into admitting just what that quest might entail, spiritual or otherwise. For a man of peace, he definitely knows his way around a weapon and a fight, and has a pragmatic way of looking at the universe without losing his principles. He too knows the wayward methods of Mal and the crew aren’t always the most legal, but his calling is to a higher power. His feelings about the Alliance don’t necessarily put the lawmakers on the side of right, and more often puts Serenity (and himself) there instead.
Also boarding during the pilot episode (and not really having a destination in mind) is Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher). Simon grew up in a privileged family on the more civilized (and decadent) central colonies, and was in the top 3% of his class at medical school. He’s brilliant, if a bit unsure of himself socially and less than knowledgeable about the wilder side of life. His abilities as a doctor make him invaluable on board Serenity, even though he really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crew all that well. He and Kaylee develop a mutual attraction, but his insistence on propriety clashes with Kaylee’s more earthy approach. His main objective in joining Serenity is to get as far away from the Alliance as possible, because it turns out he’s not just bringing medical supplies with his belongings… he’s actually bringing his fugitive sister.
“I’m very smart. ‘Gifted’ is the term. So, when I tell you my little sister makes me look like an idiot child, I want you to understand my full meaning.”
–Simon, about his sister River
River Tam (Summer Glau) is a child prodigy even by prodigy standards. She was sent to an Alliance facility a few years ago, but in her late teens Simon received odd messages from her which he finally determined were in code. River was asking for help, to escape whatever it was the Alliance was doing to her and the others there. Simon helped her escape, but she’s not really whole anymore… she is only occasionally lucid, living in her own world and experiencing emotions and thoughts very differently from the rest of the crew. She’s still brilliant (which is why the Alliance wants her for some nefarious purpose), but her apparent randomness occasionally scares the rest of the crew. Simon is trying to find out what exactly the blue-gloved minions of the Alliance authority have done to her, and barters his professional services with Mal in return for passage and access to the medical facilities on board to treat River. The enigmatic River occasionally shows moments of amazing ability she really shouldn’t possess… but also has nightmares of the experimentation that took place at Alliance hands.
“It never goes smooth. How come it never goes smooth?”
–Mal, just before a sudden but inevitable betrayal
Since most of the characters have some kind of conflict with the central powers of the Alliance (whether obvious or concealed), many of the storylines in Firefly concern not only that tension, but the efforts of Serenity to stay very far away from their notice. Therefore, a number of the episode plotlines were situated on those backwater frontier worlds where “outer space” took on the look of more traditional westerns. After all, there are certain technologies (like bullets and horses) that are much easier to use and maintain on the frontier than lasers and anti-gravity cars. This gave Firefly an unusual hybrid feel, emphasized by common mixing of American and Chinese idioms (and after all, profanity in Chinese is easier to slip by the censors on an American television show). This same blending occurred in all phases of production, be it casting, props, costumes, or the look of various sets. Firefly was a unique show with a unique setting, and there’s been none like it before or since.
And television is poorer for the fact that it didn’t last.
Fox did the show no favors, in any way. First, they insisted upon a “new” pilot, determining that the 2-hour pilot originally shot was “too slow” and not “action” oriented enough. (Yes, well try introducing a new ‘verse, nine regular characters, the ship, and a couple of antagonists along the way for good measure, and see how much action can be shoehorned into an hour, let alone two!) Once the series started, Fox also never ran Firefly more than two weeks in a row without a pre-emption, meaning large audiences never developed the “habit” of watching the show regularly. Finally, the episodes were all shown “out-of-order”, meaning that certain references made along the way made no sense, as they were written and filmed to be seen in sequence, and then shown with effect before cause, so to speak.
So, in the fall of 2002, out of the thirteen hour episodes and the two-hour original pilot, Fox showed twelve jumbled hours (with the two-hour introductory pilot aired LAST). Exactly three months to the day Firefly premiered, the network aired its final episode, just before the new year began.
Fox later found out how big that mistake was. Although the show was originally produced by the network’s sister studio 20th Century Fox, the movie rights were snapped up by Universal, who still saw potential in the franchise. The cast, along with creator/writer Joss Whedon, was reunited and the feature film Serenity was released in 2005. Although critically well-received, the movie didn’t do all that well at the box office, which isn’t that surprising since it had to not only tell a “movie” story, but it also had to re-introduce all the characters and setting to any who didn’t catch it the first time around.
Mal: “Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?”
Zoe: “Big damn heroes, sir.”
–From the episode Safe
In the mid-2000’s, the market for DVD sets was starting to boom. Figuring they’d make some money off of something they’d already paid for, Firefly was released approximately a year later… and became the biggest selling TV DVD set of all time. (Amazingly, it’s still a best-seller today, even though the show has been gone now for almost a decade.) The surprising popularity of the release (well, surprising to Fox anyway…) and the devoted following of the “Browncoats” (more about these active fans later) has led to not only a decent payday for Fox home video, but to numerous charity showings of the film at theatres around the world. Firefly is remembered fondly enough that the Science Channel has brought the reruns back to cable television, currently airing the episodes in order (finally!) in the Spring of 2011 to the delight of Browncoats everywhere.
The Browncoats have become a fandom that is well-organized and fervent, and as such next week they get their own article (yes, it’s a two-parter… what else would you expect for a show this special?) In the meantime, it’s best to appreciate those “big damn heroes” of Firefly, and to remember their experiences oh so fondly.
“Love. You can know all the math in the ‘verse… if you take a boat in the air you don’t love, she’ll shake you up just as sure as a turn in the whirls. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down. Tells you she’s hurtin’ before she keens. Makes her a home.”
–Mal Reynolds’ First Rule of Flying, from the movie Serenity
Firefly was, first and foremost, about character. Its crew each had their own point of view, separate from the others, giving any fan a point of identity. Jayne was the strength, Simon the intelligence. Zoe was the sense of purpose, Wash the humor. River was the intuition, Shepherd Book the conscience. Inara was grace, Kaylee was heart, and Mal was all about freedom and personal honor. Together, they didn’t just fly in a ship called Serenity… they were serenity, or at the very least, they were on their journey towards that destination. And they were going to get there together, in their own way.
At the end of the pilot, Simon is talking to Mal about they’ve been through, and even if Fox got it wrong by airing that particular two hours dead last in the series, maybe their conversation offers an unintended poignant ending for “the little ship that could”. As we leave the crew of the Firefly-class ship, Simon asks Mal about just why he’s willing to put up with all the trouble that seems to come his way….
“You had the Alliance on you. Criminals and savages… half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded, including yourself. And you’re harboring known fugitives…”
“We’re still flying….”
“That’s not much.”
Yes, Serenity is still flying… and it’s enough.
12 aired episodes (10 hours and 1 two-hour pilot) — 3 unaired episodes (available on DVD)
First aired episode: September 20, 2002
Last aired episode: December 20, 2002
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? Of course it was. One of the shows for which the “Friday Night Death Slot” is best known. There’s a reason this is the poster child for the type of show featured on this site.
Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.
Come back next week for Part II….