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“We’re trying, as we go along, to deal with what war is about.  We’re looking at how our guys, as soldiers, see the war.  They’re not really involved in the big happenings or decisions, but they get their orders and go about obeying them.”
–Glen Morgan, Co-Creator of Space: Above and Beyond

Mankind has always been a species of conflict.  Wars have been fought for the noblest of reasons, and for the least worthy as well.  But there’s a great deal of science fiction, both literary and televised, which posits a future where mankind has put aside its conflicts and joined together in a journey to the stars.  A journey into Space: Above and Beyond.

Of course, since the essence of good storytelling is the drama of conflict, the obvious antagonists for a united planet are those we discover elsewhere.  But just because there’s an external threat doesn’t mean that the only conflict has to be “us vs. them”.  Sometimes, the best drama is found in discovering exactly how people will react when faced with something that threatens their very existence and the way of life they believe in.  Will they find courage?  Will they hide behind others?  Or will they simply discover their own essence along the way?  The people you never thought worthy might just be the wild cards you need to survive.

In the 1995 FOX series Space: Above and Beyond, viewers follow the members of the Fighting 58th Squadron of the US Marine Corps Space Aviator Calvary.  In the year 2063, a united Earth has begun to colonize outside our own solar system, thanks to the discovery of predictable “wormholes” in space that let humanity travel great distances despite the lack of faster-than-light engines.  When one of the colony ships is attacked by a previously unknown race, the Fighting 58th and their fellow “Space Marines” must protect both Earth and its colonies, and try to battle the unknown enemy.

Nicknamed the “Chigs”, these aliens, and their fights with our humans, form the backdrop for stories of heroism and doubt, bravery and cowardice.  1st Lt. Nathan West (Morgan Weisser) was slated to be one of the crew of the attacked colony ship, where he and his beloved girlfriend were planning to start a new world together, literally.  At the last minute, he was replaced on the mission, and decided to enlist with the Marines and pursue his only way to rejoin her.  His motivation is purely for her, and when he has the chance to find her again, he goes AWOL for a brief time.  While his initial priorities are not with his squadron, he soon learns to have their backs… just as they have his.

“Everyone–Grab the ass of the person to your right!  Well now, isn’t that beautiful.  Do you feel it?  His ass is yours!  Her ass is yours, and yours is theirs.  You may fly in individual rockets, but you are a squadron!  You are a team!  And if you risk your ass, you risk the team.  You people have been here six weeks now, and you still do not know how to work together!  Well, you WILL learn to work together, or that fatty clump of flesh in your hand will be blown to the far corners of the universe–And yours will be right behind it!!!”
–Gunnery Sargeant Frank Bougus, instructor for the early training of the 58th

Capt. Shane Vansen (Kristen Cloke) is the leader of the squadron.  While a youngster, she watched as her parents were killed by “Silicates”, an early version of Artificial Intelligence that rebelled against humanity (in a conflict known as the “metal wars”).  Wanting to prove herself and driven by her past, she joins up to face her fears, and to (hopefully) become a member of the “Avenging Angels”, the best squad in the Marines… until that group is decimated in the first major Chig battle.  Now, she’s got nothing but inexperienced people hoping to turn into soldiers, literally a set of “wild cards” that she hopes will be ready when called upon… but can she trust them with her life?

Because of the “Silicates”, mankind has a negative impression of any “non-human” creations, including the newer, more advanced “in vitros”.  Biologically human, they were created rather than “born”, and their version of an umbilical cord is located in the back of their neck.  Seen by some as second-class citizens, their own fight for recognition as “normal” is what led to Nathan West’s bumping off the colony flight… and the addition to their squadron of 1st Lt. Cooper Hawkes (Rodney Rowland).  Nicknamed “tanks”, Hawkes and his fellow “in vitros” are essentially “born” at age 18, and while their emotional growth is limited at best, their physiology is stronger and more durable than most humans.  While some in the military see them as “disposable” pieces to be sent in to make the way for the “real” humans, the 58th (after a rough start) begin to see him as one of their own instead of just cannon fodder.

1st Lt. Paul Wang (Joel de la Fuente) probably has the farthest to go to become a soldier, as early on his most endearing trait is being a screw-up.  But when he’s captured and subjected to torture, he has to make a choice with consequences for the rest of his life.  1st Lt. Vanessa Damphousse (Lanei Chapman) is his closest friend on the squad, and she’s also their tech expert.  After leaving another relationship behind, she’s looking for a fresh start with the Marines, and may finally have found a group of people where she belongs… if they can all just stay alive.

Their commanding officer is Lt. Col. T.C. McQueen (James Morrison), formerly the leader of the “Avenging Angels” and the only survivor of their run-in with the Chigs.  He’s an “in vitro” as well, and while he understands the feelings some have for his kind, he also knows the military, and sometimes men and women are ordered to lay down their lives for their comrades in arms.  He realizes that those decisions have absolutely nothing to do with who you’ve been or how you were born.

“Courage.  Honor.  Dedication.  Sacrifice.  These are just the words they used to get you here.  Now the only word that means a damn to you is Life.  Yours.  Your buddy’s.  The one certainty in war is that, in an hour, maybe two, you’ll either still be alive, or you’ll be dead.”
–McQueen’s opening speech to the 58th, his new command

The military is a completely different life from that which the rest of us lead.  Personal identity is often subsumed in the quest for preparedness and the immediate obeying of orders, with no questions asked.  The job of a soldier is to do what he is told, and not to question those who outrank him or her.  Many believe that the military is wrong in eliminating, at least initially, that which makes each of us unique.  But the goal is not to eliminate the person, it is simply to eliminate the doubt, not just in each other but in each person themselves.

There is duty, honor, and tradition in the service, but those things are earned, and earned with the hard work of all.  It’s a long and difficult road to travel, even in the best of times.  And the universe presented in Space: Above and Beyond was far from ideal for all its soldiers.  Racism reared its ugly head in the perception of both the alien Chigs (about which we knew very little) and the “in vitros” (which were simply a different type of human).  Situations were faced by the crew with little or no information, and sometimes misinformation (which was even worse).  And yet, one of the most important questions is asked by one of the characters in the pilot episode, one which every soldier has to answer to his own satisfaction.  We all have something to live for.  But for soldiers, the question is also “What would you die for?”

Ready to battle. But for what?

Most people never even think about such a thing.  I’m lucky enough to say that I’ve never had to realistically face death in my life.  Injury, yes, multiple times.  Emotional pain and sorrow I wouldn’t wish on anyone else, of course.  But to come to terms with a person’s own death is something beyond my ken.  And yet, a soldier has to ask themselves that question every day, and come up with an answer that allows them to keep going, to work and endure a harder life than most can imagine, especially during wartime, and still be expected to be as human as the rest of us.

The amazing part is that most succeed, and come home to us all safe and sound.  Some suffer, and some valiantly end up sacrificed so that the rest of us can go on, never having to even ask the question of ourselves.  But we should all be thankful for their service, both in peace and in war, for making it safe enough for the fellow humans to, hopefully, continue to strive for ourselves and those we love in other ways.  Someone has to make the choice so many others do not, and for those people we should be more than grateful.

The stories of Space: Above and Beyond were set in a future with spaceships and aliens, but at the series core was an examination of what it takes to be a soldier, to answer those questions no one else in society really dares to ask, and to find a way to live through the worst.  Just like the title of the “Avenging Angels”, the men and women of the 58th got a nickname for their group as well.  It was, as you’ve likely already guessed, “Wild Cards”, due to their unpredictability and their own natures.  And, even though it was never explicitly stated for all of them, the name was probably also due to their own answers to the question  “What would you die for?”  They each had an answer for themselves, and that was part of their journey as Marines.  Capt. Shane Vansen said it best:

“Even if we are trained to die, we have got to believe that we’re going to live.”

The Fighting 58th were well and truly “Wild Cards” to the end.

MORGAN WEISSER (Nathan West) guested in numerous series, including The X-Files, Quantum Leap, Alias, and NCIS.  Born to an acting family, his father started multiple theatre groups in Los Angeles, and Morgan has been active on both the television screen, in movies, and on stage.

KRISTEN CLOKE (Shane Vansen) appeared on numerous episodes of Millennium, plus was seen on Quantum Leap, The X-Files, Felicity, and Men of a Certain Age.  She gained more than most out of Space: Above and Beyond, as she became happily married to producer/creator Glen Morgan after the series, and they’ve produced two children, along with her two step-children.

RODNEY ROWLAND (Cooper Hawkes) started out as a fashion model before a colleague convinced him to try acting, and Space: Above and Beyond was one of his first roles.  He also appeared on The X-Files (sensing a pattern here?) and was a regular on Pensacola: Wings of Gold.  He’s most recently been a recurring character Veronica Mars and Weeds, both under his preferred name of Rod Rowland.

JOEL de la FUENTE (Paul Wang) starred in 100 Centre Street and High Incident, and has been featured in ER, All My Children, and Canterbury’s Law.  He’s best known these days for his recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, on which he’s appeared occasionally for almost a decade.

LANEI CHAPMAN (Vanessa Damphousse) had already found her way into “space” previously, having appeared as an Ensign four times on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Other roles included series such as The Pretender, Judging Amy, Grey’s Anatomy, and Cold Case.  She’s changed her name slightly, so that her more recent roles list her as “Lanai” instead of “Lanei”.

JAMES MORRISON (T.C. McQueen) was ALSO on Quantum Leap, Millennium, and The X-Files (I told you there was a pattern here…) in addition to recurring roles in HawthoRNe, Private Practice, and 24.  A many of almost too many talents, he’s a singer/songwriter, has written and directed award-winning stage plays, produced short films which have appeared in numerous festivals internationally, and is a certified yoga instructor (and still teaching both yoga and theatre currently).

“Had it been created in this era of cable channels and websites dedicated to science fiction, I wonder if it would have run for a hundred episodes.”
–Jesse Alexander, Producer and Writer on such series as Alias, Lost, and Heroes, when asked about Space: Above and Beyond a decade later.

The complete DVD set for Space: Above and Beyond was released in 2005, and although it contains no extras, you can still get all the series episodes, unedited, including the amazing finale.  While the majority of the show is not found easily on the internet (as rights holders have been cleaning up youTube lately), the two-hour pilot (in hour episode form) can be streamed here.  Although they haven’t been updated in a while, some of the best fan sites for the show are located here and here, and lots of information can be found about the adventures of the Fighting 58th.  A number of novelizations were written based on episodes of the series, six in total, and there is also a small private company that makes custom resin model kits of many of the spaceships seen in the series, available for purchase.

“These characters are always facing what may happen in the last minutes of their lives.  What do you say to the last face you may see before you die?  What are you thinking at that moment?  These characters experience those feelings a great deal on [Space: Above and Beyond], and facing them together, over and over again, makes them very close.  So, it’s in those moments that everyone’s true colors are revealed.”
–Kristen Cloke

Some disagree on the necessity of war, and rightfully so.  There are unjust wars, and unjust reasons for fighting them.  But even if the true goal of humanity is peace, there are still those individuals who would prefer power over justice, and their own way for all over allowing people to choose their own path.  When all else fails, these people must be confronted, for the good of the rest of us.  Thankfully, there are those who believe that justice and choice are worthwhile values to be protected, even at the cost of their own lives, so that others can continue to live without threat of fear or oppression.  While we can’t always agree on any particular fight, we must all surely give thanks for those who are willing to stand up, not for themselves, but for their loved ones, and for people they’ve never even met, in order to protect the ability to freely live.  And the amazing thing is, most are willing to protect even those who disagree with them, just because it is the individual’s “right to choose” they are defending and not the actual choice.

While I wish this piece could have been posted a week ago on Veterans Day, it was these thoughts throughout that week that led me to Space: Above and Beyond and the ideas in this article.  Veterans Day is a time to reflect, in whatever way appropriate, on what those who choose to serve have done, and what they continue to do.  No single individual is perfect, and mistakes are made by the humans involved, both in real life and in the depictions of them on television.  But that doesn’t make the idea any less proper, or any less worth the time and effort (and yes, sometimes sacrifice) those men and women make for all of us.  Space: Above and Beyond may have only been a science-fiction television show, but it dramatized the type of people we all desperately need to be real.  Because without them, we’d have already lost.

Vital Stats

A two-hour pilot and 22 hour-long episodes — none unaired — all on DVD
FOX Network
First aired episode:  September 24, 1995
Final aired episode:  June 2, 1996
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Not initially.  The show premiered on Sunday nights, but was promised a spring slot at Friday 8/7 Central for a steady run… which was promptly pre-empted by FOX anyway.  Although it did well there, the Fighting 58th had already lost the war for viewers.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

In America, it’s Halloween weekend, filled with youngsters dressing up in costumes and visiting door-to-door, gathering candy and listening to spooky tales.  The tradition comes, at least in part, from old Gaelic festivals, in particular one called Samhain.  It marks the end of the harvest season, and in some places begins the Gaelic New Year.  It is also the dividing line between what is known as the “lighter” and “darker” halves of the year.

While many think of the time as one for spirits and ghosts, the Samhain interpretation would mean the beginning of darkness, when the lines between the two worlds are the thinnest.  Bonfires are lit to preserve the light, and the forces of evil, in disguise, come to visit the earth.  In the case of one FOX television show in 2005, it would remind us of one girl’s future also on the edge, and her fate and behavior very much depends on the road taken from here.  Ultimately, the influences upon her and the people she meets, both good and bad, might change the entire world.  The sad part is, as the old proverb goes:  Sometimes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

What path to take?

Welcome to the small coastal town of Point Pleasant.  A sleepy little bedroom community an hour or two south of New York City, the town’s peaceful existence is suddenly interrupted by a freak storm, which washes up the body of a teen-age high-schooler named Christina Nickson (Elisabeth Harnois).  She’s revived by a local lifeguard, Jesse Parker (Samuel Page), and brought to a nearby doctor’s house to rest and recoup.  Taken in by Dr. Ben Kramer (Richard Burgi) and his wife Meg (Susan Walters), she becomes friends with their tomboyish youngest daughter Judy (Aubrey Dollar).  Christina’s reluctant to even remember her past, let alone be returned quickly to her mysterious, usually absent father.

Christina has an odd effect on those in Point Pleasant, as tendencies are amplified, feelings are given voice, and inhibitions are unknowingly ignored in those around her.  Jesse’s girlfriend Paula (Cameron Richardson) is jealous of the relationship that might be growing between Christina and Jesse, and ends up with another boy, Terry (Brent Weber), causing a love triangle. (The sparks erupt at the end-of-summer bonfire — any references to Samhain are purely on purpose!)  Meanwhile, Paula’s mom, Amber (Dina Meyer), is a former classmate of Dr. Kramer, and she decides that the good doctor should provide some tender loving care for her… especially after she’s dismissed by her latest target, Lucas Boyd (Grant Show), who’s just moved into the town as well.

Lucas and Christina

It turns out that Boyd has a different target… he’s not only threatening Jesse’s religious mother Sarah (Claire Carey) because of her crusading son’s feelings toward Christina… but he’s ultimately trying to influence Christina towards darkness, as he works for her absent father.  Of course, daddy’s rather busy, as daddy dearest is apparently Satan himself, which would make the lost Christina the devil’s daughter.

She’s also the daughter of a human woman, who left shortly after Christina was born.  Christina’s search for her, and her interactions with the locals, will guide her towards either good or evil… and therein lies the conflict of the series.  Which path will Christina ultimately choose, and what will happen to the others in the process?

“It feels good having her here.  I feel good.”
–Meg Kramer, when Christina arrives in their home

While the Kramers are people of good heart, they’ve also dealt with tragedy along the way, as their daughter Isabelle died a few years earlier.  Christina’s entry into their life seems to have brought new hope to Meg… but temptation is finding its way towards her husband, thanks to Amber. Burgeoning boyfriend Jesse and new companion Judy are trying to help, but have their own issues to deal with.  The junior love triangle is starting too, but all these things are being nudged along by Boyd’s machinations and Christina’s emotions… and heaven (or hell) help those who get her angry.

Christina doesn’t know her capabilities early on, let alone the abilities of Lucas Boyd.  Her presence seems to erase inhibitions, letting the true nature of the people around her come into play.  And more often than not, there are other than just pure reasons for any particular action taken along the way.  Christina is learning… but is she learning the strength of good?  Or the anger and betrayal of evil?

“One of the challenges is to make it seem like it could happen to you.  That struggle in the Christina character between the dark and the light seems to us to be a very good metaphor for being an adolescent.”
Point Pleasant Creator Marti Noxon

Little do they know what's coming....

Marti Noxon was one of the people behind Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  Just as fighting otherworldly forces was seen in Buffy as a metaphor for the alienation of high school and the trials of those young people finding their way, so too were the efforts of Christina and the residents of Point Pleasant to be seen as a supernatural search for morality and meaning.  The struggles of each of the characters adds to the choices Christina ultimately has to make, and whether she comes down on the side of good or evil depends more on their natures than any one of them realizes.  And once Christina makes her final choice, the fate of the world could depend on it.

“It’s all about duality, it’s about the best of people and the worst of people.  The fate of the world is going to come to a head in this really ordinary place.  It’s kind of fun, because it gives you an excuse for people to really look at themselves and say, you know, what do I want to be?”
–Marti Noxon

This is just a much more modern-day approach to the whole idea of Halloween, and some of its antecedents.  The observance of All Saint’s Day in many Christian religions is also traditionally the same weekend as Samhain, giving the “holiday” a feeling of yin and yang, of dark and light… a duality, just as Noxon and Point Pleasant were going for.  Characters did things you didn’t always expect, and even the best person in town had, if not evil, at least some doubt as to their own place in the occurrence of events larger than themselves.

This wasn’t necessarily even the big battle between good and evil, although the outcome would portend such a thing.  The battle on Point Pleasant could be likened more to the preliminaries of a chess match, where certain characters (instead of chess pieces), each of different strengths and weaknesses, fought more for position and possibilities than for ultimate domination… although such a thing might ultimately come.  And, opposed by enough lesser pieces, even the best and brightest of those among us could fall.

Who's influencing whom?

These are sometimes uncomfortable choices for everyone, and yet they are choices each of us makes every day, in matters large and small.  Unlike the characters on Point Pleasant, we aren’t archetypes on a canvas where we’re influencing the anti-Christ, but we are in a position where our choices influence those we love, those we interact with, and most importantly, how we see the world each day.  Marti Noxon is right when she sees Point Pleasant as a metaphor for these types of things, but they’re not just symbolic of choices for adolescents.  As soon as we are responsible for ourselves, we are responsible for shaping our own views on the world around us.

The scariest part of all this is not even how our choices affect us, but how they affect those in our lives.  For that is the part which is really out of our control, and yet all we can do is present, hopefully, the best of ourselves to everyone around us, to display the virtues of compassion, empathy, love, and honor, even when our own natures (and our own dualities) want us to do otherwise.  Perhaps this is reading too much into a prime-time television series like Point Pleasant, and yet it is part-and-parcel of the influences of viewers’ lives, and one would hope that the lessons learned there would be good ones.  Because otherwise, television becomes the good-intentioned road to Hell its worst critics believe it to be, instead of what its supporters hope for… a path, not to Hell, but to a better place for all.

ELISABETH HARNOIS (Christina Nickson) was almost born an actress, starting her career in front of the camera at the age of three.  As a tween into a teen, she was Alice, the lead in the live-action TV version of Adventures in Wonderland for The Disney Channel.  After Point Pleasant, she appeared as a recurring character on One Tree Hill and is now a regular on the current season of CSI.

SAMUEL PAGE (Jesse Parker) earned a college degree in ecology, and promptly came home and announced to his family that he was moving to Hollywood to become an actor.  The move turned out successfully, as he’s played regular and recurring roles on American Dreams, Shark, Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl.  He’s also modeled, and appears on the cover of the current Xmas catalog for the J. Crew clothing brand.

RICHARD BURGI (Dr. Ben Kramer) was the star of one of the few UPN hits not named Star Trek, in the 3 1/2 seasons of The Sentinel.  He’s also had runs in Judging Amy, The District, Harper’s Island, and Desperate Housewives.  Fans of short-lived series almost saw him as another hero, as he was one of the rumored candidates for the lead in the CBS series The Flash.

SUSAN WALTERS (Meg Kramer) was a regular on both Hotel and Nightingales before finding a lasting series in Dear John.  After Point Pleasant, she was seen in both One Tree Hill and The Vampire Diaries, in addition to a soap role on The Young and the Restless.  During an earlier stint on the daytime series, she’d met her soon-to-be-husband in real life.

AUBREY DOLLAR (Judy Kramer) has been featured previously on this site as the young reporter Cindy Thomas on Women’s Murder Club.  Another actress who started young, her first movie appearance was just prior to her teens.  She appeared for three seasons on Guiding Light, and also had a recurring role on Dawson’s Creek.

GRANT SHOW (Lucas Boyd) also started in soaps, playing on Ryan’s Hope for three years.  He hit prime-time stardom on the original Melrose Place, and was later seen in Swingtown, Accidentally on Purpose, Dirt, Private Practice, and Big Love.

CAMERON RICHARDSON (Paula Hargrove) started as a model before making the jump to acting.  Her first role was as a regular on the series Cover Me, which was later followed by Skin, 12 Miles of Bad Road, and Harper’s Island.  Now a new mother, she recently modeled for Forever 21’s maternity line during her pregnancy.

DINA MEYER (Amber Hargrove) has been featured on Beverly Hills, 90210 (the original) and Miss Match.  She’s likely more familiar to genre audiences, having appeared in Johnny Mnemonic, Dragonheart, Star Trek: Nemesis, Starship Troopers, and the Saw movie series, as well as starring on the TV series Birds of Prey.  Athletic by nature, she has performed many of her own stunts on-screen, and suffered a concussion during one particularly nasty stunt on Starship Troopers.

BRENT WEBER (Terry Burke) was discovered by a modeling agency when he accompanied his sister to an open call.  His career includes guest spots on Scrubs and CSI: Miami, and a featured role on the daytime soap All My Children.

CLARE CAREY (Sarah Parker) was a featured player on the comedy Coach, playing daughter Kelly Fox.  She was the “mother” of the Olsen Twins in the series So Little Time, and also a regular on the first season of Jericho and Crash.  She’s most recently been featured in multiple episodes of Chuck.

Point Pleasant is, thankfully, available on DVD, including five episodes never broadcast during its original run.  Since it was designed as a mid-season replacement, there’s a definite conclusion to the series if you get to watch all thirteen episodes… and a choice is made, although there’s plenty of room for more of the series to continue, had it been successful.  Alas, it was not, as FOX pulled the plug after Point Pleasant failed to garner the desired ratings, especially up against hits like Grey’s Anatomy and the original CSI.  Somehow, a series all about choices wasn’t one viewers made the choice to watch.  Maybe some of the less than perfect decisions of the characters hit a bit too close to home….

“I’ve found that evil usually triumphs unless good is very, very careful.”
–Dr. Leonard McCoy, Star Trek

OK, so I’m a Star Trek fan from way back… so sue me.  But in this case, I think this is the most appropriate quote to describe Point Pleasant, and the displayed duality between good and evil.  If you wish to go another route, famed Christian writer C.S. Lewis (author of The Chronicles of Narnia) described in his book, The Screwtape Letters, how ethics really fell into four categories… and how “good” only fit one of them.  A person making the right choices for the right reasons is doing “good”.  A person doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons is obviously evil.  But “right things for the wrong reasons”, and “wrong things for the right reasons”, are, to Lewis, simply rationalizations for evil masquerading as good.  Hence, the old saying about how “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

As we examine ourselves and the lives we lead, how many choices do each of us make which would fall far too easily into the “rationalization” categories?  Those are the ones which cause each of us doubt, and reflect upon those around us, positively or negatively… and we don’t always know how they’re seen.  Even if you aren’t religious in any way, those choices in life still have to be made, and still will be part of how we know ourselves… and how others come to know us.  We all have a duality inside… it’s what we create from it that makes our entire world… for good or evil.

Vital Stats

13 hour-long episodes — 8 aired — 5 unaired (all available on DVD)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  January 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 17, 2005
Aired at Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX premiered the series on a Wednesday night, before the series settled into its regular Thursday night slot at 9/8 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“Do you see that?  Now, it’s started.  The cycle has begun… and it can’t be stopped now.  Look, I’m not crazy… well, maybe I am.  It is sort of a madness.  It just seems to well up in me as it gets closer.  That’s why I know I have to stop it, end it, before it controls me more than it already does.  (…)  A doctor can’t help me, nothing can cure me… except dying.  That’s the only way… that’s the only way I know. ”
–Ted, pleading with his friend Eric to kill him, in the pilot of Werewolf

The world changes.  Sometimes, the change is small, sometimes large.  Sometimes the differences can be as great as day and night, as sun and moon.  But the real lessons learned are how individuals accept and adapt to that change, or how they ultimately fail to do so.  That’s where the drama comes from, in television and in life.

John J. York as Eric Cord

College is a time of change, but student Eric Cord (John J. York) never believed his college years would change his life this much.  It wasn’t school and the broadening of his mind at issue, but a strange encounter with his family friend and roommate Ted, who encourages Eric to kill him with silver bullets.  Ted has become a werewolf, who would rather die than being forced to kill again, but Eric refuses to believe him… until the transformation occurs.  Eric is ultimately forced to shoot Ted, but is bitten by the transformed Ted before he dies.  Now Eric is part of the bloodline, and acquired the curse of lycanthropy; he’s become a Werewolf.

Bounty hunter Alamo Joe

Eric’s world has just changed, and not for the better.  He’s being pursued by a bounty hunter named Alamo Joe (Lance LeGault), who’s on Eric’s trail after he’s accused of “murdering” Ted.  And according to the red pentagram that starts showing up on his hand, Eric’s about to transform into a potentially out-of-control Werewolf.  The only way he can “undo” the horrible curse (and return to his normal life) is to kill the originator of the bloodline, the mysterious Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors).  Eric is now both the chaser, and the chased.

“You’re one of mine, aren’t you?  Tonight, we hunt.  Tonight, we feast.  On all the unsuspecting… together.”
–Janos Skorzeny, meeting Eric for the first time

What ensues is something like a thriller version of the television classic The Fugitive, with Eric trying to clear not only his name, but also insure his return to humanity.  He’s being sought as a criminal for murder, and searching out the vile person who can apparently end his new existence.  Through a 2-hour pilot and 28 half-hour episodes, Eric’s world was turned upside-down as he encountered various innocents, and those that would hurt them (and him) along the way.

Some of the traditional accoutrements of “werewolf” transformations were kept, such as being susceptible to silver bullets and healing powers, but the transformations were now unpredictable, and not tied to the phases of the moon.  This allowed the writers of the series to have Eric’s change into a werewolf happen when necessary for dramatic purposes, instead of tying all changes to a specific time of day.  The series also established a continuing deterioration of the mental and willful control of the human/werewolf, placing a bit of a timer on Eric’s quest, but allowing for him to, at least initially, refrain from attacking innocents.  But it wasn’t the innocents Eric was after.

Eric and Janos

“I see my part as the devil.  I think the kids will like him, because when he’s on the screen it’s much more frightening; the action is more intense.”
–Chuck Connors on his role as Skorzeny

The leader of his bloodline, however, had been around for a while.  Janos Skorzeny was an old fishing captain, whose mind and body had been ravaged by the curse over 100 years.  Playing Skorzeny, Chuck Connors was about as far away from his heroic and iconic role as The Rifleman as he could get.  Sporting an eyepatch and a middle-European accent, he simply oozed villainy in every scene, relishing the chance to play a part totally against his own character.

Unlike The Fugitive, Eric actually catches Skorzeny in the middle of the series, but then change of another kind occurs.  Skorzeny is revealed to be just another in a long line of lycanthropes, and the real “originator” of the bloodline is one Nicholas Remy (Brian Thompson), who’s been alive for more than two thousand years… and more powerful and ruthless than Skorzeny could ever be.  Eric now has an even more malevolent enemy, better able to avoid Eric’s relentless quest.

Although he’s still being chased by bounty hunter Alamo Joe, who suspects his dual existence, Eric now has a new mission, and change continues.  But that’s what this series was all about.

Scare is the operative word.  I did not mind ending up faulted for the concept, but I did not want to be faulted for the execution.”
–Co-producer John Ashley

Werewolf was one of the initial offerings of the FOX Network in 1987.  The network landscape was changing, with the entry of a new player in the network wars and the grouping of formerly independent stations into a larger and hopefully more powerful group.  While others (particularly Paramount in the late ’70’s) had tried to start another network, FOX was the most successful, especially when they only rolled out weekend programming during that first summer season.  Werewolf was initially on Saturday nights, although it was moved to Sundays that fall.

The series was produced by John Ashley and creator Frank Lupo (Lupo, ironically, means “wolf” in Italian).  They had recently come off the hugely successful series The A-Team, and were looking for change as well.  Utilizing the horror/thriller concept married with ideas from The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, their initial FOX offering was born.  FOX embraced the idea, and utilized then-new marketing concepts such as a “call-in” line, advertised at the end of episodes, for information on lycanthropy and werewolf “sightings” across the country.  It looked, for a time, as if there was a hit in the making… but still more changes were to ensue.

The right villain?

FOX was also after a younger, more advertising-desired demographic.  The 66-year-old television veteran Connors was not exactly suited for their marketing, so storyline changes were made.  Skorzeny (whose character name was actually an inside joke by creator Lupo, homage to the villain in the original The Night Stalker movie) was replaced with new villain Remy, in order to have a younger actor to help promote the show (even though Connors had been enough of a “name” to gain most of the publicity for the series).  Connors and his salary demands for the series also meant frustrations for the producers and the network.  Messing with the mythology of the show, not to mention the chemistry of the actors, did little to help the series, and FOX also showed the impatience of youth in canceling the series after its first season.

Eric Cord never had his ultimate showdown with Remy, and was left with the curse when the show ended.  Some scripts for a potential season two were planned, featuring a further descent into the madness and uncertainty the curse could bring to Eric.  But alas, FOX has other plans for their growth as a network, and they didn’t include a 7-foot tall Werewolf (even when the make-up and transformations were spearheaded by Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker).  Change was mandated… but then, change was what Werewolf had always been about.

JOHN J. YORK (Eric Cord) has been a star player on the soap General Hospital for 20 years, playing the role of Malcolm “Mac” Scorpio.  He spun off the part in 2007 on the short-lived General Hospital:  Night Shift before returning to the main show.

LANCE LeGAULT (Alamo Joe Rogan) got his start in Hollywood as a stunt double for Elvis Presley, but found fame in his role as Colonel Roderick Decker, the Army man assigned with capturing The A-Team.  Known for his exceptionally deep bass, he once was the narrator for guided tours of Graceland, and producer Glen Larson once commented that he had “a voice that was four octaves lower than God’s.”

CHUCK CONNORS (Janos Skorzeny) first had a career as a baseball player, making it briefly to the majors before being “discovered” while playing for an L.A. farm team.  He found television fame in The Rifleman, but also had regular roles in the lawyer series Arrest and Trial, the western Branded, and the psuedo-western Cowboy in Africa.  He had a featured role in the SF movie Soylent Green, and played a more modern cowboy in the TV drama The Yellow Rose.  He died of pneumonia, linked to lung cancer, in 1992.

BRIAN THOMPSON (Nicholas Remy) has been featured on this site before, as the violent Eddie Fiori in Kindred:  the Embraced.  He’s known for tough-guy parts, especially for his role as the Alien Bounty Hunter on multiple episodes of The X-Files.  A veteran of both action movies and SF, he’s been seen with actors from Stallone to Schwarzenegger, and in four different Star Trek incarnations, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.

Werewolf has never been released on DVD, although it came about as close as a series can come.  The five-disc set had been advertised in trade magazines, given a street date, and cover art had been published, before the title was pulled only two weeks or so before it was to be available.  Apparently, there were music rights issues that were never settled, as the series used many popular rock tracks of the day during its presentation.  There was no “separate” music and dialogue tracks for the show existing, and so the music couldn’t even be “replaced” for DVD, and therefore no release is available.  There is, however, a great fansite with information on the series, screencaps from the various episodes, and lots of information on the cast.  Clips from each of the episodes, plus a couple of interviews, are available on YouTube.  Comic adaptations of the episodes were released a year later by Blackthorne Comics.

“When the world isn’t the same as our minds believe, then we are in a nightmare.  And nothing is worse than a nightmare… except one you can’t wake up from.”
–Alamo Joe

Changes, both small and large, affect everything we do.  Whether the change is personal, such as Eric’s journey, or ultimately affects millions as the rise of the FOX Network did, it is the process of change that makes the difference.  On Werewolf, Eric (at least on what we saw) had some control over his actions along the way, even as his entire self became something completely foreign to his previous existence.  This is the essential lesson that each of us must learn along the way; that we control the change, not that the change controls us.  No matter what the circumstances, our lives are still OUR lives, and even being left with bad choices is better than no choices at all.

Finding our way through the maze of possibilities might seem hopeless, but ultimately the essential nature of a being remains.  Skorzeny was a villain, through and through, and not just because of the curse.  His deterioration was accelerated by his own evil and his own nature.  Like Eric, the best of us may have circumstances to deal with, but it is in the choices we make that show our own interior selves… and I can only hope, like many others, that I make the best of them along the way.

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot and 28 half-hour episodes — none unaired
FOX Network
First aired episode:  July 11, 1987 (Fox’s first night of Saturday programming)
Last aired episode:  May 22, 1988
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  FOX didn’t air anything in that slot yet, as their only programming aired on weekends initially.  Much of its run was on Sunday nights at 8/7 Central, a tough slot for anyone, human or werewolf.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

As mentioned in a previous article, passion sometimes can be the lifeblood of a television series.  From the people who create the program, to the fans who remember it long after its demise, passion can be the one thing that keeps a show from disappearing into television history.  And in the case of one particular gentleman, it’s that passion that allowed him the chance to bring his favorite show back to the small screen for one night… and maybe ultimately more….

Philip Segal had grown up in England, before his family moved to the US when he was 12.  One of the shows that he watched as a child, and apparently had left a lasting impression on his mind, was the British TV series Doctor Who.  Still in its infancy at the time, the long-running program about the Doctor’s adventures in time and space stayed in young Philip’s mind as he emigrated to the States.  It  would still be with him years later… and he wasn’t the only one.

“Yeah, (Steven Spielberg) was aware of it.  He liked the notion, he was intrigued and he loved to hear of these wonderful, iconic characters…”
–Philip Segal

Paul McGann as The Doctor

Flash-forward to the early 1990s.  Doctor Who had been canceled by the BBC after a quarter-century run, its last episode airing in 1989.  Although the series about the renegade Time Lord and his (mostly) earthly companions had been long-running, the BBC regime at the time felt the show had run its course, and ended the Doctor’s travels.  Meanwhile, producer Philip Segal had grown up to become a fairly big name in Hollywood, working for Steven Spielberg’s company Amblin Entertainment.  He had made himself noticed with his work on SeaQuest DSV, Earth 2, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.  Seeking a new challenge, Segal asked to look into the possibility of bringing his favorite childhood show back to the small screen.

FOX had been airing made-for-TV movies in its Tuesday night timeslot, many of them made as pilots for potential series pickup.  In Segal’s mind, Doctor Who was ideal for this same format.  After a fairly long and drawn out affair, Philip was able to get the go-ahead on production of Doctor Who – the first such production for a program which many had considered past its prime, and a “dead show” for six years.

As with certain programs (Star Trek, Firefly and Babylon 5, to name a few), once they have been canceled they live on in the hearts and minds of fans.  Doctor Who was no different in this respect.  After it left the airwaves, there were still conventions around the world devoted to the show.  Appearances by series actors and actresses, video rooms showing 30-year-old episodes, dealers’ rooms full of books, videos, shirts, and more could be found in places from Chicago and Los Angeles to London, Sydney, and everywhere in between.  Virgin Books began publishing a line of Doctor Who fiction novels, continuing on from where the TV series left off.  They were written by young writers who (like Segal) had grown up watching the program, and they were getting their break in the publishing world by writing about their favorite Time Lord.  The passion for the show was worldwide, which helped Philip Segal get his proposal off the ground.

“When you do this role, you can’t win, you can’t lose either.  Some people are going to love you – some people are going to hate you.  It’s as simple as that.”
–Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, to his successor, Eighth Doctor Paul McGann

Casting for the movie came from around the world.  Many well-known actors such as Colin Firth, Michael Palin, Jason Connery and Anthony Stewart Head were asked about playing the Doctor.  However, it was British actor Paul McGann who was picked for the role (the eighth actor to portray the character on television.)  American Daphne Ashbrook was cast as Dr. Grace Holloway – surgeon, opera fan and potential companion on board the Doctor’s time-traveling craft, the TARDIS.  Young Canadian Yee Jee Tso would be Chang Lee – brash gang member and other companion-to-be.  Rounding out the cast was Eric Roberts, who would portray the Master, the maniacal villain and Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes.

The Doctor, Chang, and Grace in the TARDIS

Script in hand, work began earnestly in 1995.  Filming in Vancouver, extravagant sets of the interior of the TARDIS were built.  What once was the ship’s “bridge” – a small white room with roundels set into the walls and a 1980s styled console with lights and buttons – was now a large and ornate room full of wood and copper.  Arches, pillars, a library, and a hexagonal console that looked as if it had been designed to pilot a futuristic Jules Verne ship would show the viewers that this was not your father’s Doctor Who!

Doctor Who was going to return to TV screens, with the possibility of a new series right around the corner.  Cameras rolled on what fans hoped would be what they had longed for for years, the return of their beloved Doctor.  Of course, while long-time fans knew the universe of Doctor Who very well, the new TV-movie/pilot had to introduce the British-flavoured hero to American audiences.  This included the most novel idea of all, and the one that had kept the series running through twenty-six seasons, with seven different actors playing the lead role!

Sylvester McCoy, reprising the Seventh Doctor

Although human in form, the Doctor is actually an alien Time Lord, able to “regenerate” when his body becomes old, frail or severely injured.  Wanting to capitalize on this unique feature (which had always been a fan-favorite the other six times it had occurred), Sylvester McCoy, the previous Doctor Who lead, was brought in to film his final hurrah as the character.  Segal had the Seventh Doctor begin the show and after 20 or so minutes had him become Paul McGann, the new Eighth Doctor!

The spring of 1996 had Doctor Who fans buzzing, as May 14th was set as the debut of the new TV-Movie.  Very unique for its time, this new Doctor Who was a co-production of Universal, Fox Television and the BBC (Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment had backed out at this point).  Also of interest was the fact that it would be aired in both North America and the United Kingdom at basically the same time.  Both the BBC and Universal had a stake in the success of this movie, with hope that it would be a hit.

However, hope doesn’t necessarily bring good ratings.  The Doctor Who TV-Movie fared well in the UK, where fans of the classic series tuned in to see how their childhood hero had been updated for the ’90s.  In the US, Doctor Who faced ratings-period competition with Roseanne Barr’s hit comedy, which on this night was featuring the season’s penultimate episode, a followup to the previous week in which her TV-husband Dan suffered a surprising heart attack.  As far as Fox TV-movies went, Doctor Who did fairly well… but in terms of a pilot movie, it didn’t have the numbers needed to warrant a series.

“I could be the George Lazenby of Time Lords.”
Paul McGann, interviewed in The Sunday Times

Reviews of the Doctor Who TV-Movie were fairly positive, particularly in regards to Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Doctor.  He captured the quirkiness and “unearthliness” fans had come to expect.  Overall, however, most people felt it lacked the British nuance that had made the original BBC series so special for fans in England and abroad.  Segal had “Americanized” the show with a car chase, included too many references to the classic series (leaving new viewers confused), changed established continuity by making the Doctor half-human, and put the TARDIS’s power source inside the ship.

Most damaging of all to the traditionalists, Segal had the Doctor kiss companion Grace Holloway – a display of affection which was taboo for both the original series and the character.  Admittedly, the kiss was played as a relatively chaste one, and not a full-on romantic scene for the Doctor (although Grace might have argued, had she not been rather surprised at the time).  But, a kiss is still a kiss… and this kiss is what got the most notice, no matter what the context.

The infamous Kiss

“I kept my lips closed during the kiss.  I felt I had to do it.   And the directors were on a long lens, so they didn’t notice until it was too late.  I know it is 30 years down the line, but the Doctor has always been a very child-like character.  If they had asked me to do a bedroom scene, I would have said no.  What would be the point?”
–Paul McGann, interviewed in The Daily Mail

Following the TV movie, Doctor Who went back into fandom obscurity.  Occasionally, British tabloids would report rumors about a potential new series returning to the airwaves.  But it was eight more years before the BBC announced, in 2004, that Doctor Who would be returning to television, with longtime fan Russell T. Davies at the helm.  Fans knew their voices had finally been heard, and the program was assured of a return.

Even as the New Series went on the air, there was not much mention of its 1996 predecessor.  Fans of the Classic Series would rave about the original’s wobbly sets, mediocre to amazing stories, and wonderful characters.  But if talk would turn to the Paul McGann TV-movie, most people would roll their eyes and say, “Ah yes, the one with the kiss and the Doctor being half-human?  It’s crap.”

However, when the Tenth Doctor suddenly seemed to be developing feelings for his companion in the New Series, neither modern nor classic Doctor Who fans were repulsed by the idea.  This new twist on the character, this idea that was informally introduced nearly a decade earlier when the Eighth Doctor snogged Grace in a moment of pure exhilaration, had become a welcome addition to the show.  And now, looking back, the TV-movie didn’t seem so bad.

Note the center picture!

With the relationship issue out of the way, the only remaining question was:  How did the TV-Movie fit into Doctor Who continuity?  For some fans it was a continuation of the Classic Series, the next episode after the original series’ finale Survival aired seven years earlier.  But for others (primarily the ones who didn’t like it), it didn’t count.  Whether it wasn’t a true BBC production, was an American take on Doctor Who, or was just plain awful, negative fans could always find a way to “prove” that it wasn’t “official” Doctor Who.  It wasn’t until the New Series (with several well-placed pictures of Paul McGann in a lineup of the Doctor’s incarnations), and the producer saying on record that he considered the TV-Movie canonical, that the vast majority of fans relinquished their soapboxes.

“We definitely got across the fun and potential of this franchise.  I think there was enough there, in my opinion, to warrant going forward with a series.  Where we failed, I think, is we sadly were in a time where we weren’t allowed to make the script as fantastic as it could have been.”
–Philip Segal

However you want to look at it, Fox’s TV-movie was successful.  It brought Doctor Who back into the spotlight for fans who hadn’t seen their hero on TV for years.  To a lesser degree and a smaller spotlight, it allowed a small portion of television viewers to get their first exposure to a quarter-century’s worth of TV history.  And although it didn’t lead to an immediate revival and an American run for the show, it did leave its mark on the long-running franchise.

Looking towards the future

PAUL McGANN (The Doctor) is fairly well-known to UK audiences for assorted TV roles in shows such as Withnail and I, Fish and the Horatio Hornblower TV-movies.  To worldwide movie-goers he is known for the films Alien3 and 1993’s The Three Musketeers.  Paul McGann has also returned to the role of the Eighth Doctor in numerous (and highly recommended) Big Finish audio dramas, many of which were aired on BBC Radio.

DAPHNE ASHBROOK (Grace Holloway) has been seen in many shows, from regular roles in Falcon Crest, JAG and The O.C. to guest appearances on C.S.I.: Crime Scene Investigation, Judging Amy, Cold Case, and others.  Last year she set her sights on music and released her first album.

ERIC ROBERTS (The Master) is probably the most well-known unknown actor in Hollywood.  The brother of Julia Roberts, Eric has been in everything from movies and soap operas to reality shows and music videos.  With an acting resumé that would be as long as this article, we will let you research his career yourself.  Hint:  According to his listing on the iMDB.com website he will be appearing in no less than 15 movies or shows between now and 2012.

YEE JEE TSO (Chang Lee) got his acting career off the ground in a TV series called Madison.  Following brief appearances on sci-fi series Sliders and Highlander, Tso got his big break by being cast in Doctor Who.  Since then, he has had roles in other genre series like Battlestar Galactica, The 4400, Blade: The Series, and Stargate:  Atlantis.

Almost more well-known than the TV-Movie is the story behind its release (or lack thereof) on video and DVD.  Shortly after the movie aired in the UK, it was released on video through the BBC.  However, in the US, it was a different story.  Being a co-production of three different companies, it was never determined when the contracts were created who would get the rights to release the movie on video in the States.  Tied up in a legal limbo, Doctor Who fans who wanted the TV-Movie on video had to resort to buying a PAL-format VHS tape and a multi-speed VCR in order to watch it.  Upon reaching the DVD era, the TV-Movie became one of the first discs to be released in the UK, leaving US fans hoping that perhaps finally they would see a release as well.  This was not the case, at least until early this year.  After 15 years of waiting, North America finally saw the release of Doctor Who: The Movie – Special Edition in April 2011.

Ready for another adventure

The true sign of success for the Eighth Doctor’s adventure came from a small conversation at a Doctor Who convention in California in 2009.  Co-producer of the current series Phil Collinson was having drinks with two of the stars of the TV-Movie.  Conversation revolved back to the Philip Segal project, and one of the actors remarked how they were under the impression that fans considered their movie to be the “red-headed stepchild” of Doctor Who.  Collinson was aghast at this assumption, and uttered a resounding no, that wasn’t so – at least from his perspective, and his involvement with the New Series was concerned.  Without the TV-Movie and what it had done, from its elaborate sets to the car chase, its fast-paced script to, yes, the kiss, the new Doctor Who would not have been able to create the hit show that it is today.  What was considered taboo and almost perverse to Doctor Who fans back in 1996 was groundbreaking to the people who would go on to bring the Doctor back to television in 2005.

Two hours of television that was watched with bated breath in the mid-nineties by fans worldwide may not have achieved what Philip Segal had intended.  Low ratings kept Doctor Who from making its American return a triumphant one.  But who would have predicted that the impact made then by Philip Segal, Paul McGann, Daphne Ashbrook, and others in the grand scheme of the world’s longest-running science-fiction TV series would have been so powerful?  No one… except perhaps a time-traveler who could have seen what the future held.

(I’d like to thank dear friend Jeremy B. for authoring this particular article.  We’ve both shared a love of Doctor Who for a very long time, and it was a great surprise to see the initial draft of this article show up in my mailbox unannounced.  I look forward to some more similar articles in the future… but only the Doctor knows, now doesn’t he?)

Vital Stats

One aired pilot (based on a series that started in 1963 and ran for twenty-six years!)
FOX Network
Initial Airdate:  May 12, 1996
Aired on Friday @ 8/7 Central?  No, FOX was running their movie/pilot features on Tuesday nights, 8/7 Central.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“Stylistically, it was a real fun show to work on. I got to try many new things, it was a very young crew that was willing to try different things.  It was very brave of the producers to hire many breakthrough people to do a very sophisticated show, and what you get is a great look, something that you’ve not seen on network television before.”
–Director Rob Bowman

Despite its reputation as a medium of change, television has operated, from a content perspective, on the idea of doing “something different… but the same”.  Networks are woefully afraid of being the first person to jump into the pool, so to speak, but love to be the second.  Once someone has proved that the water is fine and there’s apparently an audience waiting for a new style of show, a new method of storytelling, or a new way of doing things, networks are quick to try to mimic that success, usually with an inferior copy.  But those shows that are first?  It’s a wonder they ever make it on the air at all, let alone last for any amount of time.

I like those adventurous shows that take some chances, even if they fail.  Experimenting with format or with methods of storytelling often create moments, or even entire series, that wouldn’t have the same impact any other way.  It’s like discovering a whole new way of looking at things, opening my mind to a new reality.  In the year 1995, with the impact of the computer on our everyday lives, that meant looking at virtual reality… and the levels that came with it.

The cast of VR.5

In 1995, VR.5 splashed upon our television screens.  It starred Lori Singer as Sydney Bloom, a rather ordinary girl with a humdrum job as a telephone engineer and an obsession with computers.  She lives her rather solitary life, interacting with strangers on her computer and dreaming about their lives as she hears them on the telephone lines and interacts with them with the rudimentary “virtual” world online.  But that basic interaction is about to change drastically….

“This, of course, is completely fantastic where you can actually go into your computer and explore your subconscious, along with someone else’s, and change persona and get a whole mind expanding view of the world.”
–Lori Singer

Sydney, with her homemade computer, discovers an entirely different and advanced virtual reality that allows her to “hack” into the subconscious minds of anyone she can reach with her modem.  She can interact with others in this previously unattainable virtual reality “level 5” (hence the title of the series), and they are left with no memory of their experiences with her.  She can discover their thoughts, their lies, and their motives as easily as making a phone call to them… as long as she can find her way out again.  The only disconnect from the other person’s mind (and escape for Sydney back into the “real” world) is through touching an item in VR which connects back to “normal” reality.

Sydney in Virtual Reality

Her virtual adventures are visualized in the episodes using vivid, almost surrealistic scenes, with saturated color and items appearing and disappearing as if in a dream.  Even Sydney herself changes from a somewhat geekish introvert into the stunning beauty her subconscious mind might allow her to be.  The shared mental world often changes violently, with characters seen in black and white on still vivid landscapes, or only certain items remaining in color in a monochrome scene.  While there are clues given to the truth or falsehood of these “memories”, viewers are left to discern much of the meaning.  Obviously this wasn’t any reality these characters lived in; it was a reality of the mind.

“What he did, basically, is link the human brain in the very beautiful face and body of Lori Singer with the capability to use the telephone lines with some genetic quirk of her own.  Really, it is mind surfing — going into other people’s minds and checking them out.  You have no limitations, there are no edges to this canvas.”
–David McCallum, commenting on his role as Sydney’s father, Dr. Jonathan Bloom

McCallum as Sydney's father, Dr. Bloom

Of course, Sydney’s actions are noticed by others.  A group, called “The Committee”, sends Dr. Frank Morgan (Will Patton) to take control of Sydney’s machinery for their own unknown purposes… until it’s discovered that it’s not just the home-brew computer Sydney’s created that allows the trips into the virtual world.  Apparently there’s something intrinsic to her that allows these voyages, at least as far as the depth of her interaction with others.  (And isn’t it interesting that Sydney’s parents were Dr. Jonathan Bloom (David McCallum), an early pioneer in computers and virtual reality, and Dr. Nora Bloom (Louise Fletcher), whose specialty was neurochemistry?)

Unfortunately, it turns out that Mom Nora is now not much more than a mental vegetable, alone and closed off from the world after she lost her husband and Sydney’s twin sister Samantha in a car accident 17 years ago… an accident that Sydney blames herself for.  Sydney then discovers she can use her newfound VR.5 ability to enter into her mother’s subconscious and interact with her once again… but what she discovers there are more mysteries than truths, more questions than answers. Fortunately, Sydney is not alone in her search for those answers.

Sydney does have someone to turn to in all of this turmoil, childhood friend Duncan (Michael Easton), who knew the family back before the accident.  He’ll stand by Sydney through thick and thin, and slowly demonstrates some affinity for the virtual reality world as well, although not nearly to the level of Sydney.

“The more you peel the onion, the more it stings your eyes.”
–Anthony Head as Oliver Sampson from The Committee

Sydney, about to discover VR.5 secrets

The Committee becomes frustrated with Morgan’s apparent ineffectiveness (apparent only because Sydney has influenced him subconsciously), so Morgan is “eliminated” and a replacement is sent.  The new watchdog, Oliver Sampson (Anthony Head), is much more contentious than Morgan and much better connected with The Committee.  Sampson ultimately becomes an ally, thanks to Sydney’s discovery of betrayal inside The Committee, and there are now two major plots going on in the mythology of the show:  the ultimate aims of The Committee, and the mystery behind what really happened the night of the accident 17 years ago.  With the help of both Duncan and Oliver, the answers to both may just be found in Virtual Reality Level 5… and beyond.

Translating a world of the subconscious into the visual medium of television was not an easy task.  To create the surreal environment of VR.5 meant that scenes taking place during these “mind trips” involved taking the color film footage, transferring it to black and white, then individually coloring in those parts which needed to stand out with vivid hues out of the ordinary.  Back in 1995, the entire process took literally weeks per episode, not to mention the attendant costs involved.  While this meant a visually stunning look unique to VR.5, it also meant the show was a very expensive venture, one in which even the actors weren’t aware of the finished product until they saw it onscreen with the rest of the viewing public.

An example of the color process in VR sequences

The rather deep continuing storyline involving Sydney’s past was confusing enough for viewers, let alone for actors.  The on-screen performers were working on scripts week by week with no knowledge of where their characters were headed, where they’d been, or even what was going on in the now.  As part of the storytelling, deliberate continuity and factual errors were made in the virtual reality worlds, showing how perceptions changed over time and how some people remember events differently than others.  When information given as truth is later denied, who’s to say whether the scenes shown represent any reality, virtual or otherwise?

Mother and daughter in VR.5

“It’s a show you have to watch if you’re an actor and you want to know what’s happening.  The lighting is very interesting and the camera is always placed at very odd angles.  The crew gets physically excited, because they get to do so many things they don’t normally get to do on a regular show.  The more weird the script says a scene has to look, the better the crew likes it.  It’s fun for the actors, too, because it’s so visually stimulating and it keeps you on your toes.”
–Louise Fletcher

Fox aired 10 of the 13 produced episodes and, although they aired in the correct order in America (unlike Britain, which was more confused than we were), the three episodes skipped would have landed in spots 3, 9, and 12, meaning there are some definite plotlines missing vital information.  Episode 3, in particular, was an examination of Sydney’s youthful relationship with her now dead sister, and some of the fallout from the accident.  VR.5 definitely suffered from some problems, and heaping missing information onto deliberately misleading information didn’t help viewers at home who were still trying to decipher the new world of the show, let alone the unexpected and innovative ways in which the story was being told.

Audiences apparently weren’t ready for this virtual “new wave” of television, and so VR.5 soon was gone from the airwaves.  Certainly there may have been a clearer way to tell the story, and concept behind the show wasn’t easy to grasp immediately, but that’s usually the case with an innovative way to present new ideas on television.  Being the first to explore the worlds of virtual reality in televised story telling was experimental by nature, and in the case of VR.5, although the experiment wasn’t embraced by many, it still had a unique and mysterious tale to tell in an engaging new way.  Executive producer John Sacret Young even had to come up with a new way to describe it all:

“It’s cyber noir.  It’s a mind bender.  It’s about consciousness and subconsciousness.  It’s like a dream.  You wake up from some scenes and wonder, ‘What the heck was that?'”

“That” was VR.5… and there’s been no other television series, virtual or real, like it since.

LORI SINGER (Sydney Bloom) followed in the acting footsteps of her brother Marc Singer (V), and landed a featured role on the TV series Fame.  She also got to display her cello ability on the series, as she is a world-class instrumentalist who has performed at Carnegie Hall.  Best known for her role opposite Kevin Bacon in the classic movie Footloose, she’s recently returned to acting in an episode of Law & Order: SVU after spending many years doing charitable work fighting Pediatric AIDS.

MICHAEL EASTON (Duncan) started in soap operas on Days of Our Lives, then moved to recurring roles in Ally McBeal and The Practice before starring in a dual role in the series Two.  An accomplished author and poet, he’s been a regular on the soap One Life to Live since joining the show in 2003.

DAVID McCALLUM (Dr. Jonathan Bloom) was Russian heart-throb Illya Kuryakin on the late ’60’s spy series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and later starred in the British series Sapphire and Steel and the 1975 American take on The Invisible Man.  Since 2003 he’s been a regular on NCIS, learning so much information for his role as a Forensic Scientist that he’s been the featured speaker at legitimate forensic conferences.

LOUISE FLETCHER (Dr. Nora Bloom) won an Oscar for her role as Nurse Ratched in the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Best known on television for her recurring portrayal of Kai Winn on Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine, she’s also received two Emmy nominations for her roles in Joan of Arcadia and Picket Fences.  Most recently, her TV appearances include Private Practice and Shameless.

WILL PATTON (Dr. Frank Morgan) was a regular on the 2001 CIA series The Agency.  He was also seen as the coach in the movie Remember the Titans.  He is probably more heard that viewed, however, as he has been the reader of a lengthy list of audiobooks, including many of author James Lee Burke’s thriller series.

ANTHONY HEAD (Oliver Sampson) is more recognized with the name he used later in his career, Anthony Stewart Head, and for his role as Giles in the series Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.  He is currently playing royalty, portraying King Uther Pendragon in the British-produced series Merlin, which aired for one season on NBC and has continued on the SyFy Channel.

VR.5 hasn’t been released on DVD, so if you want to own copies, you’ll have to go the bootleg route.  Some kind soul has put all the episodes on YouTube if you wish to see for yourself Sydney’s adventures in both real and virtual terms (and yes, there’s some level of irony in watching televised virtual reality on a computer).  Rhino did release the individual episodes on VHS back in the day, however.  Websites include the excellent dismal light, which contains many links and much information about the series.

Oliver, Sydney, and Duncan

While objective reality is fairly easy to describe and visualize, especially for the visual medium of television, the medium of the mind is something far different.  VR.5 wasn’t really a representation of a virtual reality, but it used the idea of a “virtual” world to tell a rather involved story in a really different, engaging way.  Upending the previous conventions of the medium and experimenting with time, space, and color in surprising ways, helped the series connect with some, and unfortunately turn off the interest of others.  But for anyone with the willingness to experiment, and the desire to allow their minds to be open to new ways of (televised) communication, then VR.5 allowed its cast, crew, and creators to navigate a journey TV had never been able to portray before.

The human mind is constantly expanding, growing, and changing… and television has to do the same, or it will simply become mindless claptrap that many have warned it was far before this.  But willingness on the part of viewers to want more, and willingness on the creators to find a way to provide it, means television doesn’t have to be boring, bland, or ordinary.  Like VR.5, it can challenge the senses, the world, and the mind.  If only we open our own minds to it.

Vital Stats

10 aired episode — 3 unaired (later aired on Sci-Fi channel)
FOX Network
First aired episode:  March 10, 1995
Final aired episode:  May 12, 1995
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Yes.  Fox was still searching for a companion series for The X-Files at the time, and this was one of the (unfortunately failed) attempts.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

“Create a world that floats on a layer of metaphor, drench it in big ideas about the world, fill it with real people, and then absolutely demand intelligence of your viewers.  Welcome to Serenity.”
–Jane Espenson, writer for Firefly (among many other shows)

The cast of Firefly

In Firefly, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) fought (and unfortunately lost) the battle of Serenity Valley.  He was part of an underdog rebel force fighting against the Alliance military for control of his world, his universe, and for the freedom of how to live his life.  His rebels were known as Browncoats, a name that fans of Firefly took as their own, to show their unity and devotion to the cause.  For some, the cause was simply support of the show.  For others, it became much more. And much like Mal, who continued to fight for what he believed throughout the course of the series, they still fight today, for the good of all.

The Browncoats portrayed on Firefly were rebels to the core, fighting against the status quo.  So too are the self-styled followers of the series, independents all.  These Browncoats fight not only to keep the memory of the series alive, but have been out there now going on six years to raise money for charity and spread the word.  They continue to tell to the world about both good causes and their beloved passion, Firefly.

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

This year's promotional logo

While there are many loosely organized groups (as is befitting a bunch of independents, many of whom discovered Firefly individually and came together later), there is an umbrella charity group called Can’t Stop the Serenity that deserves special notice.  Can’t Stop the Serenity co-ordinates charity showings of the 2005 Serenity feature film in various locations around the world (usually theatres, on a big screen as the film should be seen).  They also act as a clearing house for some of the license issues, and to help support the charity Equality Now, a favorite of Firefly creator Joss Whedon.  Other events also raise money to donate to a wide variety of charities in addition to Equality Now, and the shindigs have been known to feature auctions of Firefly-related merchandise, items signed by stars of the show, and related memorabilia (such as screenings of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which featured Firefly star Nathan Fillion and was written/produced/directed by Whedon).

The group has been going strong for the last five years, and as they enter their sixth, they’ve helped sponsor yearly gatherings everywhere from Lawrence, Kansas to Melbourne, Australia; from Albuquerque, New Mexico to Hamburg, Germany.  While events are held at various times during the year, most are organized around the last weekend in June (honoring Whedon’s birthday of June 26).  In 2010 alone, the group raised over $100,000 for Equality Now and a significant percentage more for other worthy organizations.  Fifty different sanctioned events were held around the world in 2010, and that’s just counting the events and donations affiliated with this particular Browncoats group.

“I write for fanboy moments.  I write to give myself strength.  I write to be the characters that I am not.  I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of.  I write to do all the things the viewers want too.  So the intensity of the fan response is enormously gratifying.  It means I hit a nerve.”
— Joss Whedon

Other events were held in cities large and small, featuring more than just screenings of the show.  For example, an event called Firefly Forever was held last year for fans of the show in a venue that often features touring Broadway productions.  It had not only a screening of the Serenity movie and Dr. Horrible, but also trivia contests, costumed attendees, and a tribute band led by Megan Gogerty.  In addition to being an award-winning playwright and performer, Megan loves both Firefly and Buffy, the Vampire Slayer so much (both Whedon projects) she has created tribute albums for each.  Her music is fun, occasionally poignant, and shows how Firefly has stimulated her already creative energy in terrific ways.

Browncoats: Redemption cast, fans and filmmakers all

Fans weren’t happy with the fact that Firefly ended so quickly, even with the feature film Serenity to help tie up a few of the loose ends.  One group created their own feature-length production called Browncoats:  Redemption, and it is now being shown at various SF conventions and gatherings, including some Can’t Stop the Serenity events mentioned above.  Obviously a labor of love, what it lacks slightly in Hollywood budget it more than makes up for in enthusiasm and passion for a series gone but not forgotten… much like Mal and the original rebels shared their passion for a battle lost and still remembered, or Joss and his own passionate fight for Firefly against the television powers-that-be.  The makers of this fan film also support a number of charities, and their website notes not only Equality Now, but also Kids Need to Read, a charity Firefly star Nathan Fillion helped found a number of years ago to advocate assorted opportunities for youngsters and literacy.

“I’d rather make a show 100 people need to see, than a show that 1000 people want to see.”
— Joss Whedon

If the original Firefly was all about character, then the response of the fans was all about passion.  Passion in action is creativity, and Firefly fans are overwhelmingly both passionate and creative.  Welcome to the Blue Sun Room at FireflyFans.net.  Here there are a simply amazing amount of original fan fiction, filk songs (Megan’s not the only one singing the praises of Firefly!), various compilation videos, banners and wallpapers for computers and websites, and original artwork based on the series.  Some have even created jewelry, model weapons, and costumes based on character accessories seen on the show.  Firefly was inspirational to many, causing them to create based on their love for these characters and their dramatic situations.

“I’m very much of the ‘make it dark, make it grim, make it tough.’  But then, for the love of God, tell a joke.”
–Joss Whedon

Mal, perhaps the Captain of an animated Serenity?

Of course, dramatic situations don’t stop fans from having fun with their adopted creation.  There are many comical songs available, not to mention stories written which run the gamut from hauntingly beautiful and sad to downright hilarious.  Fans have done so many wonderful things it’s hard to describe the wide variations available.  One fan even went so far as to draw some of the characters as cartoons, perhaps in the hope of someday reviving the show as an animated series, but more likely as just another way to share his love of the show through his particular talents.  And maybe that’s when you can tell that a show has become much more than just a show to people… they take what they love and somehow are moved to make it part of themselves, part of their own identity.  That’s what passion really is, an expression of self.

“I refuse to give up.  I can’t.”
–Creator Joss Whedon, on bringing back Firefly

Even the cast and crew were caught up in the specialness of Firefly, so much so that it has been a part of their professional lives long after the cancellation of the original series.  Yes, the Serenity movie was a gift, a reunion experience that most short-lived television shows and their fans never get.  But even now, the ‘verse of Firefly remains a part of them all, and rather than resent being identified with a canceled show, they embrace the experience.

Space Cowboy, five years later

Nathan Fillion was seen in a Halloween episode of his current series Castle in his old Mal Reynolds costume, with a fun bit interacting with his onscreen “daughter” played by Molly Quinn.  Her line?  “That was like five years ago.”  Another Firefly joke landed in Castle this past season when his mother (talking about something else entirely) said “You have heard of Serenity, haven’t you?”  Fillion loves his association with the show, so much so that he recently sparked notions of a revival.  When asked about his experience on Firefly and he current feelings on the series, he responded that if he won the lottery, he’d take the $300 million, buy the rights to Firefly, and start making it again.  There was a Facebook page and a website dedicated to “Help Nathan buy Firefly” created by fans within days, and two former writers for the series, Jane Espenson and Jose Molina, immediately added their support to the idea….  Passion, my friends, passion.

Summer Glau in The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Other actors in the show have continued their careers in geek- and SF-related shows, likely sparked by their fanbase from Firefly.  Morena Baccarin (Irina) recently finished her second season as the lead in ABC’s revival of V, while Jewel Staite (Kaylee) was a featured regular on Stargate:  Atlantis.  Adam Baldwin (Jayne) has been a regular on NBC’s Chuck for a number of seasons, and Summer Glau (River) has been a fan favorite on a many genre shows, including The 4400, Terminator:  The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and The Cape.  Glau has also been a guest on The Big Bang Theory, a show which has featured some terrific references to the original Firefly.  (One character on Big Bang Theory is STILL angry at the cancellation, years later, so much so that it’s a running gag.  He’s not typical in his expressed anger, but he’s not the only one who is not happy with Fox, even now, for what happened.)

“…you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell.  A level they reserve for child molesters… and people who talk at the theater.”
–Shepherd Book, who unfortunately was NOT talking about the Fox executive who canceled Firefly

Obviously, there were a number of people who were very unhappy at the cancellation of Firefly… but the problem with that idea is, there really weren’t enough people watching it when it was originally on in the first place.  For some of the reasons (and for some of the blame on Fox), you can see last week’s article.  But partially because of the haphazard treatment of the network, Firefly never really gained a wide audience until AFTER its original airing, and the passion grew as more and more fans were turned on to the amazing characters and setting by OTHER fans along the way.

The feature film Serenity (released in 2005) came about because of Fox’s short-sightedness as well, and the obvious enthusiasm of the Browncoats.  Shortly after the cancellation, episodes were shown to the head of Universal (a Fox rival), who immediately snapped up the movie rights to the franchise.  Bigger, better sets were built, a script written by Joss Whedon (who also directed), and the entire cast and much of the crew were reunited, joyously, to once again play in their favorite ‘verse.  While the stakes were raised (and favorites lost), Serenity was still a way for the fans to get answers to some lingering questions about the characters, and for at least some form of resolution to be achieved.

But fans… Browncoats… wouldn’t settle for just that, either.  That’s why they’ve made Firefly their own.  That’s why they’ll never let it end.  It’s personal now.

There’s a reason the DVD sets were such big sellers, and that’s because very few people actually saw the original airing of the series… but thanks both to the Serenity film and the Browncoats spreading the word from person to person, Firefly has exploded in the viewing consciousness since.  If you wish to see something of what I’m talking about, episodes are available on Hulu, with different hours rotating in and out each week.

Firefly is unique, not just because of the characters or the setting, the ideas or the writing… it is unique because it’s a television show that became much more than what most television shows ever become:  it changed the lives and behavior of numerous viewers for the better.  Whether in their own creative endeavors, or their actions in supporting valuable charitable organizations, or even in just taking the ideals of the characters to heart, Firefly has become real.  Not in the fact of flying between planets and space cowboys, but in motivating people into cherishing their own natures, and becoming more than what they were before.

“Take my love, take my land.
Take me where I cannot stand.
I don’t care, I’m still free.
You can’t take the sky from me….”
–The opening theme song from Firefly

In these modern times, situations we face along the way can take so much from us, just in the everyday struggle to survive.  Be it work, family, home, health… we all have battles we’ve fought, and sometimes lost.  Compromises sometimes have to be made, and like I said about Mal in the previous article, so many individuals try to be good people… where good isn’t always an option.  But Firefly touched a nerve for many, and while it showed characters battling foes larger than themselves, it also showed how each of them could prosper individually, even with just small victories along the way.

The rebels and Browncoats identified with the crew of Serenity as their own, with likely someone on the crew being a personal draw to almost anyone who watched.  And the ultimate theme of the series was like a shining beacon to many:  No matter what happens, no matter what battles are won or lost, there are certain things that are intrinsically part of each of us, and those things can never be taken away, no matter how hard some may try.

You can’t take the sky from me….

I’ve been doing this for a year now.  Thanks for the journey so far.  Let’s keep flying.  –Tim R.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

“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”.

Not bad for a little show about a little spaceship that could….

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.

Mal, Captain of Serenity

“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.”
–Joss Whedon

Zoe, devoted to Mal and Wash

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, ready to fly

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.

Eternally optimistic engineer 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

"The Hero of Canton", the man they call Jayne

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.

Companion Inara

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

Shepherd Book, a (mostly) peaceful man

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.

Doctor Simon Tam

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

fragile, enigmatic River Tam

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.”

“It’s enough.”

Yes, Serenity is still flying… and it’s enough.

Vital Stats

12 aired episodes (10 hours and 1 two-hour pilot) — 3 unaired episodes (available on DVD)
Fox Network
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.

–Tim R.

Come back next week for Part II….

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