Originally Written: June & September 2005
Anya (a thousand year-old ex-demon): “Well, I was kinda new to being around humans before. And now I’ve seen a lot more, gotten to know people, seen what they’re capable of…and I guess I just realize how amazingly… screwed up they all are. I mean, really, really screwed up in a monumental fashion…They have no purpose that unites them so they drift around, blundering through life until they die. Which they know is coming, yet every single one of them is surprised when it happens. They’re incapable of thinking about what they want beyond the moment. They kill each other, which is clearly insane…and yet here’s the thing. When it’s something that really matters they fight. I mean, they’re lame morons for fighting but they do. They never…they never quit. So I guess I’ll keep fighting too.”
-“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Episode 7.21 (“End of Days”)
In this- one of the most profound of all “Buffyverse” monologues- lies not only the most confounding mystery of humanity, but also the basic theme writer-director-genius Joss Whedon explored in his three wonderful television shows (“Buffy,” “Angel,” and “Firefly”). Longtime readers of my essays know about “Buffy” and “Angel” (my final “Buffy” essay can be found on this site; “Angel” is forthcoming). Now’s the time to introduce you to “Firefly” (if I haven’t already).
If I were forced to describe to you- in words- what kind of show “Firefly” is like, I would put it this way- think of a “Star Wars” spin-off movie that focused on Han Solo and Chewbacca. If you’ll recall, Han and Chewie were smugglers before they took Luke, Obi-Wan, and the droids onto the Millennium Falcon and became freedom fighters.
Well, “Firefly”- which takes place 500 years in the future- takes that notion and reverses it. Before he became a smuggler, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, the false Ryan in “Saving Private Ryan” and a costar on “Two Guys and a Girl,” who establishes himself as a terrific successor to Harrison Ford’s iconic, laconic men of action with wicked wit and disarming humanity behind his cynical worldview) was a sergeant in the Independence Army, which was fighting a civil war with the Empire-esque Alliance, which formed out of the two remaining superpowers of “Earth That Was”- the United States and China- to try and unite the planets- which have been terraformed to make them habitable for settlers- under one rule. The Independence lost, and Mal’s feeling of betrayal for the way the movement gave up- leaving him and his men to die at the Battle of Serenity Valley- has left him closed off and cynical. So instead of conforming, he buys a Firefly class spaceship, calls her Serenity, and with his fellow comrade in arms Zoe (Gina Torres, best known also as an assassin on “Alias,” is yet another compelling kick-ass babe from Whedon’s imagination), assembles a ragtag crew of misfits to run the ship, which moves from job to job- some legal, most not-so-much- just looking for as little Alliance interference as possible. Of course, when Mal and his crew- which includes Zoe; pilot Wash, her husband (played by “I, Robot” and “Dodgeball’s” Alan Tudyk, goofy and endearing); mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite, adorable in all the right ways); hired muscle Jayne (Adam Baldwin (“Independence Day,” “The Patriot”) is a broadly comic pleasure in a role with more layers than you’d expect); and Companion (or prostitute) Inara (Morena Baccarin, impossibly hot and full of unspoken romantic longing when she isn’t trading barbs with Mal)- take on passengers for some extra cash- Shepherd Book (Ron Glass, bringing humane mystery to an underappreciated role), just back “into the world after a spell,” a doctor (Simon Tam, played by the sympathetic Sean Maher), and his brilliant sister River (Summer Glau, fascinating and fragile in one of Whedon’s most brilliantly-conceived roles), whom he rescued from a government program that was performing mind experiments on her- and two of them (Simon and River) are wanted by the Alliance, to say that staying below the rader gets a little complicated would be putting it mildly.
One of the great, secret pleasures of Whedon’s shows are the unexpected twists they take their characters on without cheating either the story or the audience. It’s the secret of Whedon’s becoming the cult genre fan’s equivalent of Spielberg and Lucas (“Buffy” and “Angel” were huge cult/pop culture hits, while “Firefly” achieved its’ status after a complete series DVD set became a best-seller). The not-so-secret reason for Whedon’s popularity is his incomperable gifts as a writer, director, and storyteller, which are among the best is contemporary entertainment (equal to the likes of Spielberg, Scorsese, and few others). All one has to do is look at the pilot episode of “Firefly”- titled “Serenity,” just like the terrific feature not far from release that resulted from the show’s great success on DVD and its’ fans passions- to see all of Whedon’s trademarks on display. By the end of the second hour, the crew’s nine-members (and their personalities) are established (if not entirely revealed), the tone of the show (a deft blend of drama and humor laced with action) is set, and the feel of the show (a literal combination of sci-fi and Western, cut and shot like a low-budget feature film (David Boyd’s hand-held cinematography made for an unusual but effective combination with Zoic’s visual effects work, which adapted brilliantly to the look)) is introduced in a story of excitement, sorrow, and unexpected plot turns that is pure Whedon from inside and out. If the receipe wasn’t quite perfected yet (and even the most passionate fans- like myself- will tell you it wasn’t), well, not even “Buffy” or “Angel” hit their stride until midway through their first seasons.
And so you have it. As you can probably tell, the stories Joss wanted to tell were not the usual space operas. No aliens to be seen. No travelling to far off worlds bringing messages of world peace. No exciting space battles. The stories Whedon had in mind are more personal in the way they not only relate to the individual difficulties of their characters but reflect more real problems we have living from day-to-day. The crew of Serenity- for instance- is usually surviving on what little fuel and food they have, meaning work must be found. Among the jobs are a train heist where the reward for giving the stolen goods back is greater than the monetary price for taking it (“The Train Job,” conceived and designed as the first episode after the studio rejected “Serenity”), even if it means consequences down the road (the highly dramatic and comedic “War Stories”); a smuggling job involving cattle that was gained through a mismatch of social rules leading to a duel (the elegant and witty “Shindig”) and ending with a kidnapping and near-fatal shooting (“Safe”); jobs involving assisting people in need, be they town folk (the brilliant and surprising “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” which starts with a job and ends with some quick survival), crew members (the revelatory “Ariel,” where the crew takes extra lengths to help River), or acquaintences of Inara (“Heart of Gold,” a straight-up Western actioner); or just plain theft (“Bushwhacked,” where the crew gets an unexpected shock when it scavengers a seemingly abandoned transport”; “Trash,” which comes into their laps from an unexpected source, and “Jaynestown,” which finds an unlikely reception for the crew’s bad boy Jayne Cobb). All are conventional stories that take surprising twists, and employed some pretty damn cool ideas of resourcefulness on part of the crew. I enjoy them.
But like “Buffy” and “Angel,” the best episodes are the ones that play with storytelling conventions, where the character interactions and developments reveal the real person inside the archetypes. Of the ones listed above, “War Stories,” “Ariel,” and “Our Mrs. Reynolds” are among the show’s finest because they aren’t conventional stories for either genre “Firefly” decides to bend. But the three jewels in “Firefly’s” fourteen-point crown are the ones that focus exclusively on the crew and their bond; not surprisingly, all were written and directed by either Joss Whedon or co-executive producer Tim Minear.
In “Out of Gas”- my personal favorite- the crew has their toughest test yet when Serenity’s compression coil breaks, leaving it dead in space, and in the middle of nowhere since they’ve taken a long way to where they’re headed. Through flashback and fractured time, we see the first meetings of Mal and Zoe with Wash, Kaylee, Jayne, Inara, and Serenity herself (perhaps the series’ most touching scene), a dinner scene that solidifies the the bond between the characters, and a sequence with a bleeding Mal slowly making his way to the engine room to fix his beloved ship.
“The Message”- the last episode filmed we learn through commentaries and documentaries- has Mal and Zoe’s army days coming back to them unexpectedly when the dead body of a soldier they served with turns up on a maildrop. “The Message” is one of the best episodes in the series’ short run in displaying the talents of the show’s composer, Greg Edmonson, who wrote a score that deftly blends both Eastern and Western musical sensibilities (representing the universe’s multicultural hybrid) while servicing the basic emotional needs of film music (why isn’t there a soundtrack of this music available?). Edmonson’s music is rarely more moving than it is at the end of this episode- I wish I could put in words what he does with his music, except to say that it never fails to move me.
But in the end, there’s something singularly distinct about “Objects in Space”- the “series finale” written and directed by Whedon- which has a cryptic bounty hunter (played by Richard Brooks, up to the challenge of the enigmatic role) sneaking up on the crew of Serenity aboard the ship to take in Simon and River. Like he did with “Hush,” “The Body,” and “Once More With Feeling” on “Buffy,” Whedon is playing with conventional storytelling structure in “Space”- which can be seen entirely from River’s unusual point-of-view- which is like so many of my favorite Whedon episodes from his shows in that it’s about the familial bond between the characters and how- even when it becomes fractured by secrets that can tear them apart- their devotion towards one another is always stronger than any outside force in the end. I’ve always considered it a perfect grace note added at the end of Whedon’s great and original symphony about man’s never-ending struggle to survive in a world that always throws curveballs.
To close, I leave you with an exchange between Simon and Mal that perfectly sums up the appeal of Whedon’s “Firefly,” a show that left the airways much too soon, and couldn’t get to the big screen fast enough.
Simon: “Are you always this sentimental?”
Mal: “Had a good day.”
Simon: “You had the Alliance on you. Criminals and savages. Half the people on this ship have been shot or wounded, including yourself, and you’re harboring known fugitives.”
Mal: “Well, we’re still flying.”
Simon: “That’s not much.”
Mal: “It’s enough.”