Yeah, I know I’m hardly alone in loving the cult-hit Firefly, nor am I alone in censuring Fox for its inept and inexplicable decision to cancel it after its first season. But then again, that seems to be their thing. What is more lamentable is the fact that after years of maintaining a following worldwide, producing a movie, an RPG, novelizations, comic books, and countless fan sites, Firefly still hasn’t been renewed or picked up by another network! What gives??? C’mon Wedon! Futurama did it, why can’t you?
Well, comeback or not, Firefly and its movie adaptation Serenity were still kick-ass. In addition to its memorable characters, smart writing, and classic sci-fi elements, there was also the heartfelt themes of conquest, resistance, and “manifest destiny”. That above all else made the show a hit, in my humble opinion. In adapting the history of the closing of the frontier, Wedon tapped into a very familiar American narrative and showed just how timeless history and human nature are.
To break the show’s background down succinctly, the story takes place roughly 500 years in the future, when humanity left Earth and began to explore the cosmos for a new place to call home. They eventually landed in the Blue Star system, a star with “dozens of planets and hundreds of moons” and began terraforming as many of them as possible. The inner worlds boasted the highest degree of technology and development and formed the Alliance, whereas the outer planets were sparsely populated and underdeveloped by comparison.
In time, the Alliance chose to expand and incorporate the outer worlds, prompting a coalition of Independents (or “Browncoats” because of the uniforms they sported) to resist. After a crushing defeat at the battle of Serenity Valley, the Independents were essentially finished. Thereafter, those “browncoats” who wanted to retain their independence took to a life of piracy, smuggling and spacing to make ends meet, pulling jobs in the outer-outer regions of space and staying clear of Alliance ships and “Reavers”, cannibalistic raiders who raid along the outer rim.
One such group is the crew of the Serenity, a Firefly-class ship captained by former “Browncoat” Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion). His second in command, Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), was with him in the war and served in his platoon. As a result, they have a relationship that goes deeper than most, which has been known to make her husband and ships pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk) a little jealous.
There’s also Kaywinnet Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite), the spunky and ever-cheery ship’s mechanic who seems to be talk to machines and make them work. Then there’s Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary who they poached from another gang and who serves as hired muscle on the ship. And last, there’s Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a travelling “Companion”, or professional courtesan, who acts as a sort of ambassador for the ship.
As the show opens, the crew of the Serenity pick up some new passengers. The first is Derrial Brook (Ron Glass), a Shepherd (pastor) who is seeking passage away from the inner worlds to preach aboard. He quickly becomes part of the crew and acts as Mal conscience, though it becomes abundantly clear that he is more than what he appears. In addition, there is the strange duo of Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his sister River Tam (Summer Glau). Summer is apparently a gifted young psychic who was experimented on by Alliance doctors, and her brother risked everything in order to free her. Now fugitives from the law, they remain aboard the Firefly as part of the crew, hoping to avoid capture.
The namesake of the show and the movie, the crew’s vessel of choice is the Firefly-class transport. A n older model, this vessel is apparently favored by privateers and smugglers because of its complex design and the presence of secret compartments. Although it boasts no armaments and is outdated by most inner-world standards, those who use it tend to get pretty attached to it and remain very monogamous. Echoes of the Millenium Falcon there…
The story opens with the extended crew coming together and getting to know each other. Mal, having realized that Simon and his sister were fugitives, decided to take them in after he shot and killed an alliance agent who had infiltrated their ship. Thereafter, the crew set out to continue on their ongoing adventure, taking whatever jobs they could find and staying one step ahead of the authorities.
The constant threat of the Reavers is also a recurring element in the first season. Existing on the fringes of known space and coming from parts unknown, the Reavers appear to be expanding inward towards the core, becoming more brash and brazen with their assaults on shipping and colony worlds. Aside from their obvious brutality and insanity, not much is known about this menace, other than the fact that they look like orcs and their ships like spiky sharks!
In addition, River’s condition, the result of endless experimentation, becomes the source of growing concern by her brother. Though she was always gifted, it’s becoming apparent to him and the other members of the crew that she might indeed be a psychic. Given that his resources are limited, they eventually have to break into a medical city on his old homeworld of Persephone so he can do a more thorough examination. His conclusions are that they physically tampered with her brain in order to enhance her abilities. Fractured and suffering from bouts of schizophrenia, she is eventually accepted by the other crew members and begins to feel whole again.
This, more than anything, is a guiding theme of the show, which is the growth of the Serenity family. Already, there is a strong sense of comradery between Mal and Zoe, which grows to include Wash when he and Mal confront and ultimately resolve the issue of his jealousy. There is also the growing bond between Mal and Inara. Initially, the two appear to be mutually hostile, but it soon becomes clear that this merely conceals their mutual attraction. Kaylee, as always, is the cheery epicenter of things, making her role as the ship’s engineer seem like a double-entendre. In addition to making sure the machinery keeps running, she’s also responsible for ensuring that everyone gets along.
Accepting Jayne proves more difficult, given his questionable loyalties; but in time, the crew comes to realize they can trust him since he values his friends more than money. And even though there are aspects of his past that are still unclear, Book proves that he too can be trusted and will endanger himself to keep the others safe. Hence, he too comes to be accepted as a permanent fixture aboard the ship. As the season ends, it becomes clear that even though the crew still faces a number of threats – the Alliance, Reavers, mercenaries and ruthless criminal lords – that they will be facing them together.
The film adaptation opens with themes that were well-established in the show. We have the crew of the Serenity still trying to make ends meet, still having to take jobs out of desperation, and still fearing for their safety as hostile elements close in. However, the movie version chose to what was slowly developing with the show and tweak them to bring some serious tension and resolution to the storyline.
These include the ongoing search for River Tam, and the revelation of where the Reavers come from. In an intriguing twist, Wedon melds the two story lines together, showing how River’s condition and her exposure to members of the Alliance government put in her in possession of certain secrets which they would prefer to keep a secret! It is for this reason that an elite agent named only the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is sent out to find her, and is given blanket authority to do whatever it takes to achieve this goal.
The theme of family also gets kicked up a notch, with Inara having left the crew because of her incurably difficult relationship with Mal. Book has also left the crew in order to become the preacher to a community of settlers in the outer rim as well. Simon and River also seemed poised to leave when the job at the beginning of the movie comes dangerously close to going wrong and he decides that they would be better off on their own. However, this is cut short when during a payout, River is “triggered” by some sort of hidden transmission and begins kicking the ass of everyone in a seedy establishment. This, for obvious reasons, leads Mal to realize that there’s more going on with her than previously thought.
(Spoiler alert!) Eventually, the crew realizes that the key secret which River gleamed from the minds of the Alliance bureaucrats was the existence of a place known as “Miranda”. The secret is also important enough that they’ve sent the Operative to find them, a man who’s talents and methods far outstrip those of the agents and mercenaries they usually send! After an incident where Inara is used as bait, Mal and the rest are determined to know what’s so important that they are willing to kill for.
With the help of their friend, Mr. Universe, they eventually discover that Miranda is a colony located in the outermost ring of the system. This world was apparently settled generations ago by over 30 million people, but things went terribly wrong after an experiment failed and killed almost everyone there. After braving the Reavers to find the planet, the crew stumbles onto the answer in a form of a recording from a scientist’s journal.
It seems that the planet was subjected to a drug known as Pax, which was a chemical agent designed to make people docile and non-violent. However, the drug worked too well, and most people became so passive and withdrawn that they eventually ceased all activity and died of starvation. The remainder, however, became extremely violent and uncontrollable and killed off all remaining survivors, including the scientists. They then took what ships they could find and began preying on shipping in the outer rim. The Reavers were born!
Having learned that the Operative has overrun every last known hideout of theirs and even killed Brooks, Mal decides that its time to fight! With the information of what happened on Miranda firmly in their hands, they make their way back to the reclusive moon where their hacker friend Mr. Universe lives. The Operative has it blockaded, but the Serenity managed to break past them by luring the Reavers into following them.
A huge firefight in space ensues and is followed by an equally tense firefight on the planet between the Serenity crew and the Reavers. In the course of the fight, Wash is killed and Kaylee and Simon are wounded, but River risks her life to save them all and give Mal the time he needs to reach Mr.Universe’s central hub. There, he confronts the Operative one last time, overcomes him, and sends out the broadcast.
Having seen the truth, the Operative orders his men to stand down. Mal and his crew are allowed to leave, mainly because he now knows he no longer has the grounds to hunt them. The Alliance has been dealt a blow from which it may not recover, and for the first time in years, the future seems uncertain. But at least there is hope. There is also much regret since the crew has lost two of its own, Wash and Book. But in the end, they set course for their next destination, carrying on in the only way they know how.
I’ll just say it, this show rocked! It was loaded with great lines, great acting, great characters and lots of relateable material. And, like its theme song, it was pretty touching and emotionally involved. The show began with a pervasive sense of sadness, where people who were fighting for their freedom are overrun, beaten and forced into lives of running and criminality. But also, there is the redeeming sense of family and closeness that develops between the main characters. Though they are kind of a motley bunch, coming from vastly different backgrounds and having their own personal secrets, they eventually come together and realize they share a similar fate.
That is another thing that this show captured so well, which was the pervasive sense of alienation that takes place in a universe which is fast changing. Much like the frontier that inspired it, that process was very painful. Those who did not fit in with the dream of “manifest destiny”, i.e. Native Americans and settlers who preferred the freedom of the frontier, the question of what to do remained a terribly difficult one. The option of fighting seemed hopeless, but the alternative of surrendering seemed just as hopeless: a slow death replacing a swift one.
As Mal expressed in Serenity, “So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?” Another key line he said was “Half of writing history is hiding the truth”. Many a time I felt that Wedon was making a point about our own, how we often miss the fact that changes we’ve come to think of as natural and inevitable were in fact the result of decisions, and that they came with a lot of pain and suffering as well. Part of what makes this show emotionally appealing is that fact that we get to see good guys fighting against terrible odds, and eventually achieving a victory of sorts.
And of course there was the cool mix of cultures that gave the show a truly international feel. Whereas the planets appear to boast names taken predominantly from western mythology and culture, there is a hefty smattering of Mandarin Chinese in the spoken dialogue and written signs. Aspects of Southern, Arabic and other Asian cultures make appearances as well, both in the series and the expanded universe. Basically, Wedon seemed to be going with the plausible sci-fi premise that cultures would mix in the era of colonization to produce new and interesting cultural mosaics.
I for one would like to see where it goes from here. Would the Alliance fall? Would it become even more tyrannical in its pursuit of a “better world” and a unified system? And how would they get around the fact that Watt ggand Book exited stage left (Apparently due to money and the desire to not get typecast. Actors! Pfft!) But, we’ll never know unless someone gets off their duff and starts making new episodes now will we? So Mr. Wedon and/or the Fox Network, get off your duffs and bring back this show gorram it! We’ve waited ten bloody years and we’re growing in strength! Don’t make us come after you!
Oh, and to Mr. Nathan Phillion, whom I hear is trying to ressurect the show himself, tell us what its going to take to get this done and we’ll do our best to help. Please tell us it involves taking the Fox Network down, or at least the crop of execs who keep cancelling shows that are in their prime. Is it not enough that you give TV spots to the most pig-ignorant excuse for journalists and right-wing ideologues, you gotta kill anything with a soul before it grows too? Why don’t you just call yourself the Evil Empire Network and be done with it? I tell ya, the metaphor is too perfect here!
In the meantime, check out this kick-ass trailer from the Serenity movie. I plan to watch it again and would like to think others are too. Rock on Firefly!