Firefly: The Complete Series
Created by: Joss Whedon
Cert 12 • US: 665 min • 20th Century Fox • DVD & Blu-ray
Firefly premiered on the Fox television network in September 2002. It was Joss Whedon’s third television series. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in its seventh and final season, and Angel in its fourth. Whedon was working on all three at once, although it was primarily Firefly that he stewarded. Three months later Fox pulled the plug. It was not until three years later that Whedon would complete the story arc in the film Serenity. The afterlife of Firefly as a cult program, as well as the determination of the team behind the series, secured this. Firefly was much mourned, and rightly so. It is one of the finest Sci-Fi shows in the history of television.
Firefly is set six years after a war between the Independents and the Alliance, the latter formed from the Central Planets. The captain of Serenity, the Firefly vessel that is in effect the show’s tenth character, is Malcolm Reynolds (played by the superb Nathan Fillion), who fought for the Independents. His crew live from day-to-day, taking work where they can, and it is in the pilot episode, ‘Serenity’, that the nine main characters are brought together. This double-episode, when it was screened, appeared 8 episodes into the run because Fox did not think it started the series off fast enough. It is hard to see their point when watching it. Its slightly gentler pace allowed the introduction of an entire world and nine separate characters, which by the end had been skillfully established. The motivations behind all the characters and the importance of the ship as a binding force are in focus. The fugitive brother and sister, Simon and River, and the reason they are fleeing from the Alliance, sets up the overall story arc.
What then happened was that a new pilot had to be written as a single episode. And the succeeding episodes played catch-up. The screening dates did not correspond with the writing of the episodes, which were fairly stand-alone, as one would expect. Fox then moved Firefly to the graveyard slot, Friday evening, which is where Whedon’s current show, Dollhouse, is struggling.
As the universe of Firefly comes together, and the extraordinary ensemble cast forms a bond, it is clear that one is watching an exceptional piece of television. Firefly is a hybrid. Its roots are as much in the Western genre as they are in Sci-Fi. The episodes ‘Shindig’, ‘Jaynestown’ and ‘Heart of Gold’ are more Western than Sci-Fi. ‘Out of Gas’, ‘Ariel’ and ‘Objects in Space’ are more Sci-Fi. It is in this amalgamation of genres that lies Firefly’s depth as well as its meaning. Whedon had been reading about the period of Reconstruction after the American Civil War and Firefly came out of that.
At the core of the American historical narrative is the conflict between the North and the South, between industrialism and agrarianism, between the cities of Alexander Hamilton and the pastoral idyll of Thomas Jefferson. This conflict is at the heart of the Federalist Papers, which is the central document outlining the arguments for how the newly created United States should be governed. This conflict is the real reason for the Civil War. The question of slavery was a catalyst that politicians and historians have pushed to the fore.
The tension in Firefly is between centralized and devolved power, between corporate capitalism and individualism. The conflict is raised at the start of the film Serenity when River’s teacher asks why the Independents did not want to submit to Alliance control. “We meddle,” responds young River. “People don’t like to be meddled with.” Politically and philosophically it is a fundamentally American series, and it asks equally fundamental questions about democracy and individualism.
Firefly is in many ways the anti Star Trek. It is about the outsiders. The Federation is the enemy. There are no prosthetics, no conflicts between races alien to each other in which the humans Learn Something (that ‘Sci-Fi as fairy tale’ approach that so often provides the underpinnings of Star Trek – in all its iterations).
Firefly is visually highly stylized and remarkably beautiful. Whedon is a fan of long tracking shots when inside the ship to communicate the idea of how it works as a whole, and how it links together, as well as how it links the characters together. With Serenity, Whedon proved as exceptional in the medium of the big screen as he is in television. It is apparent in the first few minutes that one is in the hands of both a master storyteller and filmmaker. He layers the initial scenes introducing the world of the story in a flash back/forward, first recreating one of River’s memories in which we see her questioning her teacher. What Whedon reveals in this scene is River’s questioning of authority, which is the driving force behind the film. It then flashes forward to the moment when she remembers this, the moment her brother rescues her. This then flashes forward to a holographic directive ordering River to be tracked down. One can come to it without having seen Firefly.
The political ramifications of Firefly were undoubtedly its undoing. Fox Television is notoriously conservative, and its executives are tuned in to how its message plays in the Zeitgeist. The Robin Hood scenario did not fit the Fox TV vision, which pandered to a culture ruled by the “you’re either with us or against us” mentality of the playground bully Bush.
As it stands, 14 episodes and 1 feature film, Firefly is both a great achievement and a great loss.