Monday, March 30, 2009

Off the Shelf - Firefly Part 1 (of 15)

Firefly: Serenity
Season 1, Episode 1

Welcome to Off the Shelf, where we'll revisit some of the greatest television shows of my DVD collection.

Before we dive into a longer running show over the summer, let's take a relatively quick peek through each episode of Joss Whedon's cult favorite, Firefly.

Mal - "Well we're still flying."
Simon - "That's not much."
Mal - "It's enough."

So why start with this particular show? The first big advantage is the short length, which will allow us to dig through the entire run of the series (pilot, 13 more episodes and the BDM - That's Big Damn Movie for you newbies). Do I love the series enough to spend the time on it? This is a space western people. A western set in space. "You had me at hello." And thirdly, this is a place I'd like to highlight shows that got a bum wrap or at least weren't ratings monsters. Kind of like an Island of Misfit Toys for television shows. Maybe we'll get to some behemoth shows someday, but for now this is my little corner of the sky. And few shows got as crappy a hand dealt as Fox gave this one. Any meeting between you and Fox executive over your once in a lifetime labor of love project where the conversation starts with, "We're debuting you on Friday night." -- just run out of the room screaming. Add to that the idea to air the pilot months later, after the show had been canned for doing what virtually every show in existence since The X-Files more than 15 years ago did - stink on Friday.

So maybe its fitting that a show that never had a chance was at least meant to open with resounding loss. The Battle of Serenity Valley gets to show us a Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) who believes in his cause, commands his troops with honor and courage and hasn't sacrificed his faith to the conflict. The joy on his face after taking down an enemy plane makes him believe the impossible can happen. Then that man dies with his rebellion. At least his death is a figurative one... sorry Bendis.

Six years later, Mal and his fellow soldier Zoe (Gina Torres) led a salvage mission that is quickly revealed to be a criminal enterprise run from a bug-shaped space freighter called Serenity. Of course, they're immediately shown up by their pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) and his dinosaur toys.

"Everything looks good from here. Yes.. yes... this is a fertile land and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land and we will call it... ... This Land."

Wash often serves as the comic relief for the show, always with a deadpan joke to break the tension. It difficult to describe how much fun Whedon's trademarked humor gives the show, letting the audience relax without breaking the mood in a generally serious show. The robbery of a derelict vessel established that our cast aren't the heroes of this universe, they're out to make a buck. It also shows the first of many back-up plans Mal uses to get out by the skin of his teeth.

From the technical side, the science of the universe isn't explained all at once, but the realistic approach (aside from gravity on ships) is terrific. The concept is that of a space adventure set amongst a single solar system (albeit a significantly larger one than ours with at least dozens of habitable or pseudo-habitable worlds) with no faster than light travel, no aliens, no laser blasters and most excellently - no sound in space.

The pilot, written and directed by Joss Whedon, does what his most recent series failed to do. It quickly and efficiently introduces the cast, gives them unique personalities and considering there are nine main characters that's no small order. Mal is the gruff captain loyal only to his ship and crew. Zoe is his utterly devoted second-in-command. Wash is her jester husband. Kaylee is the eternally optimistic mechanic played by the joyful Jewel Staite. The X-Files veteran, Adam Baldwin (no relation) stars as Jayne, the crude braggart mercenary.

Upon the ship's return to the mostly respectable planet of Persephone, we're introduced to Inara, a Companion (prostitute) and the only respectable member of the crew, played by Morrena Baccarin, and a Shepperd (monk) named Book, played by Ron Glass. In addition to little touches like the names of these professions, the individuality of the world is developed with the considerable use of Mandarin Chinese (most commonly for endearments and cursing). A small item that develops a history where only two significant societies lasted and isn't the type of thing we'd seen on other science fiction shows up to that point.

Here on Persephone, the ship will take on passengers to make some extra money on the way to Boros, a planet where they hope to spend their ill-gotten gains. But the dusty and dirty docking port is the other end of the Serenity spectrum. For all the fancy spaceships, the heart of the story is one of people on the edge of a civilization. Like something out of a western, the marketplace in a mishmash of American and Chinese cultures that would be more in place on Deadwood than Star Trek. The ship itself is barely holding itself together, with Kaylee mentioning numerous parts are needed (including a compression coil that will come back to haunt him). And I must mention Kaylee's umbrella... pure fun.

Even Romo Lampkin himself shows up, with Mark Sheppard playing Badger, one of the crew's criminal contacts. Because the goods Mal salvaged are labeled and the Alliance saw the ship, Badger won't risk fulfilling his end of the bargain. A numbers disadvantage forces Mal, Zoe and Jayne must leave with their tails between their legs, much the the latter's disgruntlement. This forces them to deal with another contact named Patience, who we learn has a tendency to shoot Mal during business transactions.

Among the passengers, there's Simon Tam (Sean Maher), Book and Dobson, who probably isn't long for this world since he's the only one not in the title credits. Mal's conflicts with Book and Jayne show him as a man without faith, who nevertheless defends his crew without reservation. Everything quickly comes to a head, Dobson is a federal agent trying to arrest Simon and their confrontation ends with the sweetest character in the show, Kaylee, getting shot. Simon agrees to treat her if Mal runs from the Alliance cruiser en route.

The reason Simon is on the run is his sister, River, who he smuggled aboard in a cryogenic shipping container. She's been recently rescued from a government program disguised as a school that has severely altered her physically and mentally. The main story of the series and movie is the development and resolution of the government/business interests search to reclaim her. Where else Whedon planned to go in his imagined seven-year run we'll probably never know. The big conflict within the crew is the very altruistic mission of escape and survival with the often more mercurial interests of the original crew members, specifically Mal.

Poor Jayne confronts the Alliance agent, but doesn't even get to torture Dobson to find out how far the Alliance was behind them (Poor Lawrence was not a good liar). I was gonna get me an ear. But it sets up that Jayne might be willing to turn against Mal at any point throughout the rest of the episode. One final conflict before their arrival to deal with Patience is passing by a Reaver vessel. Only mentioned once beforehand, the sheer terror they evoke without ever appearing on screen in the series credits both the actors performances and the restraint of the creators, working in little moments like Inara would kill herself if they are boarded and Jayne (who seems to fear nothing else) refusing to venture near them.

At White Falls, the moon run by Patience, we see even more of the Western influence of the series, as they ride horses and have a good old-fashioned shoot out. The entire sequence is a credit to how smart Mal can be about tactical decisions. He absolutely knows from one conversation that Patience plans on shooting him. And looking over the meeting grounds, he can figure out just where the ambush will work out and where the sniper will be. This is where the earlier scene with Dobson pays off, since we're never sure who Jayne will be shooting. But once he shoots poor Two Fry and his big hat (the money with Dobson wasn't good enough), Mal and Zoe get their own little O-K Corral. Mal even gets to shoot a horse. But being the honest thief he is, lets Patience keep the goods.

On the ship, Dobson escapes, assaulting Book in the process, and takes River hostage. And oh yeah, the gorram Reavers are coming back. After a nice, little fight with Simon, Dobson puts a gun to River's head only for the first definitive moment of the series, after riding up on a horse, Mal climbs the entrance and without breaking stride puts a bullet in the Fed's head. The escape from the Reavers delivers a similar moment for Wash, Kaylee and Serenity, pulling an nice little Crazy Ivan and blasting off into space.

A large portion of the greatness of this show is that they rarely have a bigger goal than get away to get another job. And because Mal now considers Simon part of the crew and he is (all evidence to the contrary) still a decent man, the Tams stay on board and despite the romantic tension with Irana, he gets to sit back with his two great loves - Serenity and a great pile of empty space in front of them.

The entire episode comes off as more short-length movie than television episode with Whedon bringing his writing and directing A-game, making a specific point to take advantage of widescreen for the first substantive time in his career (left side Waaaaghh). It didn't take long at all for him to establish every character's identity and grow comfortable winding his cameras throughout the vessel. One of my favorite moments is how Whedon fakes us out about Kaylee's survival just before the arrival on White Falls.

Looking back, it seems Fox decided to shelve this opening due to its relaxed pace, fearing it would never hold a television audience.
And yes, it seemed more than a little backhanded to air it after announcing a cancellation. But given the already difficult time slot, delaying the episode that contains the character introductions and the back story of Mal's history in the Unification War on the side of the Independents (a.k.a. the Browncoats), was all a death-knell for the show. In our review for the second episode, "The Train Job," we'll discuss how well it served covering these points. But the issue for now is that the pilot did an excellent job covering these points, even if the rather slow pace of the double-sized episode would admittedly be a tough sell for a new audience.

But the series itself was a dream for me - just a bunch of grunts out on the edge of things, making their own way and more concerned about being just than lawful. The moment of moral superiority when Mal murders the Alliance officer (a good guy) who threatened his crew, exemplified the good-bad guys concept perfectly.

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