Friday, February 25, 2011

Cowboys in Space

Why didn't I watch Firefly when it aired? I loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and I was confident that anything Joss Whedon did would be interesting and entertaining. And I'm a huge fan of serial television in general. What happened?

Well, life happened. I had no DVR at that time, and I was working a second job on Friday nights from 7 PM to 7 AM. But I think what really interfered was that I was involved in a new love affair at the time. We all know how that ended.

I wasn't the only television fan who wasn't watching. Low ratings led to the show being canceled. Why did Fox air the show on Friday nights? Why did they insist a new pilot be created? Why did they air the episodes out of order? It seemed at the time that Fox was doing everything it could to cancel the very show they were airing.

I finally got a chance to watch all the episodes of Firefly this past January, as Ovation aired them, in order, starting with the real pilot, and even airing the three episodes Fox never did. If I ever had a column called "Gone Too Soon," this show would top the list.

I called this series "Cowboys in Space," and the show certainly felt like it took place in the wild west, only with spaceships. The crew used guns, and frontier law ruled the worlds the ship, Serenity, visited. The worlds were dusty, filled with sometimes desperate people trying to survive. Even the language that the crew used made me think of Westerns.

As I watched, I couldn't help thinking of the original Star Trek, which, as you may recall, was touted at the time as a Wagon Train in space. The show had some similarities: a charismatic captain, a spaceship, and a doctor. But really, to me, they didn't have a whole lot in common. Captain Kirk was a member of the Federation, a governmental entity that commissioned the Enterprise to space exploration. Mal Reynolds, on the other hand, was a refugee from a losing civil war to the Alliance, a centralized federal government. The Enterprise was a slickly clean, efficiently run operation, while Serenity forever seemed in need of a good housekeeper and was kept together by glue. Kirk's crew was intensely loyal, while Reynolds' crew felt free to question every decision and poke fun at him. Worse, he never knew when one of his henchmen, Jayne Cobb, might betray him.

Each show was truly a show of it's time. The Sixties were a time of optimism, and a belief that man can solve any social ill. Think of the War on Poverty and the belief that governmental programs could actually cure poverty. Such was Roddenberry's Federation, which had somehow succeeded in ending poverty (but not the common cold, oddly enough) and created a just world. By the early 2000s, however, we'd become suspicious of government, believing it to be a malicious force in society. The Alliance, indeed, mistrusted by Serenity's crew, fought against by several members, was to be avoided when possible, exploited if necessary. Its motives were always suspect.

But let's face it. What appeals to me most about Firefly is, of course, the characters. Each character was relatively well developed (the series ended far too soon to flesh out some of the characters, sadly) and the relationships that developed among the crew and passengers was realistic. Mal and his second-in-command Zoe. Zoe and her husband, Wash, the pilot, who respected but also resented Mal. Jayne Cobb who sold his services to the highest bidder, and whose relationship to his guns was stronger than any relationship to a person. Kaylee, the naive engineer with no formal training, protected and loved by all. Then the passengers. Inara was a Companion (think high-class prostitute) who rented a shuttle from Serenity. Sparks flew between her and Mal, but his insistence on calling her a whore perhaps interfered with an easy relationship. Book, the Shepherd, who knew far more about criminal enterprises then you'd think a good pastor would know. Lastly, the brother and sister Tam: Simon, the doctor, who rescued from the Alliance, his sister River, the psychic, who'd been in training to be an assassin.

Only fifteen hours of show was produced (a two-hour pilot and thirteen episodes), but Whedon was given the opportunity to produce a movie, where he was able to flesh out some of the storyline more. I saw the movie, Serenity, long before I saw all the episodes. I'll need to see it again.

Sadly, we'll never know what this show could have been. But I'll definitely add it to my list of "Favorites". If you're into science fiction, compelling characters, and great stories, I highly recommend you give this show a shot. Surely Ovation will air it again?

One thing that Firefly did was put several actors on the map. Who had heard of Nathan Fillion before Firefly?

Buffyverse fan alert. Joss Whedon was loyal to his actors. Nathan Fillion appeared on Buffy as the homicidal cleric Caleb (I almost never forgave Fillion for gouging out Xander's eye). Gina Torres was the goddess Jasmine who tried to impose peace on Earth on Angel. Adam Baldwin guested as Marcus Hamilton, a guardian of the Senior Partners, also on Angel. Summer Glau made her professional acting debut as a prima ballerina cursed to dance the same ballet for two centuries on Angel.

Dollhouse fan alert: Alan Tudyk played the criminally insane doll, Alpha. Summer Glau played scientist Bennet Halverson.

Chuck fan alert: Adam Baldwin plays a character similar to Jayne Cobb in Chuck. His John Casey is often the best part of Chuck.

V fan alert: Morena Baccarin, Inara on Firefly, plays Anna.

And of course: Barney Miller fan alert: Ron Glass played Book the Shepherd. But I'll always remember and love him best for playing Detective Ron Harris, author of Blood on the Badge.

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