No Power in the 'Verse can Stop the Browncoats from Rising Again
Jan 15, 2010
Pros: Unique sci-fi setting, developed and endearing characters
Cons: Ended before its time - you WILL want more
The Bottom Line: "You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me."
I'm not very familiar with the expanded universe of Star Trek. But if the Federation spreads across numerous planets, then knowing what I know about the Star Trek universe (and I am a fairly regular watcher of the various Trek series), I feel safe assuming the Federation planets all made compromises, willingly and peacefully coming into the Federation. However, since a lot of countries on Earth alone would never let themselves be covered by a massive multi-government blanket, is it not safe to assume some planets would say no to Federation unity? Isn't it feasible to assume some planets preferred independence? And if that's the case, would it not also be safe to assume some of the independent planets have valuable resources, locations, or political importance for the Federation to just let them go? The Federation would have to fight a unification war to get those planets to cooperate. And if it won, there would be a few bitter space pirates still unwilling to accept Federation control.
This is the universe of Firefly. The Federation of Firefly is known as the Alliance, which began as a union between the United States and China back on Earth That Was. The similarities end there. The universe of Firefly is unlike anything sci-fi geeks have ever seen before. Firefly shows us a stunning blend of the past and current ways of Earth with futuristic technology. There are lasers in Firefly, but not everyone can afford them. Religion, quite notably absent in most visions of the future, is still a major force in the lives of many people - Christianity and Buddhism are dominant faiths. Interstellar travel to about 70 different worlds has failed to yield other sentient beings, and so humans are still alone. Spaceships and holograms accompany old west-style ranches and boom towns. The show even has its own unique dialect - Mandarin is commonly spoken, "shiny" has replaced "cool," and "a mite" is used as a word to describe something small (it is even slowly working its way into my own personal dialect). It all blends seamlessly to bring us visions of the past and future and mixing them to show a stage of humanity not unlike the present.
But it is not the setting alone which forever burned Firefly into the hearts of its fans. This is a show, after all, which has inspired a crazily devoted sci-fi culture which rivals Trekkies and Star Warsians despite only 14 episodes and a theatrical movie. (We call ourselves Browncoats, after the Independent fighters in the Unification War.) Firefly strikes a resonant chord with those who wish to be considered more than a statistical number. It shows its fans what it truly means to be a free and moral person when the head honcho officially considers you an outlaw. The crew of the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity is a gang of hopelessly defeated idealists who live by their captain's strong moral code. They don't do good by the Alliance and they have no illusions about starting some sort of new Independent uprising. They always do the right thing, consequences be damned, simply because it's the right thing. There may have only been a few episodes of the series, but that is more than enough for people like myself to invite Mal, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Jayne, Inara, Simon, Shepherd, and River into our daily lives.
The background story involves the aforementioned union between the United States and China, who then proceed to use up the resources of Earth. Humanity sets out to colonize other planets, terraforming them to make them livable and sustainable. The core planets of the system manage to get a massive trade of technology going, while the outer planets are more ruffian but free of outside influence. One day the Alliance planets decide to imperialize the outer planets, and six years before the events of Firefly take place, an interstellar war was fought. When the Independent faction - known as the Browncoats - failed to get needed air support in the decisive battle, the Browncoats fell. Malcolm Reynolds was the commanding Sergeant of that platoon. He is still embittered by the Browncoats' loss in the Unification War ("May have been the losing side. Still not sure it was the wrong one.") and prefers to stay on the down low rather than live legally under the eye of the Alliance's big brother. While Starfleet Captains are loyal to the United Federation of Planets, Reynolds sees the Alliance as an encompassing force which, as he puts it, is for getting in a man's way (Quoth Mal in the movie: "I never credited the Alliance with an overabundance of brains..."). Kirk, Picard, Sisko, Janeway, and Archer all had the mission of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and civilization, and boldly going where no man has gone before. Mal's mission is comparatively simplified and far less grandiose - he exists to keep his ship in the air, his crew working and fed, and to be a thorn in the Alliance's side when he gets the opportunity. How he does this is one of the two main stories of Firefly. It is in fact his wanting to be a pain to the Alliance which brings us to the second main story.
The second main story introduces us to Dr. Simon Tam. He was a genuis kid from a wealthy family on a core planet who had his sunny path on easy street all laid out. Then the Alliance kidnapped his little sister River and performed all kinds of experiments on her. Simon perpetrated a daring rescue which got both of their faces attached to a very large bounty, but River suffers all kinds of psychotic breakdowns and isn't quite all there. Now Simon, stripped of his wealth and in search of a cure for River's mental problems, is a member of Mal's crew who earns his passage as a medic even as the Alliance hunts for him and River.
One of the other reasons the show strikes such a powerful nerve is because there is a lot of development packed into those 14 episodes. 14 episodes may not sound like a whole lot, but to creator Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and most recently, Dollhouse) it's more than enough to set up the characters. One of the better episodes, "Out of Gas," even shows through several flashbacks how and why Mal's crew came together. The most remarkable development happens between the crew of the Serenity from before the pilot and the three crew members picked up during the pilot - Simon, River, and Shepherd Book. For the first few episodes, Mal himself has a hard time warming up to all three of them, especially Simon. In the fifth episode, "Safe," when Simon asks why Mal came back for him and River after stranding them on a hostile planet, he receives his official induction when Mal simply tells him "You're on my crew." Simon asks again, pointing out that Mal doesn't like him, and Mal ends the conversation by telling him "You're on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?" In the last few episodes, the formal and proper Simon begins to loosen up and is treated like an accepted member of the crew. (In the movie, he is so integrated that he feels comfortable standing up to Mal, even punching him.)
Relationships and characters help drive Firefly. Some of the best scenes in the whole series are also the most heartwarming. The cast has a very strong repoire with each other. This is especially apparent during scenes in Serenity's dining room between any given cast members, but with the whole cast just bouncing off each other and exuding a true warmth toward one another, great scenes take place between characters everywhere. One of my favorite scenes is from "War Stories," in which Kaylee playfully chases River around the cargo area trying to recover an apple River had taken from her for fun. Another favorite occurs in "Objects in Space" between Malcolm and River on Serenity's hull. In "Shindig," after Kaylee is coldly criticized by a spoiled girl, we see her a few scenes later happily impressing half the men in the room with her vast knowledge of spaceship engine mechanics. A contributing factor to the overwhelming warmth of the series is that so many things are personalized. Unlike the futuristic sterility of an Enterprise or an Executor, Serenity is rife with little quirks which distinctly say "this character was here." Shepherd doesn't go anywhere without his Bible, for example. Kaylee has a brightly colored sign on her bunk door, and even Jayne's extensive gun collection brings him to believable life.
Just as well, those same personal touches and chemistries can also make the show very dramatic and very funny. The episode "Jaynestown" is in fact one of the funniest hours of television available because the scenario is so unexpected and the way the characters adjust to it is so brilliant.
Being a Joss Whedon show, Firefly of course has a share of fine action sequences, the most notable being the climax of "War Stories." But Firefly actually seems more concerned with giving each character a moment to step up and do something incredible. Some characters do it with more subtlety than others - Kaylee's great moment comes in "Out of Gas" when she is hired for diagnosing Serenity's problem whilst having sex and fixes it while putting her clothes back on - but they all get to do something memorable. The quirks and inclusion of all of the characters mean everyone is well rounded and not relegated to the background. Best of all, they are all endearing in their own way, and there is not a loser anywhere in the lot. (Although Jayne does have a handful of dethroning moments early in the series, he gets better.)
Firefly aired on Fox, and was one of the network's most notorious screwjobs. The network suits demanded a new pilot because the original pilot, "Serenity," was too long, didn't have enough action, and showed Mal as being a bit too bitter. On the DVD feature chronicling the creation of Firefly, Whedon mentions he had only a weekend to write an entirely new pilot. That episode, "The Train Job," became the pilot and it did a fair job of explaining the show's universe and story. But you do need to watch "Serenity" to really get an understanding of the Firefly universe. Fox also aired the episodes out of order, so many episodes, standing alone, didn't make a whole lot of sense. The big mistake, of course, would be cancelling the show. The serious flaw of Firefly is that it wasn't around long enough - Fox let you fall in love with the universe and the characters, then ripped out the rug. The 2005 movie Serenity continued the story and finely tied up a few loose ends, but fans still wanted more.
Thanks to the incumbents running Fox, Browncoats will never see Whedon's answers to certain questions left: Can Simon find a cure for River? Is Jayne's turnaround genuine, or will he listen to the next high price? How does Shepherd Book know so much about being a criminal? What role does the Blue Sun Corporation play in the Alliance heirarchy? (It didn't even appear in the movie, for christ sake!!) Can Mal and Inara ever really express their true feelings for one another?
The DVD box set includes several episode commentaries, the obligatory story-of-Firefly doc (which is very heartwarming itself), a closer look at Serenity, Joss Whedon's rough cut of the theme song, the audition of Alan Tudyk (Wash), and a handful of deleted scenes. The offerings truthfully feel a little bit slim, as most are only a few minutes long and don't go in depth enough. But the story doc is truly excellent, and displays the love the cast and crew had for the show, the characters, and each other.
When you go into Serenity, you never really leave. This is why so many Browncoats have taken it upon themselves to write fan fiction and create continuations and tributes to the story. I warn you, if you choose to join the ranks of the Browncoats, you'll only want more. So for those who want to take the plunge, here's some starter advice: Don't insult Serenity in front of Kaylee. Don't threaten Wash in front of Zoe. Don't do anything to harm River in front of Simon, and this applies in reverse as well. Don't make fun of Jayne. And never, ever, under any circumstances, for any reason, try to hurt a member of Mal's crew because he WILL take it personally and make you pay. Other than that, you'll fall in love with this wonderful gang. Firefly is the best show of the last decade. It is the best show no one really watched. It is the best show ever cancelled. It is a running contender as the best sci-fi show ever, thanks to the unique world and endearing characters.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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Joss Whedon follows up his hugely successful BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER series for Fox with FIREFLY, an action-packed fusion of the science-fiction and western genres. Set five hundred years in the future, FIREFLY depicts a troubled world after a massive universal civil war. The resulting power party, the Alliance, control everyone and everything, except for Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of his spaceship, Serenity. As the Alliance continues to wreak havoc on the world, Malcolm does what he can to restore order to his surroundings.