“When “Out of Gas” rolled around, I was faced with the somewhat disappointing feeling that I was already halfway through the series! The episode acts as a kind of cornerstone too, being a non-linear account across three time periods, showing how the ship’s crew came together…”
In preparation for the release of the movie Serenity (hopefully they’ll actually release it theatrically in this territory) I’ve been watching the series that led up to it, Firefly.
Joss Whedon’s first foray out of the Buffyverse in recent times is an odd beast: a traditional space ship drama in the style of Star Trek and Babylon 5 and countless others, but set in a distincly Old West milieu. For someone going in expecting ray guns, sound effects in the vaccuum of space and aliens (none of which appear in Firefly), the results may either be a welcome change or a jarring, perhaps even off-putting experience.
Luckily I belong to the former category, although I suspect that most people who saw it were of the latter persuasion, which eventually led to the series being cancelled. What we are left with are 13 episodes, a feature length pilot, and the Serenity movie that picks up where the series left off. Firefly joins the long, long list of SF TV series that were great — even magnificent — and pulled before their time (off the top of my head, two I can think of are Futurama and Nowhere Man). In today’s SF friendly TV climate — post Lost — one can only hope that some of these series make combacks (Futurama is getting a direct-to-DVD sequel, I hear. My inner Zoidberg rejoices. wubwubwubuwubrlaaak).
The loveliest part of Firefly as a series is that it follows the core plot structure of its distant cousins Buffy and Angel and focusses exclusively on the lead characters and their interactions rather than any convoluted external plot, unlike more traditional space-faring exploration shows like Star Trek. This might quickly turn boring in the hands of a less skilled group of writers, but Joss Whedon and Co. bring their A game to the table, and the quasi-Western setting allows them to keep things simple, keep things straight and let tried and tested archetypal stories (from both Firefly’s genres, i.e. SF and Western) be the sandbox for their wonderfully hewn characters to play.
If good writing is half the job done, then Firefly‘s cast of generally unknowns takes that finishes the job well and then some. You may have seen some of the cast before, in bit roles and small movies; Nathan Fillion who plays Captain Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds was the boyfriend/husband of the titular Girl in Two Guys and a Girl for a while; Adam Baldwin played this creepy sociopath who imprisons the love of his life in his house in some TV movie I can’t remember the name of, and I can’t count the number of times Ron Glass has popped up in a TV show I’ve seen. The new faces are people I’d love to see more of (If Buffy had Willow and Angel had Fred, then Firelfy‘s resident cutie has to be Jewel Staite’s Kaley).
Only Alan Tudyk was someone I actually knew the name of going in, and that was because of his funny turn in A Knight’s Tale (“I will fong you so hard I… Pain. Terrible Pain”), and his excellent voicework in I, Robot (he played Sonny). The rest of the cast holds their own, and by the time the pilot ends you feel as if you’ve known these people for years (by the way, the Pilot ep — also titled ‘Serenity’ — features some breathtakingly good special effects, by any standard).
When “Out of Gas” rolled around, I was faced with the somewhat disappointing feeling that I was already halfway through the series! The episode acts as a kind of cornerstone too, being a non-linear account across three time periods, showing how the ship’s crew came together (those who were already on the ship at the start of the pilot, that is), an accident that cripples the ship, and a wounded Mal slowly trying to get the empty ship running again. Now, I love non-linear narratives, or concurrent back-and-forth narratives, and I’ve even tried to write them once or twice. Let me tell you, it’s a real pain in the ass. You may get everything right and the story will still be hollow and cold. Tim Minear, however, knows how to write non-linear, it would seem, as this is one of the most flawlessly written episodes of the series (I’ll admit that all the extra Chinese phrases and proprietary ‘futurespeak’ at the beginning of “Safe” rubbed my writer side wrong). It hits all the marks just right, never blowing a moment.
Visually the three stories are distinct, with the near past being Firefly‘s regular warm browns and orange glows, the present bathed in cold blues and greys, septic greens. The past, however, is awesomely colour graded, saturated and lit with lots of blacks and coloured lights. It’s a real marvel, and I wish someone would make an SF show that looked like this all the time. Further visual mastery is shown with the addition of a fourth style in the epilogue, superbly muted and evenly graded, a little desaturated but still vital.
The acting and dialogue are first rate, as always, and Mal Reynolds continues to be the kind of heroic central character other crew-em-up shows wish they had. It’s getting to be very hard to watch Nathan Fillion limply make his way through those Two Guys and a Girl reruns now, folks.
You really don’t need more to be said about this series other than a big sign that reads: WATCH THIS NOW!
I’ll be checking in with more reviews as I watch them. Hopefully by the end of the series Serenity will be in theatres here.