Joss Whedon’s Firefly Burned Briefly but Brightly

Written on epinions, Dec. 2003. Since then, there’s been the movie Serenity, but still, nothing more on the Black Sun Corporation. Also, this set is available now in Blue-Ray.

Joss Whedon’s television series, notable for their lengthy story arcs, unexpected plot turns, and engaging, yet subtly complex characters, constitute perfect material for DVD season box sets. But unlike his earlier creations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel, Whedon’s sci-fi drama Firefly lasted only one season, and even then was presented in a somewhat mangled fashion.

So the DVD box set Firefly — The Complete Series provides a welcome, but bittersweet, opportunity to see these episodes as originally intended. I have to admit, I didn’t take to Firefly immediately when it aired, and I felt (guiltily) that I had missed some crucial episodes. But it turns out that the network didn’t like the original pilot, so it was aired as the last episode, and three episodes were never aired. Once viewed in the proper sequence and original widescreen presentation, Whedon’s vision of a post Civil War galactic “Alliance” empire featuring Western-style “outer colonies” imbued with Asian influences (implying that American and Chinese cultures dominate the future) is intriguing, if not quite compelling. It is distracting and confusing that 1) the Chinese is spoken badly and mostly in the context of swearing, and 2) where are all the Chinese people?

The real draw in this series is the misfit crew of the Firefly, and no one is more misfit than the mystery girl River, who seemingly has psychic abilities literally and cruelly sculpted into her brain. Was she intended as a weapon, does she pose a danger to the crew, and who exactly is chasing her? Another mystery is the preacher, a genuinely religous and contemplative man, but why is he so good with a gun, and why does his ID give him special dispensation with the Alliance?

Some of the other characters seem more like open books, but they contribute complexity in their relationships. Tough, jaded, veteran of the civil war captain Mal Reynolds makes hard cold decisions, yet his sentimentality and loyalty to crew and ship are obvious. The mutual feeling and barrier between Reynolds and Inara, the (high-class prostitute) Guild member is alternatingly amusing and painful to watch. Girlish and gifted mechanic Cayley is no less touching in her genuineness and her crush on the doctor, who despite his silver spoon upbringing managed to rescue his sister River and displays a penchant for plotting grand theft. Brutish and not-too-bright Jayne is motivated by greed and physical needs, but even he is surprised to find himself a hero. Wash the pilot seems to be all wisecrack and no macho, but somehow he’s married to the Amazonian war buddy of the captain.

The final DVD in the set includes a “Making of” piece and a treatment of the design and construction of the ship, Serenity, which was constructed in entirety on-set. The bonus features lack some of the usual tidbits, like a cast bio and scripts. These omissions are not terribly important, but it would have been interesting to note that Ron Glass, who plays the preacher, played Detective Harris in Barney Miller (I thought that voice sounded familiar), or review Adam Baldwin’s past roles for anything that utilized him as effectively as Jayne.

The content of the commentaries, easy to miss as the option is located in the Language Selection menu, range from slightly adolescent, though entertaining, banter among Whedon and actors Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk (“Train Robbery” and “War Stories”, to interesting notes by the writers and costumer designer (“Shindig”), to an intensive explanation bordering on philosophical analysis by Whedon (“Objects in Space”). All the commentaries bring out the camaraderie of the cast, their feeling that Firefly was a unique creative vision and collection of talent, and their frank disappointment at the show’s cancellation.

Especially poignant is Tudyk’s recollection that he confiscated the red button from the episode “Out of Gas” and gave it to Whedon to keep in his office. In the episode, the button was to be pressed by Mal to signal the Firefly crew, adrift in the shuttles, that he had successfully revived the stricken ship and they could return. Hopefully, Whedon can one day press that button and Firefly will take off again. And then I can find out what the cannibalistic Reavers look like and what the mysterious Black Sun Corporation is really up to….