Despite being the man behind the scripts for a number of top Hollywood films, Joss Whedon really made his name by creating the great fantasy television series that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He followed up that success by spinning off some of the characters from that into the critically-acclaimed Angel series. But the third series that came from Joss Whedon wasn't fantasy, and didn't have a super-powered teenager in the lead role. That series was Firefly.
Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand...1
The series is set in the year 2517, six years after the end of an interstellar civil war. The war was fought between the Alliance - who wanted to unify all the inhabited worlds under a single rule - and Independents - who were quite happy not being unified to anyone. The last battlefield was Serenity Valley, where the Independents were outgunned by superior numbers, and mercilessly massacred. After that the Independents realised that they could never win, and so sued for peace. Once that was agreed, the Alliance began imposing their law across all known worlds. The captain of the free trading ship Serenity fought in that decisive battle. He was not on the winning side.
I don't care. I'm still free - you can't take the sky from me.
Serenity is a Firefly class transport ship. It looks like the strange metallic child of an eagle and a firefly. The front of the ship is gracile2 and bird-like, while the back end is just a glowing yellow bulb. As the series progresses it becomes clear that it really is a tiny bug of a ship. Most ships that are seen are at least twice the size of Serenity, and Alliance ships are about a hundred times Serenity's size. The crew fly her around the fringes of the galaxy, visiting frontier worlds, taking any jobs that they can. Whether it's robbing a train, taking out some local bandits, or cattle-rustling, they don't really mind - just so long as they get paid. Not that they have any great plans for the money they earn. All they want is to keep flying; to stay free.
Take me up into the black, tell them I ain't comin' back.
The crew of Serenity comprises a strange mixture of people, mainly brought together by circumstance and necessity, rather than by any actual plan. They are also, in a quite fundamental sense, a bunch of losers. To quote Joss Whedon:
This show isn't about the people who made history; it's about the people history stepped on.
Malcolm Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, is the captain of Serenity. He was a sergeant in the war on the side of the Independents, and so has a healthy distrust of Alliance authority. He lost everything he believed in at Serenity Valley. He is haunted by what happened there, and so named his ship after the battlefield, because Serenity is a place that he can never leave. He is an honourable man, despite the occasionally shady business he has to engage in.
Mal's First Officer is Zoë Warren, portrayed by Gina Torres. She was a private in the war, and fought alongside Mal; she still calls him 'Sir'. She was the first person Mal called on once he had bought Serenity. He wouldn't want anyone else by his side in a fire fight. She's a very tough fighter, and fiercely loyal to both Mal and Wash, though not necessarily in that order.
Alan Tudyk plays 'Wash' Warren, the pilot of Serenity, and the husband of Zoë. He's the comedy character of the series - always the first with a funny line - but when there's work to do he's completely serious. There's also a simmering tension between him and his wife; she's known Mal for longer than she's known him, and it sometimes seems like Mal is another husband in the marriage.
Kaylee, or to give her full name, Kaywinnit Lee Frye, is played by Jewel Staite. She is the engineer of Serenity, and loves the ship almost as much as Mal does. She's constantly covered in grease or some other indefinable liquid, and just loves messing around with technical things. Kaylee gained her position with the Serenity after masterfully proving the previous engineer to be incompetent in the Captain's sceptical presence.
The mercenary Jayne Cobb (played by Adam Baldwin) was the next to join the crew. A man who possesses a worryingly large amount of guns and knives, Jayne's only incentive is the knowledge that he gets 10% of the money from any job. Possibly he could be persuaded to betray the crew if given enough money. Quite why he appears to have a girl's name is never explained3.
Technically not part of the crew, Companion Inara Serra rents one of Serenity's two shuttles. Morena Baccarin plays this sensuous courtesan who has clients on most civilised worlds. Her presence on the ship is mutually beneficial. Serenity takes her to worlds that would otherwise be difficult to reach, and, through her work, she can open doors that would otherwise be shut to the Serenity crew. She and Mal have a love-hate relationship, though pride will not allow eiher of them to show their true feelings.
Initially a passenger on ship, Book (Ron Glass) is a Shepherd, a preacher. It's clear from the start that he doesn't really care where he's going - he was more interested in the ship than the destination. He became an unofficial padre to the crew, though it seems there are things he knows that don't quite fit with his image. He is able to tell from a bullet wound what weapon was used, for example.
Dr Simon Tam also joined as a passenger, though it wasn't long before his skills were needed. Sean Maher portrays this rather stiff doctor, who is constrained by formality and proprieties. Though it is clear that Kaylee likes him, he finds it difficult to admit how much he likes her.
Summer Glau's character River Tam is Simon's sister, and his reason for being on Serenity. He rescued her from an Alliance-run institute, where instead of teaching they were performing experiments on her. The purpose of their work on her is not clear, though as a result she appears to be telepathic at the very least, and probably a great deal more. She's gone a little bit insane as well. The Alliance would very much like her back, and Mal agreed to hide her and Simon in return for Simon's skills.
Where's High Noon in Space?
Burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me.
Star Wars was once described as a western in space. Probably because Han Solo seems to have a cowboy's sensibilities. It's an idea that is given full flow in Firefly. Serenity flies between frontier worlds where people ride horses and shoot with guns not too dissimilar from present day weapons.
Such things were all part of Joss's original plan for the series. His intention was to make the show more realistic than most Sci-Fi shows. Among the unusual features of the show are such things as:
No sound in space (because, in reality, there isn't any).
No aliens, robots, or other strange monsters (because if there aren't any now, why should there be any then? Every situation the crew find themselves in is of human creation, and has a human solution).
Human monsters (like the apparently emotionless men in blue gloves, or the Reavers4 - men that have gone savage on the edge of known space. There's no need to invent monsters when humans are capable of performing monstrous acts)
Adult themes (realistic violence, torture, cold-blooded murder, and the occasional sex scene mean that this show shouldn't been watched by young children - in fact the UK DVD release carried a 15 certificate).
No lasers, or phasers, or other advanced weaponry (well, technically there are lasers somewhere in the Firefly universe, but Serenity travels between primitive frontier worlds, and bullets are much easier to make).
No advanced surgical tools (Simon is still using needles to inject people and stitches to patch them up).
A fully-defined interior of the ship (most shows feature enormous ships in which another set can easily be placed, if one becomes necessary. Serenity, on the other hand, is a very small ship, and during the course of the series you see every room except one, and you know exactly where that room is).
Serenity has no weapons6 (although the crew carry personal weapons).
Zooms and badly-framed shots (Joss wanted the show to look like a 1970s western film, where they used zooms, and where the cameras weren't always perfectly placed).
Horses (C'mon, you can't have a western without horses. It just wouldn't be right).
Got no place that I can be, since I found Serenity.
The problem is that the executives at Fox (the studio distributing the programme) never really bought into Joss's ideas. They didn't like the gruff captain (forcing re-shoots for several scenes in the pilot episode), weren't too happy about all the western elements (despite it being the point of the show), wanted to hear sound in space (whereas Joss was adamant they would not), and didn't take to the pilot episode at all (they made Joss write a new pilot in one weekend). They played the episodes in the Friday night 'death slot'7, put out bizarre and misleading adverts, and cancelled the series after eleven episodes. And then, after they had killed the series, they played the original pilot, which finally made the plot make sense.
None of which bode well for the future of the show, but even so, Joss insisted at the wrap party: 'This isn't over.'
You can't take the sky from me!
Two things saved the show. One was DVD, which meant that all 14 episodes could be seen in order, and in the way Joss intended. Here Firefly found an audience that had before only heard of the show, but never seen it. Such people were interested to discover that Joss had actually made quite a good series, one that clearly did not deserve its fate.
The other saviour, obviously, was Joss himself. From the moment the series ended he didn't stop campaigning for a revival. The fruit of his efforts is the feature film Serenity, due for release in autumn 2005. It is reportedly the first film in a three-picture deal, though that may depend on decent returns from the film.
Joss had said before that after seeing several film scripts destroyed by directors that didn't understand them, that he wouldn't write a film again unless he could direct it as well. With Serenity he gets his wish. It is a film written and directed by Joss Whedon. It seems that whatever else you do, you can't take the sky from Joss.
For more Firefly information than you could reasonably want to know visit Fireflywiki.
Firefly has also garnered its own loyal, and fairly obsessive, fan group - The Browncoats.