Monday, March 06, 2006

Finished watching Firefly... *sniff*

Alana and I are feeling a little odd, sort of like we lost a friend. This weekend we watched the last three episodes of Firefly. and the movie Serenity. I know it's just a TV show, and I usually don't feel this way about TV, but there is a slight feeling of loss here.

For those who don't know, Firefly was a TV show created by Joss Whedon, who created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Firefly was about the crew of a spaceship. Unlike the warships/exploration ships of Star Trek, the spaceship in question — the Serenity — was an obsolete cargo ship, and the crew were smugglers. The captain was Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, a sergeant on the losing side of the Unification War. Zoe Washburne was a corporal in his platoon, and together they formed the core of the Serenity's crew. Their pilot, "Wash", was Zoe's husband and an ace pilot. The ship's mechanic was a young woman named Kaylee who had a surprising affinity for machines. The crew was rounded out by Jayne Cobb (played by Adam Baldwin, in spite of the name), an untrustworthy — but not too bright — mercenary. Mal rented out one of the shuttles to Inara, a registered Companion (read geisha) who plied her trade from the shuttle while giving them access to people they wouldn't ordinarily give them the time of day. The ship had three passengers who became crew members: Shepherd Book, a man of the cloth with an interesting past (played brilliantly by Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame); Simon Tam, a doctor; River Tam, Simon's deranged sister. River had been experimented upon by the Alliance (the government that ruled the worlds), turning her into a telepath at the cost of her sanity. Simon rescued her, and the two were on the run.

Whedon created a wonderful universe. There were only something like 70 hospitable bodies where humans lived, and a lot of those were moons. There are no aliens in the Firefly 'verse (as known space was called). All of the conflict and horror came from humans. The scariest humans were the Reavers, who mutilated themselves and raided the outer worlds in horrible ways. Next were the Alliance, a monolithic big-brotherly government. The Serenity's crew were, essentially, Robin Hoods, robbing from the Alliance or the rich and giving to the poor (but usually for at least a small profit margin).

What attracted us to the show were the characters and the moral dilemmas brought on by the show's premise. In the first show to be aired, the crew takes on a job to rob a high-speed bullet train of a valuable cargo, only to discover that the cargo was medicine needed by the people in the settlement. If the crew returns the medicine they would have to deal with a dangerous crime lord. This set up the theme for the show.

It should be noted that the special effects are some of the best ever done for TV. G4, the game network, is running Star Trek: The Next Generation reruns. It's funny how old and cheap TNG looks compared to Firefly (the two are some 15 years apart), yet I'm betting Firefly had a fraction of the budget.

Firefly looks a lot like a western, which is intentional. The Browncoats (Mal's side in the Unification War) are essentially Confederates from the American Civil War. The Alliance is the Union. Many of the backwater worlds look like wild west towns. The weapons, although obviously advanced, look like western six-shooters. The core worlds, are more reminiscent of Blade Runner. Whedon patterned the fashion and social setting of the core world aristocracy on wealthy 19th century American families.

Firefly failed on television mostly because of meddling by the Fox Television network. Right from the word go they messed it up. They decided that the initial episode was too slow (it wasn't) and that they needed more action for the first episode. They ordered the second episode (the first 1 hour episode) to air first. This was the train robbery episode. You didn't get to know the characters or their motivations, which is a big problem with an ensemble cast. This episode looked more like a western than any other (well, except for the cattle rustler episode, I guess), which made the western motif look more like a parody than a homage. The two-hour episode, which set up the characters, didn't air for another month.

That train robbery episode was the only one I saw on TV when the show was broadcast in 2002. I thought it was interesting, but a little flat. I had too many questions and not enough interest in the characters. I set about religiously taping the show, but for some reason I never got around to watching the tapes. (To be fair, I was taping Angel, too, and never watched those, either.) I eventually stopped taping them about three quarters through the end of its run. The show was scrapped by the mid point of the season. Instead of 22 complete episodes, 11 were aired (including the two-hour initial episode) with a total of 14 complete. They didn't give the program chance to find an audience.

The show should have died right then and there. It didn't. Around mid-2003 I started hearing people on various internet groups say how good the show was and how they lamented its passing. The DVD was released at the end of August in 2003. It quickly shot to number one in Amazon's DVD sales ratings. Word of mouth kept the DVDs selling well for a year. Fan web sites appeared, and the fans started calling for more Firefly. According to a documentary on the Serenity disc, Joss Whedon started looking for a new home for the show right after it was cancelled. The cast members wished him well, but didn't expect anything to come of it.

The DVD sales are given as the reason for Firefly being resurrected as a movie. (To show you how ravenous some fans are about the show, the up-to-date sales rankings of the boxed DVD set on Amazon can be seen at . So far today it is ranked 12th.) Universal, and not Fox, bankrolled the film project. Pre-production began on Serenity in 2004, and the movie was released September 30, 2005.

The show can't seem to get any respect. I don't know why it was released in September, but that's a dry period for films. The marketing campaign seemed sort of muddled. Even though I knew the premise of the show, I wasn't sure what was happening in the film. Apparently it didn't attract too many people outside of hard core Firefly fans. The film had a production budget of $39 million (which is pretty miniscule these days) but only grossed about $25 million in North America. Worldwide gross brought it up to $38 million. I'm sure that DVD sales will make it profitable.

I don't think Serenity is all that accessible to non-fans. You had to see the series to truly appreciate what was happening. There wasn't as much character interaction in the film as there was in any given episode of the TV series. The character interactions that were there were watered-down versions of what we saw in the show. I suppose this is inevitable as they had to explain in a short time what took several hours to do on television. The sad parts of the film wouldn't hold emotional resonance for those whose first view of the 'verse was Serenity.

That having been said, Alana and I both thought Serenity was good. It wasn't a feature film so much as a completion for the series. You could see where Whedon was planning to take the series if Fox had let him. The 'verse was darker, and I thought it looked "better". It had less of a western and more of a sci-fi feel. The Operative, the villain of the film, shows Whedon's ability to create interesting, quirky characters that don't fall into cliche. I thought the big revelation at the end of the second act was well done, though the ending was perhaps a little pat. There are some sad parts, the power of which is testimony to Whedon's abilities to create a character (though I think the loss was more significant for those who watched the show).

Alana and I are both feeling sort of empty today, like having friends move away. I don't normally feel this way about a television series. Perhaps it is because most TV series last far too long, or perhaps its because most TV series don't have memorable characters. Alana compared Firefly's run to Everyone Loves Raymond. Neither of us can understand a world where Raymond lasts something like nine years on the same gag, while Firefly couldn't even complete a single season.

We picked up the Serenity roleplaying game a couple of weeks ago with a gift certificate Jason and Jimmy gave us to our local comic store. I would love to run a game of Serenity. Perhaps sometime in the future we can play the game and invent our own adventures in the 'verse, but we both know it won't be the same.

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