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'Firefly' Sparkles with Potential

Space... once again... the final frontier.

by Mark D. Johnson
October 18, 2002

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'Firefly' Sparkles with Potential_Mark D. Johnson-Space... once again... the final frontier. Firefly
Friday, 8/7c on Fox

The concept of a Western set in outer space has been around a while. That was how Gene Roddenberry envisioned “Star Trek” back in the sixties, but, aside from a couple episodes, you had to stretch your imagination to compare that universe with the Wild West. Now, from the creator of the cult hit series “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” comes a sci-fi show that goes out of its way to merge the genres. In “Firefly,” Joss Whedon gives us a futuristic setting that has the hard-edged, rollicking atmosphere of a Western that is a welcome departure from the clean, sterile environment of the “Star Trek” franchise while avoiding an overly-grim, blighted setting where many sci-fi shows have gone before.

The story of “Firefly” takes place 500 years in the future, following a galactic civil war won by the Alliance, which pushed those who fought for independence out to the fringes of the galaxy, where life is hard. Mal Reynolds is the captain of a small Firefly Class transport ship named “Serenity,” which he and his eight crew members use to take almost any job to make ends meat. The crew consists of a second-in-command, her pilot husband, a female engineer, a tough mercenary, a “companion” (i.e., a member of a highly-respected class of prostitutes), a renegade doctor and his mysterious sister, and a clergyman.

The last two in particular have an interesting history that will presumably be gradually revealed. The sister was a subject of Alliance experiments and is now mentally unstable. Her brother rescued her, forfeiting his respected profession to hide from the government on board the constantly-moving Serenity. The priest, named Book, or "The Shepherd," has given no reason as to why he travels with this rebellious crew, but serves nicely as Whedon's commentary on the morality of the future. As the captain, Nathan Fillion provides a nice lead to an enjoyable cast of relatively unknown actors, though Adam Baldwin (the tough guy) and Ron Glass (the priest) are familiar to many.

Creator, writer, director, and executive producer Whedon brings a lot of talent to the plate, and has garnered considerable critical praise with “Buffy,” and its spin-off series “Angel.” I’ve not watched either of those shows, but some fans note, with a little sadness, that Whedon cannot utilize his knack for clever pop culture references when writing for “Firefly’s” future setting. Unable to make any comparison, I find myself delighted with the execution of this program, particularly following its third installment, in which a stowaway is not what she seems in the wake of a nice plot twist. While the humor may not be in the same vein as "Buffy," the show is still nicely laced with it, and the overall tone is light-hearted in contrast to the generally serious nature of "Star Trek" episodes.

The first episode that aired worked hard, too hard perhaps, to establish its Space Western format, complete with a Great Train Robbery. Such direct homage has since been toned down, and the show now seems to carry a nice balance. Interestingly, the original pilot episode has yet to air, apparently because Fox execs felt the two-hour intro consisted of too much explaining (exposition) and not enough doing. So we join the crew already in progress, and the story of how it all began will be told another day, as Mal reflects on how the crew was assembled. Zap2It.com has reported that the episode will air on October 25, but such information is not clear on “Firefly’s” official web site (www.fox.com/firefly), which, incidentally, does an otherwise good job of delivering “extras” to its fans – something that most network shows fail to do adequately.

Unfortunately, “Firefly” has not performed very well in the ratings thus far. Catch it while you can!

Channel Hopping…

Wouldn’t it be nice if the four major networks all had cable channels to supplement their entertainment divisions? Fox has FX, ABC has ABC Family (along with the USA Network, I think – it’s all Disney), but while NBC has two cable news channels, it has no entertainment counterpart, and CBS has yet to go cable at all.

Comedy Central has just started airing “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” at 7/6c from the previous night’s NBC broadcast. It’s a good deal for those who enjoy the late night talk shows yet have a day job and go to bed at a reasonable hour. But wouldn’t it make more sense if it were rebroadcast on an NBC cable channel? If all the networks had such a setup, it seems to me they could be put to good use with cross-promotional programming. Fox worked hard last season to keep the excellent series “24” alive last year by repeating each episode on FX, thereby allowing viewers who miss an episode to keep up with the complex, continuous plot line. With so many entertainment options these days, I would think networks would benefit much more from such quick sister channel repeats than, say, nightly two-hour blocks of old “M*A*S*H” episodes. But then, maybe the up-and-coming TiVo technology, which provides easy recording and playback options, will be dominate in the years to come and put this rant to rest.

Incidentally, TiVo reported last week that one of the shows its subscribers were most likely to record and watch later was “Firefly.” Maybe there is hope yet.

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