While browsing about in one of the ubiquitous box stores, I noticed that Firefly: The Complete Series was being sold for a nickel shy of $20. “The Complete Series” sounds rather grand, but really we're talking about a total of 14 episodes since Fox TV canned the show after a single season of mediocre ratings. Still, twenty bucks is what some people charge for a single CD, so this looked like a value I shouldn't pass up.
In concept Firefly is as pure a Space Opera as you can get: a group of misfit smugglers pilot an old ship on the fringes of the galaxy, trying to avoid run-ins with the law. It's even got six shooters and horses, which should qualify it for a whole new genre: the Space Horse Opera. And I'll be hog-tied and warp-fried if the whole durn hash doesn't work.
I need to point out here that this concept doesn't just work for me (a soft touch for this sort of thing); it works spectacularly for my wife, who mostly regards my fondness for all things Trek with a raised eyebrow. Unlike the recent generations of Trek, where the method was to establish the new franchise with three seasons of creaky scripts and bad acting, Firefly begins with a bang, quite literally, and it never lets up. The central character appears to be fighting guerrilla warfare on behalf of some holy cause. Things go badly for his team, however, and he is forced to surrender. The story begins there, and picks up six years later when he's become an outlaw.
The show's intelligence (here's a good time to credit creator Joss Whedon) is in its leisurely unveiling of significant details. We know our hero is now apostate and grotesquely disillusioned, but only over the course of the season do we get any idea why that is or what's really taken place to get him there. He is, of course, struggling to figure out which values he still holds dear and which he can do without. Meanwhile, he is surrounded by a crew of strong characters, half of whom are strong women (no small appeal to viewers like my wife).
Firefly also doesn't skimp on humour, some of it of the shoot-and-throw-the-corpse-over-the-gunwales variety that you get in Spaghetti Westerns. And there a few winks thrown toward the concept's absurdities. But for all the fruitiness of the gig, it works excellently because the visual signifiers — six shooters, cowboy talk and character stock pulled straight from Gunsmoke — work as a shorthand that emotionally pulls the viewer in to the concept's trickier conceits: a slow and morally ambiguous struggle against an enormously corrupt corporation that values technology, material gain and corporate power, and doesn't hesitate to exploit the weaker members and discontents of its own society.
Despite the fact that Firefly in its entirety works better than all but a meagre handful of the (egad!) 726 episodes of Trek, it seems to have died quite typically from a spectacular case of network neglect. I should also say that my affair with Firefly started off on the wrong foot: a year ago I rented Serenity, the movie that followed hot on the heels of the series' cancellation. I couldn't finish it. It was like beginning a mystery with the last chapter. It's wrong, and it just doesn't work.
It also highlighted a peculiarity of sci-fi television — the fetish for perfectly coiffed hair. What is it about Space Opera (and as with everything else about the genre, Battlestar Galactica pretty much sets the standard in this department, too) that requires its heroes to look like they've just left the stylist's chair? Especially for a concept like Firefly, I'd think there might be some leeway in the hairstyle department. Make it more like Deadwood In Space, perhaps.
Anyhow, the hair is just one small nit to pick, and it's foolish of me to complain when the leads are all so easy on the eyes. Firefly is television at its best, and my wife and I are now among the slowly growing legion of fans who would dearly love to see its resurrection.