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TV Review: Firefly – I Finally Saw It

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I don’t have cable. That’s probably a good thing. Channel surfing so many channels all the time can be distracting, even when “nothing’s on.” The plethora of talking heads and footer crawls can be ulcer-inducing. Plus: maybe there’s life outside the TV box?

You miss some good stuff that way, though. There must be an episode of Dallas I haven’t seen that is airing, right now, on some country-music-and-crafts channel I would never otherwise sit still for. I have vague memories of Bill Bixby’s The Magician that need refreshing. And there are the new shows you hear glowing things about that you don’t get to see until…well, until not very long after a season wraps up, when the DVD comes out. Hence I am already privy to season one of Battlestar Galactica, and can express annoyance that it took so long for Netflix to make season two available I-don’t-know-how-many-days after Amazon was already selling it. (And now Netflix reports a “long wait” for the first disk of the season…huh? Like they didn’t know there would be high demand…I…I…okay, it’s just a minor delay in the watching of the first disk, but…)

I finally hooked the Netflix IV into my arm a couple of months ago, then decided the other day—on Jan. 10, 2006, if you must know, or maybe it was Jan. 9, what, am I on trial here?—to condescend to once again drop by the little non-Blockbuster video shop I had once patronized, only to find that it has shut its doors. The current owner had taken over about a year ago. Apparently I was the one customer they couldn’t do without. No, not really. It had been lurching toward its doom anyway. I predicted it. “If this store doesn’t do anything to improve things, it will close. It is lurching toward its doom. I predict it.” The shop lapsed into oblivion not because of Blockbuster and Netflix but because management did nothing to increase foot traffic despite the looming shadow of BlocNet (except reduce the store’s hours as a “cost-saving measure” and thus make it even harder to drop by; no, it does not make sense to open for business at 4:30 in the afternoon).

But this is not about you, Too Stupid to Live Video Magic, it’s about Firefly, which aired for less than one season on Fox a few years back before being idiotically yanked from the lineup. The affair didn’t register a blip with me at the time. But bitstreams of hosannas gradually coalesced and trained themselves in my direction, and eventually I took notice. I succumbed to the rhapsodies socking me and went to see the 2005 movie in the theater that somehow got made on the strength of a show cancelled even before all of its first-season episodes could be aired. Then I signed up for Netflix, saw all the episodes of the show on DVD, and am planning to see the movie again on DVD.

Now, I’m sure that whether any particular viewer cottons to Firefly is a matter of taste, but, for the thing of its kind it is (boffo smart-ass SF western caper), it could not have been done better. Fox execs could have seen what they had merely by watching an episode, and given it a little time to find its market. They should have tried to—ah, but it’s too late now. What’s done is done.

What I like most about the show is the caper aspect, and the smart-ass aspect. It’s a crew of seven or eight guys and gals on a Firefly-class space ship, which is named Serenity after a battle in the lost war against the Alliance. The crew of Serenity goes around the galaxy doing banditry and heroics and kicking bureaucrats in the groin. Even though it’s the far future, the guns have bullets in them, not laser—so that people can actually shoot each other instead of beaming special effects at each other. Everybody speaks Western-twang plus Chinese (the Chinese when they want to curse, it seems; no, I don’t know whether it’s Mandarin or Cantonese, and please stop asking). Whenever the show looks like it’s going to take a TV-show-cliché turn, expectations are foiled and anti-PC muscles are flexed.

Every character is my favorite when the camera is on that character—they’re each completely individuated and compelling—but I can’t get over Jayne, the towering gunslinger for hire with the name that sounds like “Jane.” Jayne is simultaneously a little slow (in some things) and very savvy; a lot unscrupulous but not so much that the captain, Mal, can’t keep him in line enough to keep him on the team. All in all, a damn potent ruffian.

The episode in which Jayne becomes a worshipped god on some planet he once escaped from is pretty good. But perhaps my favorite bit with Jayne occurs during a caper in an episode in the middle of the run, when the crew must con an Alliance hospital into letting the doctor, Simon, bring his sister River in for an examination. In order to pose as emergency medical technicians carting the “dead” bodies of Simon and River to the hospital’s morgue, crew members with no knowledge of medical science must memorize a few lines to explain what happened, should they be challenged. An extended sequence shows Mal and Jayne, especially Jayne, struggling to get a handle on the boilerplate explanation.

When they get to the hospital, though, the bored and preoccupied doctor-clerk at the front desk just says “morgue’s that way” and returns to her clipboard. The ruse doesn’t need any bolstering at all. Well, Jayne’ll be damned if all that struggle to learn his line is going to go to waste. He ponderously but smoothly announces, “We applied the cortical electrodes but were unable to get a neural reaction from either patient.” He even smirks a little as if he knows full well that uttering the line is pointless and even a little risky—but, hey, this is his only chance to put it to use. This, while he’s also been planning to betray two of his comrades in order to collect a reward from the Alliance. But more about that perplexing development when you see the show for yourself.

David M. Brown is the publisher of The Webzine, a general-interest Internet magazine, and runs the blog for the Laissez Faire Books web site.

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  • http://worsethanmybite.blogspot.com/ Nicolette Rivers

    I can’t even begin to describe my adoration of this smart, funny, meant-to-be-iconic show.

    Rent it, buy it, borrow it from someone — just watch it!

    And it doesn’t matter if you’re into sci-fi as long as you’re into well-written.

  • http://www.thewebzine.com David M. Brown

    Rivers/River. Hmm….

    “Firefly” is sort of the anti-“Star Trek.” Much as I intermittently like “Trek,” they sure can gunk up the warp engines with the pieties and techno-folderol. The next time the holodeck characters take over the ship we really should unplug the thing. “Firefly,” by contrast, is just pure get-it-right in every scene. And when a bad guy deserves to be blown away, he’s just blown away. There isn’t a huge debate about it in the We’ve-Got-A-Situation Room.