A firefly is an insect that belongs to the family Lampyridae in the Order of the Beetle. It is a winged beetle whose common name derives from their conspicuous disuse of fire. In recent years, unfortunately, it has been driven out of many parts of the world due to urban development. To compound to this situation, a TV series called Firefly emerged on FOX, overshadowing the poor insect. This TV series, Firefly, is the main subject of our article.
Firefly is a television series created by Joss Whedon, creator of other ridiculous titles for shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. The show is set in 2517, where humankind has left Earth for a new star system, and has adopted a fusion of Chinese and American cultures. Cancelled after a three-month run of 14 episodes on FOX, it nevertheless found a rabid fan base that has called for its renewal for the past seven years. Naturally, such a fierce, persevering effort could only fail. Nevertheless, DVD sales of the TV series were strong enough for Whedon to turn Firefly into a small franchise, with a movie and tie-in RPG, and several comic books, thereby making up for six years of lost potential profit.
Whedon claims to have developed the concept after reading a book about the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. Apocryphal accounts counter that the idea occurred after watching a 12-hour marathon of Bonanza followed by a 12-hour marathon of Battlestar Galactica. In any case, he suddenly felt that the science fiction genre as a whole was becoming too pristine and rarefied; in other words, sci-fi was getting too futuristic. He wanted to depict living the harsh pioneer life, but in space and in the distant future. The reason for this particular subject matter may be the successful precedent set by Star Wars of depicting history from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
For the name of the show, Whedon wanted a word that would convey two simultaneous senses: a sense indicating invincibility, difficulty in squashing; and a sense indicating being in transit, and being constantly on the move. The restless—and doubtless unsquishable—firefly came to mind, and turned out to be an illuminating idea.
Firefly conveyed an immediate feel by using the "found footage" technique of breaking every rule of cinematography one learns in film school. Subjects would be unfocused and out of frame, and the camera was hand-held, so that the view would constantly shake—and all of this was done deliberately, even with computer graphics footage. The optical defect of lens flare was also continued. Because of these flawed filming techniques, Firefly would later win an Emmy for Outstanding Visual Special Effects for a Series.
Despite such alarming techniques, Firefly was superior to most other TV series in that it depicted space with practically no sound. However, many viewers were shocked to find out that banjo and fiddle music could still be heard in space.
Unfortunately, FOX decided to try to kill Firefly, as the ruthless nature of the animal kingdom would have it. To accomplish this, FOX broadcast episodes out of order, and often aired baseball instead of Firefly, since it is a truth universally acknowledged that watching people try to hit a small ball with a thin wooden stick is far superior to deeply philosophical science fiction.
Set, costume and scene design were intended to make it blatantly clear that the world of Firefly was a mixture of the Wild West, China and Battlestar Galactica. For example, in a single scene, a man could be seen wearing Old West clothes and eating with chopsticks, with a Western tin cup full of tea next to him, and then could be thrown out a holographic bar window the next minute. Needless to say, such placement of items made the show rather confusing and thus, to a significant portion of viewers, awesome.
Firefly's design aesthetic also made sure to emphasise Whedon's vision of a gritty future. The spaceship Serenity was designed purposely with a utilitarian philosophy, which apparently involved making the spaceship look as ugly as possible.
The events of the series take place in the year 2517, and feature the crew of a hectic Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. The crew is led by the captain, Mal, and the first mate, Zoe, who share a history of being in the blatantly ironically named Unification War, between the archetypically over-reaching Alliance and the archetypically anti-authority Independents. Both Mal and Zoe fought on the Independents' side, because if they were on the Alliance side, they would actually have won, and their future would have not looked as gritty.
The winning side of the Unification War was the Alliance, a half-Chinese, half-Western federation with Japanese and British minorities. The Alliance's overreaching power still bothers most of the Independents, nicknamed "Browncoats" for their brown boots. Earth is now referred to as Earth-That-Was, as Earth burned up from the effects of climate change despite mankind's well-tested tactics of denial, and humankind has settled in a different star system. Mal and Zoe lead the crew of the ship Serenity, which is named after the location of a battle that Mal, Zoe and the rest of the Independents decisively lost, as naming an entire ship after the worst life event that happened to the captain is likely to bring good things in the future.
The crew run a smuggling operation, mostly between the frontier regions of the star system. These frontier regions lack fertile land and governmental rule, making them perfectly analogous to the Wild West in a crazy random happenstance. However, added to this 1800s setting are the Reavers, cannibalistic humans who were dehumanised by drugs developed to calm them down. Reavers are seen by most critics as a vehicle for Whedon's anti-anti-depressant views.
At the beginning of the series, the crew is composed of:
- Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, captain of the hectic Serenity. An enigmatic character, Mal is a brutally efficient leader with a dexterity for playing around with guns when alone. He frequently does the impossible, which makes him quite ordinary in the world of popular entertainment.
- Zoe Alleyne Washburne, first mate. Skilled in several manners of combat, she served with Mal in the Unification War. Being on the losing side of this war helped them form a bond as veterans of a common war, and Zoe is second-most loyal to the captain. However, her loyalty to her husband, pilot Wash, always takes precedence, despite the fact that Zoe could thoroughly beat up both of them and do whatever she wants with the ship.
- Hoban "Wash" Washburne, pilot. Lighthearted and even slightly eccentric, he serves as the only source of intentional humour amongst the crew. He is also notable for piloting while playing with toy dinosaurs.
- Jayne Cobb, resident mercenary—as long as he gets paid. His manly strength and persona is reinforced by his deliberately ironic girl's name. He rarely shows any sign of intelligence, except in taking care of enemies. The issue is that, as with most mercenaries, his definition of "enemy" tends to change with every payment he receives. He is in a very stable relationship with Vera, his very large gun.
- Kaywinnit Lee "Kaylee" Frye, mechanic. The only crew member whose soul is even slightly intact, she has an intuitive gift for dealing with the deepest workings of technobabble.
Mal also rents out space to passengers, including:
- Inara Serra, resident Companion. Highly respected in society, she is in the profession of what more disdainful people would call "registered prostitution." Given the sense of legitimacy she conveys for Serenity, she appears to be very good at her job.
- Dr Simon Tam, a young doctor who, as part of his rebellious phase, rescues his sister. More than slightly snobbish, he is highly protective of his sister despite the fact that she has the potential ability to shoot everyone else in the ship dead with her eyes closed.
- River Tam, Simon's psychotic genius sister who escaped from a horrific Alliance experiment. Despite this trauma, she manages to be very good at acting (see Episode table). Her psychic abilities, typical of the science-fiction genre, prompted Wash to question whether he was in a science-fiction series and whether that space scenery was merely rear-projection imagery.
- Shepherd Book, a mysterious preacher. The only fact that is definite about him is that he is, in all likelihood, not really a preacher. A very righteous and moral person, Book considers talking at the theatre as a sin having its own special circle of Inferno.
Certain villains are recurring characters in the series. Since this series is composed of only 14 episodes, this means they appear twice in the series. Those honoured characters are:
- Adelai Niska, a tyrannical criminal kingpin whose violent legacy includes a scene where Mal and Wash are tied up together half-topless, causing shrieks from more than a few female Firefly fans.
- "Saffron", a con artist who, for unknown reasons, is not satisfied with wooing her marks, and goes so far as to marry them. Her other aliases, "Yolanda" and "Bridget", have caused Mal to dub her "YoSaffBridge" in a moment of blatantly contrived humour.
- Hands of Blue. "Two by two, Hands of Blue" is what the escaped River Tam calls the Alliance agents who chase her. Their similarities with the Men in Black are broken immediately when the Hands of Blue's neuralysers are shown to violently kill people as well. They are never seen without wearing silly blue gloves.
11 of the 14 episodes of Firefly were broadcast on FOX over a three-month run. Unfortunately, these three months were not, as the case should have been, seven years.
The table below lists all 14 episodes in the order originally intended by the show's creators. FOX ordered two pilots: it was not satisfied with the original 90-minute pilot "Serenity", and ordered the 45-minute "The Train Job" to act as a new pilot. However, it is assumed that FOX executives merely wanted a shorter episode.
|Serenity (pilot)||In a most certainly not serene pilot episode, Serenity picks up three passengers. One of them, Dobson, is an Alliance agent; one of them, Simon, has smuggled his sister on-board in a crate; and another, Shepherd Book, has a strawberry. Everyone in the crew is introduced, including Mal, Zoe, Jayne, Kaylee, Wash, Inara, and Wash's toy dinosaurs. Mal becomes the worst show-off by doing the impossible and shooting Dobson dead without breaking his walking pace.|
|The Train Job (new pilot)||Contrary to popular belief, Wash is not replaced by a new pilot. Mal is somehow considerably jollier, as the crew work on a train heist. However, they face a contrived moral dilemma when the medicine turns out to be desperately needed to treat disease in a town, and the away team is locked up until Inara shows up to the rescue with her "Companion" credentials, without even having to practice her profession. In the end, the crew return the medicine to the town at the risk of angering their employer, and Mal imitates a classic film when he kicks one of Niska's henchmen into one of Serenity's engines.|
|Bushwhacked||Reavers appear. Everyone is terrified, except for the Alliance, which is in absolute denial that they exist. Serenity catches the attention of an Alliance ship, whose officer interviews everyone in the crew. Wash repeatedly comments humorously on his wife's physique, challenging the officer's ability to keep a straight face. In the end, the Reavers are contained, and Serenity is rewarded by having all of its cargo taken away in a poignant moment of contrived dramatic irony.|
|Shindig||Mal's world collides with Inara's when Mal duels her conceited date. Hilarity ensues, as Mal tries to learn to fence in one night and miserably fails. However, Inara distracts her date enough for Mal to deliver a less than graceful blow; once again, he accomplishes the impossible, mainly by exercising the rare precaution of not killing his opponent.|
|Safe||Simon and River are not safe at all, as they are kidnapped by a village in need of a doctor's explanatory flashbacks. Serenity sells off a herd of cattle. River is then condemned as a witch, and is about to be burnt at the stake when Mal and Zoe suddenly appear to the rescue in a famous scene, celebrated widely by Firefly fans.|
|Our Mrs Reynolds||Mal manages to be impossibly good at killing people, despite wearing a pretty floral bonnet. However, things go horribly wrong when Mal marries "Saffron" inadvertently. Awkwardness and hilarity ensues, as everyone moralises on the meaning of such a marriage, especially Book. Mal attempts to go on contrived feminist tracts, but Saffron turns out to be a very good cook—something Serenity has lacked since its maiden voyage—and Mal gives in. However, he finds out that Saffron is trying to kill him and steal the ship, which is now heading for a trap that will kill everyone on board. Lesbian subtext ensues between Inara and Saffron for a split second, before Jayne and Vera save the day by shooting down the trap.|
|Jaynestown||Jayne is inadvertently a hero in a mining town, and, being the egotistical power-hungry maniac that he is, he hates it. Called upon to practice her profession once again, Inara lectures the son of the town's magistrate on maturity and coming-of-age. River tries to fix the Bible in a situation that is meant to emphasise the importance of faith and believing in something, and is clearly contrived. Everyone drones on about philosophy, although in some way everything manages to stay connected.|
|Out of Gas||Contrary to popular belief, Serenity is not out of gas. Nevertheless, a critical part of the engine fails, and Serenity stops dead despite the lack of roads, air resistance and friction in space. No help is within reach, and everyone evacuates away to find no help within a wider reach. Mal is shot by con men and experiences explanatory flashbacks, in what feels even more confusing than Memento. He does the mundanely impossible once again, gets the engine fixed, and all ends well.|
|Ariel||River uses a butcher's knife to point out that Jayne looks better in red. Subsequently, Jayne's stance on whom his enemies are changes, when he finds his payment unsatisfactory and betrays Simon and River. Subsequently, Jayne's stance on whom his enemies are changes, when he finds the Alliance's payment unsatisfactory and betrays the Alliance. Jayne, River and Simon are chased down by the Hands of Blue, whose hand-held murder devices make their blue gloves look drastically more serious. Everyone is eventually safe, but an enraged Mal almost throws Jayne out the airlock. Crew bonding ensues.|
|War Stories||Wash becomes jealous of Mal and Zoe's wartime bond. Mal and Wash are bonded to a torture machine, and appear in an infamous half-topless scene, in which Wash dares Mal to steal Zoe away from him. Mal dies; fortunately, he lives. Everyone gets to kill everyone else, except for Book, whose moral righteousness forbids him to shoot anyone anywhere except in the kneecaps. River also demonstrates her ability to shoot people dead very fast; awkwardness ensues.|
|Trash||Saffron returns and persuades Serenity to steal an old broken gun. After a long and contrived sequence of events—in which Mal discovers that she has married two other marks under other aliases, slightly damaging Mal's ego regarding his attractiveness—Mal is naked. Fortunately, Inara comes to the rescue, and the episode is omitted.|
|The Message||Mal gets an old wartime friend's corpse. He is not dead. However, a bad cop following them turns out to be trying to sell his organs, which are not actually his own organs. Action-adventure ensues, and the episode is omitted.|
|Heart of Gold||Mal has to do Inara a favour, by saving a prostitute from a local bigwig's threats. Awkward action ensues. Inara then decides to leave Serenity for its utter lack of serenity, but the episode is omitted.|
|Objects in Space||River is revealed to be psychic, and picks up a gun. Panic ensues regarding the episode in which River shot three people dead without even looking. Despite this evidence, Simon maintains River is not a danger, and is subsequently ignored by the rest of the crew. Wash merely wonders why science fiction appears to be occurring to him. Suddenly, a bounty hunter boards the ship and muses on philosophy, but threatens to kill anyone who interrupts him. He tries to find River, but River turns into the ship. However, this is merely part of River's amazing acting performance, which is enough to convince the bounty hunter that the ship is talking to him and can also read his mind. Hilarity ensues until the series ends.|
A notable element is the lack of aliens, unless Chinese people count Americans as aliens and vice versa. China and the United States apparently have become the sole superpowers to reach for the stars, and their cultures have merged. This allowed the show's characters to swear in Chinese, thereby bypassing FCC censorship guidelines, although in Chinese-speaking countries the show was banned for explicit and mispronounced language.
Another notable element is Mal's sheer amazing nature, a recurring trait throughout the episodes. For example, in the pilot "Serenity", Mal shoots an Alliance agent without breaking pace; in "The Train Job", the second pilot, Mal immitates Chuck Norris by kicking one of Niska's henchmen into his ship's own engine (as pictured at right); in "Safe", Mal saves River and Simon with little hesitation and a dramatic entrance; and so on. The amazement viewers feel upon viewing these actions has been overshadowed only by Jayne's very large gun collection.
Despite its short original run of three months, Firefly quickly gained a large cult following. This fan community, which has been seeking Firefly's renewal since 2002, has become incredibly militant, loading every poll with pro-Firefly votes and spreading the word, often rather pretentiously. These fans style themselves Browncoats, after the Independent faction in the Unification War. However, they overlooked the fact that, in their struggle to save Firefly, they named themselves after the losing side of a war.
Undeterred, these Browncoats did gain a small victory when the movie Serenity was released. This victory was quickly extinguished, however, with the death of the most beloved character (Wash) in the series, at which point every fan in the theatres suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced, mostly by the even more horrifying on-screen appearance of the Reavers. However, they cheered upon River's defeat of a roomful of Reavers, if only because one of them had an uncanny resemblance to Joss Whedon himself.