Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Firefly (2002)

This is a review where I commit geek heresy.

That heresy is not that I haven't given an unqualified recommendation to one of the few science fiction shows that is near-universally acclaimed among nerds.  I think I'm on solid ground there.  As much as I like the show - and I do like it a lot - it got cancelled after one short season, depriving it of a chance to explore most of its mysteries, and of a satisfying ending.  It's true it got an ending, if you factor in the movie sequel Serenity, but I wouldn't call it a satisfying one.

The show was focused around the crew of a small spaceship on the verges of civilized space.  It combined consciously western tropes and visuals: most frontier planets were dusty places where horses were still used as transport, despite the spaceships, while the weapons mostly resembled items from the 19th and 20th century, with the occasional laser or other high-tech gadget thrown in.  Honestly, it was a bit of an incoherent mess, setting-wise, but I can let it slide on rule of cool.  I do take issue with the show's Independents vs Alliance backstory though.  It too closely maps to the US Civil War in its rhetoric and uniforms, and I have serious issues with the Confederacy analogues being the good guys.

Anyway, where the show really shone was its cast - who were uniformly excellent - and the characters.  They were a rabscrabble bunch, living hand to mouth half the time and more than willing to take on an illegal job or three if it kept the ship running, while still retaining an ethical core.  The only one I'm ambivalent about is River, who got treated more as a plot device than an actual character for most of the series.  That was just beginning to change when the show got cancelled.

Why did such a 'universally acclaimed' show get cancelled?  Well, because it wasn't rating.  Passionate support from a small group of fans has kept a show afloat in the past (or got it a sequel film, like this one), but if it fails to find a mainstream audience then the major networks aren't likely to keep it around.  Fox gets a lot of flak for the failure of Firefly to find an audience.  I think some of that is deserved - certainly they failed to make me interested, in the lead up to the show's launch, and I was pretty much the definition of an easy sell when it came to SF TV back then - but some of it is not.  The financial failure of the feature film suggests that the wider audience just isn't going to go for quite so literal a 'cowboys and spaceships' fusion.

Ultimately, if you haven't seen the show and it sounds at all appealing, you should check it out.  If you do, I recommend starting with The Train Job, rather than the first episode on the discs.  Because that's my real geek heresy: one thing I think Fox did right is knocking back the original pilot and making them film The Train Job as a replacement.  It's a much snappier introduction to the series, fits the tone of the overall show better, and some of the characters come off better than in the original pilot.

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