The SciFi Channel is broadcasting the entire run of Firefly, including the three episodes that Fox didn't air, starting with the first hour of the two-hour pilot on this Friday, July 22, at 7 p.m. (6 Central). (It appears that through August, they'll be airing one episode a week; I don't know if they'll speed up in September, because at that rate, they won't be done for the movie's premiere.)
(If you miss tomorrow's airing because I was so late in getting this post up, the first half of the pilot will also be shown next week at 6 p.m., so you could watch the entire pilot at once.)
Hence this post: why you should watch Firefly, starting this Friday (or rent/buy the DVD set—no commercials!). There are two reasons:
- Because the characters are great.
- Because you should go see the movie
Serenity when it comes out September 30, and it will be more
engaging if you already know the characters.
(I realize this raises the secondary question of why you should go see Serenity—that one's easy, because if it doesn't make a bunch of money there won't be more Firefly movies, and I want more.)
(Apparently the Fox versions of this had an opening voiceover that provides a lot of the same information below. I hope the SciFi channel isn't using it, because the transcription I've seen of it looks awful.)
The basic premise of Firefly is two-part. First, there's a bunch of planets and moons that humanity has colonized; some are rich, well-populated, and technologically advanced, while others are poor and scratching out livings on dusty soil. Six years ago, there was a civil war between the Alliance and the Independents; the Alliance won. (When taken with the frontier nature of the poorer planets, people have found this reminiscent of the U.S. Civil War; however, in this future, it's the Alliance that permits slavery. [This is background material only, not plot fodder.])
Second, there's Malcolm Reynolds, who was a Sergeant on the losing side of the battle of Serenity Valley, the decisive battle of the war. Six years later, he's captain of the Firefly-class cargo ship Serenity, and with his crew does various odd jobs—sometimes legal, sometimes not so much—and generally tries to get by, as far away from the Alliance as possible.
(I'm about to spoil the pilot for you, but since the credits or the movie trailer will do most of the same, well, sorry.)
As the show opens, Serenity has illicitly salvaged some cargo and heads to deliver it and pick up some paying passengers for the next leg of their trip. They have to find another buyer for their salvage, however, and things are naturally a bit tense when, during the trip, one of their passengers sends a signal to the Alliance.
Turns out that the signal wasn't over the salvaged goods, however, but over one of the passengers, Dr. Simon Tam. Actually, over two of the passengers; Simon's smuggled his sister River on as cargo, in a cryo-sleep box. They're both on the run from the Alliance, because he's sacrificed his medical career and personal fortune to get her out of a government-funded school after getting a coded letter from her that said, "They're hurting us. Get me out."
What happened to River, and its effects, is a plot thread that runs throughout the series. There are a couple of shorter ones based around secondary characters, but the fourteen episodes are not tied together by a single constantly-advancing plot.
Reasons to watch
Perhaps it's easier to start with reasons not to watch Firefly. If you absolutely, positively cannot stomach being in the same room with science ignorance like an apparent lack of inertia, or technology that was designed for aesthetics rather than workability, then this is not the show for you. The worldbuilding is also somewhat sketchy; in particular, I'm sure it seemed like a nifty idea to have the entire society be bilingual in English and Chinese, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Basically, this is not meticulous hard-sf extrapolation.
Instead, the world is a place to explore the characters, who are the great pleasure of the show for me. There are nine of them, which is why you should watch the series, because even the best two-hour movie can't do justice to so many characters. A brief overview:
The original crew, as of the pilot:
- Mal. The first time River meets Mal (in "The Train Job"), she stares after him and says, "Mal. Bad. In the Latin," which just enough pause after "bad" to make us wonder if she's passing a judgment on him. He's not, but he is thoroughly pragmatic: he's got his ship, he's got his crew, and that's all he's got left, so he'll do what he has to keep them safe and flying.
- Zoe. Mal's former comrade-in-arms. The first mate, calm cool competent and kick-ass. Married to—
- Wash. The pilot. Plays with plastic dinosaurs, wears Hawaiian shirts, and flies better than just about anyone.
- Kaylee. The mechanic. Cheerful, sweet, earthy, and amazingly non-annoying.
- Jayne (male). The muscle. Big guns and no tact, and amazingly interesting, eventually.
- Inara. The Companion. A prostitute licensed through a Guild, which is a high-status position in this society. She rents one of Serenity's shuttles, claiming that it gives her more business opportunities, but she clearly has hidden motives for traveling. Unfortunately I found her less interesting over the course of the series, because when she and Mal are together, they get up my nose.
The passengers taken on in the pilot:
- Simon Tam. Stronger and snarkier than he looks, though rather out-of-place on Serenity.
- River Tam. The girl in a box; she doesn't see things the way others do. When this originally aired, a lot of people didn't like her early on. I don't know why; I think she's fascinating and a great character.
- Shepherd Book. Clergy; "Shepherd" is a title. He's been in an Abbey for a while and looking to see the world (again? He also has secrets in his past.).
I think the best thing I can say about the character development is to say that by the end, I was actually kinda liking Jayne, which I would never have predicted from the start. Everyone's got layers and actual relationships with each other, and it's those things that fuel the series' themes of loyalty and home. Which sounds horribly stiff and boring, so now I have to find some snarky quotes that will make sense out of context, like Zoe responding to Alliance questioning in her best deadpan fashion:
HARKEN: You fought with Captain Reynolds in the war?
ZOE: Fought with a lot of people in the war.
HARKEN: And your husband?
ZOE: Fight with him sometimes, too.
Or River "fixing" Book's Bible:
RIVER: (confidingly) Noah's ark is a problem.
RIVER: We'll have to call it "early quantum state phenomenon." Only way to fit 5000 species of mammal on the same boat.
Or Jayne in his inimitable fashion:
JAYNE: Yeah, and if wishes were horses, we'd all be eatin' steak.
Or, of course, my very favorite bit of Mal-Zoe rapid-fire, long-time-partners exchange (*points at icon*):
MAL: Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
ZOE: Big damn heroes, sir.
Or, well, I'm sure other people will be along with their favorite quotes too.
Also, an Alliance cruiser in the pilot is named the Dortmunder. How can you not like a show that names a big-ass ship after a small-time crook?
Best and most important episodes
I would rank the episodes, in terms of my enjoyment and my opinion of their quality, in roughly these categories:
- (107) "Out of Gas"
- (108) "Ariel"
- (113) "Objects in Space"
- Very Good
- (100) "Serenity"
- (109) "War Stories"
- (110) "Trash"
- (102) "Bushwhacked"
- (104) "Safe"
- (105) "Our Mrs. Reynolds"
- (106) "Jaynestown" [a lot of people rank this higher]
- (101) "The Train Job"
- (103) "Shindig"
- (111) "The Message" [a lot of people also rank this much higher]
- (112) "Heart of Gold"
As for the episodes that are important, here's a rundown in airing order:
- "Serenity": The pilot. Watch it, or be confused the way the poor people who saw the series as originally aired by Fox were.
- "The Train Job": Introduces a character who recurs in "War Stories," but you really don't need to watch it to understand that. It does have one great Mal moment at the end.
- "Bushwhacked": The episode most focused on the Reavers, which makes it fairly important.
- "Shindig": If you find Mal/Inara interesting, or if you like costumes or Gone with the Wind-type settings, watch it. Otherwise it's not central.
- "Safe": The first Tam-centered episode and therefore important to that ongoing arc.
- "Our Mrs. Reynolds": Very funny and introduces the great character of Saffron who shows up again in "Trash," with some Mal character development. Unlike "The Train Job," the later episode does benefit from having met Saffron before.
- "Jaynestown": Starts the process of making Jayne interesting and therefore worth watching as preparation for "Ariel."
- "Out of Gas": Just watch it. Backstories for the original crew and it's brilliant to boot.
- "Ariel": Central to both the River-arc and to Jayne's character development.
- "War Stories": The dynamic between Zoe, Wash, and Mal gets a full treatment. If you like Wash (and if you don't, why not?!), you'll want to watch this one.
- "Trash": Saffron's back and there's fallout from "Ariel."
- "The Message": I think it's very skippable. Involves an old war buddy of Mal and Zoe's.
- "Heart of Gold": A standalone planetside job. Extremely skippable.
- "Objects in Space": This is a River-centered episode and highly recommended.
If anyone's read down this far: short version is that I love the characters, and if you're even somewhat engaged by them after the pilot, then keep watching.