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"Say it ain't so"
The Uncaring of the Machine & The Rise and Fall of FIREFLY – a region 2 DVD review by Camus
 

Part One – show BUSINESS

"He (Joss Whedon) answered every single criticism that the network
may have had about that two hour pilot and they didn't even look at it."
Tim Minear, co-executive producer, Firefly
after additional shooting ordered by the powers that be
at Fox quoted on Cinefantastique's Web Site (cfq.com)


They didn't even look at it.

Movies and TV shows are driven by money or rather the potential for said movie or show to generate money in the form of box office, merchandising or advertising. But aren't we just a little 'head hung low' over those Fox Execs' casual but appalling indifference? Joss Whedon, one of the foremost practitioners of quality US Film and TV, is allowed to re-submit (and shoot additional scenes for) his Firefly pilot to please Fox's powers that be and they're too busy orally massaging the lower regions of the body Dollar to even look at the man's work? Fuck art. Ya gotta admire the cojones of commerce. Considering how close those cojones would be in front of the commissioners while they were on their knees, admiring them is not difficult.

During production of Firefly, Whedon submitted a pitch for the new Batman movie and came away from the meeting, head in hands, moaning "How many more lessons do I need to learn that the machine doesn't care about the creative process? I got back to my office and found out Firefly was cancelled and I was like, 'OK, maybe one more lesson.'" (SFX – December 2003). Whedon's enormous and fervent success that was Buffy meant only one thing to those behind Buffy's budgets. He had, in a business sense, delivered warm, admiring and moneyed bodies to the glass teat (a nod to Harlan Ellison there) so they could be sold stuff they don't need. He delivers the crowds – that is the only thing that matters in Hollywood. It really is.

No. It REALLY is.

Technically (and this has been true for decades longer than you imagine) the correct definition of 'cinema' is 'a purveyor of vastly overpriced sugar water, popped corn and assorted sugar based confectionary using flickering images as a lure'. The irony here is that it's the actual movies that are the 'commercials' for the stuff that really generates the profit. Popcorn is the single biggest marked up item for sale in the world. If you buy £10's worth of the stuff at the box office, it has cost the supplier one tenth of a penny. That's for real; the mark up is 10,000 percent. You've got to hand it to the bastards. Their passionate forefathers made us fall in love with an art form and their suited descendants made us sugar slaves to pay for it.

The corporate machine has about as much empathy with the artists who keep that machine fed as Rupert Murdoch does (whoops, 'did') with typesetters. Whedon said while pitching Batman "they looked at me like I was a video fish bowl." (SFX – December 2003.) However much you loved anything that came out of Hollywood, that movie or TV show was not allowed its existence with any emotion attached that wasn't related in blood to avarice and greed. Of course, passion is the impetus of any project (unless it's Patch Adams) but once in the birth canal other hands are waiting to molest it. The delivery room is sterile and conservative. For the baby to live, it has to distinguish itself (or make money) and preferably both. In fact that's not true. It simply has to make money or be seen to have such potential. It seems that Fox saw too much Bonanza and not enough bonanza in Firefly when what they wanted was... Who knows? Not 'a western'. No one knows what works which is why TV and Movie land is such an odd place. Success cannot be calculated in advance. But tougher sells need corporate passion (it can happen) and Fox really did not know what Firefly was.

All those shows that make it over here, shows at which we swoon for their wit, invention and satire, every Simpsons, Buffy and West Wing , filler, the lot of them. Filler for the commercials. They are prime examples of the greatness of American television but in the colder climes of show BUSINESS, they are the commercials' 'commercials'. We'll be right back to sell you stuff you don't need but first here's Martin Sheen being liberal, Sarah Michelle-Gellar coming over all 'kick ass' and Homer delivering such gems as "Lisa, just because I don't care, doesn't mean I don't understand..." Now is that just a dandy example of the mentality Whedon deals with on a daily basis? Who'd bother? I'm so glad folk like Whedon, Sorkin and Groening do. We're a much richer culture for it.

Buffy ran for seven years because it was consistently profitable. So what next? The corporate dictum is that if you find a talent who can deliver the masses, then you ask them for a sequel. "Mr. Whedon, please produce another TV show that brings a wide demographic to the glass teat. Make the masses return." Whedon went off in a perverse direction (he went west, I believe) but it was still Whedon so the context of the show was hardly crucial (except of course to the networks who commissioned it). If you pay money for Joss Whedon, you get a Joss Whedon show. I mean, read Fray, Whedon's futuristic vampire slayer comic. Like Brighton rock, his voice is stamped all the way through it. This means (whatever coat – brown or otherwise – it's dressed up in) you get a liberal, humanist, emotionally challenging and damn exciting approach. It means wit by the Serenity-load, story-telling of the highest calibre and it means a genuine and honest emotional connection to an audience. That's Whedon. Whedon works within sf writer Theodore Sturgeon's law – that there is 96% of crap in the universe and only 4% worth anything. Whedon is a four-percenter regardless of genre.

Yes, Fox surrendered the rights, Universal moved in and enticed Whedon to fashion a film from the ashes of the TV show but a movie is so, so different. Firefly was designed to be 100 hours long, not 100 minutes. And the demands of a movie are so different to those of a weekly TV show. Joss Whedon is extraordinary and I will be in line for Serenity the Movie but the 14 episodes (all 10 hours of it) have a different life and rhythm of their own. So we have the DVD box set and that is a DAMN GOOD thing. And I'm actually learning to say 'ain't'.


Part Two – SHOW business

"Ultimately the show that works is the show that had a vision."
Joss Whedon, creator, FIREFLY
quoted in SFX magazine, No. 112, Christmas 2003

So what was the briefly lived but rabidly resurrected Firefly all about?

Imagine a lone bunch of misfits led by an embittered but sentimental man, rallying against the mighty governmental forces that have swatted him down. Imagine he wanders the galaxy in a bulbous backside-lit ship. The name with which it's been christened has a sentimental attachment to its captain. The internal dramatic conflict between the characters is usually enough for any TV drama but every now and again, the crew get to schmooze on some planet. Remind you of anything? Blake's 7 maybe? Hell, Firefly is Reynolds' 9!

I hold Blake in some high regard but prayed – after recent viewings – that in an alternative universe they could have been blessed with the luxury of a twentieth of Firefly's budget – hell, 'a' budget would have been a start. Blake was always about the strength of its ideas and the characters and scripts were uniformly good. What let it down was the paucity of budget (and the fight scenes were classic 70s RADA – a few light years from even remotely convincing).

I have a theory – not a quote from the delectable Sondheim-inspired Buffy, Once More With Feeling. Whedon was able to fold over almost every genre of every movie into the glorious mix that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One genre resisted the formula. Resolutely. So maybe he figured, screw it. "I love westerns, so..." so Joss created Firefly. Firefly is a really odd bird of a series but, hell, does it grow on you. To the American audiences at first, it must have seemed significantly odder. Fox didn't like the pilot and screened a more action-oriented episode as the series' opener. This sent a none too subtle message throughout the industry – 'troubled show'. Luckily, the running order is preserved on the DVD and Firefly unfolds highlighting a common narrative device (a number of diverse characters travel on a ship) contained in a universe (a 'verse) with its own mega-swear word ('Goram') and a whole host of Chinese expletives for characters to spew when stressed to the max. This is Blake's world. Black suited anonymous 'Alliance' soldiers pepper the show (to all and sundry, the Federation, by any other name) and there's even a Travis parallel, the ageing and sadistic Niska who enjoys torture and pain as some enjoy using pillows.

There is also the mystifying 'western' format that means – as well as the beautifully designed ship 'Serenity' – we get ranges, horses, six shooters, waistcoats and rustlers. Why? I can only think of Whedon's penchant for westerns and how a frontier mentality may have caused technically super-efficient off-world terra-forming mankind of 2502 to denounce spandex and get into leather again. Some of the delights of Firefly (a brutal thug piloting an exquisite hover car while horses gallop next to him) also serve as things that pull up casual viewers. Why the western format? Joss never really answers definitively. You either go with it or it grates every time the John Waynisms share frame space with Kubrickian science. Oh, the delight in space uncrowded by the blast of sound effects. In Whedon's space, the twang of western strings is the only sound you hear.

By Whedon's own admission, the mission statement (apologies to Slarek) of the show is to drop a pebble in the waters occupied by nine very different characters and see how the nine react. Firefly is 90% character. Plot with twists and functional narrative are above the line quality but it's the characters that hook you. How about this for a mix:

an irascible self-styled captain who fought on the right but losing side of an interstellar war. He served his time WITH;

his right hand woman, a fighter, fiercely loyal to her captain who nonetheless is MARRIED to; the pilot who is Whedon's alter ego (has to be). Think Albert Brooks in delivery and wit. The pilot is reliant on his Scotty;

a sweet round faced girl who hears engines talking to her metaphorically of course;

and last and outwardly least (but even he grows on you) there's the brutish mercenary who's in to nothing without personal gain attached. Hell, he even screws over his crew-mates on a regular basis.

Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Zoë, Wash, Kaylee and Jayne form the crew of Serenity. The passengers are a wonderfully mixed bag, in short, a doctor, a paranoid schizophrenic, a courtesan and a preacher. Ain't TV grand? Aside from the pilot, a wonderful scene at the start of the episode Our Mrs Reynolds (all nine crew members faced with an accidental marriage) is Firefly character writing at its most sublime. There is subtext at every line and it's heartbreakingly funny. The captain says as an aside "How drunk was I last night?" Helpfully, his soldier crew-mate Jayne makes the situation better with "I dunno. I passed out."

Ever since another significantly more evil preacher casually stabbed a potential slayer in the stomach in series seven of Buffy, I've had my eye on Nathan Fillion. He has all the characteristics of a straight laced western hero but he plays off his overt masculinity and that twinkle in his eyes. The man has comic timing by the wagon-load and his shuffling large framed amiable rogue-ishness is terribly endearing. Let's not forget the accent. On Fillion, it's the real deal. It's only when it's coming out of George Dubya's mouth it sounds phoney.

A marriage in a prime time TV show? How extraordinary. They have sex. How unbelievable. They have good sex. My, my. They are happy. Now we know we're in fantasy land. The networks urged Whedon to drop the married couple (how can a potential buyer of Coca Cola identify with a married couple? That's for grown ups). Yeah? And so is Firefly. Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoë (Gina Torres) work so well, it's heartbreaking to know this show is no more. Wash's off the wall surreal banter beautifully dovetails with Zoë's down to earth soldiering attitude. The fact that they are a black and white couple is also something that gives me hope for America. Almost 40 years ago, a white man kissed a black woman on TV – a first (take a bow, Star Trek) but it's still an aspect of 21st century life that TV can push. With the less successful (dramatically speaking) pairing of Gunn and Fred in Whedon's Angel, Joss is doing his bit for pluralism.

Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is the resident shifty mercenary but he plays the Cordelia role in Firefly. He blossoms against stereotype because Whedon never lets him lose his Jayne-ness. He's a bastard and throughout the series he stays a bastard. Characters who are 'real' rarely exist in mainstream US movies and TV because of this obsession with 'arcs'. Characters have to change because events have to make a difference. Most people die with the unchanged beliefs they wired in at the age of seven. Jayne couldn't be anything other than himself. He's a bastard and that's a bastard of a coup to pull off – creator, writer and actor-wise. Baldwin is a consistent joy. He only has to react to anything and it's priceless.

With nine characters, one or two sometimes get hidden in the narrative but Whedon and Minear seem to serve up stories that allow each character to have their moment each show. 'The brilliant engineer' is a sf staple (a cliché even) so Whedon's subverted that by casting Kaylee (Jewel Staite) as a bright eyed innocent girl, buffeted this way and that by the rough edges of everyone else but she holds her own being Serenity's heart. Her introduction to the ship (in Out of Gas) is memorable if only because it's during a sex scene behind ajarred doors.

By far one of the more interesting re-occurring characters is River (Summer Glau), the Alliance-operated-on, mind reading paranoid schizophrenic fugitive. It's all go on Serenity, isn't it? I fell for River when she told the preacher that the Bible was 'broken'. Priceless. It's such a shame Whedon cannot tell us all he had planned for this girl as her 'arcs' (arc-phooey) were likely to have been planned to the nth degree. Yes, she is capable of doing anything bizarre at anytime (which gives the writers enormous freedoms) but the consistency of performance is quite rewarding. She steals a scene in Safe in which she suddenly hones in on a hoe down and dances free of care. It is one of the more erotic and playful scenes I've seen on a TV show since Angel fed off Buffy at the end of the third season.

Looking after River is the doctor, her brother Simon (Sean Maher). His privileged background makes him the outsider on the ship and his knack of saying exactly the wrong thing keeps Kaylee at a distance when she really wants to be close. It's a tough role to pull off. He has to be aloof, superior, inordinately caring and also carrying the psychology of a man on the run (as he has ripped his very important sister free from the Alliance's scalpels and lasers). Simon's Ivy League looks underline the character. He's the moneyed crewmember, the only one with no dirt under his fingernails.

Inara (Morena Baccarin) has broken a few taboos. I believe she is the first prostitute with a reoccurring role on a prime time TV show. Fancy that? Everyone does but her heart belongs to the only man who doesn't know that yet (who else but the captain). Inara is a very hard part to play. Baccarin has to look like a woman who may make a living from high class prostitution. She has to exude the confidence of a woman who choses her own clientele. At this she is completely convincing. What Baccarin has in common with some of the best actors around is that they know the value of stillness in a performance.

Finally, there's the preacher, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass). Religion out on the fringes may be unrealistic (after all, Firefly's playground is heaven itself) but the gravitas that Glass brings to his role is admirable and never less than entertaining. Many famous dramatic aetheists cannot help but fold religion into their drama. Oolon Coloophid springs to mind. I never did get around to read "Who Is This God Person Anyway?" I can't imagine Whedon observes any religious discipline but if we have to have a man of God, then Book fits the bill. And you've got to love the hair.

Firefly is shot in a moderately modernist style. A lot of hand held camerawork and the special effects often have a documentary feel to them (focus pulls, snatched camera moves, as if the ships were real). The FX of the Reaver ship falling through the sky spewing out huge black smoke plumes is an image that bears repeating. As we now come to expect modern CG used properly looks wonderful. The 35mm, 16x9 transfer is suitably retro (Whedon hunted down old lenses specifically for their faults) and the grading/shooting of Out of Gas is especially noteworthy. The underscoring is good although at the time, there were significant 'borrowings' from Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerard's score for Gladiator. Hell, steal from the best and watch out when movie score nuts like myself recognise a bar or two.

But despite the bells and whistles and the oddly jarring but satisfying 'western' with space ships production concept, the writing and characters that Whedon and his writers have created are supremely entertaining. The one liners dazzle:

"Jayne, the days of me not taking you seriously are coming to a middle."

But it's the characters you take away with you, the detail and richness of nine different points of view, each taking their specific cultures 'into the black'. The ensemble acting is about as flawless as you'll see on TV (The Big Chill in space?) and for that to be (a) in its first season and (b) on a cancelled show (the actors and crew knew during the latter shoots that the show had been axed) is quite unique. We won't see Firefly's like again so lap up the box set.

You'll have to excuse me now. I have The Passion of Christ to endure...

sound and vision

Originated on 35mm, Firefly has been graded to mimic Whedon's beloved westerns of the 70s. Just check out the flare in the opening scene of Our Mrs Reynolds. But the problem with flare is that it screws up the DVD encoding process something fierce. So you get a many circular banded wipe out. Otherwise, the DVD picture quality is sharp and the colour (mostly brown!) is vibrant and rich, even if the box set is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic wide screen format following the Buffy wide screen format.

The sound is a solid Dolby Digital transfer with a constant atmospheric signal to keep the rear speakers happy. There are a few forward to back activity (notably Whedon's credit at the end of the main titles) but it's not a showy soundtrack and for Firefly that's a good thing.

extra features

The seven Commentaries are rich, funny and entertainments in their own rights. All the bullshit you read about TV shows creating families and every one having so much respect for each other blah blah. Sorry. Here's it's true. Again. The pairings of the cast and crew giving commentaries are also episode specific which feels right. And yes, the actors are as dry and funny as their characters. It was also a little thrill to hear Fillion and Tudyk start singing the main theme on their commentary track to War Stories, something I have been doing so often in the last four weeks, my son is humming it. I also appreciate the main players name checking their less glamorous crew members. One in particular struck home with me. I know the set decorator David Koneff and it was good of Whedon to mention him in the commentary to Serenity Part I.

The Gag Reel is fun – starting off nicely with Fillion wanting to know how to 'turn the fucking thing off...'

The rest of the Special Features are solid, kind of 'do what they say on the can' sort of extras.

Here How It Was – The Making Of...The 10th Character – Serenity
Tour of the Set
Joss sings Firefly Theme
Alan Tudyk's audition
Four Deleted Scenes

One of the deleted scenes was an alternative opening to the entire series which would have had the show follow a much darker route via the Captain. I like what was re-shot but once, just once, it would be nice to give a series-maker complete autonomy. It's what I call the George Harrison principle. The Beatle really wanted to see Life of Brian so just gave 'em the money and trusted the Pythons to deliver the movie...

Seems there's no damn trust anymore...

Firefly

USA 2002
625 mins total
directors
Vern Gillum
Allan Kroeker
starring
Alan Tudyk
Gina Torres
Jewel Staite
Morena Baccarin
Nathan Fillion

DVD details
region 1
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Stereo 2.0
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Commentary on selected episodes
Deleted scenes
Serenity: The Tenth Character featurette
The Making of Firefly featurette
Set tour with Joss Whedon
Audition footage
Joss Whedon sings the Firefly theme
Gag reel
distributor
Universal
review posted
29 May 2004

See all of Camus's reviews