Hey, it’s my blog, I get to rewrite Hugo history if I want to.
I was, apparently, one of the few people who watched Firefly when it was on Fox for a couple of weeks in 2002. Since it was on the air, it’s become a cult classic, and it’s in the mix for pretty much any discussion of “best sf tv series of all time.” It is really good, and it’s innovative in a lot of ways: it uses hand-held doc-style camera work, even for fx shots, it mashes space opera and western genre elements, it presents a dirtier future full of anti-heroes, and it gives us a multicultural future full of Chinese curse words. Many of these elements have been picked up by subsequent sf tv shows.
If you’re assuming that the show failed because it was too science fictiony and couldn’t find a wider audience…well, you might be correct, but WorldCon’s treatment of the show rather demonstrates that it took sf fans some time to discover it as well. The only episode nominated from the original broadcast run was the shown-out-of-order pilot, “Serenity,” which was solid, but not the show’s pinnacle. Three episodes were produced but not broadcast on Fox. When they came out on DVD, they became eligible and two were nominated, which suggests that the show was gaining momentum. But, then again, they were both beat by 90 seconds of bleeped Gollum profanity on MTV. In fact, it looks like Gollum beat both nominated episodes combined (though the series finale of Buffy probably shaved some votes off Firefly as well).
Anyway, I think “The Message” should’ve won. Captain Mal receives a crate in the mail that contains the body of an old war buddy, who got involved in the smuggling of some experimental biotech. It has the typical sharp, funny dialogue and character drama that made the show great. Jonathan Woodward plays the deceased war buddy in flashbacks – he was also the vampire in “Conversations with Dead People.” I’m a bit surprised that he hasn’t been in much non-Whedon stuff. He’s kind of a poor-man’s Paul Rudd (I consider that a compliment). The other nominated episode, “Heart of Gold,” is not the show’s finest hour; it’s part Magnificent Seven with a little bit of Unforgiven (the crew defends a brothel from onslaught), but, all together, it’s pretty standard western material (with laser guns!). I actually would’ve nominated the other eligible episode, “Trash,” instead. It’s a caper episode, which the show probably overdid in its brief run, but it has the great Christina Hendricks reprising her role as sexy con-artist Saffron.
Grades: “The Message” – A-
“Heart of Gold” – B-
“Trash” – B+
Best episodes from the series as a whole:
“Jaynestown” – it’s odd to put a comedy episode in first place, but the concept, the script, and the actors’ timing are all excellent in this story of a poor colony that reveres the crew’s bad boy. A
“War Stories” – I really hate torture scenes, and this episode has a lot of them, but there are so many classic lines that I can’t help but love it. It starts out by pairing the show’s two best comic actors and putting them in an awful situation, then it ends with an exciting action sequence. And then there are those great one-liners. “I’ll be in my bunk.” A
“The Train Job” – the second pilot created by Whedon and Minear. I think it was harmed by Fox’s refusal to air the actual pilot…leaving a lot of the show’s premise unclear. It holds up really well, and introduces the mood and themes of the show, even if it leaves some questions about plot points. A-
“Out of Gas” – Great use of non-linear storytelling. In the “present” life support is cut and Mal is wounded. Throughout the episode we see how things got so bad, and how the crew got together. A-
“Ariel” – A caper story that gives us a different setting (a more urban planet), advances the overall plot, and involves some great character twists. A-
I don’t think the series is without problems. The setting doesn’t entirely make sense – there’s no faster-than-light travel but they zip around to quite a few different planets. There is some explanation about a very large solar system with many terraformed planets, but it still seems too crowded for one system. The whole “freedom” theme with the Browncoats alludes to the Confederacy without really explaining or exploring the history, or the obvious problems with the analogy. Some of the character beats are repetitive as well (River’s crazy, Jayne’s a little evil, Mal is good-hearted but ruthless, Book is mysterious, etc. I get it). All that said, the show never really had time to get on its feet. It was clearly destined for greatness when it ended prematurely, and what we did get was still very entertaining and influential.
Overall grade: A-