The birth of Reality TV brought with it the death of many TV series. With its ability to inexplicably draw in millions of hapless viewers (nominally because there was nothing else on TV) it became imperative for other shows to get consistently high viewing figures, without which they would be cancelled - irrespective of quality of script or story. Many shows have fallen by the wayside, some lasting longer than others. Buffy and Angel saw several seasons before they were pulled, Farscape and Enterprise both got four series, whilst other smaller but equally cherished shows died off much quicker. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy and Angel, went on to make a sci-fi Western series called Firefly, which simply did not get enough viewers to last more than fourteen episodes. For those of you who have seen the follow-up movie, Serenity, which he made after the show was brought to an abrupt end, you will see that this is one of the biggest TV show tragedies of recent times.
Firefly introduces us to Mal (Nathan Fillion - from Buffy) and Zoe (Gina Torres - from Buffy and from Alias), soldiers during a massive war between The Alliance and The Independence. They're on the losing side and are forced to go on the run as smugglers and 'transporters', running a Firefly-class space-ship called Serenity which is small enough to keep them largely off the Alliance radar but big enough to get them out of trouble. The ship is crewed by these two, along with the pilot, Wash (Alan Tudyk), who also happens to be married to Zoe, Jayne (Adam Baldwin - from Angel and The X-Files), the heavy support and the engineer, Kaylee (Jewel Staite). Strapped for cash, they pick up a boat-load of miscreants: a preacher, a doctor and a prostitute, who find themselves feeling more at home on Serenity than anywhere else.
Over the course of the series, we get to know all of these various individuals - their secrets, their skills and the passions that drive them. Mal is haunted by his experiences in the war but is a good leader and a good Captain and also has a thing for the prostitute (or 'companion'), Inara (Morena Baccarin). Wash is a good pilot but his happy marriage to Zoe often gets strained by her job as the Captain's right-hand man. Jayne is rough around the edges and says what's on his mind - and you're never really sure whether you can trust him - but there's nobody better to have by your side in a fight. Kaylee is cute as a button and constantly chirpy, even about the engineering technical-know-how which she regards as her 'calling', the Preacher is more prepared to get his hands dirty than you would expect from a man of the cloth and Simon, the Doctor, is on the run from the Alliance. The ninth regular member is Simon's sister, River (the striking Summer Glau, from Buffy), a girl genius who has been experimented on by Alliance scientists, leaving her talking and thinking curiously, to say the least.
They all find their fair share of trouble on their fun adventures, whether running from the Alliance, having standoffs with unpleasant clients, being tortured, being attacked by pirates, exploring ghost ships or just keeping their own ship in one piece. Then there's the Reavers, an unwelcome bunch of zombie-like scavengers who's soul intention is to flay, rape and eat their victims, normally in that order. They are also running from them. Whether pulling off a risky train heist or infiltrating an Alliance building, it soon becomes apparent that this team work great together, particularly under pressure.
It's not all high tension and stress however - after all, this is a Joss Whedon production. As we have come to expect from the likes of Shane Black, Whedon's projects are always injected with a great wit and a fantastic script and this is no exception. Right from the start there is a good camaraderie and banter between the crew, with Mal the closest thing we have had to a fun space cowboy since Hans Solo (although Jayne comes a close second). It is the reason why the subsequent movie, Serenity, drew so many comparisons to the disappointing trilogy of Star Wars prequels. What Firefly and Serenity lack in effects (and don't get me wrong, the series still looks very good sometimes) they easily make up for in character depth and excellent scripting.
It is also the presence of all the little things that keep you hooked in something like this, from the fact that the characters occasionally lapse into Mandarin if they feel the need to express themselves more dramatically (or curse, as is more often the case) - a novel touch rather than have them either not swear or use made up words (which they do have as well) - to the honest reluctance with which some of them tackle going into tricky situations, rather than just being ludicrously heroic off the bat. It is Whedon at his best, both for the series and the movie.
Talking about the movie, for all those who missed Serenity at the cinema, I strongly - STRONGLY - advise watching the fabulous (if short) season beforehand. Forget what you have heard, whilst the movie is mostly standalone, watching the series first gives you an infinitely better view of the characters and feeling about their fates. So, pick up the show now (especially as it is such good value), watch it and then watch the movie and then cry over the fact that Fox made such an infinitely bad move by cancelling it, whilst consoling yourself with the knowledge that had they not done so, we may not have seen the big screen outing for these guys at all.
Disc 1. Serenity - Part 1 & 2, The Train Job and Bushwhacked
Disc 2. Shindig, Safe, Our Mrs. Reynolds and Jaynestown
Disc 3. Out of Gas, Ariel, War Stories and Trash
Disc 4. The Message, Heart of Gold and Objects in Space