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Firefly: Season One (2002)
Created by Joss Whedon

review by Debbie Moon

There was a time when Joss Whedon could do no wrong. Buffy The Vampire Slayer was hugely popular and critically acclaimed, its darker spinoff Angel was finding a smaller but decent adult audience... So, we assume, the networks gave Mr Whedon a freehand to do anything he liked with his new sci-fi show. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake.
   A few centuries in the future; after a destructive civil war, a bureaucratic, faintly oppressive government rules the core worlds settled by humanity. But out on the frontier worlds, where hardy souls scrape a living with older forms of technology, their grip is a little looser. Mal Reynolds, war hero from the losing side, captains a Firefly-class ship, the Serenity, which ships cargo between planets, smuggles, illegally salvages from wrecks, and generally bends the rather flexible law of the frontier. But when he grants refuge to a young doctor and his sister, an escapee from a secret military programme, Reynolds suddenly finds himself and his misfit crew pursued by the full might of the government...
   All right, fine. There's no reason why impoverished colony worlds wouldn't use horse-drawn ploughs and have western-style bars and cattle ranches alongside spacecraft and computers. They might even wear cowboy boots and hats. It's not impossible. But as you watch Firefly, something in your brain keeps protesting that this show is just conceptually all wrong. The space opera and the horse opera may have a lot in common, but they're both so visually distinct that combining them is near impossible. Throw in a reversion to 19th century American language, a peculiar decline in medical knowledge, and would you believe, a country and western theme tune, and any suspension of disbelief is doomed.
   Unfortunately, Whedon is deeply in love with this bizarre world; so much so that he guides us slowly and tenderly around it, rather than actually letting anything happen. Look, a frontier town! Look, a bar! Look, another interminable conversation about nothing in particular! The average Firefly episode seems to be happening in slow motion, stretching paper-thin plots stolen from old westerns beyond breaking point.
   Even with so much time to fill, the characters remain affable stereotypes. Nathan Fillion, as Reynolds, has the honourable, courageous man of few words down pat, but is so laidback that there's rarely any sense of danger about the situations he finds himself in. Sean Maher, as the doctor, Simon, has one of the better supporting roles, and acquits himself admirably as a naive intellectual suddenly cast adrift among the dregs of society. Summer Glau, as his fey, damaged sister, deserves a honourable mention, and Ron Glass does his dignified best as a horribly clichéd preacher-man. However, Adam Baldwin is probably having the most fun, as a self-centred survivor who thinks nothing of stealing his crewmates' possessions the moment they're presumed dead, and constantly flirts with betraying ship and captain for the reward.
   There are flashes of good writing, and a great deal of good acting, scattered throughout the episodes, but the overall effect of the slow plotting and lacklustre relationships is soporific. We might have forgiven Firefly its conceptual oddities if it had delivered either action or characters, excited us or intrigued us, but Whedon seems quite happy simply to lull us into a sense of vague contentment. Power corrupts, but absolute power in the world of US TV leads to series like Firefly. Let's hope for something better next time from this undeniably talented writer.
Firefly cast

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