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Entry updated 10 November 2023. Tagged: Film, TV.

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US tv series (2002). Mutant Enemy for 20th Century Fox Television. Created by Joss Whedon. Producers include Whedon, Tim Minear, and Ben Edlund. Directors include Whedon, Minear, and Vern Gillum. Writers include Whedon, Minear, Edlund, Jose Molina, and Jane Espenson. Cast includes Nathan Fillion as Malcolm Reynolds, Gina Torres as Zoe Washburn, Alan Tudyk as Hoban "Wash" Washburn, Jewel Staite as Kaylee Frye, Adam Baldwin as Jayne Cobb, Morena Baccarin as Inara Serra, Sean Maher as Simon Tam, and Summer Glau as River Tam. 90-minute pilot, 13 one-hour episodes, and two-hour feature film.

After making his name in televised fantasy with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and Angel (1999-2004), Joss Whedon turned to science fiction with Firefly, a short-lived but fiercely adored series (see Westerns) about the crew of a space freighter who ply their trade – sometimes legal and sometimes less so – among the planets colonized by humanity 500 years in the future (a premise Whedon had already toyed with in his script for the fourth Alien film, which introduced just such a crew to the cloned Ripley). Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds is a veteran of the war between the Alliance, the repressive central government based in the central, and most developed planets, in the system, and the outer, less developed planets, who had been seeking independence (how a single solar system could support dozens of habitable – even terraformable [see Terraforming] – planets as the one in Firefly does is just one of the scientific details that the show handwaves away). Still brooding over the independents' loss, Mal, who has named his Spaceship Serenity after the decisive battle of the war, has dropped off the grid along with a crew who mostly have their own reasons to disappear: his first mate and former comrade in arms Zoe and her easygoing husband and ship's pilot Wash, the bubbly ship's engineer Kaylee and the crew's strongman, the dimwitted, lascivious Jayne. In the pilot episode Serenity takes on passengers (see Ship of Fools): the mysterious priest (referred to as a Shepherd) Book, and a young doctor, Simon, clearly born in the central planets, whose cargo turns out to be his Cryogenically frozen sister, River, a genius kidnapped and experimented on by the Alliance, whom Simon has rescued. They join the ship's existing passenger, Inara, a high-class prostitute, or Companion, for whom Mal has complicated feelings. With the discovery of River and the Alliance's pursuit of her, Mal must decide whether to shelter her and Simon, and having decided to do so spends the rest of the series' brief run trying to outrun the increasingly scary mercenaries dispatched to retrieve her.

Like Buffy and Angel, Firefly featured vibrant characters, clever plots, witty dialogue (delivered in a patois concocted by Whedon, a combination of Southern colloquialisms, Mandarin swearing, and science-fictional buzzwords), and a setting that even in the show's early episodes seemed to contain multitudes, enticing viewers with the promise of its further exploration. Whedon fans were immediately won over, but high ratings failed to materialize, largely – it is, by now, commonly accepted – because of Fox's mishandling of the series. The network failed to promote Firefly, aired its episodes out of order, and had Whedon scrap the show's original pilot and replace it with an inferior one it deemed more accessible (so powerful was the trauma of Fox's meddling that when Whedon announced in 2008 that he was reteaming with the network to create Dollhouse, fans immediately launched a preemptive Save Dollhouse campaign, anticipating the show's cancellation). Within a few episodes, Firefly was cancelled. The story, however, was far from over. Firefly became a bestselling DVD (where the original pilot and episode order were restored) as word of mouth spread, and its fandom continued to increase long after the show itself had died. DVD sales and growing fan enthusiasm were enough to reawaken business interest in the show, and the story was continued in a feature film, Serenity (2005), which though a box-office disappointment (demonstrating for the first but by no means the last time that the volubility of geeks, especially on the internet, is completely out of proportion to their market share) provided a satisfying conclusion to the show's story, revealing the truth about River's ordeal and the reasons for the Alliance's pursuit of her. It won a Hugo for best dramatic presentation (long form), and also a Nebula. Several standalone Comic books have filled in the story between the show's end and movie's beginning, and later on picked up from the events of the film.

Decades later, Firefly remains one of the most beloved of geek television series, with an active fannish community (dubbed Browncoats in homage to the independents' moniker within the series) still organizing conventions and charity screenings of the film. As time has passed, however, criticisms of the series have also emerged. Chief among these is the fact that though the civilization the show is set in is allegedly dominated by the remnants of the US and China, and the characters treat Mandarin as a lingua franca, no Asian characters appear in either the series or the film, even when venturing to the core planets where, the series' creators have explained, the Asian upper class congregates (it has been suggested that the Tam siblings were originally envisioned as Asian characters and then cast with white actors, and their surname would seem to support this). Another criticism centres on Inara and the show's confused treatment of prostitution of and her relationship with Mal. Some critics have claimed that Inara represents the male fantasy of the happy hooker (we're told that she chooses which clients to accept and that her services are primarily psychological rather than sexual) while others have pointed out the hypocrisy of Mal's attitude towards her, consistently rejecting the distinction between a Companion and a common prostitute (and revelling in calling Inara a whore) but also insisting that he respects her on a level that none of her clients could – an attitude which the show, by positioning Mal and Inara as potential romantic partners, would seem to support. The show's politics have also come under fire for their simplicity, pitting Mal's quasi-libertarian ethos of freedom at all costs and the uselessness of government against the villainous, restrictive Alliance, which in Serenity is revealed to have drugged and killed the inhabitants of an entire planet in a failed attempt to suppress violent and asocial tendencies. It is possible that in its later episodes Firefly would have addressed these concerns, and equally possible that, given the chance, it would have collapsed under the weight of its contradictory, poorly thought-out worldbuilding. It remains, however, in a state of perpetually unfulfilled, unsquandered potential, and thus shines all the brighter in the minds of its admirers.

A lively anthology collecting reminiscences of cast members, and various items of critical commentary, is Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly (anth 2005), edited by Jane Espenson with Glenn Yeffeth. [AN]

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