Review: Firefly

A DVD review for a change, as a break from the book reviews.

I never saw any episodes of Firefly while it was on TV (and from what I hear about how horribly FOX botched the broadcast of it, I'm better off), but I picked up the complete boxed set at the recommendation of friends and based on my enjoyment of Buffy. I ended up staying up until 4:30am watching the last episodes.


This is, overall, the best science fiction TV series that I've ever watched in terms of consistent quality, the dynamic of the cast, and the handling of suspension of disbelief. There are other shows that have had more exciting plotlines, have dealt with more sweeping drama, or have had better individual episodes, but this is truly the best series.

It's hard to enumerate all the things that Firefly gets right. The large cast has an excellent and believable internal dynamic, with complex and changing character relationships that don't devolve into soap opera. Several of the characters are particularly memorable and invoke a lot of sympathy and curiosity, particularly Kaylee, the tomboy mechanical prodigy, and River, the... well, that would be a spoiler. Even the more stock characters (the ethical captain, the self-obsessed mercenary) manage to have more depth by far than the norm and come alive in their interactions with the rest of the cast. The writing manages to avoid stock treatment of plots by throwing in enough twists or witty dialog to keep things fresh. But two things stand out in particular.

The first sounds simple, but is exceptionally hard in practice: none of the characters are stupid. Stupidity seems to plague action dramas, and Characters miss obvious traps until after they're sprung, trust people who obviously aren't trustworthy, miss the obvious in another character's attitude, and otherwise act oblivious so that the lot doesn't finish too soon. This is almost completely absent from Firefly. I routinely had the experience of figuring out what was going to happen, and then watching the characters reveal that they'd already figured it out before or at the same time I had and were acting appropriately. At the points where I'm used to thinking "why don't they just do X rather than angst about it?" the characters just do X and go on with their lives. It's hard to express just how refreshing and unusual this is.

The second standout aspect of Firefly is its handling of technobabble and suspension of disbelief. Finally, someone did this properly. Faster than light travel simply happens. There isn't any extended explanation of why or how that doesn't make any sense and has nothing to do with the plot; the writers just assume you can swallow that FTL travel is part of the genre and that you care about the story rather than the fake physics. The mechanic just fixes things, occasionally with short and feasible-sounding part lists, but without any extensive and inevitably stupid explanation of how everything works. It probably makes little sense to have an engine that looks vaguely like a rotary engine and spins when it's running, but no one tries to explain why it does that, failing and just making the viewer painfully aware of the problem. Instead, it's just there.

Technology is seamlessly integrated into the culture; people use guns where it makes sense and lasers where they make sense and they don't wave the technology around to make sure that you saw the special effects budget. Out of the way planets use easy-to-make technology, and central planets use high technology, without lots of in-show narration to point out the obvious reasons why. In short, the science fiction is a consistent background and gets out of the way of the really important part, the story.

I've been trying to figure out why this show didn't do very well. One of them maybe that it has quite a large cast, and particularly given FOX's idiotic broadcast schedule, it could be hard to keep track of everything. Nine regular characters is really on the high side for a series cast (and believe me, all of them are used in practically every episode -- I frequently started thinking "what happened to X" only to have that character show up as an emergency backup or suddenly change the nature of the plot). Another is that it's very much genre fiction, essentially a western in space, created by someone who's famous for creating another genre show, so it may not have crossed over into the mainstream enough. But that means people missed out on some brilliant material.

One brief comment on the western in space idea, since I was leery of that originally. I thought that sounded kind of stupid, and it was jarring for the first 30 minutes or so, but then it just started working for me. It really does work surprisingly well, and it's sort of fun to work out all of the parallels, since there are a bunch. The original Star Trek started with basically the same idea, as did Battlestar: Galactica, but neither of them implemented the idea anywhere near as well.

Anyway, it's a crying shame that this series was cancelled. The only positive is that you can get the entire series in an extremely inexpensive DVD boxed set, and if you have any love for science fiction, witty dialog, well-executed characters, or intelligent plot, I highly recommend buying a copy. The beautiful DVD packaging is just icing on the cake.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Posted: 2003-12-17 01:13 — Why no comments?

i'm really glad you liked it. i was so peeved when it got cancelled because i thought it was excellent. and i don't even like westerns, which was sort of amusing in and of itself. i'll have to buy the DVD set, and i hope that there will be a movie, and maybe it'll be successful, and maybe ... yeah. *heh*.

Posted by piranha at 2003-12-17 11:32

With Farscape I just couldn't get past the muppets, It also seemed to be one of those shows that you had to have watched from the very first episode, otherwise you couldn't figure out what was going on.

Earth: Final Conflict was a big, neverending story. Every time I happened across an epsidoe it seemed like exactly the same stuff was happening as in all of the other episodes I'd seen. Generally boring and ultimately pointless.

But Firefly I liked. As you say, the interactions among the cast members is very well done. The mistakes they make are the same sort that I might make in a similar situation. If anything, they make fewer of them than I would.

It being a space western didn't bother me at all, because they built their universe properly to make it work. There's a broad frontier, with different levels of technology and moral sophistication. You don't always land in a sparkling clean spaceport.

I'd think about picking up the DVD set, except that my paramour probably already has it on order.

Posted by Dean Edmonds at 2003-12-19 01:20

Last spun 2022-02-06 from thread modified 2013-01-04