Firefly, on FOX
The show is a sci-fi western, set about 500 years in the future. (I've read online it's 2517, but I'm not sure that's accurate or official.) There was, when the shows first aired, a bit of expository narration at the beginning of each episode. It ain't on the DVDs, sad to say (though you can read it inside the front cover of each issue of the comic book). I'll quote it here, because it gives a fairly good sense of the series and the world in which it takes place, although it leaves room for a lot of details need fillin' in: After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terra-formed and colonized. The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule. There was some disagreement on that point. After the War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggled to get by with the most basic technologies; a ship would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain's goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying.
Let me talk a bit about that, now. Earth is generally called "Earth-that-was." It's sort of mythical in a way, or legendary. Artifacts surviving from Earth-that-was are pretty rare and valuable, and there are lots of stories about the place. It holds a certain place of fascination in the minds of just about everybody in the 'verse, but then, most of the time the forefront of folks' minds is filled with the present. Now there are, as the intro says, lots of colonized worlds... it's really hard for me to believe they're all in one solar system, but I'm generally willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story. One other thing I should mention here, I've read online that the Alliance is actually the Anglo-Sino Alliance, formed by the U.S. and China, the last two super-powers of Earth-that-was. This would explain why everyone speaks both English and Chinese. Of course it's mostly English, but occasional bits of Chinese give a very nice flavor to the series, especially the swearing. I just wish there were subtitles... but if you're interested, there are several places online that'll give you translations of various things heard on the show. 'Course, China and the U.S. were part of Earth-that-was, not part of the present reality, so the Alliance is now an alliance of planets, and I'm not at all sure that these two Alliances should be thought of as one and the same. Anyway, like I said, I'm fond of the occasional Chinese, as well as some of the other slang words people use, such as "gorram," "rutting," and especially "shiny," to name a few. And then there's just the way most characters talk in a very "Western" style, which is also quite fun.
A few other things should be noted about the world in which the show takes place. For example, there are no aliens. There are, however, Reavers- people who have become completely insane, feral, monsters, completely lost their humanity. There are stories about how they might have come to be like this, though no one really knows the truth. The Alliance, meanwhile, denies their existence, but anyone who spends much time in space- at least on the fringes- knows about Reavers, and is deathly afraid of them, would rather kill themselves than be captured by them. This is mostly on account of the Reavers not paying much mind to the order in which they kill, rape, skin, and eat a person.
Another thing I should mention is the Blue Sun corporation, which is fairly ubiquitous, so much so that most folks don't even notice them. They sell just about any kind of thing, I reckon, which makes them pretty rich and powerful. They have ties to the government, and for all we know may actually run the government, or be their own shadow government. They certainly have ties to the Academy, which is an important part of the past of one of the characters on the show. Blue Sun, whatever it actually is, is far more creepy and sinister and just plain wrong than you would expect a major, public corporation like this to be. They've been compared to Coca-Cola, but that's more their public face. In private, I'd say they're more like the Syndicate from The X-Files.
Gettin' back to the intro, there's mention that, at least on the fringes, there ain't much technology. This is what makes the show a Western as much as sci-fi. While the Core planets might present the very picture of the sort of shiny future envisioned by other science fiction along the lines of Star Trek, we mostly see fringe worlds. This disparity of cultures manifests itself in various ways. For example, we see more old-fashioned projectile weapons such as pistols than we do laser guns. A lot of settlements on the fringes look a lot like the towns in old Westerns, very undeveloped and dusty. There's often a lot of livestock around. People wearin' old-fashioned clothes and using simple tools. 'Course you'll also see motor vehicles, spaceships, maybe some video screens in bars and whatnot... Really, the eras mix pretty well, and this isn't the first piece of fiction to mix sci-fi and the Old West, but it's about the best example of the sci-fi Western genre that comes to mind....
Another important thing from the intro is the Unification War. It ended 6 years before the series begins, although we see the tail end of it at the start of the first episode. The Alliance united all the worlds, including the fringes, under one government, but the Independents (called Browncoats, as are fans of the show) put up a good fight. And the Alliance doesn't have as much direct control over the outer planets, where a lot of people are still bitter about having lost the war, as they have over the Core worlds. One sergeant in the war, on the side of the Browncoats, was Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who is now the captain of a Firefly-class transport ship called Serenity. You might also be interested to know the ship itself has no armaments, which is a mite troublin', considerin' how often ship-based weapons might come in handy. Except that most ships they'd be up against would outgun the hell out of 'em even if they did have armaments. But at least Serenity is good at getaways. And of course, the crew have plenty of handheld guns, otherwise they'd definitely be dead many times over. This is a Western, after all.
Mal's second in command is ZoŽ Washburne (Gina Torres), who fought alongside him in the war, and who remains very loyal to him. The ship's mechanic is Kaylee (Kaywinnit Lee) Frye (Jewel Staite). The crew also includes the pilot, Hoban "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk), who's married to ZoŽ; and Jayne Cobb, a mercenary, who likes big guns... and who's not entirely trustworthy.
Passengers include Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a "Companion" (an occupation which can be described as a courtesan, a high class prostitute, a geisha, a priestess, maybe even an unofficial ambassador... or really, a mix of all these things). Society considers Companions very respectable (certainly more so than Serenity's crew), a very honorable occupation. Though Mal doesn't really agree with that assessment, and frequently calls her a whore (even though they actually have feelings for each other, they never admit it, they just argue most of the time). And in the first episode, they also take in a few more passengers. One is a somewhat mysterious preacher (or "Shepherd") named Derrial Book (Ron Glass), whose past is a subject of much speculation among fans of the show. The others are a doctor named Simon Tam, and his sister, River (Summer Glau).
Simon has a little speech in the first episode which gives us a pretty fair understanding of both him and his sister, which starts "I am very smart," and goes on to detail exactly how smart he is. "Gifted," he calls himself, in summation. That's all set-up for him to say this: "So when I tell you that my little sister makes me look like an idiot-child, I want you to understand my full meaning. River was more than gifted, she... she was a gift." After a bit more description of what she was like, he says she went to the Academy when she was 14. She wanted to go, because it had the best program of study. After several months, he got a letter from her which said, in code, "They're hurting us. Get me out." It turned out the Academy was playing with people's brains, doing experiments... he didn't know exactly what, or why. It took him two years, but he finally managed to rescue her, with help from some underground movement. In the course of the series, we'll see some of the effects of those experiments. Her mental abilities have been enhanced, though it's hard to tell, because she was also quite damaged psychologically by the experiment. She mostly just seems sort of crazy. Often quiet, always unpredictable, potentially dangerous... And no one (except Kaylee) is really happy about having River and Simon on board, especially not Jayne. Because harboring fugitives makes them far more of a target for the Alliance than usual. And we will definitely see a lot of trouble on account of this, throughout the series. Meanwhile, as always, the crew takes any job they can get, in order to get by. A lot of it will be criminal, but they'll take honest work when they can (and they generally try to conduct even their illegal jobs in an honorable fashion).
I also want to talk about about the way people talk (and also about their personalities, whether the way they talk has anything to do with it or not). Most everyone has their own distinctive style of speaking, and most of their speech patterns seem to be based on Western archetypes. And the way they speak says a lot about their characters. Mal's speech has an obvious, and appealing, frontier gentility about it. Not real fancy, but very Western; certainly rough when need be, but he mostly sounds relatively polite. Especially when compared to Jayne, who is almost completely lacking in any semblance of social nicety (though on occasion he does an amusing job of mimicking it). He certainly seems to be... let's say the least educated of the bunch. And he seems to be pretty happy that way. Not sure what to say about ZoŽ. Her speech is pretty similar to the captain's, though I think she's smarter than he is, and knows it. Seems to also have a fondness for irony and sarcasm. Which isn't unlike her husband, Wash. I don't really think of him as a Western character, by any means. He's eccentric, that's probably the most common word most fans would use to describe him. And like I said of ZoŽ, ironic and sarcastic. (Though pretty much everyone on this show demonstrates a fair amount of skill with sarcasm, from time to time.) ...Wash always speaks his mind, frequently disagrees with the others, though he tends to get the least respect (in spite of being a damn fine pilot, without whose skill they'd surely all be dead just as many times over as if they had no guns), perhaps in part because he doesn't do any of the fighting, perhaps because he likes to play the clown, or perhaps just because it's so damn funny to see everyone not taking him seriously. In any event, everyone on this show is extremely funny, so I want you to understand my full meaning when I say... uh, Wash is the funniest. Then there's Kaylee, dear, sweet Kaylee... what can I say except she's a simple country girl who is proud of her simple country ways, but just happens to be an incredibly talented spaceship mechanic? And yet, she longs for a kind of refined elegance which... most civilized folk would deride. Because her idea of refinement is, in the eyes of such arrogant snobs, often just as simple and inelegant as they would see her when she ain't even tryin'; or perhaps rather seems to them a silly parody of refinement. Anyway, I should also mention that she really likes Simon. This may have something to do with her taste for finer things, and may be the one thing in which her taste would not be called quite so much into question. Anyway, I love Kaylee, and I feel kind of sorry for her, the way some people from more civilized worlds treat her. And this includes Simon. He doesn't mean to offend, and in fact over time he develops a real fondness for her, though nothing comes of this in the series... but he does have a tendency to sometimes put his foot in his mouth, when talking to her. Well... Inara is a thoroughly trained courtesan, so there is a soft, sensual refinement to her speech. She is definitely the most refined person on the show, aside from Simon. And he, I think, could easily be the archetype of an East coast doctor come to practice frontier medicine, in any Earth-based Western. Bit of a refined British accent, too, though it sounds perhaps like one of a second generation immigrant. Yep, very familiar character, looking with a certain degree of distrust and disdain on the group in which he now finds himself, though he does come to trust and respect most of them. No one trusts Jayne, of course. Book is a preacher, and speaks like one. Albeit a worldly one, who understands people and their baser impulses, and is nonetheless quite friendly and soft-spoken. Hardly a fire-and-brimstone type. And finally, we have River. She's much the same as Simon, except she always had a more carefree spirit about her... and now she's crazy. Which makes her every word intensely interesting, whether you have the slightest notion what she's talking about or not. If you don't, don't worry much... even she doesn't usually know what the heck she's talking about.
It took me awhile to grow to love this show... while it was on the air, I thought it was just pretty good. But since seeing it on DVD, I came to realize just how great it truly is. You just gotta love a show where the good guys aren't all that good, don't have much problem with being on the wrong side of the law or occasionally killing their enemies. There's also plenty of humor, drama, action, mystery, and of course incredible characters, and character interaction. Brilliant writing, brought to life by a truly brilliant ensemble. And did I mention humor? Cuz there's a hell of a lot of that. And that's about all I can say for now... My review, I'm afraid, cannot possibly do the series proper justice. Oh yeah, and I also quite like the theme song, "Ballad of Serenity," by Sonny Rhodes.
See also the Serenity comic books and the movie Serenity.