Thursday, August 28, 2008

Firefly: To know it is to love it

Firefly / Serenity charactersThere are two types of people: those who have never seen Firefly, and those who are irrevocably hooked. If you’ve seen Firefly and aren’t completely enthralled by it, then either you didn’t really see it, or else you are not a person.

Firefly is a 14-episode space Western of sorts created by Joss Whedon (the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but you don't need to be a fan of any of those to like Firefly). The show was cancelled after one season in large part because Fox aired the episodes out of order, and the stories from episode to episode are interconnected enough that jumping around completely ruins everything.

The basic premise of the Firefly universe is this: The Earth that we know got used up, and humanity took to the stars in search of new places to live. They terraformed a bunch of planets and got settled; some of the planets are high-tech and densely populated, while others are big balls of dirt with a few rugged settlements here and there, away from the influence of the law.

The show follows the crew of the Firefly-class freighter ship Serenity as they do whatever it takes to make a living, honest or not, and to stay alive against the dangers they encounter and the people who are trying to hunt them down.

A few things that set Firefly apart from other sci-fi shows: You don’t need to know a lick of technical mumbo-jumbo to know what’s going on; half of the characters have no idea what half the stuff is people are talking about, and they get on just fine.

The show isn’t crawling with aliens. You’ll notice that all the characters are human, and on top of their physical makeup, I mean that they are truly human. There are no “bad guys” or “good guys”; everyone has heroic traits and flaws, and even the villains, no matter how evil they may be, have some character trait or some aspect of their history that makes you understand them as more than just people added to the story to cause trouble for the heroes.

Also, though the show is set in the future and often in outer space, and though it features gunfights and barfights and chase scenes and everything that adds zing to a Western, Firefly isn’t a space Western featuring a spaceship crew; it’s a story about real people who just happen to be in a space Western. Whether it’s the internally conflicted captain, the plucky comic relief pilot, the sweet engineer, the mysterious young stowaway, or any of the other crew members, I guarantee that you will find one, if not several, characters that you can relate to and will start caring about as if they were your friends and family.

The characters are highly realistic and interact like real people do, and the universe in which they live is equally realistic. I’m not talking about the plausibility of their technology (though it certainly all sounds reasonable enough), but rather about the feel of the universe. The locations are appropriately pristine or grungy, and everywhere looks like people honestly live there.

Beyond that, you’ll get the sense from the first episode that anything can happen, as it can in real life. I won’t spoil anything, but know going into it that nothing and no one is safe. Most TV shows make you wonder how the characters are going to get out of a tight situation; Firefly makes you wonder if they’re going to get out at all, and the action is that much more intense and you get that much more attached to the characters because of this.

Firefly covers everything: it has action, drama, mystery, suspense, a little splash of horror, romance, philosophy, tragedy, and comedy, and everything is woven together into one incredible experience. The series is easily worth watching multiple times: the abundant humor and some clues about the show’s mysteries are very subtle, and you’ll likely only pick up on them after you know how everything turns out. Sometimes it’s almost like watching a different show, because you can focus less on “are they going to make it?” and focus more on the present.

Here is my recommendation to you: Watch this series. Now. If you aren’t hooked by the end of the first episode or two, then there’s no talking to you. You can probably get the complete series for about $25-$50… but I’ll bet you’ll still want more. Fortunately, there is more.

By a very special brand of miracle, the entire main cast of the show returned for the 2005 film Serenity, which takes place after the events of the TV show. It is a heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding thrill ride that resolves some of Firefly’s biggest questions and makes some very big changes. You can get the regular edition, but I suggest the Collector’s Edition DVD, which goes for about $20-$30. Lots and lots of extras, including (but not limited to) fantastic outtakes, lots of behind-the-scenes looks, and a collection of the five short Internet videos released to promote the movie that offer a slight glimpse into the past of one of the main characters.

I can assure you that you will be in Firefly withdrawal even after watching the movie, which is why you might wish to turn to the comic books, published by Dark Horse, which require a knowledge of the show to fully appreciate.

Those Left Behind is a series of three comics that spans the gap between the TV series and the movie. Not only does it explain what happens in-between, but it also ties up some loose ends from the TV series that never had a chance to be resolved thanks to its premature cancellation. The complete Those Left Behind series is currently available in a softcover book as well as a hardcover book with lots of pretty bonus art. These will run you between $10-$20.

Serenity: Better Days coverBetter Days is also a series of three comics, but is more along the lines of an unaired episode of the TV series. It takes place after the TV series but before Those Left Behind and Serenity. The compilation book is in the $10-$15 ballpark.

Float Out is a one-shot about everyone's favorite wisecracking pilot, Hoban "Wash" Washburne. The unique style of storytelling covers some of what happened before Firefly and just a hint of what happens after Serenity.

Lastly, there is rumor of A Shepherd’s Tale, which will finally tell the tale of the mysterious Shepherd Book. It supposedly takes place prior to the events of the TV series.

Of course, there’s always other stuff you can buy—posters, t-shirts, soundtracks, even lunchboxes and Christmas ornaments—but aside from fan fiction and fanart, that’s about the most of the Firefly universe you’re likely to see any time soon.

If all that still isn’t enough, do an IMDB search for shows and movies that feature your favorite Firefly characters; you might be surprised where you find some of them. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is an excellent place to start, as it features Nathan Fillion (Captain Malcolm Reynolds), and it’s still Joss Whedon. Just to name a few more, you've also got TV series such as Chuck and V and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, plus movies such as 3:10 to Yuma.

And, if that really still isn’t enough, pick up the rulebook for the Serenity Role Playing Game and start writing and playing your own gorram adventures! That’ll cost you around $25-$40 for the book, plus maybe $4-$9 for the set of polyhedral dice you’ll need to play, and extra money if you buy any of the supplementary books such as Out in the Black and Six Shooters and Spaceships.

Of course, other players will most likely need to have books and dice of their own, and tabletop roleplaying games have all sorts of other expenses and complexities attached to them, but I won’t take the time to detail them right now.

So, to wrap up:

Why you should watch Firefly: Powerful storytelling, truly memorable characters, highly unconventional, something for everyone, wholly engrossing experience.

Disclaimers: May cause insatiable fandom and heartbreak.

Price recap and suggested viewing/reading order:
Firefly: The Complete Series (DVD) - $25-$50 (Start here first, no matter what!)
Those Left Behind (Comics; softcover or hardcover compilation) - $10-$20
Serenity (Collector’s Edition) (DVD) - $20-$30
Float Out (One-shot comic) - $3-$5
Better Days (Comics; compilation) - $10-$15
Serenity Roleplaying Game (Books) - $25-$40 for the core rulebook, plus $15-120 for supplemental books, plus $4-$9 for dice
A Shepherd’s Tale (Comics; unconfirmed) - ?

Estimated total: $108-$289 for the whole shebang, at least for now.

[Photo from Better Days cover from]

1 comment:

A Philosophical Nerd said...

I saw the movie Serenity back in 2005 (has it really been that long?) before even watching the show. In fact, I thought it was just a new sci-fi movie; I had never even heard of Firefly. I know it's probably sacrilegious that it's taken me this long, but I just watched the pilot episode today on Hulu. I'm planning on watching the rest of the series as soon as I can find it (the only other episodes Hulu has are #'s 11-14).