A Tunnel in the Sky

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Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Please note, this page was originally uploaded on December 24, 2003. I've made some minor revisions since then, but have left most of my comments intact even though they are outdated at this point. I've added some notes at the end to put things in perspective, as well as links to some other pages.

No Power in the 'Verse...

Regardless of the merits of Firefly, which I think are considerable, it was almost inevitable that FOX would not support it.

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First, it cost over two million dollars per episode (and the two hour pilot supposedly cost twelve mil), which meant it was out of reach for either UPN or the WB, two minor networks that had already proved to be a profitable home for Whedon's two other creations, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff, Angel.

Secondly, even though FOX might still be considered a minor network compared to the Big Three, it would have required higher ratings numbers than either UPN or WB in order to keep this show alive. Point of fact: Firefly did have higher ratings than either Buffy or Angel had in their freshman seasons. Also, this is just hearsay, but I've read posts on various bbs that Firefly was the most Tivoed show at the time, but of course that was before DVRs were prevalent and the networks began taking their figures into account, and long before online viewing became a factor as well.

Third, FOX proved they did not understand the show when they rejected Whedon's original pilot (which in my opinion was a very good setup for the characters and scenarios to follow) in favor of another story with more action and humor. While that second episode ("The Train Job") is not a bad episode, and I like it more each time I watch it, it did suffer from awkward and confusing expository scenes that would not have been necessary if the original pilot had aired first.

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And finally, it was scheduled for Friday nights, the death knell for a show with the demographic appeal of Firefly, and FOX did not promote it enough or in the proper way. I can recall only one other show of this calibre that survived a Friday night schedule, that being The X-Files, but that didn't really take off until its move to Sunday nights, which is where Firefly should have been. Not only that, even in its very short run Firefly was preempted three different times for sports or holiday specials (once two weeks in a row), making it difficult for even its fans to know when it was going to be on.

A Few Gorram Spoilers

Anyone reading this is probably already a fan of the show, but if not I should warn you that some of what follows could be considered spoilers by most people. I'll try to limit them and I do not think they will ruin it for anyone who has yet to see the show. I would hope that what I have to say will pique your interest enough to buy the DVD set, and believe me when I say the fact that The Templeton Gate will benefit if you use our link to amazon.com is the least reason for me doing this review. I don't care where you purchase it, I just think you should!

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The success of this release has hopefully made it apparent to FOX that they mishandled the show. At last report it has sold upwards of a half a million units, and has rarely dropped out of the top 100 sellers on amazon.com since its release. It shot back up to as high as #2 with the release of the Serenity trailer and several rough-cut screenings. I don't have access to other information but I would guess this is almost unprecedented in the annals of video release, for a show that did not even complete an entire season to not only get a DVD release this soon, but obviously be in very high demand. Early March '04 saw the announcement that Universal Pictures had greenlighted "Serenity," the theatrical continuation of the show (filming began on June 3). If that is successful as well (and I have no doubt it will be, considering it is budgeted at a very reasonable $35 million [or is it 50 mil?]) we may be lucky enough for it to become an ongoing film franchise, or else it could return as a weekly series, or both. [Hey, I can still dream can't I?]

In any case, Firefly is one of my favorites of recent years, and having purchased the DVDs myself, I am much in the mood of spreading the word about this great show. I regret not having done a page on Firefly before this, but I failed to tape all the episodes, or some of them were damaged. I was going to tape them again, hopefully in the proper order, when they were repeated, but that never happened. Thus I did not have a chance to rewatch it all until the DVDs. I've watched each episode numerous times since early December and have not tired of it yet, in fact I think it gets better with repeat viewings. Frequent visitors to this site will know I am a big Babylon 5 fan, and I have stated in the past it was the best SF to ever appear on television. I have now changed my mind, and sorely wish Firefly had had the opportunity to develop its storylines in its initial release.

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Firefly is set about 500 years into our future, as humanity is in a pioneering growth phase, moving out to terraform and colonize various planets and moons (since "Earth-That-Was" has apparently been abandoned). Because of this pioneer aspect to the story Whedon gave the show a Western flavor, and quite appropriately in my opinion. Just as in segments of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love, it is logical to assume that sparsely settled planets would not have the infrastructure to support advanced technologies, and thus would be forced to rely on basic tools and machinery easliy repaired, as well as on animal labor.

About six years previous to the main action of the series there had been a system-wide civil war between the totalitarian Alliance (the Union of Allied Planets) and the Independents, which closely parallels the American Civil War. Nathan Fillion portrays Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, owner and operator of the Firefly-class transport spaceship Serenity. Reynolds had been a sergeant on the losing side (the Independents) of the war, a situation that we will later see has had a major influence on his personality and his outlook on life and the way he relates to other people, both his friends and his enemies. Gina Torres as Zoë, is his second-in-command. She had fought alongside him during the war, and it is very evident she has a great deal of respect for him. One might naturally assume they would have developed a romantic relationship, however do not forget the old maxim of "opposites attract." Zoë actually falls in love with and marries Wash (Alan Tudyk), Serenity's very good but wildly eccentric pilot.

Rounding out the crew are Adam Baldwin as the gun-loving mercenary Jayne Cobb, and Jewel Staite as Kaylee, a mechanical whiz who keeps Serenity flying - at least most of the time. Paying passengers who eventually become more like crewmen include Ron Glass as Book, supposedly a "Shepherd" who has spent many years in a monastery (although there seem to be several clues which point to some other previous occupation), and Sean Maher as Dr. Simon Tam, a fugitive from Alliance authority who has rescued his genius sister (Summer Glau as River) from what proves to be a secret organization's invasive surgical procedures. The final character, Inara (Morena Baccarin) has been with the ship much longer than the other passengers. She is a Registered Companion, a licensed courtesan (in this society a highly respected position) who rents one of the ship's shuttles as her living quarters. She also utilizes the shuttle to visit many of her clients.

Each of these characters plays a unique role in unifying all of them into one big extended family, even though at first glance they would seem to be entirely mismatched. Also, each of the actors are very convincing in their role, with none overshadowing the others in importance. There are only two of them whose previous work I was familiar, Ron Glass and Adam Baldwin, but all are simply perfect in this show. I mentioned to my son recently that it is impossible for me to decide which of them is my favorite, since they are all so integral to the success of the show. But after extended viewing I am now prepared to say who I think does the best acting job, and it happens to be the one who has the least experience.

Summer Glau, prior to Firefly, had only one other acting assignment, playing a ballerina (her original profession) in one episode of Angel. The character of River Tam is the most complex of all of those on Serenity, and in the hands of a lesser actress could have come across as rather silly. It is possible that Whedon can take some credit for that, but in the end it is the performer who must bring the creator's vision and words to life, and in my opinion Summer does that remarkably well. This is in no way a slight of the other actors, it is just that River's story is very intriguing, and every time Summer is on screen she dominates the dynamics of the scene.

And let's not forget the tenth "character," Serenity herself. She's old, funky, nearly obsolete, and at times appears to be held together by nothing more than spit and a prayer (and possibly some terrifying space monkeys). But she's fast and maneuverable, and because of her small size can be very deceptive to anyone not familiar with her capabilities. She turns out to be a gracious home for this ragtag group of mercenaries and fugitives, and the scene in "Out of Gas" where Mal first lays eyes on her is the epitome of the concept of "love at first sight."

Shiny, with a nice atmo too

For those who haven't seen the show, and haven't yet figured it out, the headings I gave the different sections include several slang phrases used frequently. The 'verse of course means the universe, and the phrase "No power in the 'verse can stop me" is uttered by both Kaylee and River in the same episode ("War Stories"), although under quite different circumstances. Shiny is a multi-purpose adjective, used in much the same way as groovy in the 1960s, or cool or rad or whatever the common phrase is today. Atmo is short for atmosphere, usually used in reference to the atmosphere of a planet or terraformed moon, but it was also used at times to refer to the air inside the ship itself. My use of the term here is more about the mood or ambiance aboard Serenity. Even though the crew and passengers are from widely varied backgrounds, a definite bond develops between them quickly, and it becomes obvious that most of them could think of no better place to be.

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Gorram is obviously a substitute word (similar to the use of the word "frelling" on Farscape or "frak" on Battlestar Galactica), taking the place of the more commonly used G**D*****, (something probably not disallowed by today's censors, although there are many who are very offended by the phrase, especially on primetime broadcast television). Along with a couple of other words I assumed were made up, a lot of the expletives uttered are in Chinese. I won't try to duplicate any of those, since I would probably get them all wrong anyway. I'm not sure if they are even accurate translations of common English phrases, however there is a Chinese translator listed in the credits. I have seen interviews with Whedon where he said they did that to give the impression that there is a multi-cultural mix of people in this 'verse, but truth be told, I think it was more so that expletives could be used without running afoul of the censors. But to be fair, I should point out that some of the Chinese phrases are not expletives.

I certainly don't want to imply that Firefly was/is a perfect show. There are a couple of weak episodes (IMO, and I'm sure my picks would be argued by others), but that is to be expected in a show with a complex set of characters and situations that have to be addressed. If one cared to nit-pick, there are quite a few continuity errors and illogical developments in several episodes (with one HUGE mistake in "Out of Gas"), but in my opinion they never over-shadow the overall excellence in story-telling and character development. What is sad is that FOX did not allow them enough time to fully explore all the nuances of the personalities and their intricate interactions, not to mention quite a bit of backstory that would have helped expand our understanding of these people.

I'm not sure if this makes much sense to anyone else, but I like Firefly as much for what is not on the screen as much as what is. The actors in this show are so gorram good at what they do, and Joss fleshed out the 'verse they are in so well, that it is extremely easy to visualize them in their everyday lives, away from the tension and excitements of their dramatized adventures, and to think of them as real people. It is also interesting to note the background characters, such as Badger, Niska, Saffron, Nandi or Jubal Early, are almost as well-developed as the main characters, and worthy of their own shows as well. Perhaps in the future we can get a spin-off series, Tales from the 'Verse.

I won't get into all the unanswered questions here. Hopefully that is something I can talk about when the film and/or revived series happens, but if anyone else wants to I would be willing to get into a spoiler-filled discussion about it on the forums. I pre-ordered the DVDs as early as I could, and got them just a few days after release. So far, I have watched each episode over a dozen times. I have developed a few theories about the characters, or in some cases subscribed to other theories I have read online.

There are several tribute websites devoted to Firefly, and on the best of them, fireflyfans.net, there have been discussions of the proper episode order. Some are saying that the production number of the episode should be the deciding factor, but I see no reason not to accept the order as presented on the DVD set. It might be true that a couple of the unaired episodes contain references back to other eps, but the last one on the DVD ("Objects in Space") was the last one FOX aired before they finally got around to showing the original pilot. "Objects in Space" is a very strong episode, possibly the best, and it is likely a better lead-in to the story in the upcoming film than would be two others that were produced after it. I have to assume Whedon is the one who chose the order for the DVDs, so I am willing to defer to his judgement.

Along with the episodes, the DVD set also includes several behind-the-scene features, tours of the sets, interviews with cast, crew and writers, a gag reel, Joss singing the theme song (which he wrote), and most importantly, several deleted scenes. Two of them, consecutive scenes cut from the pilot film, are very good, and even though the subject of them was referenced a couple of other times, here there is given a better reasoning behind Mal's decision in naming his ship. There are also commentaries that accompany seven of the episodes, and of course, there is the easter egg, which is Adam Baldwin singing "Hero of Canton," the song written about his character as featured in the episode "Jaynestown."

I suppose actors are good at seeming convincing when speaking on a subject, but if all of these people are truthful in what they say about this show and their experience with it, we must then assume all rate it very highly in their careers. They certainly convinced me that they inhabited these characters as easily as they put on their wardrobe. I will be extremely disappointed if any of them are not available when it comes time to film the script Joss has completed. If that does happen, I would rather they create a new character rather than try to pass off another actor in any of these roles.

And Joss, keep Serenity flying, I'll keep watching.

Or to quote a song by Godsmack - "I need Serenity!" Dong Ma?

Later Reflections

Well, Serenity has come and gone, and I've reviewed it here, but alas it was not as successful at the box office as the Browncoats had hoped, so there may never be a sequel. Like Firefly, it has done very well on DVD, and Joss did do the impossible once before, maybe he can do it again. There is still room for hope (such as if I win the lottery, I'm calling Joss first!)

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The Firefly/Serenity love keeps coming. Not only does the show and movie get frequent mentions on various entertainment websites and blogs, new fans are being made nearly everyday as they discover the DVDs. Titan Books has published three different volumes on the show, and I've reviewed Firefly: The Official Companion, Volume One and Volume Two. I also have Firefly: Still Flying, and while I have finished reading it I have not had time to review it. There have also been several comics, plus action figures, ship models, maps of the 'verse, etc. Lots of interest in such a short-lived show.


Related Links:
fireflyfans.net - A fan-supported resource site that predates even the official Fox site.
serenitymovie.org - a fan-supported message board devoted to Firefly/Serenity and other work by the cast and crew.
serenitymovie.net (formerly fireflymovie.com) - dedicated to spreading the word about this great show and any future productions of it.
Whoa. Good Myth - resource site with episode summaries and transcripts, a lexicon of commonly used phrases, along with some of the memorable quotes from the series.
browncoats.com - another great resource for information on the Firefly 'verse.
Firefly/Serenity Chinese Pinyinary - compiled by Kevin M. Sullivan, a helpful guide to the Chinese phrases used in the 'verse.


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Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon
Tim Minear

Premiere Date
September 20, 2002

Final Broadcast
December 20, 2002

Nathan Fillion
Gina Torres
Alan Tudyk
Adam Baldwin
Jewel Staite
Morena Baccarin
Sean Maher
Summer Glau
Ron Glass

Emmy, Saturn, Visual Effects Society & Cinescape awards

Nominated for Motion Picture Sound Editors, Golden Satellite and Hugo (2) awards

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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