Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Firefly: The Real Pilot Review

Much has been written about, commented on, and lamented regarding Joss Whedon's short-lived science fiction romp, Firefly. While not finding the broad audience it was hoping for, the passion among the show's followers is legendary. The self-described 'Brown Coats' managed that rarest feat in entertainment: using devotion to overcome profit margins. The production of the Serenity movie owes its existence almost entirely to the efforts of the fans who picketed, propositioned, and petitioned it into being.

The gang is all here.
So what is it about the show that creates this cleavage between the ardently passionate and the uninterested masses? The reason for the passion in the fan-base is nowhere better visible than in the pilot episode, Serenity (not to be confused by the eventual movie of the same name). We will have to hold off on theorizing about the show's folly vis-a-vis the mainstream until the entire series has been reviewed (although suspicions already are cropping up in the pilot). For now, understand that the initial episode of Firefly is a joyous 1.5 hours of introductions; from the characters to the setting to the obvious passion brought to bear by Joss Whedon. Though not without its problems, Serenity is a wholly enjoyable romp into the unique (though not as original as the Brown Coats would hold) science fiction world.

Perhaps Joss Whedon's greatest strength is his ability to write believable dialogue and situations in otherwise alien environs. Nothing feels forced for the sake of plot, no twist rings false. Despite his superstar status among his rabid fans, Joss Whedon's greatest strength is surprisingly his invisibility in his creations. From the beginning to the end of our first hour and a half in Firefly's world, we are immersed. (Or more accurately, our occasional lack of immersion is not the fault of the writing, but more on that in a bit.)

We are introduced to Mal and Zoe 6 years ago during the Battle of Serenity Valley in which we watch the rebellion's back be broken by the Alliance. While we are given no explanatory voice over or background text scroll to frame this scene, it doesn't feel overwhelming or confusing. We know Mal's archetype from Han Solo and we are familiar with his rebellion from Star Wars. But the scene suffers (and I'm sure not just in retrospect) from a Saturday afternoon WB sci-fi aesthetic that almost undermines the gravity of this defeat with its camp. Thankfully the final shot of the opening sequence is beautiful and sad, managing to effectively introduce us to the show's twin tones of drama and fun.

Zoe, Mal, and Jayne.
From there the show introduces us to its principle characters through a slow process of discovery. Back in the present day, Mal and Zoe now run a small ship who's principle business seems to be scavaging wrecks and other odd jobs on the gray side of the law. Immediately, the show brandishes its science fiction credentials by accurately depicting the silence of space. The juxtaposition of the heavier 2001-inspired space scenes with the Star Wars-esque fun is a neat hook and it becomes clear early on that this show has higher ambitions than cashing in on tired old tropes. The other main characters are introduced one by one, each appearing to be just as archetypal as Mal at first blush. And while these characters are clearly cut from a well-worn cloth, over the course of the episode, their humanity and depth is slowly revealed through their relationships. Mal's concern for his crew is genuinely touching by the time the end credits roll and his rag-tag band of shipmates all have interesting histories that we want to learn more about.

It is in this slow pace of discovery that Whedon's passion becomes clear. He doesn't rush us into his new world but rather puts us in familiar territory before slowly peeling back the various eccentricities of his universe. The result is a fascinating first episode that, contrary to the thick-skulled executives who thought a better introduction would be The Train Job, is perfectly paced to pull us into the universe. No character surviving at the end of the pilot feels superfluous as each has been given caring screen time to develop their motivations, quirks, and personality. And, despite all this plot wrangling, it never feels forced.

Having heaped such praise on the pilot, it is now time to note the show's various problems that could account for it's inability to reach mass market appeal. Common Brown Coat knowledge (which might as well be scripture at this point) holds that the failure of the show is entirely the product of Fox executives who wanted a faster-paced episode to kick off the series. While I agree that the intended pilot is a much better introduction to the show, I'm not convinced that its eventual failure is purely the result of its rocky start. There seem to be two fundamental cracks in the show's foundation that might be just as responsible for bringing down the house prematurely.

Inara and Kaylee.
The aforementioned camp of the introduction is just as prevalent in the opening episode as the many beautiful shots of space, creating a fractured sense of style and place which never seems to be resolved. For every silent decompression and ponderous ships-passing-in-the-night moment (which are truly refreshing on a science fiction TV show), there is a land-based scene whose aesthetic seems more like a circus than a gritty Wild West in space (which is obviously a big part of the show's design intention). This shouldn't be taken as a knock on the worlds imagined in which China's eventual dominance on Earth led to its influence in speech, art, and style. Fusion cultures mashing East and West are usually interesting at worst and downright beautiful at best (see Cowboy Bebop for an example of all things that Firefly could have been). It is merely the way it is shot, lit, and populated that feels campy. Blame it on the show's budget, but the planet-side scenes threaten to derail all the atmosphere the show so effectively builds up in space.

My kingdom for these production values!
In addition to the uneven look of the show, and in spite of the praise heaped on the characters above, its principle actors are hit or miss. Nathan Fillion's Mal is wonderfully portrayed, effortlessly oscillating between humor and sadness, friendliness and leadership. This is a scene-chewing role for him and apparently responsible for launching his career. Alan Tudyk's Wash and Adam Baldwin's Jayne are similarly solid though are asked less of in their roles. And Summer Glau is suitably vulnerable and crazy as River. But the rest of the cast all bear that earmark of thespian inexperience: over-earnestness. Further testament to the impressive direction and writing then, that their characters still pique our interest and engender our concern. However, a show whose acting talent rests on the shoulders of Nathan Fillion, broad though they may be, clearly has issues beyond ham-fisted Fox executives.

Nothing like the old critique sandwich; two slices of compliment bed with a slab of criticism in the middle. Notwithstanding the points made above regarding the camp and acting problems, this is a strong first episode and one that hints at a truly lovely show tragically cut down in its prime. The care and passion for this universe is clear in every scene, even when the budget can't keep up. It is potentially this care and passion (combined perhaps with the over-eager actors) which has fueled the cultish flame of the ardent fans. The show's strengths are beautiful and its weaknesses somehow endearing, making it perfect fodder for a passionate minority but cutting it off from wider popularity.

We will be reviewing each episode over the course of the next few weeks before concluding with the movie. Stay tuned!

1 comment:

  1. Who ever wrote this must have gone to school to be a critic because they failed at being a screen writer, it's the characters that make the show not the sets or locations.