Imagine a series following the exploits of Han Solo and Chewbacca in space, as they evade the Empire and take random assignments to survive and subsist.
Welcome to “Firefly.”
It’s 500 years into the future. Six years have passed since the Alliance, on Unification Day, suppressed the fight for independence in a universal civil war. One ship contains fugitives, remaining at the edge of the galaxy where they are constantly on the run.
FOX’s new Friday night series gets with a brilliant start tonight, with the Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Angel”)-directed episode, “Train Job.” The main goal of the episode is to introduce the main characters on board Serenity, a small transport ship. Like the initial episode of “Enterprise,” “Train Job” centers on the captain, in this case one Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, “Saving Private Ryan”). Mal is a quick-thinking captain who welcomes challenges and will take any assignment, no questions asked.
His crew comes with stories of its own. His first mate, Zoe, seems to be one of the few loyal members of his crew. She is married to Wash, the ship’s pilot. Wash is a calmer but quieter crewmember. Anger is saved for Jayne, who seems ready for a mutiny or to betray any of his crewmates should the price be right. Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic, rounds out the quiet part of the cast.
Of course, the ship wouldn’t be entertaining without a couple of oddballs. One is Inara, the classy hooker who may have a thing for the captain. Scenes in which she and Shepherd, the elderly priest, interact are wonderful. Simon, the medic, appears normal, but he carries with him his sister, a sort of psychic named River who is wanted badly by the Alliance.
The mystique of this show is that it’s not a purely sci-fi program. Whereas “Star Trek” used lasers and holodecks, the Serenity members have guns and knives. Their assignment, commissioned by a Russian-type shady character, consists of robbing a train and obtaining a mysterious crate. They are the Kelly Gang with a ship. Even the theme song has a country flavor to it.
The overlap can best be seen in fights. One scene at a tavern features Mal, Zoe and Jayne against a group of pro-Alliance men angered at Mal’s anti-Alliance stance. The wild-west style-brawl that ensues is classic.
Snappy dialogue from Whedon (who also co-wrote the episode) prevents the show from becoming a hokey morality tale, especially when the captain discovers what it is they steal.
Like other Whedon works, the characters manage to maintain a sense of humor (especially Mal) in the face of danger. They also interact well with one another interchangeably, so the absence of the captain or Zoe from a scene does not lead to a pointless conversation. The little subplots introduced in the pilot will surely be tracked in the upcoming episodes. River’s story, in particular, featuring a sort of “Clockwork Orange” terror at The Academy, will be one to watch.
Why “Firefly” is not on Sunday nights to assume “The X-Files”‘ time slot is debatable, especially when the new show will need solid ratings in addition to its critical acclaim to survive. But viewers who stay tuned will find something more than a show designed for Trekkies. This very well could be the season’s finest new drama.