The defining characteristic of Firefly is that it melds together two seemingly disparate genres: science fiction and the Western. But this isn’t a gimmick or genre-busting for its own sake. Creator Joss Whedon is taking what is implicit in a certain subgenre of science fiction (Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the Stars") and made it literal. It not only works, it’s surprisingly nonintrusive. When wrapped around the concept of "colonizing the outer planets," it’s easy to accept horses, homesteads, and cattle drives mixed in with science fiction trappings like spaceships. During a traditional bar room brawl, a man is inevitably thrown through a plate glass window, but here it’s a self-adjusting hologram. And the cocking of what appear to be shotguns are accompanied by the sound of the weapons charging up.
Although Westerns are often thought of as containing clear-cut values — the old white hat/black hat dichotomy — gray areas are just as much a part of popular culture’s representation of the Wild West (The Ox-Box Incident, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch, Unforgiven). Firefly centers around Serenity, a cargo ship that’s just as involved with smuggling and even stealing as it is with transporting legal cargo. But as in Shane and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Serenity’s crew of semi-outlaws are sympathetic and likable — even Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the resident sexist jerk. This doesn’t mean that Whedon resorts to cheap sentimentality or cloying goodness ("You know, it’s all very sweet, stealing from the rich, selling to the poor…"). The characters are allowed to have an edge to them. When an antagonist hides behind a horse, Captain Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) simply shoots the horse.
Firefly is analogous to the old West in other ways. Both Reynolds and second-in-command Zo� (Gina Torres) are veterans of a civil war fought over secession. Some of the passengers on Serenity are based on Western archetypes going back at least as far as Stagecoach (gunslinger, preacher, doctor, prostitute with a heart of gold). And the Reapers, savages that strike fear into travelers and settlers alike, are stand-ins for Indians — not Native Americans per se, but Hollywood’s version of Indians. Whedon is too progressive to confuse the two.
As usual, Whedon includes great roles for women. Although Captain Reynolds has his brooding, dark moments, it’s Zo� who plays the traditional male role of the tough, taciturn fighter. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) also takes on a role usually reserved for men: the ship’s mechanic. (And like the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon, Serenity is often in need of repairs.) Among the passengers is Inara (Morena Baccarin), an original variation of that all-to-familiar role of prostitute, here known as "Companions." In this future, Companions are both legal and highly regarded. In a good narrative twist, it’s Inara who brings much-needed respectability to Serenity (a fact brought up when she and the captain get into one of their arguments that mask their mutual attraction).
There’s also River, the most important character to the ongoing backstory. A protege who was the subject of government experiments, River and her brother/rescuer (Sean Maher) are now fugitives. Although she begins the series withdrawn and often incoherent, it becomes increasingly clear that she’s not only the intellectual giant of the group, but most likely the deadliest member as well.
As far as the science fiction elements are concerned, Whedon eschews aliens as well as such science fiction standards as time travel and alternate universes. And where most science fiction takes an easy route, showing a future where Japan is the most prominent Asian force, Whedon extrapolates a more plausible Chinese-influenced future, the most obvious being the Mandarin phrases (usually cursing) that randomly appear in the dialogue. (Unfortunately, there are no Asian actors in Whedon’s cast. It sometimes feels like the Koreanless Korean War in M*A*S*H.) Whedon acknowledges other changes in the language by giving the crew their own slang ("shiny", "gorram", "ruttin’").
Whedon breaks with science fiction conventions by filming all the outer space shots in silence. It’s scientifically accurate, but because it’s so rarely done — and certainly not for action-oriented scenes — it’s an aesthetic choice as well. Firefly also uses handheld cameras — like a cop show going for a grittier look. The fact that it’s also employed in the CGI shots also adds to the show’s unique look and feel. Another Whedon trademark present in Firefly is the avoidance of predictability. This is most evident in the dialogue, which lacks hackneyed phrases ("Do you know what the chain of command is here? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with to show you who’s in ruttin’ command here.") In fact, Whedon takes advantage of audience expectations by playing off them. In one scene, Zoe is forced to choose between Captain Reynolds and Wash, her husband (Alan Tudyk). But the antagonist barely begins his "it’s a difficult choice" speech before Zoe suddenly points to her husband and says "Him".
There are many instances when respect for the audience is demonstrated. Although exposition is standard for ongoing series, very little of it in Firefly is intrusive or awkwardly placed. Whedon also includes an unfashionable disregard for religion ("If I’m your mission, Shepherd, best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t."; "Bible’s broken. Contradictions, false logistics – doesn’t make sense."). Even major revelations are not belabored. Looking at the unconscious Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a bounty hunter says authoritatively, but sufficiently dismissive to be an almost throwaway line, "That’s no shepherd", before quickly moving on.
Like Freaks and Geeks and Crusade, Firefly was prematurely cancelled by a network anxious to make room for more junk on its schedule. Only 14 episodes were produced, including a two-hour pilot. Fortunately, Firefly‘s story will continue in Serenity, a theatrical movie to be released later this year.