Cathy's World: Firefly

By CATHERINE SEIPP  |  Oct. 2, 2002 at 12:37 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- In space, no one can hear you snore. In other words, yes, "Firefly," Joss Whedon's new space Western has been pretty boring so far. The Sept. 20 premiere on Fox was -- let's just admit it -- a real clunker; last Friday's episode not much better.

Give it a chance, though.

I don't say this just because I'm a huge fan of Whedon's two other shows, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" on UPN and "Angel" on the WB. Compared to these witty, imaginative comic dramas, "Firefly" lumbers along like the ponderous cargo spaceship its characters call home.

But a few months ago, I saw a presentation reel cut from the original 2-hour pilot -- a pilot that was so bad, according to all conventional wisdom, that Fox made Whedon junk it in favor of the debut episode that aired instead.

The thing is, that first "Firefly" pilot (or at least the 40 minutes shown to the media) is actually pretty good.

Admittedly, even here the weird incongruity of the twangy Western music in a futuristic sci-fi show takes a little getting used to. (I'm glad it's still there, though; the promos, with that buzzy Smashmouth "Might As Well Be Walking On the Sun" song, kept making me think I was watching a Pontiac commercial.)

Also rather distracting is the notion that a post-apocalyptic, "Blade Runner"-ish world in which people zoom around in spaceships still hasn't managed to reinvent the Model-T.

That's right, pardner -- once the action shifts to various dusty, craggy "terra-formed" frontier planets, everyone gets about via horseflesh. And guns are the old-fashioned kind, not lasers.

"Now the fact is we could have laser beams," Whedon explained at the Fox news conference, held on the "Firefly" set. "The problem for me is laser beams instantly feel safe. A laser beam can be set to stun. A laser beam makes a cool visual. I wanted the violence in the show to feel violent."

The original pilot at least had some of Whedon's distinctively snappy, over-the-top dialogue -- especially when it comes to dealing with demonic evil.

Here's Zoe (Gina Torres), the steely first mate, telling a passenger what will happen if some bad guys called The Reivers catch up with them:

"If they board the ship," Zoe explains, "they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order."

Torres, by the way, last played a grim-faced female sci-fi warrior in the schlocky syndicated show "Cleopatra 2525," and you can practically feel her relief that she no longer has to say her hard-ass lines while clad in a latex bikini.

As Whedon put it: "So many strong women are like, 'I'm a strong woman from the future: Quick! Into the thong!'"

I should note that original "Firefly" pilot also displays Whedon's annoying weakness for nauseatingly adorable supporting female characters, possibly a result of his immersion in women's studies while a college student at Wesleyan.

You can't really tell from the two shows Fox has aired so far, but be warned that ship's engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), is every bit as kitten-on-velvetish as Fred in "Angel" and Willow and the ultra-drippy Tara (now, thank God, the late Tara) in "Buffy."

"That's my good old girl," Kaylee coos at one point to the spaceship, patting a random wall in the engine room.

The other characters are heroic, cynical Captain Mal (Nathan Fillion); jolly ship's pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); a thuggish mercenary named Jayne (Adam Baldwin); an older black preacher who wears his hair in a puffy white bun (Ron Glass); and a lovely courtesan (Morena Baccarin), glamorously filling the Miss Kitty role.

There's also a young doctor (Sean Maher) on the run from the authorities with his weird psychic genius sister (Summer Glau), who's still traumatized from having her brother haul her around the galaxy, naked and cryonically frozen, in a big see-through box.

Network execs worried that Whedon's original pilot took too long explaining how all these people came together on the spaceship. Plans are to air it sometime later in the season as an "origins" episode.

But a major problem with the Sept. 20 premiere is that it took too much work figuring out who everyone is and how they relate to each other. Plus, the only suspense -- and there wasn't much of that -- involved an adventure with outsiders, not the main characters' internal dynamics.

Still, Whedon is one of the smartest and most original minds in the TV business. He's trying something new in "Firefly" -- which he was inspired to write after reading "The Killer Angels," a fictionalized account of Gettysburg -- and it's worth hearing him out.

The Civil War inspiration for the series explains why representatives of the Alliance, the intergalactic governing body of the future, look like Union troops, and Capt. Mal like a Noble Soldier of the Lost Cause...without that pesky slavery thing, of course.

"I just got obsessed with the minutiae of life when things were not so convenient as they are now," Whedon said. "I wanted to do a show in the future that really had that sense of history -- the idea that it never stops, that we don't solve all our problems and have impeccably clean spaceships in the future."

The "Firefly" spaceship, which is actually named Serenity, is very far from the sleek, impeccably clean spaceships of "Star Trek" and similar shows. A tour of the set revealed living quarters decorated in funky, '70s kitsch combined with mid-century (mid-20th-century, that is) moderne. The books piled in the spaceship's lounge include old Judith Krantz novels.

Maybe the idea is that even 500 years in the future garage sale flotsam hasn't changed that much.

Whedon set his future world half a millennium from now because it's "far enough away that we can have that cool terra-forming thing, not so far that we'll all have two toes and antennae."

Unlike "Buffy" and "Angel," "Firefly" is a world without latex masks and special effects makeup. There are no aliens here.

"No creatures, this is reality," Whedon said. "That really is the mission statement. I wanted to stay away from the easy science-fiction fixes: the android, the clone, all that stuff that -- for all I know -- may be lurking around the corner, but I'm not expecting to see anytime soon. I believe that we are the only sentient beings in the universe. And I believe that 500 years from now, we will still be the only sentient beings around."

"I wanted to go low-tech," he continued. "It's not so much about being a western -- the frontier is the area that I want to be in, and it's 'Grapes of Wrath' as much as it is 'Stagecoach.'"

"I really wanted to get more than anything else that feeling of reality," Whedon added. "I wanted to shoot this thing like it's 'NYPD Blue.' Like, these are the mooks that we all know, they just happen to be future mooks."

On the other hand, Whedon remains deeply immune to the scripted charms of lawyer and cop shows. "I just think this is more interesting than, 'Because he's our client, dammit!' or 'I'll allow it, but you'd better be going somewhere with this!' But that's me," he said. "A lot of people do that well. I can't do that well."

"I wanted to see a world without the Internet and Pink Dot," he added. "A world where things have to be made from scratch, including decisions and ethics. When I pitched the show, I said this is about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things."

"'Buffy,' bigger than life; 'Firefly, actual size," Whedon summed up. "And I think that's an important thing."

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