FIREFLY - "The Train Job"
by Chris Wyatt
Space thieves and a hooker with a heart of gold
A band of quirky outsiders, who are occasionally morally ambiguous but are basically good guys at heart, come to form a makeshift family, and plow through the galaxy on an unusual spaceship. OK, what show does that last sentence describe? It could be FARSCAPE, it could be LEXX, it could be COWBOY BEBOP, or with a stretch, it could even be ENTERPRISE. But in this case, it's FIREFLY.
Yeah, the situation isn't that revolutionary. But then, neither was the idea of vampire hunters, yet Joss Whedon created the highly original character drama that we now know as BUFFY. When Whedon creates a show, it isn't so much about the new conceptual ground that's broken, as it is about deep character work.
In last night's episode, the series premiere, the Serenity's crew of outlaws and thieves take a job hijacking a shipment from a hover train on a planet somewhere in the Georgia System. But the job gets botched and the Captain gets left behind. He learns that the shipment he was hired to steal was medicine needed to keep the colonists from suffering the effects of a degenerative bone disease. When he sees the pain that the disease causes he gets his crew to return the medicine, deciding to face the wrath of his sure to be upset employer, who is a noted space warlord.
One has to admire the show's attention to little pieces of science fiction atmosphere. For example, the disease that the planetary colonists suffer is mentioned in passing as the result of terraforming. All planets that are terraformed for human use “have their little quirks”, and on this one, local geological gas pockets combined with the chemical terraforming process to create a disorder. The explanation is simple, and is thrown out casually, as if it were an everyday slice of life…which, for these characters, it should be. It's these kinds of details that make the world of the series so believable.
Unfortunately the costume design does not live up to the technological designs. All of the costumes are reminiscent of bits and pieces of other science fiction properties. The soldiers are practically wearing STARSHIP TROOPERS uniforms. The Alliance officers would not look out of place on either the Death Star or Lord Vader's Command Carrier. The planetary colonists could be extras in THE ROAD WARRIOR. And the Firefly's crew look like they just came back from hanging out with Artemus Gordon on the set of WILD WILD WEST.
As mentioned above, the characters really are the strongest part of the series. From the captain to the ship's call-girl, the roles seem stereotypical at first, but they have a kind of chemistry that brings them together. An excellent cast helps move the characters along.
Every single member of the cast shines, so it's hard to pick particular favorites, but Ron Glass stands out as a subtle, dependable and compelling performer in his role as “the Shepard,” or wandering religious figure on the ship. Morena Baccarin, who plays the prostitute Inara, is a stately performer as well, and her scenes with Glass demonstrate screen chemistry between the two.
The only role that seems lacking in the premiere is River as played by Summer Glau. It's not that Ms. Glau does a bad job in the role, it's just that her character, a kind of babbling psycho-case cum prophetess, seems extraneous to the shipboard dynamic. She sort of stumbles around, mumbling like a clone of the Brittany Murphy character in DON'T SAY A WORD.
Still, the show has a great deal of promise. Even if the unoriginal costume design doesn't improve, the series could be a real rival for the best science fiction series on television. Maybe wayward FARSCAPE fans will find consolation in this new Friday night series.