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Firefly’ DVD review

Rama Gottumukkala | Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Joss Whedon doesn’t give up easily.

Although “Firefly,” a science-fiction show the writer/director developed for Fox in 2002, enjoyed a small but zealously devoted fanbase, it was terminated mid-season by Fox executives who thought they were cutting their losses early. Surprisingly positive sales of the “Firefly” DVD set allowed Whedon to whisk his creative darling away from Fox and convince Universal Studios to finance “Serenity,” a big-screen sequel to his small TV project.

Looking back at the early episodes of “Firefly,” it’s easy to see why Whedon fought so hard to keep the show alive.

Billed as Whedon’s unique vision for the future, “Firefly” drops vampires and demons for a roaring, high-spirited trip to the far reaches of outer space.

The scene is the vague future, and the destruction of Earth and the development of interplanetary travel have led to the colonization of various planets, yielding a unique hybrid lifestyle that is equal parts Western- and science-fiction. The show follows an ensemble cast of nine characters, each with his own outlook on life aboard their interplanetary cargo ship, affectionately dubbed Serenity.

At the show’s epicenter is Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a renegade soldier who was on the losing end of an interplanetary civil war. Fiercely loyal to his crew, Reynolds guides Serenity below the radar of the Alliance, the unified central government that emerged victorious in that civil war, as the ship flies between the border planets.

Reynolds’ ragtag crew includes: Zoe (Gina Torres), who served with Reynolds in the war and remains extremely loyal to him; Wash (Alan Tudyk), her self-deprecating, witty husband and the ship’s pilot; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship’s sunny, good-natured mechanic; and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a tough, brash mercenary hired to help the crew’s “business” enterprises.

With such a large, colorful cast of characters, “Firefly” has plenty to offer in terms of drama and story development. Indeed most of the show’s produced episodes focus on expanding the background of each of the show’s diverse principal characters. “Firefly” succeeds because Whedon frequently dips into the past of each character, mining a wealth of character development.

The DVD includes all 11 of the show’s original episodes and an additional three that were never broadcast on Fox. Some of the standout episodes include: “Out of Gas,” in which the spaceship loses power and the show’s creators creatively use flashbacks to introduce how each of the ship’s inhabitants came to join Reynolds’ crew; “Ariel,” an action-packed episode that shows how far Simon (Sean Maher), a young, rich doctor, is willing to go to rescue his sister, River (Summer Glau); and “Serenity,” the show’s two-hour pilot episode, which introduces Reynolds and shows how he became a hardened leader after losing most of his troops during the civil war.

The special features for this box set are extensive. Seven episode-specific audio commentaries featuring various members of the cast and crew highlight how much work, sweat and love went into the show’s creation. Also included are several featurettes, including a fascinating 28-minute documentary that explores how the series was conceived and offers a look into the creators’ difficulties in keeping the show alive.

“Firefly” is one of those exceptional shows that burned brightly with a lifespan that was far too short. Fortunately, the release of “Serenity” in theaters has drawn more attention to this little-known gem. Every episode on the DVD is a reminder of why Whedon was so unwilling to let the show fizzle without a fight.