Firefly 1.3 – Bushwacked

I occasionally have problems choosing a picture to illustrate these silly posts, particularly when the bit that our son enjoyed the most doesn’t lend itself to still pictures. “Bushwhacked,” which was written and directed by Tim Minear, deals with a derelict ship on which something is still living, even while most of its passengers were brutally killed. So there’s lots of skulking around in low-lit sets, and it succeeded magnificently in getting under our son’s skin. “That was really creepy,” he announced.

Conceptually, about the only thing I don’t care for in Firefly are the Reavers, who take the place of evil space aliens since this program doesn’t have any aliens in it. These are roving gangs of once-humans, who’d gone so far out in space that they’d gone mad from isolation and whatever else. It seems like the sort of thing that might could happen occasionally, but the show presents it as something that happens a lot, and to large groups of people. The show presents it extremely well for something so unlikely. There’s a moment here that I like quite a lot on that front, actually.

See, there’s a clumsy bit in the first pilot where Simon has never heard of Reavers, which is convenient, since it lets everybody else explain them to the audience. But here, we see that Simon’s ignorance is not an isolated moment for the viewers’ benefit. It turns out that the cops have heard of Reavers, but they don’t believe in them. There are very, very few cops – they have giant floating space precincts, but space is really, really big – and they occasionally hear these outlandish stories of lunatic cannibals on junk starships from little criminals trying to talk themselves out of trouble. It cements the idea that people in “civilization” in the 26th century simply do not care what goes on in the outer fringes of this solar system, and makes Simon a more believable character in the process.

Firefly 1.2 – The Train Job

“The Train Job” was the show’s second pilot, and the first episode that Fox aired, and was co-written by the hugely talented Tim Minear, who was the showrunner for the series and is credited as either writing or co-writing four of its fourteen episodes. It’s actually what sold me on the program when I saw it about three years after its network run. The first pilot is good, and so is this one, with an added “wow” at the climax that I’ll come back to in a moment, but I think lots of programs are good, and only sit up and pay attention to a few of them.

The hour starts by introducing Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, and Adam Baldwin as the three fightin’ members of the crew, the ones who get their hands dirty, looking for a quiet drink in an Alliance-friendly bar on the anniversary of the end of the civil war that saw Fillion’s and Torres’s characters, Mal and Zoe, on the losing side. From there, “The Train Job” had a weird balancing act, because it had to give us an exciting but simple story to launch the show, while reintroducing the other six regular characters that the original film, consigned at the time to the vault, had already established.

I think that, had I been willing in 2002 to give Fox another try for its umpteenth Friday sci-fi show, I’d have been hooked. There is one very clumsy bit where it comes back from the title sequence to start a scene with Sean Maher and Summer Glau without giving viewers a reason to think that these two are on board the same spaceship we had seen previously, but I like how each character and their backstory gets defined – and, sadly, Mal gets another opportunity to be rude to Inara – and I’m always in the mood for a good heist story.

The criminals’ consciences get the better of them, leading to a delicious little climax. “Serenity” had already established, when Mal ended the hostage standoff very abruptly, that these characters were not going to act like conventional teevee heroes. “The Train Job” repeats the situation in its famous “Now this is all the money Niska gave us in advance” scene. Our kid’s eyes got about the size of dinner plates, because he’s never seen a teevee hero kick a villain into an engine intake before. Sold. Hooked. I’ve never been a fan of telling people “there’s a scene you’ll love that I can’t tell you about,” but when two different people asked me, in 2005, whether they should look into this program that people had gone nutty over, I had to say that twice.

The show’s almost twenty years old at this point; I don’t mind spoiling it now. Sorry if I did, but the DVDs are old enough to vote.

Firefly 1.1 – Serenity

Every fandom has its myths. Firefly seems to have more than its fair share, and people tend to mythologize its cancellation without understanding the way these things used to work. See, when Firefly debuted in the fall of 2002 on a Friday night on the Fox network, it was just the latest in a long, long series of Friday night sci-fi bombs that stretched back a decade, to when The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and The X Files were treading Nielsen water. Files grew into a mammoth hit and cultural touchstone, and the network spent the next ten years trying to make lightning strike twice, constantly and impatiently forcing the process to hurry up, failing every time.

Firefly wasn’t treated any worse than any other teevee program in its day. Unless a show was an established hit, it was, of course, going to get preempted for specials and sports events. Any which way you look at it, even if the network had ordered a full 22 episodes, they were still going to spread them out over 39 weeks. All the networks did that for every program. If I may continue to act like a mythbuster, the show was only preempted three times, and I daresay that if you go look through the listings for 2002 at TV Tango, you will find that almost all of that season’s hour-long dramas, most of which you never heard of, were probably preempted about three times in any given three-month run.

Its fans often complain that the network aired episodes out of the intended order, but all networks did that with all sorts of series. But Firefly was different, people said, furious, with emphasis, because it had a carefully crafted and ongoing storyline. Yeah, so did every drama of every shape and size made for any American network since about 1990.

In point of fact, during its Fox run, Firefly was the lead-in to another sci-fi program called John Doe, which had precisely the same problem of the network screwing with its intended running order and preempting it for baseball games and movies. Nobody remembers John Doe anymore, but the ratings don’t lie. It got audiences 40-50% greater than Firefly, and made it to the end of the season, while Firefly was gone before Christmas.

No, Firefly‘s audience of hardcore fans came too late; they found it on DVD and just didn’t want to accept that the crappy way Fox treated it was no different to the crappy way Fox treated everything else. But that makes a little sense. Firefly is about scrappy underdogs trying to get a little respect and pay some bills when the government and corporations do not care about their problems, so it naturally grew fans who saw the program itself as a scrappy underdog crushed by the wheels of an uncaring multinational corporation. It was a fun, smart, and occasionally blindingly intelligent series with some great writing and terrific performances, but it had exactly the same problems with a network run by greedy, desperately demanding pinheads that the TV version of Logan’s Run had dealt with a quarter-century previously, along with countless programs, forgotten and beloved, in between.

Well, having said that, choosing to hold back Firefly‘s original pilot to some nebulous “later date” and showing it as the series finale after it had already been axed… that is, admittedly, possibly unique.

If you’ve never seen Firefly, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d heard that little factoid. The network bought the show, but hated the pilot, and asked for a brand new one. Not a cut-down version of the already-filmed pilot, not a one-hour version, they wanted something different and punchier, and they shelved the movie that introduced the premise. Fox only aired 11 of the 14 stories, across 14 weeks in the same timeslot, and saved the first for last.

And frankly, as much as Firefly‘s bungled network run was business as usual for bungling networks, every time I have watched this pilot, I remain utterly baffled by Fox’s brain-deadedness. It is a truly fine pilot, it moves fast, it introduces all of the characters incredibly well – Jewel Staite’s Kaylee is so perfectly defined by little touches in her props, like her little parasol and the nameplate above her door, that the actress could have played the part silently, with smiles, and the audience would still adore her – and it tells a simple and uncomplicated story. I will never understand why they found this baffling.

The only thing I don’t like, and never have, is Nathan Fillion’s lead character being a jerk to and around Inara. There’s a truly great moment about three-quarters of the way through the film where the crew shares a loud and raucous laugh over a “psychotic” prank that Mal has played on Simon that finally gives some badly-needed levity to his obnoxiousness and rudeness, and gives some color and explanation to his character that the script had ignored to that point. That doesn’t mean I like seeing him be snide to Inara, or use her to get under other people’s skins. But that’s probably in part because everybody likes Inara more than Mal.

The kid was extremely happy with this, which is nice because, as I’ve been relating, Stargate SG-1 has been disappointing him and Jason King is touch and go. He said that it didn’t feel like two hours, and I said that’s because it was only 86 minutes. It didn’t feel like 86 minutes either, he emphasized. But the real test will come later, Marie added. We’ll have to see whether he likes the Firefly enough to try making it in Lego. Dear readers, you’ll be the first to know.

What We’re Not Watching: Doom Patrol

We’re not watching Doom Patrol for the blog, because this is a family-friendly blog and Doom Patrol is a quite fantastically family unfriendly show. But over the last few weeks, after our eight year-old has gone to bed, we’ve been enjoying the daylights out of it. It may have more four-letter-words, gore, and nudity than anything else we watch – mainly four-letter-words – but it’s pretty honest. If I were in the sort of situations these heroes face, I’d swear about like they do, too.

The original Doom Patrol series was published by DC in the sixties. It was written by Arnold Drake and drawn by Bruno Premiani. DC has revived it several times since, never to any earthshattering sales numbers, but Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s run, from 1989-93, has been a cult classic that has inspired and informed almost every subsequent revamp. It’s one of my all-time favorite runs of any American comic, and I honestly can’t think of any long-form run on any DC property that I enjoy more.

So the television series, which is available to stream on the DC Universe service, cherry-picks characters and situations from the books up through Morrison’s run, and gives them a TV twist. It’s full of kisses to the past and addresses the strange way that certain funnybook characters never seem to age. Timothy Dalton plays a mad scientist who has brought a group of misfits together over the course of several decades. Matt Bomer is a former USAF pilot who had a freak accident in the upper atmosphere, April Bowlby a glamorous fifties film star whose body shifts and blobs and morphs when she isn’t concentrating, and Diane Guerrero is a badly-damaged young woman with multiple personality disorder, only each of these fractious personalities comes with its own power.

And then there’s Cliff Steele, a former race car driver who’s now a brain in a should-be indestructible, clanky robot. Cliff is voiced by Brendan Fraser, who occasionally appears in the flashbacks, some of which are hysterical. The story goes that at the height of his eighties fame, Cliff appeared as himself on a soap opera. The characters dig up that clip online, all washed-out colors and bad tracking, and we can enjoy the all-too brief spectacle of Brendan Fraser playing a character who cannot act. At all.

For a show full of very dark character beats, high stakes, and ugly surprises, Doom Patrol is also amazingly funny. They did a great job balancing the humor, because otherwise this would be a pretty painful show. But it’s so deliciously weird that it’s worth coming back to, because stuff happens in Doom Patrol that doesn’t happen anywhere else. After Dalton is kidnapped by a reality-altering supervillain played by Alan Tudyk – who knows he’s in a TV show and wishes that he was in a better one – an up-and-coming “real” superhero, Cyborg, played by Joivan Wade, arrives to help whip our four oddballs into a fighting force. But Cyborg. who’s used to beating up muggers, didn’t count on the sort of incredibly strange obstacles and situations these four deal with. Phil Morris has a recurring role as Cyborg’s father; always nice to see Phil on TV.

Anyway, the show’s a huge pleasure from start to finish. It really captures the beautiful oddness of Morrison’s run, adapting some incidents – not slavishly – and finding quirky and weird takes on the sort of situations that he might have written in his wonderful series. Diane Guerrero is absolutely captivating in a role that should be barely sympathetic, and Tudyk is having more fun than the law should allow as a villain who is way above these misfits’ weight class.

I haven’t seen a whole lot of chatter about Doom Patrol, and I think only one of my pals watched it (he loved it, happily). But don’t let the show’s low profile prompt you to overlook it! If you’re in the market for fifteen incredibly fun and freaky hours, then DC Universe is definitely worth the subscription for this show. I hope we’ll hear word about a second season in the near future.

We’re going to take a TV break for a few days, but we’ll be back with a classic movie this weekend. See you then!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Even before Rogue One reached its amazing final half-hour, it had become my favorite film in this series. The sense of dirt and desperation and real, terrible danger is just so engrossing that I was as captivated as could be. I started worrying, pretty early on, that nobody was getting out of this one alive. When Forest Whitaker’s character becomes collateral damage to the Death Star’s first test, I was riveted in a way that Star Wars movies, no matter how entertaining they’ve often been, rarely demand of their audience.

A second pass revealed one or two dents in this movie’s armor. I didn’t like the “no, I have to stay in this exploding base cradling dead Mads Mikkelsen while someone shouts ‘we have to leave him!’ at me” scene. They could have cut five minutes, easy, if they’d just had the Rebel Alliance agree to attack the planet Scarif, which they ended up doing anyway. But these are minor, and the film remains amazing.

I asked our son “So what’s the best Star Wars movie?” and he said “This one.” He’s right.

One of the most remarkable moments came when Donnie Yen’s character, a blind monk called Chirrut Îmwe, finally meets his end. Our son got upset with the death of a heroic character, for probably the first time since he saw the death of Jaime Sommers more than a year ago. He wasn’t bothered by the deaths of Han Solo or the Fourth Doctor, but when Chirrut dies, he was trembling and clutching his security blanket.

There’s so much to like in this movie already. I liked seeing Richard Franklin for about two seconds, and I thought the CGI Peter Cushing used to bring Governor/Grand Moff Tarkin was impressive and wonderful. Forest Whitaker’s character, an extremist so ruthless that he frightens the rest of the rebels, deserves a movie or two of his own, and there’s a droid called K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who I like almost as much as I like R2-D2. Almost.

Then we get to the finale and when K-2 goes down and then Chirrut goes down… the lump in my throat got really big. The outer space stuff remains as exciting and wild as ever, and there’s a brief respite when one of the alien admirals (Raddus, possibly) orders a “hammerhead” ship to ram a Star Destroyer that’s lost power and plow it into another, which might just be the most wonderful and air-punching special effects moment in any of these movies.

But the cost of those plans… there’s a line in the first movie about how a lot of lives were lost getting those plans. Seeing it happen was beautifully heartbreaking. I loved Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. I don’t need a pile of cartoon TV series or novels to expand her story. These two hours were all I needed. Erso is a very good character in a fantastic story. And the best stories have endings.

Speaking of which… as if this film wasn’t already my favorite, director Gareth Edwards waits until the last three damn minutes to calmly play his masterstroke. In the first three movies, Darth Vader was more evil and menacing by reputation than by action, unless you were a back-talking Imperial officer. Unless you’ve been reading the many comic books that have been published, you never got to see the character engage in the kind of brutal butchery he doles out at the very end of this movie. It’s remarkable.

Rogue One is a great film, and my favorite of the ten by some measure. I’m glad my kid agrees.