Firefly 1.4 – Shindig

I suppose that sweeps months are still a thing, but since nobody watches network TV anymore – certainly not at the time that it’s broadcast – I don’t imagine that they matter all that much these days. But it used to be that every November, February, and May, the networks would bring out their biggest guns, biggest guest stars, two-part stories, returns of classic characters, and crossover events during sweeps months, because the networks’ local affiliates would set their ad rates for the next quarter based on the ratings that they’d earn during sweeps. Often, the networks would rearrange the running order of ongoing series if they thought a particular episode was sexy or strong enough to be a sweeps player. As I mentioned previously, Firefly was absolutely not unique in this regard; it happened to all kinds of series on all the networks, which is why many producers would plan ahead and prep their big crossover or whatever, with guest stars Raquel Welch, George Clooney, and Charo, across the episodes that they expected would air in November.

With that in mind, Fox made the utterly bizarre decision to hold back episodes four and five for sweeps month, and moved episodes six through eight forward. Why’d they do this? Nobody can guess. “Shindig” is a pretty good episode, even if its high point is Kaylee, in a delightfully frilly dress at a really chic party, holding court with a gaggle of admirers talking about spaceship engines, and not the main plot of Mal and Inara dealing with a big problem at the bash, but it’s hardly a “this changes everything” story like you’d occasionally get with sweeps episodes. You can’t even say there was a really famous guest star in it who’d move the ratings needle during sweeps. It’s got Larry Drake, a fine character actor who we saw as a villain in a Stargate SG-1 made two years previously, and in a splendid Nero Wolfe Mystery around the same time, but I don’t think Fox was waiting on him to work Nielsen magic.

The kid was very pleased. It’s got a sword fight – though it’s not honestly a really great one since Mal is not an expert with the weapon – and fun character moments, and a silly last-shot revelation of what the crew is carrying to an outer planet for Drake’s character: about a dozen cows. Our son was delighted by the apparent absurdity of it, but of course it makes perfect sense: farms are always going to need new livestock from different breeding lines, even in the 26th Century.

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.