Firefly: Unaired Pilot (2003) TV Review

In the very narrow world of rabid fanboys, Joss Whedon’s name gets uttered with the same reverence as Bruce Campbell (of the “Evil Dead” movies). Having been responsible for two of the more influential “teen geek” shows in recent years (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”), Whedon tried to bring the same geek irreverence to space via “Firefly”, a one-hour series set in the future, where the term “space cowboy” is apparently the order of the day. He succeeded in rallying the fanboys around him, but failed to justify the existence of such an expensive show, and thus “Firefly” didn’t last long enough to see the end of its first season, much less a second season.

The episode under review is the two-hour pilot, which curiously was not shown as the series pilot, but rather as a two-episode arc toward the end of the series’ much-harangue first (and final) season. Perhaps this wasn’t such a bad idea, as the pilot is not exactly the stuff legends are made of. Which isn’t to say it’s not good, because it is very much a very good episode — except there just didn’t seem to be anything “great” about it. Written, directed, produced, created, and catered by Whedon himself, the “Firefly” pilot’s most important job was to introduce the characters and how they came together onboard the floundering salvage ship Serenity; oh, and there’s a shootout.

The pilot opens with Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Warren (Gina Torres) as soldiers fighting in a war against The Alliance, the show’s omnipresent authority figure/The Man. Abandoned by their commanders and left for dead on the battlefield, Mal and Zoe remain comrades 6 years later onboard the Serenity, where we find them salvaging cargo from a derelict ship. Now mercenaries for hire, the crew of the Serenity (which includes Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot and Zoe’s husband; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the slightly unhinged hired muscle; and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the happy-go-lucky engineer) finds even more trouble when they take on passengers, only to discover that one passenger is hiding a secret, and another is a federal agent. Soon, the crew is on the run from the Alliance, and must dump their stolen cargo, get paid, or die trying.

At almost 90 minutes sans commercials, the pilot does its job of introducing the different characters with great success, as well as touching on some of the world that the Serenity’s crew inhabits. It’s an interesting world, to be sure, and although set in the future, it’s very much still trapped in a Wild West setting. There are roving marauders on the outskirts of civilization called the Reavers, who we never actually see in the pilot, although we hear a lot about, and what we hear aren’t very nice. The law is sporadic, and much of the places Serenity finds herself look like old Wild West towns populated by gunmen. People still use ballistic weapons such as handguns and shotguns, and horse-powered travel is still a viable option. It’s the future, but it’s not. Get it?

In attempting to create something original and yet familiar, Whedon brings a very unique vision to science fiction. The clashing of the futuristic (spaceships, space travel) and the primitive (horses, revolvers) is one of the show’s main appeal. To be sure, it’s very interesting to see men who fly around in spaceships wear gunfighter’s rigs, or the fact that most of the outlaws wear Western-inspired clothing, including ten gallon hats, and looks very much like cowboys. Then again, the whole Western conceit can be a bit off-putting, and perhaps is leaning just a shade too much towards “trying so hard to be kooky that it’s just silly”.

The characters themselves are probably the best parts of the show, with Mal coming through as the most complex of the bunch. Nathan Fillion looks a bit too young to play such a world-weary traveler and ex-soldier, but there are moments when you can’t picture anyone else in the role. He’s that good. Whedon mainstay Gina Torres (“The Matrix: Revolutions”) doesn’t do quite as well as Mal’s loyal-to-a-fault right-hand woman. The character is too stiff and Torres doesn’t exactly convince as a tough warrior woman. More interesting is Mal’s unspoken relationship with ship “companion” (aka prostitute) Inara (Morena Baccarin), something that doesn’t get explored very much in the pilot, but seems destined to become a major plot point later on in the series.

As with all of Whedon’s creations, “Firefly” is filled with the type of smart-alecky dialogue that his fans are used to, and in fact demands from him. The show balances comedy and its more suspenseful and serious side well, with the first half of the pilot being much lighter than the second, which gets quite dark when a crewmate is shot and nearly killed and the ship runs afoul of the oft-mention Reavers in an intense sequence. And although Whedon has decided to jumble up “Firefly’s” fictional universe so much that the anachronism is so in your face as to be slightly distracting, he has also made an interesting decision to shoot the outside-space sequences in silence as, true to science, there is no sound in space.

What regular viewers of the show could look forward to, if the pilot is any indication, are a lot of inter-personal dynamics and plenty of character development interspersed with the occasional bursts of cartoonish action. The pilot is not very action-packed, which may be one of the reasons the network kept it from being the show’s introduction in the first place.

The show’s style is also interesting, and actually brings to mind the “blocky” aesthetics of the new “Battlestar Galactica” re-imagining. There are some unnecessary camera zooms, some vague “NYPD Blue”-esque camerawork, but some of the pilot’s best scenes take place in the soundless void of space, where the excellent visuals, with the aid of state-of-the-art special effects, are most prominent.

Which begs the question: had “Firefly” been a Sci Fi Channel show (or an off-network show), might it have survived? If “Farscape” is any indication, the answer is most likely Yes.

Joss Whedon (director) / Joss Whedon (screenplay)
CAST: Nathan Fillion …. Capt. Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds
Gina Torres …. Zoe Warren
Alan Tudyk …. Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburn
Morena Baccarin …. Inara Serra
Adam Baldwin …. Jayne Cobb
Jewel Staite …. Kaylee Frye
Sean Maher …. Dr. Simon Tam
Summer Glau …. River Tam
Ron Glass …. Shepherd Book

Buy Firefly on DVD