There are two kinds of people in this world: those who can sing the “Firefly” theme song and those who cannot. If you’re the former, you probably already have a series disc spinning in your Blu-ray player (or, at the very least, a copy in transit). If you’re the latter, then this review is for you. “Firefly” was a short-lived, fan-favorite television series from “Buffy” mastermind Joss Whedon that never made it to a second season. After mishandling, misrepresenting, and mistreating eleven of the show’s initial fourteen episodes, Fox aborted the sci-fi western and pulled it off the air. The death of “Firefly” was mourned by many who begged the studio to give the series a second chance, but were ignored at every turn. However, sweet vindication has come for fans over the last six years in the form of increasingly strong DVD sales, a moderately successful Universal Pictures feature film called ‘Serenity’ (which, in my opinion, is one of the best sci-fi actioners to surface in a long time), and enthusiastic word of mouth, all of which have kept “Firefly” alive and well.
The first thing you should know about “Firefly” is that it’s impossible to succinctly explain the premise of the series without making it sound ridiculous. Ah well, here goes. In 2517, a ragtag group of space-faring smugglers and scavengers living aboard a Firefly-class starship -- which includes a renegade captain named Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), his wartime comrade Zoe (Gina Torres), her husband and pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), gun-toting mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and spunky mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) -- fight to survive in a universe dominated by the Alliance, a corporate superpower comprised of remnants of the American and Chinese governments. As Mal’s crew takes on a series of new passengers -- a shifty doctor named Simon Tam (Sean Maher), his mysterious sister River (Summer Glau), a professional Companion named Inara (Morena Baccarin), and a Christian minister called Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) -- they stumble into a conflict they can’t begin to understand.
In other words, take an emotionally complex Han Solo, give him a full crew of eclectic personalities, follow him to outer rim planets with a classic Western vibe, and have his companions and enemies spout bits of Chinese at random intervals, and you might just begin to get an idea of what “Firefly” tosses at the screen. Sound like it couldn’t possibly be any good? That’s what I thought when I read about the series in 2002. I doubted that such a hodgepodge of seemingly unrelated ideas could be as witty, moving, and charming as the series actually turned out to be. Unfortunately, as is the case with many “Firefly” fans, I sampled the series on DVD when it was too late to do anything to help save the show from its broadcast fate.
So what’s so great about the fourteen episodes that survived? First, Whedon’s scripts and storylines are fantastic, blending a variety of genres, paying homage to dozens of classic films, and delivering some of the most quotable dialogue to ever grace a sci-fi series. Rather than focus on high-concept themes or warring alien races, Whedon focuses all of his efforts on his characters, creating a group of complicated yet believable polar opposites who come together under a common cause. They fight, they argue, and they banter like a true circle of friends, all while facing increasingly daunting circumstances. Second, Whedon’s cast is, dare I say, perfect. From Fillion’s sharp delivery to Glau’s childlike innocence, from Baldwin’s scene-stealing growls to Tudyk and Torres’ authentic relationship, “Firefly” boasts the sort of effortless ensemble cast you usually only find at your local theater. No matter how many times I watch the series, I continually find myself grinning from ear to ear as the engaging band of criminals have to overcome their own differences before they can even hope to outwit the Alliance.
Finally, the design work is exceptional. You may not think elements of science fiction and westerns would be able to co-exist in the same series, but you’d be wrong. Dusty settlements, quaint outposts, and grimy lawbreakers abound, only interrupted by bits of technology and the militaristic Alliance. Everything from the costumes, to the sets, to the special effects echo and enhance Whedon’s genre cocktail. There’s a comfortable cohesion to it all that is really remarkable considering how incoherent and disorganized it all could have been. It’s clear that Whedon had several seasons in mind and was planning to tell a multifaceted story that Fox (and apparently most viewers) simply didn’t have the patience to see played out. If “Firefly” arrived in today’s television climate (rife with ambiguous, slow-burn hits like “Lost” and “Heroes”), I would like to believe it would have thrived.
Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. As much as I love “Firefly” for what it is, it never had the opportunity to become something truly special. Its episodes are fantastic, through and through, but it ends so abruptly and leaves so many unresolved ideas that it will never find a proper audience that its scripts and performances deserve. While topping off “Firefly” with a viewing of ‘Serenity’ relieves some of the sting, I’m haunted by the knowledge that it could have been so much more. As it stands, my affair with the series is bittersweet -- its intriguing storylines, appealing characters, and quick dialogue only serve to remind me that I’ll probably never see more than the fourteen episodes included in this collection.
Ah well. “Firefly” represents an all too common symptom of a larger problem: television networks tend to abandon anything that isn’t an instant success. Whedon’s short-lived series was a budding hit hacked away before it could find an audience or establish fitting character arcs or plot developments. Hopefully it, and other failed shows that have found an afterlife on DVD, will encourage studios to support a series and earn an audience rather than simply canceling a potential winner. Either way, if you haven’t already, nab a copy of ‘Firefly: The Complete Series’ and enjoy the fruit of Whedon’s episodic efforts.
’Firefly: The Complete Series’ makes its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray with a somewhat mediocre 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that fails to rejuvenate the series’ problematic source. Close-ups and practical shots look quite impressive (more on that in a bit), but special effects sequences are soft (downright blurry at times), long distance pans are muddled, and texture clarity is a tad inconsistent. Fans who own ‘Serenity’ in HD will be particularly disappointed since the film’s detailed vistas and spacecraft sparkle in high definition compared to ‘Firefly.’ Some of the series’ high-def issues can be traced back to the show’s limited budget and rushed production schedule, but the most distracting shots are a direct result of source limitations. While Whedon shot the majority of the series using 35mm film stock, special effects sequences were minted in lowly standard definition. Honestly, I have a hard time faulting the production team for saving cash and making the series look as good as they could at a time when HDTV was a pipe dream, but it doesn’t change the fact that the BD edition of ‘Firefly’ is uneven and, at times, painfully underwhelming.
Even so, fans shouldn’t let that bit of disheartening news discourage their enthusiasm too much. ‘Firefly’s transfer is as technically polished as I expected it to be (the only way it could be drastically improved is if Fox went back to the drawing board and crafted new special effects sequences from scratch) and, for the most part, looks much better than it did on standard DVD. Colors are more vibrant, skintones more natural, contrast brighter and more stable, and blacks (while unresolved at times) deeper. Detail has received a moderate boost as well. Aside from the instances I already mentioned, skin textures are more realistic, fine detail is well defined, and hair and stubble show off some high-def sheen. While artifacting and low-light noise haven’t disappeared altogether (and make appearances on a fairly regular basis), ‘Firefly’s image is much cleaner than it is on DVD. More importantly, the picture isn’t assaulted by the endless blocking, banding, and crush as it was before.
Definitive? Not quite. As polished as anyone should expect for now? Without a doubt. In the end, ‘Firefly’ could have been a knockout had Fox given the show the same attention Paramount is bestowing on the original ‘Star Trek’ series, but, all things considered (we are talking about a cult fave that was canceled before it even had a full season under its belt), the end results look decidedly decent.
’Firefly’s surprisingly strong DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track fares much better than its video transfer. Dialogue is a bit muddy on occasion, but its overall presence in the mix is crisp, intelligible, and nicely prioritized during chaotic, action-oriented scenes. As for the series gunfire, explosions, and general mischief, low-end LFE support is hearty and healthy, and dynamics are lively and involving. The rear speakers are surprisingly aggressive as well, filling nearly every scene with the grind of distant gears, the drone of cranky engines, and the creaking strain of Serenity’s hull. Better still, the ship’s interior acoustics are realistic and convincing, the track’s soundfield integrity is remarkable (especially for a television series), and directionality is accurate and precise. I did notice a few instances in which looped dialogue felt disjointed from the rest of the soundfield, but it was rarely a distraction and certainly not anything that will give fans pause.
The only major technical complaint I have is that pans are slightly shoddy from time to time, causing smooth transitions to sound a bit jumpy. I can’t say I racked up a laundry list of painful pans, but it did occur at least once or twice per episode. Regardless, I suspect ‘Firefly’ couldn’t possibly sound better than it does here. The visuals may not be up to snuff, but the audio certainly is.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Firefly: The Complete Series’ features all of the supplemental content that appeared on the previously-released standard DVD set (including seven audio commentaries!), and even tacks on a pair of hefty exclusives: a half-hour reunion of sorts and a bonus audio commentary. Unfortunately, aside from the new roundtable chat, all of the video content is presented in standard definition.
If you’ve never experienced the joy of Joss Whedon’s “Firefly,” now’s the perfect time to give it a shot. Loaded with quick-witted characters, absorbing storylines, and some solid sci-fi action, it’s a failed series you won’t soon forget. The Blu-ray edition of ‘Firefly: The Complete Series’ has a problematic video transfer, but an impressive DTS HD Master Audio track, a generous helping of supplemental material new and old, and the fact that it still looks better than it did on DVD makes this release worth some serious consideration. My advice? Nab it now, dig through the episodes and commentaries, and prep yourself for the Blu-ray debut of ‘Serenity’ this December.