SOURCE: Entertainment Weekly

One year ago, ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon was dying to make a movie. The timing seemed perfect. ”Buffy” was about to enter its sixth season as a well-oiled machine at new home UPN. Angel had finally gotten itself into high creative gear over at The WB. Trusted lieutenants were in place to steer both ships, so the acclaimed cult-pop demigod (whose screenwriting credits include ”Toy Story” and the ”Buffy” flick that spawned his TV glory) decided it was time to give movie directing a try. He even had a project lined up: New Line’s adaptation of the Marvel Comics’ superhero title ”Iron Man.”

But then, late last fall — an epiphany. ”I didn’t want to develop a movie for a giant conglomerate; I wanted to make something that was truly mine,” recalls Whedon, an unassuming, slacker-looking man with a slightly goofy grin and a laser-sharp mind. ”I didn’t want to be beholden to a studio’s development process. The development process is the enemy of film.”

In retrospect, even Whedon admits the irony of that sentiment given all the giant-conglomerate development meddling that has transpired to bring ”Firefly,” his risky Western in space, to the small screen. The sci-fi series — set 500 years in the future, in a galaxy colonized by restless earthlings — stars Nathan Fillion (”Two Guys and a Girl”) as Malcolm Reynolds, the glib-on-the-outside, tortured-on-the-inside captain of the space freighter Serenity. Mal and his steely second-in-command, Zoe (”Cleopatra 2525”’s Gina Torres), were rebels in a civil war between independent-minded planets and the Alliance, composed of Earth’s last remaining superpowers, the U.S. and China.

Disillusioned in the wake of defeat, they now eke out a dangerous, Han Solo-like living running a transport business with a truly motley crew: hulking mercenary Jayne (played by ”X-Files” supersoldier Adam Baldwin); Wash, Zoe’s husband and the Serenity’s always-joking pilot (played by Alan Tudyk, the rehabbing German junkie in Sandra Bullock’s ”28 Days”); and Kaylee, the ship’s cheery mechanic (played by Jewel Staite of the film flop ”Cheaters”).

This big new geeky universe banged into Whedon’s brain four years ago after he read ”The Killer Angels,” the richly detailed 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. Since his schedule was suddenly movie-free, Whedon decided to pitch his ”Stagecoach”-meets-”Star Wars” concept to Twentieth Century Fox Television (which produces ”Buffy” and ”Angel”), whom he still owed one series. He promised the Fox execs that ”Firefly” would have humor, action, and F/X aplenty, while zeroing in on existential angst and those quiet, human moments…like urinating. ”One of the first things I thought was, I’m gonna have a ship with a toilet,” says Whedon. ”I wanted a ship that felt lived-in.”

The antiseptic, slip-on-boots, phasers-on-stun ”Star Trek” universe is held up here as the utter antithesis of ”Firefly”’s dirt-under-the-fingernails aesthetic. ”The difference with ‘Firefly’ is that it’s not about technology, it’s about people,” says Fillion, adding that there ain’t an alien or a mutant to be found on the show — just humans. ”It’s not about the discovery and majesty of space; it’s about traveling from planet to planet, going ‘God, I hope we get there.”’ Or, as Tudyk puts it: ”Enterprise are pussies. They have elevators; we have stairs. They say, ‘Sir, there’s a missile headed for us;’ we say, ‘WE ARE GOING TO DIE!’ And we pee. I mean, did you ever see Captain Picard take a p—?”

Nope. But last spring, we did see Fox decide to flush ”Firefly”’s two-hour, $8.7 million pilot, shot last March. It told the story of how three mysterious passengers became full-time crew members: Book (”Barney Miller”’s Ron Glass), a worldly preacher; Simon Tam (”The $treet”’s Sean Maher), a straight-laced doctor; and River (newcomer Summer Glau), Tam’s superpowered sister. Fox deemed it more boring than postgraduate astrophysics: too slow, too much back story, not enough action and humor. ”We asked Joss for a two-hour pilot, and that was a wrong move on our part,” says Gail Berman, president of FOX Entertainment. (The studio wanted 120 minutes so it could sell it overseas as a movie to help recoup its investment.) ”I think he was better served breaking out of the box with an exciting, action-packed first episode.”

Now ”Firefly” will debut with a sort of ”’Great Train Robbery’ in space” episode, with the Serenity’s crew already assembled and their back story a mystery to be unraveled. (A version of the pilot will air as an ”origin special” in December.) Whedon’s first reaction to Fox’s decision toggled between embarrassment and anger; now, months after the hullabaloo, he sounds sanguine. ”I just forgot about the development process,” says Whedon. ”In a way, I thought I was making my movie. But that’s not the way it works.”

The first six episodes have been designed as easily accessible stories that will explore the love/hate relationship between Mal and Inara (a cultured prostitute played by newcomer Morena Baccarin), unravel the secret of River’s strange abilities, and introduce the menacing threat of the Reavers, space pirates that rape, kill, and eat their victims — and not always in that order. Though some cast members initially felt apprehensive about ”Firefly”’s rejiggering, Fillion reports that the first scripts have bolstered their confidence: ”Joss is taking care of his end.”

Which is impressive, considering everything else Whedon has been taking care of these days. In addition to ”Firefly,” he has reassumed an active role in ”Buffy” (entering what could be its final season) and especially ”Angel” (which lost its founding exec producer, David Greenwalt, to ”Miracles,” an ABC midseason drama). ”I’m as stretched as can be,” acknowledges Whedon. Says Fillion: ”Some weeks seem harder on him than others. But I don’t think he’s able to be truly happy if he’s not pushing the limits of what he’s capable of.”

For Whedon, who has yet to fail on television, ”Firefly” represents a rep-making test: Success could certify him as a Steven Bochco-esque hit-making machine; failure might suggest he should just be content with his little vampire empire. Any pressure?

”Oh, gee,” he quips, ”thanks, Jinx Guy.”

We’ll take that as a yes.