SOURCE: Entertainment Industry Intelligence

Fox Broadcasting Co. has given a 13-episode commitment to “Firefly,” a sci-fi action-drama from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator/executive producer Joss Whedon.

The series will be produced by Whedon’s Mutant Enemy Prods. in association with 20th Century Fox Television, where Whedon has an overall deal. Whedon will executive produce “Firefly,” which is eyed for a fall 2002 debut and marks Fox’s first series commitment for next fall. The series will launch with a two-hour pilot episode, which Whedon is writing and will direct.

Set 400-500 years in the future in a newly established Union of Planets, “Firefly” centers on the crew of Serenity, a small transport spaceship of class firefly who will take any job — legal or not — to stay afloat and put bread on the table.

The project reunites Whedon and Fox entertainment president Gail Berman. As head of Sandollar Television and an independent producer, Berman shepherded the development of “Buffy” as well as the series’ spinoff “Angel,” which Whedon co-created and is executive producing.

“I personally couldn’t be happier to be back in business with Joss, and on the whole, FBC is tremendously excited that we have the opportunity to finally get him working for us,” Berman said.

There is speculation that the drama might get “The X-Files’ ” Sunday 9 p.m. slot, but Berman said no decision has been made on the scheduling of “Firefly.” “We hold out hope that we wouldn’t have to fill that time period with anything else, but if we did, this would certainly be something that we would consider,” she said.

20th TV president Dana Walden said she and 20th TV president Gary Newman “were extremely excited to hear that Joss would be ready, willing and able to create something for fall. The guy is an extraordinary visionary who year in and year out creates some of the most compelling, entertaining television out there.”

To do a science fiction project has been a longtime dream for Whedon, a big sci-fi fan. “It’s a great way to tell stories because you can tell very cool human stories, but they all have a grandness to them that science fiction brings,” he said.

Whedon got the idea for “Firefly” while reading an account of the battle of Gettysburg. The time period in the series is a version of the Reconstruction era, Whedon said. The captain of Serenity is a war veteran of a big war to unite the planets.

“(‘Firefly’) is kind of a Western in the sense that they ride to the border towns — these planets that are barely inhabited — because they want to stay away from the big government, the big radar,” he said.

As for the trademark latex masks of sci-fi stalwart “Star Trek,” “I’ve been determined to make a show with no latex before I die,” Whedon said. Unlike “Buffy” and “Angel,” ” ‘Firefly’ will have some extraordinarily scary people in it, but no monsters,” he said.

It will be a busy fall for Whedon, who is on track to run three series with the launch of “Firefly.” As part of 20th TV’s deal with UPN, “Buffy” is set to return for at least another season, and “Angel” is expected to stay on the air — either on the WB Network or on UPN, if the WB chooses to drop it.

Whedon received an Academy Award nomination for co-writing the Walt Disney Co.’s “Toy Story” and an Emmy nomination for penning an episode of “Buffy.” His feature credits include the feature “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Alien Resurrection.” He also has worked on the screenplays for “Speed” and “Twister.” Whedon’s TV writing credits also include “Parenthood” and “Roseanne.” Whedon is repped by UTA and attorney Sam Fischer.