Old West Heads into Space


Firefly is a sci-fi Wagon Trail — with humor, sex, no tentacles
By Bridget Byrne
Entertainment News Wire

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The five men and four women on the space ship are fiddling with wiring and talking about sex.

If the mechanical fault isn’t fixed quickly the vehicle could, as captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds points out, “be headed straight into a nice big solid moon.” Unfortunately, the endangered crew has trouble concentrating as they bicker over the cause of the problem — the captain allowed himself to be seduced by an attractive intruder who, having lulled him, then turned her attention to the steering panels.

This tense and at the same time witty scenario occurs on Firefly — the name both of this particular class of space transport vehicle (on which the tail burners light up like the insect in flight), and of this new drama series, created, written, directed and executive produced by Joss Whedon, the talent responsible for the success of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The hour-long Firefly, which debuted in September, airs on FOX Fridays at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Whedon has said that the inspiration for his new series is Stagecoach, the 1939 classic John Ford Western about an odd assortment of people trapped by circumstance and necessity as they seek to survive in a new frontier. His space travelers are on the move only 500 years in our future, in the aftermath of a universal civil war that has destroyed Earth. They encounter no aliens, only other colonies of humans — some of them real baddies, of course. Everyone is pioneering for a viable life on other planets, “little wannabe Earths,” bringing with them assorted artifacts and variations of their previous cultures.

“For these people, space [is] their wagon trail. It’s not that big a deal. That’s what I want the audience to feel,” Whedon said at a press conference earlier this year.

Whedon’s not directing this day on one of the three sound stages on the Fox studio lot. That task is in the hands of Vondie Curtis-Hall. Hand-held cameras shoot every which way in the tight confines of the space ship named “Serenity” — a clearly ironic touch, as the crew are a bunch of mismatched work-for-hire itinerants with no place other than their rickety craft to call “home.”

Whedon revealed that when he pitched this sci-fi Western to the network he said: “This is about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.”

The cast is, of course, good-looking — or at least tall. In some cases, both.

Nathan Fillion is Captain “Mal,” who at this moment is clearly lacking the moral authority to exercise the kind of control he would like over his crew.

Fillion, the Canadian-born actor who played Johnny, the jukebox repairman, in the short-lived sitcom Two Guys and a Girl, has described “Mal,” as a man who has “lost hope” and “plods on … a fellow making his way in a frontier world … where things aren’t great.” But Whedon says the show will allow for some “lightness” and “comedy” in this character, a soldier from the losing side in the war.

Jewel Staite plays Kaylee, the mechanic, and Alan Tudyk is the pilot Wash. In this scene, both are lying under the console, looking up into the mass of wiring. Zoe (Gina Torres), a warrior who fought alongside “Mal,” Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the true mercenary among the bunch, Simon Tam (Sean Maher), the ship’s doctor, River (Summer Glau), a fugitive with mind-reading skills, the priest Book “The Shepherd” (Ron Glass), and Inara (Morena Baccarin), an unusual ambassador, make up the rest of the crew. All supply their observation and commentary on the current tricky situation.

They are outfitted in a melange of contemporary and period clothes. There are bicycle shorts and cowboy breeches, prairie skirts and hippie smocks … and their guns are yesterday’s or today’s weapons, not sleek futuristic fantasies.

The sets are the same — a fascinating meld of old-time, multi-cultural and cobbled-together ingenuity. The upper and lower halves of the space ship have been constructed on separate sound stages: the work areas and business quarters on one stage, the loading bay, crew quarters and medical lab on another. The style is very eclectic — ranging from stenciled 19th century Americana decor to stripped-down postmodern practicality. It’s all about human self-sufficiency. It’s both quaint and sensible. It all seems very real.

Loni Peristere, the visual effects supervisor, and Emile Smith, the visual CG supervisor, are pleased that the set and CG models were built at the same time, allowing for more seamless integration. Peristere says that computer-generated effects with be “super advanced” and match the “handheld… raw and dirty style of the filmmaking.” There are over 60 moving parts to the CG space shuttle, which will create a much greater sense of three dimensions to its flight patterns.

Glass, who played Detective Harris on Barney Miller, now has gray hair pulled into a wiseman’s bun. There’s a hint of the clerical to the outfit he wears as Book, “the conscience among this bunch of renegades.” Glass was attracted to the “off-center” humor and insight of Whedon’s series and says it’s easy to feel quite naturally that “It is 2500!”

“Sci-fi [shows] are Westerns!” exclaims Baldwin, who previously had the recurring role of the supersoldier Knowle Rohrer on The X-Files. He stresses the satisfaction of being part of a futuristic adventure series in which “we won’t run into any tentacles.”

Torres, the statuesque actress who was arch nemesis Anna Espinosa on Alias, emphasizes that Firefly is “a character-driven show.” She says being Zoe, whose form-fitting costumes are “comfortable, functional and sexy as hell,” gives her a chance to play a woman who is not a cliche superhero or a badass, but a complex person in an era in which it’s natural for women to have equality and power.

“Lots of sci-fi shows are very technical, very clean, very gadget driven. Not this show: this is a dysfunctional ‘family’ in space,” Torres laughs. She says the low-tech atmosphere makes it all seem “very familiar and so very accessible. Audiences won’t feel they have to learn a whole new language, they can relax and enjoy it right away.”

However, she acknowledges that Whedon has done interesting things with the English language — broken it down and rebuilt it with an Asian influence to reflect the ways in which human culture has evolved by 2500.

The culture’s evolved in such a way that by 2500, it’s acceptable to be a whore. However, Baccarin, the beautiful Brazilian, Juilliard-trained actress who plays Inara (whose job description reads “companion”), describes her character as being “more like a courtesan.” Inara flies her own shuttle, a wonderful little pad of a pod, decorated with touches of “I Dream of Jeannie” Eastern exotica. She flits from ship to ship to ply her trade. “She’s very smart … not just a business woman, but someone trained in other languages… It’s like being a princess,” says Baccarin.

Whedon, whose credits also include the script for Alien Resurrection, the fourth movie in the Alien franchise, said he has no idea whether his new series will become a cult favorite like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, (now on UPN, Tuesday nights) or even Angel (on the WB, Sunday nights.) His creative approach was different with Firefly.

“It’s not about creating an icon,” he says thoughtfully. “It’s really about doing the opposite — they’re not superheroes, they’re not bigger than life. It’s really about people who are just people.”