Think of Firefly as Gunsmoke in a spaceship, and you're halfway home in understanding what creator Joss Whedon is up to in this Fox drama he labels "sci-fi/western." He's playing with genres and creating a new mythology that isn't likely to grab viewers the way his Buffy the Vampire Slayer did but is nevertheless one of the more imaginative hours of the new season.
The year is 2502, and a great civil war has just been fought in the galaxy with the Alliance, a totalitarian government aimed at unification of the planets, the winner. Our saga concerns a transport spaceship called the Serenity, run by Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who fought on the losing side. The Serenity is an outlaw ship operating on the fringes of the galaxy trying to stay below the Alliance's radar, taking any kind of job it can to keep bread on the table for its crew.
The crew is the Gunsmoke part. In addition to Reynolds, the Matt Dillon character, we have a doctor, a prostitute and a sidekick - just like Doc, Miss Kitty and Chester in the landmark television western. Prostitution being legal and one of the most highly paid and prestigious professions in the universe of 2502, prostitutes are called Companions. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is the Companion on the Serenity. She doesn't have her own Long Branch Saloon as Miss Kitty did, just a separate part of the ship in which to ply her trade.
Simon (Sean Maher) is the doctor, as young as Doc was old on Gunsmoke. He's running with these outlaws because they helped him free his brilliant but deeply troubled teen-age sister, River (Summer Glau), from the Academy, where she was being brainwashed.
Some of Whedon's best work involves changes made in the sidekick character. Instead of Chester, we get Gina Torres as Zoe, a Buffy-meets-Xena warrior woman who fought alongside the captain in the war. Her husband, Wash (Alan Tudyk), is the ship's pilot. There's also a minister (Ron Glass), here called a Shepherd. A Shepherd is not nearly as honored as a Companion.
While Whedon took the core of Gunsmoke to create the social unit at the heart of his story, he crossed it with Have Gun Will Travel and elements from Wanted: Dead or Alive, two other major 1950s and '60s network westerns. The post-Civil-War setting and the hero as a former soldier moving to the frontier and working as a gun for hire comes from Have Gun. The sawed-off rifles that Zoe and the Captain favor come straight from Wanted: Dead or Alive.
But it's all mixed up in the recombinant postmodern Whedon mind with Nazis from Indiana Jones and flesh-eating mongrels that could have been on Buffy. In the pilot, a big-time Nazi hires Reynolds and his crew to rob an Alliance train. Since it's an Alliance train, they are more than happy to do so until they find out what they have stolen.
These are outlaws only because the bad guys are in power; in the end, the crew of the Serenity always does the right thing. Like Marshal Dillon, Reynolds & Co. are the real keepers of decency and civilization on this untamed frontier.
While the action genre and, indeed, Friday nights on Fox, are most targeted at young men, particularly adolescent males, I have to admit I kind of like Firefly. I'm not sure, though, whether that says more about my level of maturity than it does the series' potential appeal to older viewers.
Firefly airs at 8 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45).