I never watched Firefly when the series originally aired, mainly because the whole idea of mixing spaceships and Westerns struck me as dumb. But later having discovered that the same writer-producer’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer was considerably better than I’d expected, I decided to give it a shot and ended up watching all 14 episodes and the movie sequel. (I later learned additional appreciation of Joss Whedon. For the record, the following review was originally written in 2010).
The premise is that about five centuries hence, humans have colonized and terraformed a large number of planets and moons in a giant super-sized solar system an unspecified distance from our own. The more developed central planets control everything, having won a war against the poorer outer planets and moons, many of which are at about the technology level of the U.S. West in the late 19th century, though with some high-tech add-ons.
The main characters are the passengers and crew of a smallish freight-carrying “Firefly-class” spaceship named Serenity, captained by a veteran of the losing side in a civil war between the outer planets and the central Alliance (played by Nathan Fillion, later best known as the title character on the TV series Castle). His second in command is a stern woman (Gina Torres) who served with him in the war. Her husband and near-opposite (Alan Tudyk) is the pilot. There’s an immensely likable farm girl engineer (Jewel Staite.), a mysterious preacher (Ron Glass, one of the stars of Barney Miller), a dim and untrustworthy but usefully dangerous thug (Adam Baldwin), a high-class courtesan (Morena Baccarin), and a young doctor (Sean Maher) whose teenage sister is a brilliant, psychic, mentally unbalanced fugitive from government medical experiments.
They take on what jobs they can, not excluding robbery and smuggling, and the adventuring is elevated by witty dialog, interesting characters, and a cast that really seems to like their work. I’ve read that during breaks in filming the actors liked to hang around in the ship’s mess deck rather than leave the set. The actors who played the doctor and his sister reportedly came to think of each other in brother-sister terms, and Summer Glau (the former prima ballerina who played the sister) kept ruining takes of a scene in which her brother was supposed to be seriously injured by breaking down in genuine sobs.
(Which relates to an earlier standing joke among the cast members during filming of the series. Whenever someone screwed up a take, it became traditional to blame Summer Glau even if she was nowhere around. This is why, if you watch outtakes, you'll see people periodically exclaim, "Summer!")
There’s another scene in which the doctor and Kaylee, the ship’s cute engineer, kiss, and this reportedly took nearly 20 takes to shoot. Reading about that reminded me of what Robert Wuhl said about his kissing scene with Kim Bassinger in Tim Burton’s Batman: “And believe me, I didn’t get it right the first time, either!”
I may be the last person reading this to discover Firefly and Serenity, but if not, I recommend reserving judgment during the original 90-minute pilot. You need to watch it, but it sets up so much backstory that I thought the television series got considerably better after that. The movie, Serenity, is in my estimation not quite as good as the best of the series, but if you like the series you'll want to see it.
The trailer is for the movie: