Imagine that your favorite chef has just opened a new restaurant. You've been invited to the opening. The appetizer and salad are wonderful. You're so happy – you've loved everything this chef has done in the past but this is even better. Everything works together so beautifully.
And then some gorram bastard in a suit walks in and closes down the restaurant. You don't even get to finish your meal.
This pretty much sums up the Firefly experience. Chef Joss Whedon served up a feast that blended the science fiction and Western genres (like fusion cuisine, only this actually worked) and garnished it with an intriguing storyline, compelling characters, and a deft blend of silliness and seriousness. And then it was taken away. Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal, TV executives!
It's five hundred years in the future, and independent rebels Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his strong and loyal lieutenant Zoe (Gina Torres) are fighting – and losing – their last-stand battle. We then jump several years ahead to find Mal and Zoe running a beat-up Firefly class ship named Serenity, taking on passengers who aren't particular about the lack of luxury accommodations and taking on smuggling and other jobs of dubious legality. The ship's crew includes the lighthearted but very capable pilot (and Zoe's husband) Wash (Alan Tudyk), cute mechanic and engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), and thuggish mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin).
On board as passengers are Inara (Morena Baccarin) a high-class courtesan who rents a shuttle on Serenity and whose presence lends the ship some credibility and access to the more upscale, civilized planets; Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) a monk who's decided to do some traveling; and most crucially, medical student Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his distraught, unbalanced sister River (Summer Glau). Simon has recently rescued River from an Alliance academy where she was being subjected to horrifying experiments, and the two are now fugitives from the law.
All this takes place in a world that's both familiar and new. The central planets close to the Alliance 's rule are what we've come to expect from science fiction – shiny and high-tech. The outlying worlds, which Serenity visits often because of the crew's less-than-legal activities, often lack medical care and decent food. Many inhabitants of these outlying worlds still ride horses. It's also apparent that cultures have changed a lot in several hundred years – vocal patterns aren't the same as ours, and the dialogue is peppered with Chinese slang. It's a lot for the viewer to absorb in a few episodes, but Whedon and company make it work.
Firefly breaks the mold established by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and remakes it for the better. Lending familiarity to the proceedings are some of Whedon's character archetypes: Kaylee is to Firefly what Willow was to Buffy and Fred was to Angel, the cute but smart nerd-girl; Wash is Future!Xander, the wisecracking geek (when we first see him he's playing with toy dinosaurs) who still manages to score with the hottest girl around. But most of the characters are newcomers to us, and it's a joy to get to know them.
Where Firefly differs most from Buffy and Angel is in its central character. While their shows were interesting, I never found the characters of Buffy or Angel themselves to be very compelling (it didn't help that Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanz aren't the most gifted thespians). But we finally have the perfect Whedon central character with Captain Mal Reynolds. He's a disillusioned man who wants very badly to not care but can't help caring, and is constantly having battles with the base and the good sides of his nature. Add to this the challenge of keeping a fractious crew out of danger and fighting to live in a hostile environment (space is very unforgiving) and in hostile worlds (scarcely an episode goes by without someone being injured). Nathan Fillion, most recently seen on the big screen in Slither, does a wonderful job with the role – he's like Han Solo, only a bit smarter (and cuter).
To say more would be to deprive you of the joy of the series. It's too bad we only had one season. Yes, I know there's the movie Serenity (haven't seen it yet), but that's not the same as having several years of shows in which to build the character and story arcs. I suppose it's better to have had only a little of it than to have not had it at all. Still, I don't mind saying I'm bitter.
The DVD offers all the season's episodes, including three that never aired. The discs are replete with commentaries and featurettes, so Firefly fans will get as much as they can out of what little there is.