In 2511, Sergeant Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Corporal Zoe Alleyne (Gina Torres) are soldiers fighting in the Unification War. In the Battle of Serenity Valley, the lack of air-support results in their loss to the Alliance.
Six years later, Mal has his own spaceship—an old Firefly-class model named Serenity, with Zoe as his first mate. “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), married to Zoe, is his pilot, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the engineer, and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) is a gun for hire. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a high-class “companion” who rents one of the shuttles. At the moment, she is away on business. While the crew are boosting some crates off an abandoned spaceship, they are noticed by an Alliance cruiser. They escape by using a decoy distress beacon, but the cruiser broadcasts about a Firefly-class ship carrying stolen goods.
They travel to the planet Persephone to deliver the goods to Badger (Mark Sheppard), a small-time gangster, but Badger reneges on the deal because of the Alliance bulletin. Mal decides to sell the goods to Patience (Bonnie Bartlett), an old acquaintance in Whitefall. Zoe is not so sure about this, as Patience once shot Mal, but they have to get rid of this hot cargo. On the way, they pick up some passengers: a preacher called Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a bumbling character named Dobson (Carlos Jacott) and a wealthy doctor named Simon Tam (Sean Maher) who arrives with a large sealed crate.
Someone has sent a message to the Alliance, putting them all in danger. Thinking that Simon is the culprit, Mal confronts him but learns that Dobson is the one. In fact, he is a Fed. But he wants to arrest the Doctor, not Mal. Dobson accidentally shoots Kaylee in the stomach before being overpowered by a surprisingly lethal Shepherd Book. An Alliance cruiser demands a prisoner transfer, and Doctor Simon threatens not to treat Kaylee if they do not make a quick getaway. Inara agrees. Mal opens Simon’s box and finds a young woman inside a cryonic chamber.
In Part Two, we learn that she is River Tam (Summer Glau), Simon’s sister. Simon tells Mal that she was sent to an elite Alliance Academy at the age of fourteen, but he discovered that she was being experimented on. He quit his successful career as a Trauma Surgeon to rescue her, but the Alliance wants her back. Mal decides to go to Whitefall as planned, drop off both brother and sister, and sell the stolen goods. Mal tells Jayne to interrogate Dobson. Dobson tries to bribe him with enough money to buy his own ship. A Reaver ship is coming. The Reavers are bad dudes. As Zoe says, “They’ll rape us all to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skin into their clothing. If we’re lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” Fortunately, the ship passes them by.
Serenity lands on Whitefall. Not trusting Patience all that much, Mal sends Jayne to take out her snipers first. They meet in a barren valley and Mal gives Patience a sample of the cargo, as they have buried the rest. When Patience finds out where, she tries to kill them. Between them, Mal, Zoe, and Jayne take out the gang, leaving Patience alive, but taking the money. Jayne warns that the Reavers have found them. Mal orders Inara, Book, Simon, and River into Inara’s shuttle in case they are boarded. Jayne and Book put the wounded Kaylee in the Engine Room, Wash tries a Crazy Ivan Stunt and they escape. Jayne wants to dump the siblings since they are so hot and the Alliance will not quit, but Mal decides otherwise. He tells Simon they would be safer on the move with Serenity. Mal asks Jayne why he didn’t betray him, and he says he wasn’t offered enough money.
These two episodes were supposed to be the pilot, but Fox Studios broadcast “The Train Job” instead because it was more like a Western, and Serenity Parts One and Two became the last episode aired, confusing the hell out of the audience. The mixture of Western tropes and Asian background is something different for a science-fiction series, though every series from Star Trek to Doctor Who has tried at least one Western episode. The US and China have fused their cultures to form the Alliance, but there is hardly an Asian character in the series. If you want to postulate that the Chinese part is in the centre and the Western US parts are out in the Galactic boonies with little in the way of law and order, go ahead. But I imagine it’s just the usual systemic racism and moral laziness.
Serenity is a Firefly-class gravity-drive spaceship which looks like a firefly when the tail-section lights up under acceleration. Nathan Fillion said this was the most fun he ever had on TV. Every time he rides a horse, it is the same one, named Fred. The cast waited for shots in the ship’s lounge rather than in their trailers. The show was flown to the International Space Station so the Astronauts could watch it. The soldiers’ uniforms came from Starship Troopers. Inara was the Hittite goddess of wild animals. Zoe’s gun is a Mare’s Leg—a cut-down Model 1892 Winchester, like Steve McQueen’s in Wanted Dead or Alive. Ron Glass appeared on Barney Miller, set in the 12th Precinct in New York, also the scene of Nathan Fillion’s series Castle.
Firefly was nominated for a Hugo, but the series was abruptly cancelled after eleven of the fourteen episodes filmed were aired. Three others were never aired at all. This project is typical for Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Dollhouse, Alien Resurrection, Cabin in the Woods), with a group of unusual characters—somewhat amoral but likeable, all of them misfits or outsiders of one sort or another—played with loving chemistry by damn fine character actors, with sly humor, and in this case pretty accurate science. For example, no sound in space, which gives a certain balletic beauty to spaceship movements. The music by Greg Edmonson is brilliant, with themes for each character and the ship. The whole production was treated with the usual TV studio contempt and acquired its reputation among fans after it was cancelled and began to appear on video. Typical, actually, for SF shows.