The wild, wild West gets a futuristic transplant in Fox’s “Firefly.” Cheeky and charming, Joss Whedon’s attempt to fuse oaters with “Star Trek” is just silly enough to work — and there’s absolutely nothing else like it on TV. Skein doesn’t have the kitschy appeal afforded the creator’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” — its lead is much too dull for cult status — but there’s plenty of B-movie attraction here to win over young Friday night viewers who have little else to choose from at 8:00.
To that end, there is no other project that so blatantly uses videogame visuals. There are scenes in “Firefly” that are indistinguishable from any number of PlayStation bestsellers; CGI effects, especially of the craft that carries “Firefly’s” heroes from one space task to the next, don’t even try to look real. Show, then, really is one of the first of its kind, blending high-end digital magic with schlock cinema.
Set 500 years into the future during a global civil war, “Firefly” charts the whereabouts of spaceship Serenity. Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) commands it for legitimate runs and commercial reasons, and he shuttles between the Alliance-governed galaxy and border planets that constitute a liberated frontier.
The troop undertakes any job offered, and each of the passengers has different motivations for being onboard. Crew consists of Zoe (Gina Torres), Mal’s loyal partner; her husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), the affable pilot; kindhearted engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite); sexy prostitute Inara (Morena Baccarin); rough and tumble Jayne (Adam Baldwin); medic Simon (Sean Maher); psychotic River (Summer Glau); and Book (Ron Glass), a wise priest who serves as the vessel’s conscience.
Week one puts Serenity in the middle of the Great Train Robbery. Hired by an evil tycoon to steal cargo, Mal’s team changes course when they discover that the freight is actually medicine earmarked for thousands of locals who have contracted a virus. Trying to fetch a bundle on the open market, he threatens the squad to bring it back or face death by torture.
“Firefly’s” wide spectrum of characters is its greatest asset, since any of its ensemble could take center stage from week to week. Mal and Book seem to be the leaders, but that every personality trait is represented, from pouty to dangerous to intellectual, is a perfect way to hide some of its flaws (most notably a reliance on cartoon violence and ridiculously staged stunts that could have given way to more creative methods of larceny).
Whedon, who directed and co-wrote the debut, has also taken a page from “The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.” a years-old, short-lived series that likewise brought sarcasm and impudence to a genre that until then was strictly serious. “Firefly” has a lot of wink-wink dialogue, breezy acting and sexual chemistry that’s never appeared in the science-fiction TV realm, and it’s all executed by some very likable people.
The requisite bells and whistles are on full display — large motherboards, flatscreens, hardcore hardware — but there’s something about Carey Meyer’s production design that feels fresh and uncomplicated.