Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Firefly Ep1: Serenity Part One

Serenity: She is one of the most impressive ship designs to come along in years.
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As Stan Lee used to say over at Marvel Comics, when comic books actually meant something, "because you demanded it!!!" Okay, actually, just two readers demanded it here. Honest, I was NOT one of those TWO voters. Those were legitimate votes. The winner is Firefly [2002]. I imagine I will be moving around to a number of different series going forward and why the heck not?!
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One of the fascinating elements of serialized science-fiction is whether or not in the end an idea will sink or swim with a larger audience. Timing certainly has a lot to do with it among a whole host of other factors and time is always of the essence as networks have very little patience. After writing about Babylon 5 over the last year and what Straczynski pulled off over five seasons is something of a small miracle. It's astounding when you think about the work that had to go into selling it and getting executives to believe in it. He stuck to his story, his guns and his gameplan. Straczynski applied hard work to see it through. When I think back to Babylon 5 Season One I recall how hard it was to swallow and stay with it for me personally. It felt awkward. There was some obvious plot building or table-setting going on there in retrospect. Straczynski was fortunate TNT backed his plan. Joss Whedon, on the other hand, was far less fortunate with Fox. It's a shame too because Firefly had finished with just fourteen episodes and only twelve aired. It's all the more heartbreaking when I consider the fact Firefly was simply red hot out of the gate. It came out swinging. It was thoroughly engrossing and engaging, characters were rich right from the word GO! Who knows what a second season would have brought us or even a full season. We'll never know. I know this. Most shows NEVER start this strong. It is simply dumbfounding that it was cancelled. Like any self-respecting Browncoat how can one not consider what could have been.
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All of that is water under the bridge now and some things simply can never be changed. Somewhere along the way a few years back I started reading some of the Amazon reviews for the series. The support by writers there was overwhelming and I couldn't deny it sounded like something I needed to see. To say I was blown away would be an understatement, it remains one of the most impressive science-fiction series I've ever seen. If Babylon 5 was about story and character, Firefly was intensely character since we never had a chance to get beyond fifteen episodes. What a shame. Still, like Babylon 5, the Firefly 'verse is one that is fully realized and fleshed out with great love and detail. It is a unique future and Whedon transports us there to share his vision as Straczynski did his. It's an easy comparison simply because both men had such firm grasps on their ideas.
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Speaking of Babylon 5 and Firefly that leads me to another thought, what do these series represent if you had to sum them up? For me, Star Trek was about ideas as well as friendships specifically around its core of three: Kirk, Spock and Bones. Babylon 5 instantly recalls a well woven epic tale with a host of colorful characters and political undercurrents. Firefly for me, over and above all else, is a short series that instantly reminds me of character, chemistry, conflict, camaraderie, friendship, family. I loved Firefly for its wonderful cast. You loved each and every one of its characters for unique and different reasons. The sum of those characters made up the whole of a fantastic show with loads of special energy. What the hell was I doing when I missed this in 2002?
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Holster up your six shooter, because here we go with the best science fiction western ever made- Firefly, Episode 1, Serenity Part One. War footage greets us along with space weaponry in a rousing opening sequence. Captain Malcolm Reynolds is leading the losing side in a real grind of a Battle for Serenity Valley. His loyal partner is second-in-command, Zoe Washburne. The Alliance is fierce and loaded with firepower and advanced technology. The battle would be officially referenced going forward as the Battle Of Serenity Valley. "We've done the impossible and that makes us mighty," declares Mal. Those words have been immortalized not only by the raw power of the show and its writer Joss Whedon, but by its fans, the Browncoat faithful. I certainly count myself among them. The fans waged war on Fox for cancelling their show and forced a film in Serenity, also directed by Joss Whedon, which arrived and departed as a mild success at the box office and in particular on DVD like the series itself. The series and the film have remained steady on the Amazon sales chart for years. It's staggering really. I myself have purchased several and given some to friends and family. This time around I have purchased the Blu-Ray for enjoyment of the series stunning visuals.
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We see Mal confident in leading the contingent of men and women from the resistance against The Alliance. In a simple gesture, one simple action, we learn Mal is a spiritual man when he pulls his cross of Jesus from his shirt and kisses it. He puts on his brave face to lead but prayer is in his heart. There are many such simple moments throughout Firefly and many I suspect I will miss.
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The firefight, for television, is cinematic and explosive as our brave Browncoats are clearly out gunned, out numbered and out resourced. The flicker of laser fire reminded me of the earliest Terminator film's terrific special effects. They are on a grand scale here and they retain that impressive level throughout the series. The effects were seamlessly woven into the tales of Firefly. Mal and Zoe manage to overtake a bunker and with a heavy gun take out an Alliance air support craft in what seems like a suicide mission for them. There is much action to Firefly, but when it's not exciting physically, Whedon writes up the volume with some of the biggest, damn, most sparkling creative dialogue ever encountered in science fiction or television period. He wrote a classic, which is why so many have had such a hard time letting go of this series. They cannot let it die, because it is so filled with life and nerve and electricity. How can something so perfect be cancelled or at the very least forgotten? It just can't be and it never will. It may not have the cultural impact or influence over science fiction in the same vein as Star Trek, in that it is too early to tell, but like that series for fourteen episodes it achieved classic status, perfection of a kind that will forever rank itself as one of the best. I'm sorry, I'm gushing.
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"We're not gonna die. We can't die. You know why? Because we are so very pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die." Now that's what I'm talking about. Note the reference of God by Mal. That singular line speaks volumes about who he was during the Battle Of Serenity Valley. It also speaks volumes about the original, fresh writing from Whedon.
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Zoe receives word that her air support/ cavalry won't be coming for Mal and company. They are informed it's just too darn hot. The sky is alight with heavy fire and incoming Alliance vessels fill the sky to end the Battle for Serenity Valley. Somehow Mal and Zoe get out of it alive, but it is a spectacle to behold. Our friends are clearly on the losing side of a war against a greater power.
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Six Years Later [approximately 2517]. Mal, Zoe and a cowboy named Jayne Cobb, the third regular played fabulously by Adam Baldwin, are floating in some niftily designed spacesuits attempting to blow the door off some floating space flotsam and jetsam. They utilize a really cool melting gel. The wreck apparently has some "goods." The Firefly-class vessel called Serenity is on standby as our band of merry cowboys attempt to bust out the goods. There is an element of Cowboy Bebop to the proceedings. Some of that flavor is here conceptually and I only say that after watching some of that series. Further, the Serenity is to this crew what the Bebop was to that crew.
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On board the Serenity, we meet fourth series regular Wash. Wash is the ship's pilot and he plays joyfully with his plastic dinosaurs. I loved plastic dinosaurs when I was a kid! I had them all. I think Triceratops was always my favorite. I can relate to Wash, but you can relate to everyone here. The folksy geetar music so deftly handled and delivered by Greg Edmonson is the perfect companion throughout the series. It lends just the right sci-fi cowboy flavor and just the right amount of space and quiet between riffs. It is a joy to listen to within the show or in your car. Like the actors, the vessel, the writing, the sets it is one more critical component and character within the series that crystallized its status as the perfect science fiction series. The confluence of factors couldn't have made a more perfect cocktail. Wash warns the Captain of an incoming Alliance vessel. The Alliance is notable for their drab grey uniforms as a kind of evil empire a la the Empire found in Star Wars. Mal orders Serenity to go into "blackout" as we are introduced to the fifth series regular in Kaylee, Serenity's on board engineer. She knows every nook and cranny of the old girl. The engine room is warm and fiery and is sort of the heartbeat of the ship and Kaylee is too.
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The special effects are truly impressive. The series won an Emmy in 2003 for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a series. The back end of the Serenity lights bright when in burn mode and it is cool. One of the great controversies surrounding the show is why Serenity Part One and Two were not shown on television first. The outcry, or one of them, understandably was that The Train Job [conceived as a replacement pilot entry] aired first creating confusion out there amidst the viewing audience about the characters and their motivations since the pilot was passed over in place of this for the introduction. This has all of the makings of a serial with legs and it was a missed opportunity. Quietly, the Serenity stands by to determine if the Alliance vessel will pass her by. Unfortunately thanks to all of her technology, the I.A.V. "Dortmunder" vessel picks up a heat signature and sweeps the remnants and debris. The Alliance determines the Serenity is a salvage transport ship. Serenity fires up. Our trio quickly returns to the ship. Wash releases a decoy device dubbed the "Cry Baby." The decoy serves up a distress signal to distract the Alliance long enough to get the goods and themselves back on board Serenity. The commander of The Alliance alerts the crew to inform Interpol of the escape. The Serenity departs with a tremendous light show and and one that lends reason to why she's a Firefly class vessel. It's a gorgeous sight against the dead of space.
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Here is that wonderful theme song written by Joss Whedon, performed by Sonny Rhodes, scored by Greg Edmonson, that would introduce the cast and welcome us to each episode with open arms. The musical signatures really play to the show's strengths and are character driven, whether it be someone specific, a specific location, the dead black of space or the darkness found in the Alliance. There is also plenty of breathing room between the instrumentation to emphasize the vacuum of space. As for the theme track, when it ignited for my second go round here it drove The One To Be Pitied absolutely crazy. She can't stand it! Ha! She was like, "oh noooo." She even likes country. How could she not adore this song? Here is the Firefly Main Title also referred to as The Ballad Of Serenity.
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Mal notes the gold bars appear marked and is clearly concerned about being stopped by The Alliance with this kind of cargo. He just wants to get paid. Sounds a little like Spike Spiegel?
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Despite Jayne and Mal's razzing of Kaylee being overly cheerful, she kisses Mal's cheek, "I love my Captain." And this is why we love this show. Wash and Zoe discuss life on the run as "criminals" and demonstrate they are very much an item. These two always were cute throughout the series. It's clear from these very few moments together there is a real tension between Wash and Zoe as a result of her loyalty to Mal. It's a bit of a love triangle without love in the physical sense between Zoe and Mal. "I'm just the husband" says a fairly green-eyed Wash. the dynamic of the relationships is huge reason why Firefly was such a hit with fans. They no quality when they see it.
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The crew prepares for the arrival of sixth regular player Inara Serra whom Mal refers to as making an honest living. She, of course, is a companion [not a whore!] and takes care of men's needs, but in this life it's fairly respectable based on her clientele, except to Mal. Morena Baccarin as Inara is about as sultry hot as they come. She was more than just the eye candy throughout the series, but she was very much the candy too. She is a woman who makes men out of boys. Still, despite the respectable settings for her sexual profession it is still hard for many to accept her work. Inara has her own shuttle for her escorts and meets up with Serenity on Persephone.
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Firefly pays close attention to set design, clothing and the details on the whole. The devil is in there for sure. There is a heavy Asian influence to this Western-laced science fiction as if Blade Runner crashed into The Unforgiven. It can be felt in the look of the places they go to the language they all speak. Mal is always letting the lingo creep into his rants when he gets going and he'll let the foul language fly with an Asian-influenced tongue.
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On Persephone we meet the seventh member of our ensemble cast of characters in the form of Shephard Book played by none other than Barney Miller's Ron Glass. Go figure, but it worked. He may be one of the most mysterious of the series that would never be fully understood.
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Meanwhile, Mal, Zoe and Jayne meet with a character played by none other than Mark Sheppard [The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica and Jim Sheridan's In The Name Of The Father]. He's an impressive actor who grabs your attention with that voice. The group negotiates. This is a fun little sequence and we get a little taste of things to come from Jayne [played brilliantly by Adam Baldwin] and Mal [executed note perfectly by the always underrated Nathan Fillion]. Why Fillion isn't a megastar is a little bit of a surprise. Well, he did get Joss Whedon's attention earlier from Whedon's own Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but I still believe Fillion is fairly underrated as actors go. Here is a terrific sample of how the man can own the screen. Mark Sheppard isn't too shabby either.
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Kaylee waits at Serenity with her open heart and gregarious nature as she introduces herself to Mr. Shepherd Book. He will be joining them for their flight out. Mal and company are less than successful in off-loading their loot.
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Jayne: "I don't understand why we didn't leave that son of a bitch in a pool of his own blood?"
Mal: "We'd be dead- can't get paid if you're dead."
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The trio discusses their options for unloading the gold. There is mention of Patience and what a nasty customer she is. She actually shot Mal. "Yeah, she did a bit." There's mention of the Reavers. Jayne makes mention of what a bunch of nutjobs them Reavers are. "Them people ain't human." Sci-Fi fans everywhere rejoice. Oh boy tell us more. Most of us are suckers for a good monster.
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Next we meet our seventh regular in Simon Tam. He's handsomely dressed, almost like an aristocratic gentleman. He's definitely from priviledge. Mal and Zoe consider their situation. Mal tells her there ain't no way in "the verse" anyone will find their cargo. "The verse" referring to the universe is coined and will become a popular catchphrase throughout the series. Inara's shuttle docks and away Serenity goes. A discussion ensues between Zoe and Mal about passengers being aboard and walking around their loot. Mal is sure no one will find it. "If anyone gets nosy, ya know, just shoot 'em." "Shoot 'em?" "Politely." That's good. I like that, a polite shooting, very modern and politically correct.
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The next shot opens with an external view of Serenity. She is a beautiful ship if ever there was one. A great deal of thought and love when into building her by the show's creators and she simply floats through the air like a "leaf" through space. She is a beauty and is indeed a character of the show as Whedon paints a portrait of the passages and rooms of the old girl throughout the series. There's actually a really terrific single camera edit of the ship at the beginning of the film Serenity. The set design of the ship's interior gives the vessel and the show real depth. To know her is to love her. The crew stands in her dining area. This gives the show warmth, a place of residence, a welcoming vibe. This is home. Mal meets Shepherd Book for a first time and he is clearly a bit uneasy about a spiritual preacher man on board. This is interesting given Mal's connection earlier [six years ago] to his cross necklace. Could it be Mal has lost some faith along the way? I should think so.
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Mal: "Did you send word to Patience?"
Wash: "Ain't heard back yet. Didn't she shoot you one time?"
Mal: "Everybody's makin' a fuss."
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Mal greets Inara as ambassador and clearly there is a tension between the two, sexual and otherwise. This is the kind of rip-roaring, snappy dialogue and exchange we know and love about Firefly.
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Inara and Kaylee are clearly sweet on each other as friends. The crew and guests reconvene in the kitchen for a meal. There is a real sense of family about this group. Mal is touchy about Book and clearly has a problem with Book's personal beliefs in a higher power. Book offers to say grace and inquires if Mal will mind, "only if you say it out loud" replies Mal. Ouch! Mal is a man in conflict. There are some real demons at work and adds to the complex nature of his character. Zoe mentions "The Earth That Was," and you get a sense of where our heroes fit into the new world order. Doctor Simon is a bit of a silver spooned boy and Simon and Kaylee note how young they both are in what they do with a little flirtation. And speaking of family....
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Ah, family. "That's what governments are for, get in a man's way." Funny, that's how I feel about the executive and legislative branch here in the US at the moment. It's worse than ever. Great dinner conversation.
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GULP!
We get some sweet, small of the back, skin shots of Inara and she is a vision of beauty, a work of art really. Whedon's warm colors, red and orange, really give the series its sultry, rustic, western sci-fi look. There are so many moments threaded and woven into the series that give us glimpses into these fascinating characters. None of it is forced. It all sort of unfolds naturally. It's a real credit to Whedon's firm command of his yarn and the characters and the world they populate. It is a feast for the eyes and ears. It's not hard to see why Firefly caught fire after fading from the small screen. Word of mouth had spread and many of us, including myself, were late to the party. It breaks my heart that so many of us did not get there to rescue the show in time. It deserved so much more and seeing it again reminds me of the beauty in every frame of the film. Inara and Book catch up and clearly get back on the right footing. Book notes what a mystery Mal is and Inara offers us that it is precisely that element to the man that keeps her connected to him. Book is impressed Mal cares for his crew so much despite his lack of interest in "ingratiating" himself to anyone at all. The fact that Whedon cast Nathan Fillion is yet another ingenius moment of clarity for Whedon. I cannot think of a better, more perfect, virtual unknown to play the part of the Captain. He is exceptional in the role.
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So we get a good hard look at the colors and tone of Inara's quarters representing who she is. This is quickly placed in juxtaposition to Mal's accomodations. Things are rough, rusty and essentially very much a guy's room. It's a fitting place for a man who is rough around the edges and who has maybe lost a little of his fire. Granted, I've had pads like that and I hadn't given up on life.
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Wash summons Mal topside. It appears a mole is on board has hailed the nearest Alliance craft. Wash has done his best to sever the communication. This is quickly followed by a string of Asian profanity from Mal. Making an interesting point about perceptions we infer, Mal quickly finds Simon and lays a big fat right hook on him. He suspects Simon is the mole and without question comes to this conclusion based upon appearances. Soon, Mal finds out just how wrong he was in his assessment. The unknown mole holds the Captain at gunpoint. It would appear the man is after Simon Tam. "Is there a reward?," inquires Mal with perfect comic timing. Mal is all about survival and at this early point certainly has no loyalty to Simon. This of course would change in due course thanks to the fabulous writing of the series. I don't think there is a character that doesn't undergo some change surprisingly throughout this ephemeral series. The mole makes it clear that he feels everyone on the ship is "culpable." This of course changes the dynamic for Mal Reynolds. Things get rocky very quickly as Book, Simon and Mal get squirrely with the mole.
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Unexpectedly, Kaylee walks into the room and the mole shoots her in the gut. She is bleeding profusely. Fortunately we have a doctor on board. Is there a science fiction series out there without a doctor? Star Trek, Babylon 5, Firefly, Battlestar Galactica and even Doctor Who [well, technically he is a doctor]. RULE 1 IN SCIENCE FICTION: YOU MUST HAVE A GOOD DOCTOR. The melee allows Shepherd Book to act quickly as he takes down the crumb bumb mole with great professionalism and precision. This singular moment of action by Book makes it very clear there is more to the preacher man than meets the eye. He too has a mysterious past and one we would all like to know more about. Did he work for The Alliance? What is his training?Is he on the run? What is his story? He has some fancy moves indeed.
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Jayne wants to brutalize the assailant, but the man who disabled the villain, Book, takes a protective stance between Jayne and the Alliance scum. He will not allow unnecessary violence. Book is clearly a man of peace, at least now, who will implement force when needed, but he is a mystery to be sure.
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With leverage on his side, Simon Tam gives us a little more information about himself. An Alliance vessel is upon the Serenity. Simon orders Mal to run or he will let Kaylee die. This is an interesting moment of tension because it says alot about the characters. One thing is clear Mal does not like taking orders from anyone and snaps at Inara for giving him direction. One thing is true for Mal, no one will take one of his own. He loves Kaylee and he will move mountains come hell or high water to make sure his people live. Underneath that hard exterior is a big, old softie. On the other hand, Simon, too, is stubborn in his loyalty and concern for his own family. These two may have more in common than they know.
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The bullet is removed as we get a good look at what has the feel of a makeshift lab or sick bay within the ship. It certainly doesn't have the appearance of a typical doctor's quarters. Bones would be appalled. This certainly makes sense since doing anything, but running, is hardly on Mal's radar. Mal wants to know why The Alliance wants Tam so badly. The crew takes to the cargo bay. It is here we meet the eighth and final regular character meant for the proceedings, River Tam, the sister of Simon Tam. Interestingly, she is locked inside a kind of refrigerated cargo holder. She is naked. This should give you some idea that River Tam isn't your typical sister. There is something special about her. There is something unique. One should ask why she would be kept on ice?
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"Huh" is the only response by Mal and one that speaks volumes about the fresh, crisp, unpredicatable motion of dialogue throughout a wonderful series.
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As table setters go, Serenity Part One, is a pretty remarkable pilot and debut. There are not many series that can engage and introduce in the way Firefly does here. This is an impressive introduction and is near flawless in its execution of story, character, action, pacing and detail. It is a gem! I think the Lost Pilot is about the only other off the top of my head to pull it off. Amidst all of the excitement, there is something very at home about being aboard Serenity. It's a place I would gladly take residence particularly if it meant pursuing the dream of freedom that seems to be at the heart of many of its residents on this new space frontier. Oh and maybe is I shared quarters with Inara too. The more things change in the future, the more problems remain the same and survival is at the core of this ensemble cast of space travellers. The cast is forced to keep on the move, keep the Serenity operational and put food ont he table. There is an immediacy driving this series and the unknowns keep it exciting. To say anything less about this opening entry of Firefly would be simply insulting. How could I love a show this much without a single alien? It's something special.
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Serenity Part One: A
Writer: Joss Whedon
Director: Joss Whedon
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Cast:
Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds [Nathan Fillion]
Zoe Alleyne Washburne [Gina Torres]
Hoban "Wash" Washburne [Alan Tudyk]
Inara Serra [Morena Baccarin]
Jayne Cobb [Adam Baldwin]
Kaywinnit Lee "Kaylee" Frye [Jewel Staite]
Dr. Simon Tam [Sean Maher]
River Tam [Summer Glau]
Derrial "Shepherd" Book [Ron Glass]
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Up until I saw this series none of the cast members were notable to me at all with the exception of old-timer Ron Glass and, believe it or not, Adam Baldwin.
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When I was young Adam Baldwin was in a film called My Bodyguard [1980] and it was watched repeatedly in our house. We couldn't get enough of that little film. He was the bodyguard Ricky Linderman who ended up protecting this little guy who was always getting beat up. He also featured in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket [1987], another war classic. Anyway, two films worth checking out. More recently, for sci-fi fans, he's also made appearances most notably in The X-Files and Stargate SG-1.
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Nathan Fillion featured in Slither [2006] and Dr Horrible's Sing-Along Blog [2008]. He featured in Buffy The Vampire Slayer and made an appearance in Lost.
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Gina Torres starred in the ridiculous Cleopatra 2525. She appeared in The Matrix Reloaded [2003] and The Matrix Revolutions [2003].
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Inara Serra guest starred on Stargate SG-1 in its final season. She also plays a villain in the new V relaunch.
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Jewel Staite featured regularly in Stargate Atlantis. She also appeared in The X-Files.
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Summer Glau starred in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. She will be on Dollhouse.
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Alan Tudyk will also appear on Dollhouse. He is notable for his guest starring role in Alex Proyas' I, Robot.
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Sean Maher appeared in my own personal guilty pleasure Party oF Five. I'm feeling a "six degrees" story comin' on.
Whew! I'm ready for bed.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

WOW,I have never seen Firefly,but after reading what you have to say I am going to love it !!! :)

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

There is no doubt about the fact you will love this show. It will not let you down. In fact, I won't let you down either. : )

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt about that at all !!!,I just love your comments and klicking on your screen shot and having it fill the whole screen,each one is like a wallpaper,I have every single screen shot of Babylon 5 printed and put in a binder,they are AWSOME,and I will watch Firefly too !!! :)

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Shweet! Thanks.