As we were watching the "Making of" bit from the special features, Lut looked over at me. "Why was this show cancelled?"
"I don't know! I've been wondering that too."
"Stillborn" is the word that keeps popping into my head about this series, although that's not fair -- because for a show with only fourteen episodes to its name, it's remarkably mature.
About two years ago, Lut and I started buying the DVD sets of Babylon 5 seasons. As we were watching the first season, the reasons that I hadn't gotten into the show until the second season all came back to me. There's a roughness to the early episodes of Babylon 5. Some of the actors don't yet seem to fit their roles, or know what their characters are like. Some of the plots for episodes are cheesy or fluffy.
Firefly had none of these problems. The acting is excellent across the board: I beleived in the characters and found them engaging and interesting in different ways. The ensemble has nine people, all of them with distinct personalities and motivations. And they all work right from the pilot. It's not like, say, "Farscape", where Lut and I rented the six-episode sampler from the first season and very nearly quit after the third episode.
The show did have some problems, from my perspective. One: it's non-stop trouble life-threatening danger for the characters. If it's not one thing, it's another, and it's life-or-death in every single episode. Much as I enjoy action, I found the formula got wearying: characters get into trouble, risk death, and get out again in the space of 42 minutes, every time.
Second, there's some of that TV-show sense of "nothing ever changes", so I know that these ongoing characters aren't going to die no matter how bad things look, and that other characters probably are because they're not regulars. Every problem starts and ends in the space of the same episode.
There is continuity from one episode to the next. Some characters recur, problems that they have in early episodes come back to haunt them later, relationships and characters develop and change over the course of the fourteen episodes. It's clear that Joss Whedon meant to create an overall story arc and to make revelations about the various characters over the course of the whole run. He didn't have the time to develop it that he wanted, but the seeds are there. I can't help feeling, though, that the series suffered from an overabundance of transitory "we need a plot for this episode" situations and problems. I would've liked to see more of the secrets and motives behind the characters revealed, and a lot more could've been done if they hadn't been so tied to making each episode its own self-contained work, with no requirement for seeing prior ones, and almost everything needing to be neatly wrapped up and restored to "normal" before the end of the episode.
Still, I don't mean to be too hard on it. Firefly's first fourteen episodes are much better than Babylon 5's or Farscape's. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining, the characters are fun and well-played, and lots of the scenes are memorable, including some delicious send-ups of common action-series tropes. Both the show and the setting have a very unique flavor to them: it's got similiarities to other shows, but it's definitely its own distinct series. It's a cross between a Western and science-fiction show, and as anyone who's read Heinlien knows, this works very well indeed. The Western-frontier feel comes from having the characters travel between various planets on the fringes of settled space, and the whole feels plausible, not contrived at all.
Overall, I highly recommend it, and am looking forward to seeing the movie when it comes out in September. The boxed set is something like $36 from Amazon, which is pretty good for eleven hours of solid entertainment.