Firefly: The Complete Series (Blu-ray)

June 18, 2013 14 Min Read

Review by: Dan Pulliam

Plot: What’s it about?

As a (slightly) aging movie fanatic, I’ve had to admit to myself recently that much of my reverence for certain films has as much to do with my growing up with them as their inherent qualities.  It takes a lot to grab my interest these days.  As it happens, more of what does just that tends to be found at home on the small screen these days than in my local movie theater.  I simply find that artists are more imaginative and driven to make something special when smaller numbers are involved.  I believe there’s more of an expectation on television to create good, solid characters and an engaging story if, for no other reason, because that medium simply doesn’t lend itself to the kind of obscene budgets needed to create ridiculous, over-the-top spectacles week after week.  I think computer-generated special effects, while they have their place and can be (and have been) used to wonderfully in many films, are probably the worst thing ever to happen to motion pictures.  One of my favorite artists is Peter Gabriel, and he has a quote that I love to cite when talking about movies compared to television: “giving an artist complete freedom is the worst thing you can do for the work”.  Necessity, it would seem, truly is the mother of invention.  And, by extension, when you can invent anything you feel like by throwing enough money at it, then there’s no necessity in being creative about how you do it.

I was predisposed to dislike Firefly.  I’m just not a fan of westerns.  I know it’s a failing of me as a film critic (much the same those people who say they love music, but immediately think something is trash simply because it’s hip-hop), but I can’t help it.  The genre just does not interest me.  On the other hand, I do love me some good science fiction.  But could I actually enjoy a sci-fi western?  Honestly, that premise just sounded strange at best and like a train wreck waiting to happen at worst.  I came into this show flailing and whining not to be bothered with sitting through it.  And then I watched the Pilot.  And then I watched about ten minutes of the second show.  And that was all she wrote.  I was immediately in love with this world that Joss Whedon had created and, more importantly, with the assortment of uniformly interesting and well-drawn characters he’d conjured to inhabit it.  Nathan Fillion’s Mal was today’s perfect answer for Han Solo.  Jewel Staite’s Kaylee was incredibly endearing as the ship’s engineer.  Then there’s Alan Tudyk’s great pilot character of Wash, Ron Glass’s calming Shepherd Book, Gina Torres’s tough-as-nails Zoe, Adam Baldwin’s hilarious and fiendishly selfish Jayne.  Each of these people has a personality completely distinct from one another (something sadly lacking in most television and even more so in film these days).  Not to mention, that’s before we even get to the two characters which actually propel our main plot for the majority of Firefly: Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau).

But the thing is, while great characters are indeed a necessity to make a great show, the story you put them into has to be great, too.  And just believe me when I say that Firefly has a phenomenal story.  Each episode builds on the last, and characters evolve naturally, both internally and in their interactions with the rest of the ensemble.  There’s a mystery at the heart of the series that always gets a nod, even in the one-off shows that don’t deal with it directly, so you can’t miss any of the episodes.  That Fox aired this series out of order and, as a consequence, created an indecipherable mess out of a thoughtfully-constructed, season-long story arc is just unforgivable.  Even if people had tuned in at the time, the show would have been nearly impossible to follow.  Thank goodness it’s finally found a life on home video, because the show deserves all the recognition it can get.  Seriously, I’ve never shown Firefly to anyone who hasn’t wound up loving the series.  Not a single person.  Even people I know who disliked westerns AND sci-fi ended up liking it for being a different enough animal by incorporating both genres that it escaped the trappings of either.  I’ve revisited this show and its excellent theatrical follow-up “Serenity” many times, and I’m sure I will again.  Now seems to be a time of shows returning that many thought were lost forever.  Strong programs like 24, Arrested Development and Jericho are being brought back to life (or at least the idea is being dangled in the case of the latter).  It’s quite telling to me that there’s more of a clamor from audiences to see more quality television programming return from the dead than to see yet another CGI-fest slapped on the big screen for hundreds of millions of dollars.  If we get more shows like Firefly out of that trend, we’ll all be the richer for it.

Video: How does it look?

My opinion of how Firefly looks on Blu-ray hasn’t changed one bit since this set was released four and a half years ago.  While some maligned the decision of Fox not to go back and re-render the show’s effects sequences into full 1080p HD, I think this feeling stems more from the spoiled nature of today’s home video watcher than from any laziness on the part of the studio.  We’ve become accustomed to the absolute best this format can offer with releases like the Star Trek: The Next Generation boxed sets.  But what I think people forget is that sets like that (i.e., shows being reconstructed literally from the ground up) happen to be the exception, not the rule.  With Firefly, the entire show was shot on film, but the effects elements were edited on SD video.  And so naturally, those effects elements just aren’t going to come out looking as spiffy as the other, non-effects shots, taken solely from the 35mm stock.  Shots that don’t feature effects look really outstanding, though.  They honestly look a bit better than I was expecting.  If I had to nitpick, I’d say the blacks could be a little deeper in some shots, and a very minor level of banding and blocking does show up from time to time.  But for an under-the-radar show from 11 years ago, this genuinely looks about as good as we could reasonably expect.  Detail level – especially in textured clothing like Mal’s coat and Inara’s dresses – is excellent, and never fails to push the picture quality up a notch.  This is a clear step up from the DVD version (which I also owned), and fans of the show will find this transfer revelatory if that’s the copy they’re used to watching.  Now, as I’ve said, the effects sequences are upconverted from SD, so yes, they do look quite a bit softer than the rest of the show.  But those shots are such a small percentage of the series that it really didn’t bother me, and I suspect that will be the case for most any other big fan of this show as well.  Subtitles are available in English, Spanish and Dutch.

Audio: How does it sound?

While Firefly isn’t going to be your go-to disc to test the limits of your lossless surround system, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks we get here are very solid, no doubt trumping the lossy audio presentations the series arrived with when it was originally broadcast.  No, this isn’t big-budget feature film level sound mixing, but then, it shouldn’t be expected to sound that way, either.  What the tracks do is serve the show perfectly.  Now, these are subdued mixes given the sci-fi nature of the programming, and that may disappoint some expecting a more enveloping, directional experience.  But whatever the DTS audio arguably lacks in presence, it more than makes up for it by being pleasant to listen to.  Some mixes that deal with subjects like this (sci-fi / space shows) can get bogged down with improper balancing, becoming too quiet or too loud alternatively.  Firefly, by contrast, always sounds very well-equalized, and I never felt I had to get up and adjust my receiver.  Dialog comes through clean and intelligibly.  Surrounds, while not nearly as active as on Firefly’s live-action follow-up “Serenity”, kick in when they’re called for to give the action a bit more depth.  Low end is decent, if unspectacular.  The worst thing I can really say about these sound mixes is that they simply do their job and nothing more.  We’ve become quite spoiled by audio always packing a punch at home, but I think it is smart to remember that it doesn’t always have to be that way to serve the material well.  All in all, I think Fox has done an admirable job bringing these shows into the HD picture and audio realm, and fans of the show will be more than pleased with how it sounds on Blu-ray.  For foreign-language-speaking buyers, a German DTS 5.1 track is available, as are Spanish and French tracks in Dolby Digital 2.0

Supplements: What are the extras?

While we don’t get a huge allotment of supplements on Firefly, those that we do get should please fans enough to add just that little bit of icing to an already great cake.  First up, we have a great collection of commentary tracks.  Nine of the show’s 14 episodes contain them, with participants including crew members Joss Whedon, Tim Minear, Jane Espenson, Shawna Trpcic, David Solomon and actors Nathan Fillian, Morena Baccarin, Alan Tudyk and Ron Glass.  As you might imagine, Whedon is quite a joy to listen to, as is Fillion.  These guys are as pure, distilled geeky as people come, and this series was clearly a labor of love for all involved.  Rounding out the extras are a short series of featurettes (“Firefly: Reunion Lunch”, “Serenity: The 10th Character”, and “Joss Tours the Set”), a few (generally inconsequential) deleted scenes, Whedon’s personal performance of the theme from the series, a series gag reel, and Alan Tudyk’s original audition for the part of Wash.  While there’s nothing Earth-shattering here, the commentaries are a great listen for fans of the series, and the quality tends to overcome the lack of quantity in the end.  I have no trouble giving Firefly my absolute highest recommendation, to fans and soon-to-be-fans of the series.  This box set can now be had for less than $20 on, and if you ask me, that’s a complete and total steal of a price based on the undeniable quality of the programming.  And who knows if we have really seen the end of this crew.  But money talks, and this does seem to be a time of miracles, so go snag a copy and show your support for one of the absolute best shows of the past ten years.

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