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'Firefly' came back: This is the role Nathan Fillion was born to play: A flawed leader of men and women

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Firefly, the Joss Whedon-created sci-fi Western that came and went in 2002, is back on the Science Channel, its two-hour premiere on Sunday night reminding us how good the show was, and why it was pretty much doomed from the start. Nathan Fillion headed up a cast of ragtag characters, a group morally compromised in varying degrees, united in trying to avoid domination by the Alliance, oppressive victors in a war we saw being waged six years earlier in this 500-years-in-the-future series. Fillion’s Mal Reynolds is a reassuring archetype — the wry loner forced to become a leader of men and women.

Heard now, some of Mal’s pronouncements (written by a staff that included, in addition to Whedon, Jane Espenson, Ben Edlund, and Tim Minear) can sound simultaneously like John Wayne-John Ford-movie dialogue and libertarian tracts: “That’s what governments are for — to get in a man’s way,” to take one of this evening’s examples.

If Whedon borrowed some of the Firefly ship’s claustrophobic tension from sources as various as Alien and Star Trek, he added a lot of his own innovations, from the presence of a freakishly gifted, powerful, yet vulnerable character whom everyone must protect (Summer Glau’s River Tam) to dialogue with a distinctly Buffy cadence (“Can we vote on the whole murdering-people issue?” asks Alan Tudyk’s Wash).

I’m not going to bad-mouth Fillion’s current wage-paying job, Castle, except to say that  it’s charming fluff compared to the increasingly tense, mordantly funny show Firefly became as it proceeded.

The two-hour episode, titled “Serenity,” was not first aired as the pilot episode — instead, the series’ original network, Fox, broadcast  “The Train Job,” which followed “Serenity” on Sunday night, as its debut. Fox aired some episodes out of order and sometimes promoted the show as a larky spoof, all elements that worked against it ever finding the audience that eventually calcified into a cult big and tough enough to justify bankrolling a 2005 movie extension of the show, Serenity.

But the bottom line is, with its dusty brown hues and fiddles on its soundtrack, Firefly was a Western with fantasy and sci-fi elements that most people in 2002 just didn’t want to see; the last one of those the public had flocked to was The Wild Wild West (1965-69). Whedon was typically bold, nervy, and intelligent about wanting to create something different, and Fox was typically hapless in not knowing what to do with Whedon’s work (time-jump forward to Dollhouse).

The Science Channel segments featuring the theoretical scientist Michio Kaku didn’t add much to my appreciation of Firefly, but he seems like a charming TV personality as well as an accomplished scientist.

So, are you going to keep watching Firefly, or have you seen it too often on DVD and in TV reruns for it to sustain your interest or your nostalgia?

Twitter: @kentucker

For more:

‘Firefly’ returning to cable: Fillion says he’d play Mal again

‘Firefly’ debuts on Science Channel tonight