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The death and lengthy cut of 'Firefly.'

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MAL CAPITAN: 'Firefly' stars Nathan Fillion (pictured) and Alan Tudyk are coming to Silicon Valley Comic Con.

Before the days of on-demand viewing, it was practically a foregone conclusion that the really interesting TV shows always died young. Such was the case for 2002's Firefly. Joss Whedon, later to demolish box-offices with his two Avengers movies, mixed Spaghetti Western tropes with a story of an interplanetary empire. It all fit together so beautifully that the management at FOX couldn't possibly get it.

The anti-hero was the roman-nosed, slightly trustworthy Captain Mal Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion. A modern Victor Mature, Fillion is the quintessential example of an actor so good looking that he's never been taken as seriously as he deserves. This veteran of the losing side of a galactic Civil War made his living piloting the "Serenity," a renegade craft manned by a diverse crew—including the "leaf in the wind" pilot, the Hawaiian-shirted Hoban "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk, today a voice actor and comic book writer). Regulars included Wash's beloved wife, the ship's first mate Zoe (the formidable Gina Torres), and the security officer Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin). Travelling as supercargo on this smuggler's ship was a sacred "companion"( i.e. courtesan) named Inara, played by Morena Baccarin.

Firefly, and the very good 2006 cult movie it spawned, Serenity, were ornaments of the Whedon style—which means dauntless heroines, plentiful wit and constant surprise, despite the sturdy old-movie structure. Its cult helped to bring attention to a young Christina Hendricks (Mad Men's Joan Holloway). Baccarin went on to Gotham and Deadpool.

In a better world, it could have run as long as Wagon Train, or at least as long as Star Trek. Famously, FOX cramped the show's potential. The series got off on the wrong foot, quite literally, when the network decided to start Firefly on its second episode, foregoing the pilot—and its critical exposition—and confusing viewers in the process. After that, the show's remaining episodes were shown out of order. Of the original 14 episodes, only 11 were broadcast.

It may have been the times: 2002, the year following the attacks of 9/11, might not have been that hospitable a time for an anti-government fantasy: in those days, you were supposedly either for the US or against the US. A few years later, the franchise could have been quite zeitgesty for the Tea Party. Angry tax-rebels could have used the images of the rebellious anti-government Reynolds in memes of their own. (Strangely, I see no evidence of Internet memes conflating Obama with The Operative, who is the humane samurai played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in Serenity).

Whedon is an obvious progressive, who modeled Mal on the sore Civil War losers who peopled the smartest western movies of the 1950s—the James Stewart types who lost the farm and ended up with a battered hat, a smart horse, and a true-barreled rifle out in the wilderness. (The Serenity is named after a space-Gettysburg called the battle of Serenity Valley.) The "Reavers"—painted cannibal savages bedeviling the crew—had the same place in the Firefly/Serenity universes as the Apaches in a Technicolor western. On one level, while the alluring Inara was Whedon's way of introducing the prime-timeTV world to the concept of tantra. On another level, she was the dance-hall girl the marshal in the western admires, but never quite takes upstairs.

The show remains as something that might have grown greater, but its two stars are around to share the affection. Serenity's life-after-cancellation success shows the viability of on-line, on-demand television narrowcasted to the fans smart enough to love it.

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