Joss Whedon is the Hazel Motes of American television. Motes, a hill-country preacher created by Flannery O'Connor, toured the back roads of the American South to win souls for the "Church Without Christ." Having annihilated God, Motes was helplessly possessed nonetheless by the religious instinct -- and, O'Connor later wrote, his peculiar stubborn integrity lay in his absolute inability to rid himself of the yearning to know what he could not believe in.
Whedon is stubborn, too. His vision of a perky blond high-school honey who is secretly a vampire-slaying superhero survived the Hollywood shredding machine because of Whedon's persistence: When the studio turned his movie screenplay into Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a campy teen comedy, he bided his time and persuaded the WB to let him re-create it as a weekly TV series (now airing on UPN) -- the best and (for all its teen-slang wisecracking dialogue, the most serious) teen drama on contemporary TV.
It's a mark of Whedon's integrity that his new show, Firefly, re-creates the space opera in a universe without aliens. In Buffy, he populated the mundane world of high school with a panoply of vampires, robots and fashion-savvy bitch goddesses. Now he pictures humanity launched into the exotic world of faster-than-light travel and distant galaxies, and finding there only ourselves.
It's a gutsy choice: Alien races offer the sci-fi writer a wonderful set of devices for moving forward creaky plots. But they are also uniformly disappointing: The human imagination can apparently picture other intelligent beings only as ethnic caricatures of humanity (Star Trek's Romulans and Klingons were originally modeled on the Soviets and the Chinese, respectively) or (like the mysterious alien communicators in Carl Sagan's Contact) as homey avatars of God.
Whedon describes himself as an atheist, but if he is one it is only in the way that Hazel Motes was a non-Christian. Whedon sees a universe of transcendent good and terrifying evil, but these are to be found only in ourselves and in the choices we make. Motives are never pure; victory is never final. Today's enemy is tomorrow's friend, as we all teeter between sin and salvation.
All of which makes me optimistic about Firefly, Whedon's long-awaited new series, currently airing Fridays on the Fox network. Set 500 years in the future, Firefly is a reimagining of John Ford's West (and mercifully, so far, without Ford's cruel caricatures of Indians). We join the cast six years after the great war of Unification, in which the Alliance subdued the Independents and created one galactic government. Led by embittered former Independent Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the crew of the Serenity plies the outer edges of the Alliance, smuggling, dodging "fed squads" and, naturally enough, carrying passengers whose true destinations are carefully obscure.
The most intriguing character is Inara (Brazilian-born beauty Morena Baccarin), who plays a "companion." For those who don't remember Miss Kitty, a companion is a high-class call girl, one who chooses her own clients ("That's Guild law") and lives at the apex of the topsy-turvy social order of the future. (One of the show's most devilish variations on the traditional Western appears in the pilot, when Inara boldly sweeps into a frontier town and is all but deified by the salt-of-the-earth townsfolk, who have never seen "a real companion" before.) Inara clearly doesn't belong on Serenity -- with her money and social position, she should be traveling first class. Like Buffy, she's a babe with a mission; Whedon provides a hint by designating her as "the ambassador" -- though from whom and to whom are not currently revealed.
Mutt to her Jeff is Book, an itinerant cleric (Ron Glass). Like the Blues Brothers, he's been sent by God, though we don't yet know why and it's possible that he doesn't either. Part of his purpose is ministering to the tortured soul of Capt. Reynolds. "You're welcome on my boat," Reynolds tells the shepherd. "God ain't."
And, of course, the passenger list includes a full-fledged maguffin: River, a teenage girl with psychic abilities who is escaping from The Academy, a murky installation where federal goons apparently tried to harness her gifts for the goal of the Alliance -- "To unite all the planets under one rule so that everybody can be interfered with or ignored equally." River is being pursued through space by sinister Feds, the depth of whose evil is suggested by the fact that they always wear blue gloves.
There is great promise to the premise. That the pilot doesn't quite live up to it is explained by the fact that network executives refused to allow Whedon to air his original concept for the episode -- a two-hour homage to Ford that would have included long, idiosyncratic action sequences. Instead, Firefly begins with a conventional caper by thieves with hearts of gold. The crew is hired by Nishka, a Russian-mob-type crime lord who combines Mel Brooks' Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man with George Lucas' Jabba the Hutt. The operation: to steal federal property from a train through some mighty familiar looking badlands.
Once the crew has pulled it off, Reynolds learns that the booty is actually medicine for a colony of miners afflicted with outer-space black lung. (The medicine is called Pascalon-D, named for the philosopher who proposed that we might as well believe in God regardless of the evidence because a lifetime of faith against an eternity of heaven is mathematically a good bet.) Of course, Reynolds insists on taking the medicine back, thereby earning the enmity of Nishka and his entourage of World Wrestling Entertainment-refugee thugs. Now Mal and the gang have two sets of demons after them.
Whedon knows that true dramatic art is produced by having characters overcome obstacles, both internal and external. The drama of Firefly will begin with the struggle of the gallant crew against space thugs and torturers. But the larger epic will arise out of Whedon's own struggles, against the creaky conventions of the space- and horse-opera genres and the crass constraints of ratings-driven network television. Experience teaches us that original-minded sci-fi series have a tough time surviving in the hostile territory of prime time: The original Star Trek was killed prematurely, Showtime gutted Stargate SG-1 and even the nerds at the Sci-Fi Channel recently pulled the promising Farscape.
But those shows didn't have Whedon behind them. His own story is that of a determined Ingmar Bergman trapped on an Aaron Spelling planet. It may be hopeless but, like Hazel Motes, he's a hard man to stop.