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John Doe

Wednesday 25 September 2002

TV Reviews: Firefly and John Doe
(with a mention of The New Twilight Zone)

Reviewed by John Shirley

The strange thing about the Fox channel is that itís the worst — and itís the best. Itís the heinous Celebrity Boxing — and itís The Simpsons. Itís Who Wants to Marry a MultiMillionaire?, and itís The X-Files. This Fall it has two new, pretty good shows. Why? Because Fox is willing to try fresh stuff. Bad fresh stuff — and good fresh stuff.

You know what I liked about Firefly most? It made me laugh four, maybe five times, out loud — and it did it intentionally. The humor is well staged, and crisply carried off, though our hero Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) mumbles now and then.

An anti-rebel thug insults our hero in the saloon-brawl scene. Say that to my face, says Mal. The thug turns, says it to his face. "Now — what you going to do about it?"

Nothing, our hero says — I just wanted you to move, so she can get behind you.

Wham, his "soldier", Zoe — a tall black woman played by Gina Torres — smacks the thug over the head from behind. And, boom — I laugh.

Fireflyís not comedy, but itís often funny. The showís not unpredictable either, but when it plays out as you expect it to, itís more satisfying than dully-obvious. What it is, is good, well crafted, vigorous adventure.

Firefly — which is the name of a kind of transport spacecraft — embodies what passes for imagination in television writing: new combinations of old ideas. In this case, the western crossed with the science fiction space story. The hero, who looks and comes across somewhat like Jimmy Stewart in one of the Anthony Mann westerns, is a veteran of a futuristic war for independence from the quasi-fascistic Alliance; that is, heís a veteran of the Civil War, like The Outlaw Josie Wales. The pilot starts with another western-movie clichť, a saloon brawl. The settings are desert-like — Arizona-like — planets. The hardcases dress rugged western-style and have variants on sawed off shotguns and six-guns at their hips.

Some science-fiction fans may object to guns firing conventional bullets in the far future. I donít. Bullets kill efficiently, are likely to be cheaper and more practical to make than energy weapons, and will probably be around for centuries to come. They make for a better western, too.

Despite the stupid way the dressers have his hair parted, Fillian is likable as the Fireflyís captain, though he mumbles now and then. Torres is very good and just incredibly foxy as Malís back-up; Ron Glass is authoritative as a "Shepherd," a kind of itinerant space preacher (watch, heíll turn out to have a dark secret in his past) who flies along with Firefly; Marina Baccarin isnít bad as the "Companion," a kind of high class prostitute of the future, whose role on the ship is not entirely convincing — and neither is her lush bedroom, far too large (as are many of the shipís spaces) for a vehicle of this kind. Adam Baldwin as Jayne is strong, in two senses, as the inevitable hard-nosed, hyper-aggressive counterpoint to the poised, clever captain; thereís a vague sort of spaceship-pilot character, an equally vague sort of lady engineer, a surprisingly clueless medic — and thereís his sister, a waif who constitutes an ongoing "B" story, apparently a somewhat psychic escapee from a secret-human-guinea-pig facility: I did say that they donít often use original ideas in TV science fiction. Indeed, it appears the next episodeís going to be the "Alien" episode, missing only Sigourney Weaver. But Iíll be watching. Itís possible to take old ideas and play them out with style and energy and inventiveness and humor and sharp dialogue — and that, the creators of Firefly have done. We should mention, too, the showís very good special effects, striking space scenes, and well thought out future computer imagery.

You know what I liked about John Doe most? Its hero, nominally named John Doe (Dominic Purcell), is a dark and mysterious figure who doesnít act dark and mysterious. He has mysterious mental abilities — he inexplicably knows all known facts, and has all known skills — but he acts like a regular guy. A little glib maybe, but also somewhat goofy, interested in hot cars, excited when he wins money at the horse race, engagingly confused. His personality shows real vulnerability. This offsets the fact that the actor is almost annoyingly good-looking.

Youíve probably seen the show or heard the concept by now: John awakens naked on a little island near Seattle, is picked up by a fishing boat, and is amazed to discover he can speak Khmer with the Cambodians on the boat, as he can apparently speak any language. He doesnít know who he is, or where he came from. Total amnesia. He has a mysterious Ďbranding markí on him rather suspiciously like a crop circle. He woke, indeed, in a circular flattened-out place in the woods — you know, UFO-landing shaped. (The island, by the way, is kinda shaped like Mickey Mouseís head. Maybe someone on the show used to work for Disney.)

So then he discovers he knows all known facts, down to "the exact ingredients of Apple Jacks." He is also a master of using that information for deduction — right, like Sherlock Holmes, whom John paraphrases at one point — because once more this show isnít as original as it seems. Itís Sherlock Holmes meets some episode or other of The X-Files.

Still, this is a snappy piece of work. Itís neatly written and plotted enough that I managed to not care that itís patently ridiculous for him to go from confused, amnesiac non-entity to crimefighter in one single episode. I also got used to the voice-over — which is not strictly necessary, and is rather a ponderous device — because itís fairly well written.

In one of the cleverer wrinkles, John sees in black and white most of the time, color blind except when thereís a case, or something related to his past, that he must pursue. Then, for example, the TV-news image of the kidnapped girl he must save appears to him in color. I knew the little girl was kidnapped by her father, as soon as John got onto the trail. The tone of the show somehow demanded it, and its not being about a conventional child abductor suggested that the story needed a twist or two.

John — who quickly becomes a millionaire thanks to his fantastic knowledge and calculating ability — gives his life a little centeredness by taking a job as a pianist in a bar and grill. Okay, to that extent heís Ďdark and mysterious.í

Most of the other characters are clichťs. Thereís a streetwise bar owner, and a girl whoís into art who falls instantly but quietly in love with him — both familiar characters. Also familiar is the black cop who befriends him — not too bright but amusing and loyal, yassuh. Pretty much the same bland character as the black guy who befriends the dark and mysterious hero of the syndicated show The Dead Zone.

You know who should win an Emmy on this enjoyable show? The researchers! ĎResearcherí is a staff job on a TV show, and the researchers for the John Doe writers must be working like gangbusters, and overtime, because the details of the copious tickertape of facts, figures and related deductions John reels off have the ring of truth. Too bad they donít give Emmys for that.

Who or what is John Doe? Oh, probably a guy who was abducted by aliens and they changed him as part of an experiment to see if they could help people on our beleaguered world. Just a guess. Could be time travelers, too.

Yes, John Doe plays its snazzy concept out cleverly. And very... pithily. If you watch a modern TV drama, take a moment and compare it to a drama from the Ď80s — besides time and culture, thereís a very distinct difference. Itís in the pacing. Modern shows are punchier, with more act breaks; theyíre more sound bite oriented, with less nuance on the whole. Is this because modern viewers are more impatient? No. Itís because modern shows are significantly shorter. There are more commercials.

Thatís why the new Twilight Zone canít be as good as the old one, no matter how hard they try — and despite the prevalence of standard TV writers on the show, they are trying. I canít really review this show as I may write one (well, maybe not after this). But I can tell you that a script for the new Twilight Zone is a mere twenty minutes long. The original was twentyseven minutes. Those seven minutes make all the difference between something like a music video or a commercial — and real television drama. You do the math.

John Shirley is the author of numerous books, including recently-released Demons from Ballantine/Del Rey, the Bram Stoker award-winning Black Butterflies (Leisure Books), and Darkness Divided from Stealth Books. His newest novel is And the Angel with Television Eyes from Nightshade Books. He is also a writer for screen and television. The authorized website is

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