Lordy, does Joss Whedon ever love to tell a story, spin a yarn, get off a good 'un. Along with David Chase (''The Sopranos'') and J.J. Abrams (''Alias''), Whedon does what too many feature filmmakers these days do not: entrance us with elaborate narratives in which small, precise details add up to a coherent philosophy -- a worldview.
In the new Firefly, Whedon's messages are: Learn to take care of yourself, because no one else is going to; and be stronger, smarter, faster than the next guy/gal, or he/she will get the drop on you. The show is Whedon's daring attempt to go where men have gone before all too often: to the frontier -- two frontiers, at that.
The notion of yoking the Western to science fiction isn't original. Michael Crichton did it 29 years ago in ''Westworld'' (remember Yul Brynner's robot gunslinger?), and while I never watched ''Star Trek,'' even I know there was at least one transporting-into-the-Old-West episode. But ''Firefly'' benefits enormously from Whedon's ability to take the clichés of any genre and give them a good, hard yank.
This series is the brawling saga of Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of his ship, Serenity, on the run from a totalitarian, multiplanet regime called the Alliance. We're told that Reynolds and his rebels -- who call themselves Independents -- will accept ''any job, anywhere'' to keep fuel in their tank and food free-floating through their space capsule. This means, in the premiere, agreeing to thieve cargo for some brutish space goons led by a graying baddie with a vaguely European accent, of whom Mal says, ''He's not the first psycho to hire us, nor the last.''
Excellent: moral relativism, plus a crew member (Gina Torres) who blasts people with (I'm dating myself here, but so is ''Firefly'') a sawed-off shotgun just like the one that Steve McQueen used in the 1958-61 series ''Wanted: Dead or Alive.'' Add to that Mal taking a bowie knife in the shoulder in the first episode and self-consciously funny dialogue like ''Time for some thrilling heroics!'' -- and count me as being on board for this sucker.