One of the biggest filmmaking challenges of this summer’s megahit The Avengers was its sprawling ensemble cast. With super-spies and demigods sharing screen time with a rampaging green behemoth, a living legend of World War II and Robert Downey Jr., the challenge of keeping everything in balance—of giving each character a chance to shine while integrating them all into a done-in-one narrative that nevertheless leaves the door open for a sequel—was massive.

Some in Hollywood were skeptical when this daunting task went to writer-director Joss Whedon. While he came with a proven track record in series television—and with a built-in fan base, thanks in large part to his earlier creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer—conventional wisdom saw Whedon as a dicey choice for what was, potentially, the biggest feature-film franchise in history.

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They needn’t have worried. Longtime Whedon-watchers had already seen the evidence of his ability to handle high adventure, vivid character beats, and knife-sharp dialogue—because they were among the few who had seen Firefly.

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The quintessential “too good for TV” show, canceled by Fox after only 14 episodes, this little-seen sci-fi Western has been given a high-end tribute treatment by Titan Books. Firefly: A Celebration, out this month, repackages three previous releases in a deluxe omnibus edition. It is a glorious object, with embossed faux-leather binding, profusely illustrated throughout with color photos and production drawings, and weighing in at a whopping five pounds. It is the definitive resource for all things Firefly, with extensive production notes, new interviews with cast, creators and crew, and reproductions of the full shooting scripts for all the episodes—the whole thing packaged with nine cast photographs (suitable for framing) and a replica of one of the prop banknotes used in the show. Yowza!

So why such an opulent tome devoted to a show that tanked so hard in its original run? Why did this show find such a devoted following in its DVD afterlife, even spawning a feature-film sequel (Serenity)? Why is it that—a decade after the show went off the air—a reunion of the principle actors at this year’s NYC Comic-Con was big news in geek circles? Simply because Firefly is the rare cult classic that really is every bit as good as its reputation suggests.

The show is set hundreds of years in the future, when the Earth has become uninhabitable, and humanity dwells among the stars to scratch out a living from the harsh soil of myriad terraformed planets and moons. It’s an archetypal Western setup: A tale of pioneers, living rough on a lawless frontier, where a man is free to make his own fate for as long as his ammo holds out. Firefly is set in a richly-imagined future history, with a wonderfully weird mix of technologies low and high (hovercars exist as a rich man’s toy, but your average pioneer farmer still measures his wealth by the cattle in his herd) and a unique American/Chinese mash-up culture.

With a core cast of nine, plus recurring antagonists, Firefly’s structure provides rich opportunities for character writing. Whedon is dealing largely in archetypes here; the charming rascal, the hired gun of uncertain loyalties, the loyal, taciturn enforcer, the preacher-man with a haunted past, the magical crazy girl—so help me, there’s even a whore with a heart of gold. But they’re used as springboards for larger themes, mixed up and matched off in consistently engaging ways. There are no aliens in the Firefly universe, no strange creatures but humanity. Reading the scripts, it is clear that the show’s real great topic is the human condition.

Whedon and his collaborators are fascinated with how people react to pressure, and how a code of ethics survives—or fails to survive—first contact with a crisis situation. Too long, too deep in the starless bible black of space can make a man a monster, while desperation and bad company can make a criminal mastermind out of a callow doctor. In the face of innocence, an amoral mercenary can rediscover his conscience. The horrors of war can bring two people together, creating bonds that even their mates cannot understand. And a freebooter who proclaims a code of self-interest finds himself repeatedly, almost against his will, laying his life on the line to do what’s right, drawn into a series of lost causes.

That Firefly itself should become a Lost Cause—cut down by The Man before it had a chance to find its audience, eulogized for what it could have achieved if given time and resources—is both entirely appropriate and exquisitely ironic. But even if it never reached its full potential, Firefly left behind an impressive legacy, and one that is worth celebrating. Many “celebration” books of this type are little more than coffee-table display pieces—a thin smattering of cute backstage anecdotes across a selection of pretty pictures. But these teleplays and story notes make Firefly: A Celebration a master class in making good television, in how to pack in more complex, believable character dynamics into half a season than most shows achieve in their entire runs. The handsome packaging—well, that’s just a bonus.

You don't know Jack Feerick, son, so let him explain this to you once: If he ever kills you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing him, and he’ll be writing about it for Popdose.com