BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Gene Roddenberry said "Star Trek" was "Wagon Train to the Stars." Joss Whedon sees his new sci-fi series "Firefly" as "Stagecoach."

"The thing I love about this show is that they're not superheroes. They're not bigger than life. They're not fighting monsters and all that stuff," said Whedon, the man who brought both "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel" to life. "They go through the same struggles, they have the same problems and drama and, of course, action and all that stuff.

"It's really about people who are just people. It's about life on this ship."

The ship is the Serenity, a Firefly class transport ship manned by a crew consisting largely of those who fought and lost a galactic civil war that bears no small resemblance to the War Between the States. Capt. Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) bears no love for the victors — the Alliance.

He and his crew are outlaws in this Western. And Western it is, as they operate on the fringes of the civilization. In Friday's premiere (7 p.m., Fox/Ch. 13), they even pull off a train robbery. With a twist, of course.

The large regular cast includes Zoe (Gina Torres), Mal's tough second-in-command; Wash (Alan Tudyk), the laid-back pilot and Zoe's husband; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the young engineer; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the mercenary with questionable loyalties; Inara (Morena Baccarin), a beautiful "companion" (aka prostitute); Book (Ron Glass), a preacher; and Simon (Sean Maher), a doctor who is protecting his sister, River (Summer Glau) and her secret.

Whedon said he was inspired by a book about the battle of Gettysburg. "I'd always wanted to do a science fiction show and I got obsessed with sort of the minutiae of life way back when — the frontier life kind of thing, when things were not so convenient as they are now. I wanted to do a show in the future that had that kind of feeling, that really had a sense of history and the idea that it never stops. That we don't solve all our problems and have impeccably clean spaceships in the future. That we're exactly the way we are now and were 100 years ago."

"Firefly" is set 500 years in the future. Humans, having used up their home planet, have traveled to a new galaxy where they were lucky enough to find a bunch of planets and moons that could be terraformed into "little wannabe Earths."

They took their conflicts with them, resulting in that civil war between those favoring a highly centralized government and those who thought each world should do whatever it pleased.

And in this future, there are no aliens and most things are shades of gray instead of black and white.

"The bad guys will change a lot," Whedon said. "We'll introduce certain characters who are nefarious. At the same time, we have two sort of opposing forces. We have the Alliance, who are not evil, they're just a giant bureaucracy who, on occasion, do very good things and help planets. And, on occasion, go in and mess things up."

And there are the Reavers who are "men who have gone completely savage, who are cannibalistic, out of their minds, suicidal and destroy everything in their path."

But don't look for monsters or demons or any of that.

" 'Buffy' — bigger than life. 'Firefly' — actual size. And I think that's an important thing," Whedon said.

"Firefly" is, ultimately, far less about outer space than most outer-space shows.

"For these people, space, it's the wagon trail. It's not that big a deal," Whedon said.

What viewers will see on Friday is actually the second pilot — the first, which will air later this season as a two-hour TV movie, was intriguing but dark. Fox executives wanted to up both the action and the humor quotients, which Whedon and fellow executive producer Tim Minear have done quite nicely.

"We want to hit with a bang," Whedon said. "Originally, I did pitch it slightly more as a drama but the action quotient has sort of gone up. The first episode reflects those changes. But they're not changes in the world view. They're not changes in the characters. So, ultimately, they're not changes I even disagree with."

And they do seem to have worked. Friday's premiere is quite entertaining.

Just don't go in expecting your average sci-fi, outer-space series. Go in looking for a Western with sci-fi touches.

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