At the mention of the sci-fi TV show Firefly, I always feel a weird combination of emotions. Joy and happiness at how original and fresh the story was, admiration for the actors’ performances, anger and disappointment at its far-too-early cancellation, and shock & awe at the power of grassroots organization. If there’s any show where the behind the scenes drama was almost as compelling as the show itself, it’s this one.
Firefly’s story begins in the mind of Joss Whedon, who had already achieved fame as the creator and main writer of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Whedon conceived of the idea for Firefly after reading The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s Civil War novel that chronicled the Battle of Gettysburg. Whedon wanted the show to focus on several main characters that were on the losing side of a war, since that perspective had not been frequently examined.
Accordingly, Firefly takes place in the year 2517, and the world’s only remaining superpowers, the United States and China, have fused to form a single government called the Alliance. Main character Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was a squad leader for the Browncoats, a band of rebels that sought to throw off what they saw as oppressive Alliance rule. The first scene of the show depicts the Browncoats’ decisive loss at the Battle of Serenity Valley. Flash forward, Mal commands the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity, and with his own ragtag crew, lives paycheck to paycheck, taking both legal and illegal transport jobs in order to earn enough money to survive.
It was certain from the get-go that this show was going to be an instant classic. The story, a fusion of the sci-fi and Western genres, is unique and interesting. It also has just the right mix of drama and comedy. Each character, from the tough-as-nails first mate Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) to the sweet and angelic mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) to the “preacher” Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), benefits from a spot-on performance by their actors, and the writing produces many quotable moments, many of which are captured here:
Sadly, Fox was up to its usual ways of doing big things badly, and took a very wrong approach in marketing Firefly, largely portraying it as a high-energy action series or primarily a comedy series, neither of which it was. This can be seen in the promos below that Fox aired:
Fox also rejected Whedon’s initial pilot for the show, finding Mal’s character too “dour,” and the plot too devoid of action. The first aired episode, “The Train Job,” began a sequence of Fox showing episodes out of order, disrupting the narrative continuity of the show and making it appear incredibly disjointed. Thus, it suffered from low ratings, and was canceled after just 3 months on the air.
Incredibly, Firefly had acquired a surprisingly large fanbase, and, distraught by its cancellation, they powered the series DVD to strong sales and embarked on many campaigns to try to get Firefly back onscreen. They succeeded in 2005 when Universal Pictures and Whedon teamed up to make Serenity, a movie based on the show. I always hold up Serenity as an example of citizen activism at work. If you think large institutions such as Congress or corporations don’t listen to the average person, never underestimate the power of many people speaking with one voice. It’s done many great things in this country, and will continue to do so. Okay, I’m off my soapbox now.
Firefly’s fanbase only grew after the movie’s release, and remains vibrant and eager to one day see more of the story told. Various forms of media have been released that reveal more of the story, such as comic series and reunion specials, but fans such as myself hope that one day, Firefly returns to the screen from whence it came.