The 2002-03 TV season looked poised to launch a science-fiction comeback, and we geeks couldn’t have been more excited. With “Star Trek Enterprise” and “Farscape” going strong, the WB added its Batman-related “Birds of Prey” to their lineup while Fox gave in to Buffy’s Joss Whedon and allowed him to make the western sci-fi series he always wanted to do: “Firefly”. It was the can’t-miss TV season of a lifetime.
And then the networks declared war on geekTV.
Birds of Prey bombed. Cries of thousands of ‘Scapers (Farscape fans) flooded the internet as the SciFi channel reneged out of its season five promise. The animated sci-fi Futurama was toyed around with and then left out to die by early 2003. And Firefly too got the mighty Fox axe. Within six months, scifi fans went from a buffet of gourmet choices to a single serving of the mediocre Enterprise, and it was crushing.
My bellowing rants about Farscape and Futurama will be put aside for another day, so that we can focus on Firefly. No one was terribly surprised it got cancelled, partially because it tried to blend two fringe genres (western and sci-fi) together into something decidedly not mainstream, and partially because it aired on the Fox network, which has become famous for taking bold risks on dozens of highly original shows, and then canceling them after the second episode to put on a reality show about women who lose their clothing. There used to be a time when series were left to find their own footing, promised at the bare minimum a half-season of aired shows. No more. Most networks are less forgiving these days to new series, demanding an immediate hit or else evicted from the lot, but Fox seems to be a bit more quick with the boot than most.
It didn’t help that Fox threw Firefly into the dreaded Friday night spot (where shows are sent to die), or that they never gave Firefly any serious promotion. And it certainly didn’t help matters that Fox decided Firefly’s two-hour pilot was too slow — despite numerous battle scenes — and instead aired the second episode first, confusing viewers all around. So, yes, you can see that there was little hope, even though Firefly came from the guy who shored up the WB with hits like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”.
What Fox didn’t expect is that they made a critical mistake: Firefly found its fans, an entire horde of them, but mostly after it was cancelled. The DVD set of the entire 14-episode series started flying off the shelves, and became highly requested on Amazon.com. Word-of-mouth spread for this series, and people who never got a chance to watch it the first time caught whiff of the cult show and invested into it (I’m proud to say I did see every aired show). I only hope Fox is kicking themselves, and hard. Idiots.
Now that you know the whole sordid backstory, what about the show? Getting as far away from the Star Trek mentality as possible, Firefly sampled elements of Star Wars, Farscape, and classic westerns to brew up a new dog. Joss Whedon touted it as a sci-fi show without aliens — they didn’t need bumpy foreheads to show off diversity — and that was only the first divergence from the norm.
Set in the far future when man has colonized the stars and Earth is no more, Firefly opens at the aftermath of a galactic civil war, where the Alliance (the “North” of the show) has soundly beaten the free-spirited Browncoats / Independents (the “South”). Our newly disillusioned atheist hero Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who fought for the Browncoats, buys a Firefly-class smuggler vessel and dubs it “Serenity”. This isn’t a Hallmark moment — the ship is named after a disastrous battle for the rebels.
Mal then assembles a motley crew of interstellar weirdos: first mate Zoe (Gina Torres) and her wise-cracking pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), strong-arm and dull-witted Jayne (Adam Baldwin), mysterious missionary Book (Ron Glass), space hooker Inara (Morena Baccarin), and cute-as-a-button engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite). Forget exploring strange new worlds and boldly going where no one has gone before; Serenity’s crew is mainly interested in making a buck, evading the law, and participating in all sorts of crime.
In the pilot, they pick up the other two new crew members: Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau). See, Simon was a respected doctor and trained for many years at Wimp Academy, until he threw it all away to rescue his sister River from the clutches of Alliance medical testing. River, the ongoing mysterious thread of the show, has some sort of mental powers that are only hinted at: being able to predict stuff like five seconds in advance, and killing people with a mere thought. But mostly she’s just there to be annoying.
In sci-fi shows, the world and technology showcased is the “other” character. I’m a big fan of Firefly’s gritty and more realistic look. Serenity itself has a bulging snake-like appearance — hardly the graceful lines of most scifi space vessels. One touch I love is that any shot in outer space is completely silent, as it would be in reality. No thrumming of ship’s engines, no laser blast echos, nada. It makes space all the more deadly and lonely.
In addition to Firefly’s scifi theme, the western themes interweave everywhere. Characters dress up like they’re ready to hop on a horse instead of a spaceship; holster pistols and shotguns are the weapons of choice; and characters swear in Chinese and visit backwater planets suggestive of frontier outposts. It’s a weird combination, one that most certainly will never be tried again, but you know something? It worked.
I’m not going to claim Firefly was perfect. It did need more time to find its pace, and while the first few shows were wobbly, you could see the characters clicking into place by the fourth or fifth episode. Like Buffy before it, Firefly fought to abandon or reverse clichés and did a respectable job keeping you guessing instead of predicting the outcome of each show. Some of the characters never caught on with me, but others — like Wash, who had a flippancy we need on TV more often, or the adorable techno-geek Kaylee, or Jayne, with his incredibly dumb lines (“That’s why I don’t kiss them on the mouth” is one of my favorites) — stood up there with the best of TV legend.
It’s never uplifting to discover a great TV series long after its premature cancellation, but the saga of Firefly holds hope. The incredible DVD sales prompted Universal to pick up the franchise for a movie, which turned into Serenity.