It’s gorram over, Cap’n: why Firefly being cancelled was a good thing

Louis Calvert

It’s gorram over, Cap’n: why Firefly being cancelled was a good thing
July 19, 2020 Louis Calvert

Firefly, the 2002 US TV series took the idea of a space western literally by putting cowboys on a spaceship, was cancelled after just one season. Firefly later became something of a viral success and a groundswell of support from an organised group of fans petitioned Fox TV network to recommission the series for a second season, without success. Most fans of the show consider it a tragedy that the story was never finished, that such potential was left hanging. 

But perhaps Firefly was cancelled at exactly the right moment. By cancelling the show when they did, did Fox accidentally create an enduring masterpiece?

Showrunner Joss Whedon is best known for creating ensemble casts that lean heavily towards character dramas and snappy dialogue. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003) is mainly about a bunch of American teenagers and one british librarian getting caught up in a hidden supernatural underworld — Scooby Doo meets The X-Files. Spinoff series Angel (1999–2004) adopted a darker, brooding take on the same universe, using pretty much the same character drama template. For Firefly, Whedon left the supernatural behind and took us 500 years into the future, on board the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity

Firefly is inarguably far more than the sum of its parts, and it’s not difficult to imagine that, with less expert writing or directing or a less dedicated and charming cast, it would have flopped harder than… actually it did flop, despite having all those great things. It was cancelled before the final three episodes even aired. If Firefly is good enough for a legion of fans to campaign for years to get more made, how did it fail so spectacularly?

The full answer is complex, but the short answer is simple. Firefly sounds like bad fanfic: 

“It’s about a bunch of cowboys on a spaceship, and they… just deliver some cargo, sometimes, not that often… maybe twice? Oh, there’s a psychic girl, or something, that’s a bit odd. And they smuggle stuff, but not actually that often, maybe once… and Adam Baldwin has a gun called Vera… they sometimes speak Mandarin… and there’s space cannibals… They do rob a train once though, that’s really cool…”

Everyone ever, trying to explain Firefly

It’s hard to explain what it’s about, because that’s not what makes it good. The themes of the show, the sets, and the cast are all good — excellent, even. However, it’s the interaction between the cast members that makes Firefly truly outstanding. The show is set long after a joint American-Chinese colonisation wave from a dying Earth reached a vast new solar system. A central near-utopian government exists, but (for unexplained reasons) some people didn’t want to be governed by them, and after a very brief, asymmetric civil war the ‘independents’ are essentially disbanded. Firefly takes place some years after the war, which puts the cast in a setting that vaguely resembles North America after the 1861–65 Civil War. That’s pretty much where the similarity ends, though — other than most of the exterior locations resembling space-age Wild West towns populated by gun-toting cowboys.

Fox, the American TV network broadcasting the show, had so little faith in the premise of the series that they stuck it in an awkward timeslot, failed to adequately advertise it, and showed the episodes out of their intended order. Firefly didn’t get many viewers, and for an American show pre-mainstream internet and pre-streaming, that meant a quick death. It wasn’t until the release of the series on DVD that the grassroots campaign to get it back on TV gained enough traction to attract Universal Studios.

Part of the enduring appeal of Firefly is Joss Whedon’s and writer Tim Minear’s ability to create a world that felt alive and solid. Almost everything we ‘know’ as viewers comes from one of the nine crewmembers of the Serenity, and they each have different viewpoints on almost everything. Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is one of the main pillars of the show and the catalyst for the cast-based alchemy that makes Firefly really stand out as a sci-fi TV series, even today. According to Mal and his loyal second-in-command Zoë (Gina Torres), the Alliance is a terrible, authoritarian organisation that’s callous, cruel, and unjust — but this is where Firefly becomes brilliant. In the first episode the ship takes on passengers. One is young, clean-cut offworlder Simon Tam (Sean Maher). He explains he’s a trauma surgeon at one of the Alliance’s best hospitals, but for unexplained reasons he’s ended up on a dirtball backwater moon with a suspiciously human-sized cargo pod… 

Simon disagrees strongly with Mal about the Alliance, and through him we get to see a very different take on the universe. To Simon, the Alliance is generally a beacon of civilisation and a great place to live. He laments having to leave it and travel to the edge of the system (which is, as we mentioned, full of dirtball cowboy towns where people shoot each other all the time). Also a resident on the Serenity, though not technically crew, is space prostitute Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). Inara is also a fan of the Alliance and frequently clashes with Mal over the issue. She too regrets having to leave ‘civilisation’ for undisclosed reasons to ply her trade on the raggedy edge of space. The hired muscle Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), the wacky pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), and the genius engineer Kaywinnet Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite) don’t seem to care at all, either saying they were neutral during the war (Jayne), or remaining silent during political discussions (Kaylee and Wash). These crew members tend to have a more rounded viewpoint, taking each incident as it comes, as opposed to Mal’s insistence that the Alliance, and all it represents, is fundamentally evil.

Firefly is a good example of character-driven perspective analysis. We’re riding along with the crew the whole time and we see things their way, but we get clashes with other characters where it becomes clear that our heroes aren’t usually the heroes. The show doesn’t seek to neatly wrap everything up and often leaves open the question of who is ‘really’ right. It’s likely that all these open threads and ambiguity are what led so many enthusiasts to join the Browncoats, a fan community named after the rebels who fought against the Alliance in the fictional war of the show. 

Joss Whedon suggested that he’d originally planned seven seasons of the show, and it’s obvious that the first episodes set up the narratives that would underpin the later seasons. The Browncoats fought passionately to get Fox (or anyone) to pick up Firefly and continue the adventure. This had worked before; most famously back in 1968 where a massive letter-writing campaign encouraged TV network NBC to run a third and final season of Star Trek, and later in the 1970s to help convince Paramount to make Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Like Trek fans, the Browncoats wanted to get to live on the Serenity with the crew for just a little longer — to see if Kaylee and Simon ended up together, to find out if Mal and Inara kissed or killed each other, to discover what Shepherd Book’s past might be, to find out if River was actually psychic, and so on. But very few Brownocats stopped to ask — do we really want to know any of that? 

Two years after cancellation, the big-budget film sequel to Firefly hit the cinemas – the uncreatively-named Serenity (the title Firefly was still owned by Fox Network). The film is essentially Universal Pictures’ response to the impressive DVD sales figures which resulted from the Browncoats’ efforts to get the series in front of as many people as possible. In 2005’s Serenity, Whedon essentially took his plans for a second season and edited them into a frantic two-hour CGI-rich caper that closed the loops on many hanging plot threads. Sadly Serenity wasn’t the box office success that fans or the studio hoped for, and hopes for any potential for sequels was squashed. In hindsight, it’s painfully clear that Firefly’s home should always have been on TV; the premise was ill-suited to the necessary pacing and visuals required of sci-fi films, and the giant battle scenes, planet-hopping antics, and thrilling heroics just didn’t quite land right.

Firefly needs time to breathe and to develop the characters, and in a film there’s just not time to do that. Judging by comments from reviews left on Amazon and IMDb, generally people who hadn’t seen the fourteen episodes of the series didn’t feel the punch of the major developments and considered the film to be average, poor, or didn’t watch it. Fans of the TV series generally rated the film far more highly, but many still felt robbed of the necessary time and development to get from where we left the crew in the series to where they are by the end of the film.

Clearly the answer, then, is that Firefly should have had a second TV season, at least — maybe all seven, in order to properly tell the story. Right?

Thanks to Serenity, we know what the general shape of the plot was going to be, give or take a few deaths, so we can imagine what a hypothetical season two and beyond might have been like. We know, for example, that the unpredictable, withdrawn, teenage maybe-psychic River Tam (Summer Glau), was actually a top-secret government experiment to make a superweapon with superhuman strength, reflexes, psychic ability, and innate combat knowledge — because Joss Whedon loves his superpowered teenage girls. We know that the terrifying space zombie-cannibals, the Reavers, were also a top-secret government project. We also know that the Alliance is happy to sanction a psychotic sword-wielding mass-murderer to hunt River down at all costs, even if that results in the deaths of thousands of people including top Alliance scientists, peaceful Alliance colonists, and an entire Alliance battle fleet. 

Serenity does away with all the subtlety and mystery developed through Firefly’s fourteen episodes in favour of easily-identifiable sci-fi tropes. The film paints the Alliance as a government not unlike the Empire from Star Wars — utterly corrupt and willing to go to any lengths to do what they see fit, including using an entire planet as a testbed for biological agents, sanctioning experiments on unwilling teenagers, and sending literal psychopaths after their test subjects. The friction between the crew is rapidly erased since now it’s clear the Alliance is definitely evil and definitely hunting the crew down. Gone too is the subtle, disquieting unpredictability of River’s questionable abilities, replaced in the blink of an eye with an all-out Super Saiyan weapons-toting combat master. 

The alterations to the general feel of the show brought about by its transition to the big screen aren’t the main problem with the idea of continuing the story, though. TV series can run on for too long. The initial intrigue eventually fades away and the show drags, often having to ramp up the stakes to stay interesting. While it’s possible to find good things in each series, most viewers will agree that there’s a point in every show’s lifetime where it’s at its best, and that is very rarely the last season or final episode. Having seen the shape of what Firefly might have been through the film Serenity, we can look back at the series and ask: should this have ended here?

Firefly’s final episode, ‘Objects in Space’, is arguably the best of the whole season. Sure, there are more fun episodes, there are more action-packed episodes, there are more heartfelt episodes; but ‘Objects in Space’ is a deep cut of characterisation, motivation, development, and fantastic directing all rolled into a single episode that is a near-perfect example of the series as a whole.

The opening follows River as she walks the ship eavesdropping on the rest of the crew in a series of wonderful little vignettes as they interact. They seem oblivious to her presence, and in each interaction the characters seem to utter some deep truth, almost like River is witnessing a confession. The opening scene ends with River finding a twig in the cargo bay. She picks it up and suddenly it’s a gun and the crew are all around her freaking out. She’s been sleepwalking, and we’ve been riding along in River’s head. We got to see the world for a brief moment as she does, and it’s confusing and hard to tell what’s real. Was she actually listening in on the crew psychically, or was it all in her mind?

This sparks a discussion between the crew about what to do with River. How dangerous is she? Could they ever trust her? This brilliant scene is shot entirely with the crew sitting around the dining table. It’s a microcosm of the family-atmosphere friction present through the whole series. The way each character sits, how close together, with whom, and where they’re facing reflects where each character is at this point in the story.

The ship is later boarded by the bounty hunter Jubal Early (Richard Brooks), who is menacing, psychotic, and verbose. He captures the crew and forces Simon to help him go through the ship to try to find River’s hiding place. River, from hiding, is a disembodied voice co-ordinating the isolated and trapped members of the crew, helping them to form a response to Early’s invasion — all the while she keeps Early talking, seemingly reading his mind, referencing things from his past, and playing him at his own game of psychological manipulation.

At the end, the final scene of the episode and the entire series, there’s a final walk-through of the ship — a mirror to that of the opening scene. But now River is part of it; she’s not a passive dream-like observer, she’s now one of the crew.

This is ‘peak Serenity crew’: few answers, lots of questions, and no particular plan to better themselves. It’s possible to read so much into just this one episode: the way each character has developed since the first episode, the relationships they’ve forged, the way they’ve fallen into a new version of the extended family we met in the first episode. 

In cancelling Firefly after only one short season Fox left us with a moving, poignant final episode to end a memorable series. Nothing is really resolved at all — but maybe that’s what turned Firefly into something that fans still talk about today, eighteen years after it originally aired. It won numerous awards and still makes lists of top sci-fi series. Most importantly, Firefly has influenced countless other series, games, fashions, and fictional works in both spirit and style, including Battlestar Galactica, Stargate, the 2019 game Outer Worlds, and many more. 

It’s possible that, had it run for the intended seven seasons, it wouldn’t have reached the near-legendary status that it did. It’s possible that it would have peaked and declined as popularity waned and we’d be left feeling disappointed at unrealised potential. Firefly’s cancellation was a good thing because it left us wanting more and it made us ask questions. We searched for answers, and solace, within the fourteen episodes we got. 

It’s proof, too, that the enduring impact and popularity of a work like Firefly can’t always be judged on Nielsen ratings.