(or how network television messed up what could have been one of the most incredible and landscape changing science-fiction shows of all time)
How to even begin… Oh and warning…this post contains SPOILERS for both Firefly and Serenity…
Firefly (and in turn the continuation film, Serenity) have been near and dear to my heart since I first saw the series over 15 years ago. I had just been on a Buffy and Angel binge when I had to see what other shows creator Joss Whedon had made and I stumbled across this gem.
Set in a dystopian future, this science-fiction western is perfection. A rag tag group of characters including a notorious and (slightly) dangerous captain, a straight-ish laced second, a gorgeous sex worker, an awkward but loving mechanic, handsome doctor and his (spoilers) insane sister…a god fearing priest….a gun-loving beast….and the crazy but charming pilot. I was hooked after the first episode I saw on DVD. And I devoured the whole series….
Only to find out that it ONLY RAN 11 OF THE 14 FILMED EPISODES! And there were ONLY 14 episodes…. What the heck?!?
I had to know what happened.
Firefly originally aired on FOX television in 2002 running just 11 of the 14 recorded episodes despite over 4.5 million people tuning in each night it aired and eventually receiving a Nielsen rating of 98th (think the Rotten Tomatoes of the 90s and 2000s though this system has been in place once before the advent of television)…
So how, despite all of the good, which included amazing reviews, an extensive sale of DVDs and later Blue-rays, winning a Primetime Emmy for their visual effects, being ranked FIFTH in the TVGuide of television shows cancelled too soon, holding insane accolades, being directed and created by an insanely popular filmmaker, AND having one of the friendliest and inclusive fandoms IN THE UNIVERSE, did this show just get shoved to the wayside???
I think it has something to do with HOW the episodes were presented on television.
As any good Browncoat (the term used to describe those of us in the fandom) knows, the DVDs that were released shortly after the cancellation of the show tell a pivotal story.
On every single episode, if one cares to look, is the air date of that episode. And they DO NOT coincide with what the fandom has come to know as the “correct” way to view them…you know…. how normal shows are viewed. With the Pilot episode first then subsequent episodes that build the character development and intrigue. That explain how the debonair but jerk of a captain becomes the loving head of the crew despise being incredibly rough around the edges. How his second in command follows without question and her hilarious husband tags along, and has for years. Why the three of them picked up the charming and quirky mechanic who loves all things pretty despite often being covered in grime from their escapades. The prominent and rich doctor and his crazy sister become involved in both the smuggling operation and part of the family. And how the renegade priest tries to save their souls regardless of his lethal past. Don’t forget the gun-loving brute force who (somehow???) saved a village and they renamed the place after him!
You learn about the characters, peeling away their layers, as a show develops. The episodes are ordered a specific way for a reason. The director and the writers are trying to tell a compelling narrative. Allowing characters to learn to trust each other or fall in love…to hate each other and call out their bad qualities…to hide secrets such as illnesses and insanely psychotic sisters…to become real on the screen.
And that happens when you watch the episodes in the order Joss Whedon intended the show to be watched in. Grab the DVDs or Blue-rays and just watch them starting with the pilot and ending with Episode 14. This creates the smooth character arc and personality development that causes most people to fall in love with the show, even people who swear they don’t like science-fiction shows like Star Trek or Stargate.
But when you watch them in the order they originally aired with a clear mind the issue arises very quickly.
Who are these people? Why are they together? And why is Mal such an asshole!!??
Airing a show out of order causes chaos. Firefly (and many other improperly aired television shows) lost potential fans right out of the gate. The seamless blending of science-fiction space exploration, old western hijacks and outlaws, and stunning eastern design were lost because instead of learning why this odd combination of seemingly “decent” people got tangled up with a group of smugglers you get a bar fight and a valiant rescue from the crew which make no sense being together.
“The Train Job” aired first in September of 2002 despite Whedon and his crew telling executives at FOX that the episode “Serenity” which was a two hour pilot should be aired first. This shall henceforth be known as mistake number one. The episode opens with a bar fight. Which in the context of knowing the show and the characters isn’t unusual. But when it’s your first introduction to Captain Malcom it seems brutish, unappealing and down right jerkish. It isn’t until you watch the opening episode and get some more information (Mal was a captain in the Browncoat rebellion that was squashed and the man he punches in the bar was supporting the oppressive government that won the war) that the whole scene makes a lot more sense.
The second and perhaps most detrimental “mistake” that FOX made when airing the show was the time slot. Friday night. Against established shows that pull similar demographics such as Star Trek: Enterprise, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Joss Whedon’s hit shows Buffy and Angel, Charmed and even shows like Smallville and Sabrina the Teenaged Witch there was a lot to compete against in the time slots for Friday evenings. Add in cutting episodes short to run a sporting event and all you end up with is fans who don’t care or get tired of watching a show that never gets to end properly.
It’s no wonder why Firefly got cancelled.
The whole choice of airing “The Train Job” first makes sense in theory and would work for other shows. The action right off the bat is compelling and funny…the valiant rescue by the rest of the crew in the Serenity, the Firefly class ship they live and work in, is beautiful. But here all it does is underestimate the intelligence of the audience.
Science-fiction fans are sadly used to this. The cerebral idea of most sci-fi shows is difficult for non-fans to understand. Many shows have suffered from this disconnect of general audiences in the past. Star Trek The Original Series was nearly cancelled after its first season for being too complex. Stargate has always been a debate for the idea of intellect vs brute force. Farscape had its ups and downs because it combined alien worlds, cultures and languages with the idea of what home and family are.
But it is vitally important for all teams working on a film or television show to work together at all phases of the development. This is even more important when it comes to those at the upper levels of a company be it in marketing, advertising or upper executive positions. The decisions made by those not involved on the day to day of a set can have a devastating impact on the feel and acceptance of something to the general public. So please listen to the creatives on the team.
Otherwise, shows like Firefly get cancelled.
And it’s impossible to know what impact that could have had on the general science-fiction but I’d like to imagine the possibilities of what we could have gotten had the series been able to continue on its path and not only given us a single film to try and wrap up all the lose ends.
Would we get to see Zoe and Wash (our lovely and happily married couple) realize their desire for a family instead of how things turned out in Serenity, the film? What about Shepard Book’s mysterious background and how he became a preacher in a world of mostly atheist people? Would Simon and Kaylee have gotten married…I mean that last scene between them in Serenity looked like it was well on it’s way to that and more? What about River? Would we have gotten more of her trauma and working through it? Would Jayne return to Jaynestown with that killer hat? And the biggest question: does Inara die from her illness…and how does that effect the incredibly brash relationship between herself and Mal?
Theses and so many more questions could have been answered if Whedon had Beene able to continue the story. And who knows the greater impact the show could have had. It is shows like this and Stargate, Star Trek and Doctor Who…even Farscape that pave the way for new shows like Eureka, Warehouse 13, and new Doctor Who to continue to subvert expectations (a female Doctor!) and influence modern pop culture for years to come!
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