I remember exactly when I first encountered Firefly. It was December 2003, and I'd made the hour-long drive to Burlington, Vermont through a snow storm right before winter break descended on my first semester as a college freshman. I'd come across an ad for the series in some magazine, and had seen people rave about it online in the message forums that I'd frequented. It looked neat, I had to do some Christmas shopping, and I came home with a copy.
It's interesting to think back at that moment in fandom and TV history. The series, of course, had been unceremoniously axed by Fox the year before, and the Syfy Channel (neé Sci-Fi Channel) had just begun airing Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica. New Line's The Return of the King had just hit theaters, and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was a year out, and had just dropped on home media formats.
That year was a formative, transitional one for me: I was jumping from high school to college and trying to figure a whole lot of things out, but was also watching this transformational period where how we were consuming things was changing. Firefly, to the best of my knowledge, was probably the first television show that I'd ever picked up as a boxed set. DVD wasn't brand new, but it was new enough to be a novel thing. It was this sleek envelop that contained an entire season of an interesting-sounding adventure, and when I went on break, I sat down to check it out, only to binge the season years before binging a season of TV was a thing.
Firefly turned 20 this week: the first episode famously ran out of order, with Fox deciding that the pilot episode wasn't suitable, and instead aired the show's second episode, "The Train Job". Over the next couple of months, the series bounced back and forth between episodes, forming some of the mythology that settled around the show after it was canceled. Eleven episodes into its run, Fox pulled the plug with three episodes unaired in the US.
That might have been the end of the series: one of those curious, short-run projects that captures the attention of some viewers, but which otherwise slides out of sight as soon as the next series premieres. Rinse, repeat. Science fiction fan communities have been known to mobilize for their favorite shows: Star Trek fans, led by Bjo Trimble helped put together a mass letter-writing campaign that ultimately led to the series getting renewed for a third season, and later, helped convince NASA to name its first test space shuttle Enterprise. Get the right group of passionate fans together, point them in the right direction, and they'll make a good amount of noise.
That DVD set hit at just the right time, and it was impossible to miss the noise that Firefly fans made in those mid-2000s. Fan campaigns weren't exactly novel, but the internet really helped amplify the desire for more Firefly. They set up fan sites and message boards, and campaigns to ask Fox to renew the series, ultimately convincing Fox that a DVD release was worth doing, and then armed with an eminently portable package, were able to thrust it into the hands of the uninitiated. "You've gotta watch this," went the conversion conversation, "it's the best sci-fi show ever." With every new convert, word of the show spread through college dorms and fan groups. You couldn't throw a rock through the web without coming across a someone dissecting each episode, talking about their latest re-watch, or lamenting how unfair Fox was to kill this show before it really got its legs.
My copy of Firefly got a lot of heavy use over the years. It's one of those shows that I could throw on in the background to enjoy, or sit down to blow through a couple of episodes. It's where I started to pay attention to how a series was filmed, how a director could use their framing to enhance the story, or how tropes could be turned on their head. When I first met Megan, one of the first things we bonded over was a mutual love of the series.
I rewatched the pilot episode while cooking dinner the other night – it had been a while, and I wanted to get past my nostalgic memories of it to see how well it held up, two decades on. It does, although that comes with some asteroid-sized asterisks and asides.
Firefly has an appealing premise: set hundreds of years in the future, it follows the rag-tag crew of a beat-up spaceship as they travel from planet to planet, staying just a couple of steps ahead of the law that's ready to come down on them. It's an appealing underdog story: the Serenity's captain, Mal Reynolds was on the losing side of a war against an oppressive government, and six years later, he's just trying to stay flying.
The pilot is a good one. It's a masterclass in plotting and foreshadowing, all the while setting up the boundaries of an enticing playground for the characters. It's a pity that it wasn't allowed to do its job. Over the season's 14-episode run, it settles into something of a formula: new planet, new crime, with an overarching set of plots that slowly advance with each episode. The juxtaposition of spaceflight and horses flying in the wild west follows a long genre tradition that imagines space as the next frontier, while giving viewers who'd long imagined the future to be chock-full of technology a slightly different vision. What's more, it was a future that was presented [marginally] diverse, [sorta-kinda] sex-positive, and full of grey, complicated situations as only an egotistical white guy in Hollywood could imagine.
It was something different, and its early death as a broadcast series was probably the best thing to happen to it: it didn't have enough time to really go off the rails — some of those never-made episodes would have been pretty cringe-worthy. Rather, it delivered a solid run of episodes, acquired something of a tragic mythos around it, and left just enough to the imagination until it garnered a sequel, Serenity, based on the passion of that fan community.
As influential as Firefly was in my own experience as a fan, it had some pretty glaring flaws that lend it a complicate legacy. Mal's pretty misogynistic throughout the series, especially towards Inara, a high-level prostitute. The series imagines a future where American and Chinese culture merged at some point, allowing the characters to spout of lines of garbled Chinese, while passing over the fact that there's little sign of any actual Chinese people in the world. There's the weird obsession with siding with the Confederates of the American Civil War. And then of course, there's creator Joss Whedon's spectacular fall from grace as awkward nerd virtuoso to Hollywood and fan pariah, which helps at least explain where some of those problems in the story were rooted.
The fervent fandom that surrounded Firefly helped insulate it from some of those criticisms over the years. I think, and it isn't hard to understand why: the early 2000s were right ahead of what I think of as nerd culture's geologic boundary line, before LOST and Marvel's Iron Man and Game of Thrones made genre things cool to watch and obsess over. Firefly was one of those seeds that helped prime the pump, and along with shows like Battlestar Galactica, Heroes (at least the first season and a half), and Farscape, garnered enough attention and critical interest to build up enough of a viewing public that was interested in watching sci-fi that future universes would rely on. It was easy to make excuses for it, even when folks pointed out some of those problems back in the day. (They'd usually get shouted down.)
I see a lot in the modern fan world that came out of those Firefly fansites: places like Fireflyfans.net, Wheadonesque, now-defunct Yahoo Groups and subforums that all incubated fan theories and connections and fan fiction and fan art that helped keep those fans engaged with the series, even as no new episodes were coming. It helped foster a community that's stuck with the show through the connections between its members.
I've often wondered what the future of Firefly might be. The white-hot nature of the fan movement did the unthinkable: it helped spawn an entire sequel movie (from an entirely different studio, no less!), something that's still largely unheard of in this day and age. There's a Firefly board and roleplaying game, as well as an ongoing line of comics and novels (some of which are decent and capture the feel of the world nicely) that have continued to expand the story beyond the show.
There's been some chatter over the years from the cast and studios about the prospect of bringing the world back. In this era of reboots and continuations to generate content for the constellation of streaming services, it seems like an inevitability: a popular cult series with a passionate fan base feels like it would be a pretty easy prospect. I've often felt that Firefly could easily go the route that Star Trek went: it came back the same but different in the 1980s with The Next Generation. The 'verse is a big world with no shortage of stories: surely you could plunk another down-on-their-luck crew for their own set of adventures, right?
Maybe before Whedon was ejected from Hollywood: I have a hard time seeing him return given the stories that have come out about him, and as his trademark writing style has become something of a derogatory meme. And I think the white-hot fire that was Firefly fandom has passed, both due to time and introspection. You can bring the world back, but before you do, you'd have to excise some of those problems embedded in the foundation if you don't want them to come back and rear their head. In the hands of a capable writer, maybe it can be coaxed back or completely rebooted. Or maybe it's best to let it be that problematic fave, fourteen episodes that came and went and was just enough, and let someone else rebuilt a world from the ground up for fans to enjoy.
But for those intrinsic problems with the series and writing, the fact that the series still garners the reaction that it does is noteworthy. It's largely retained its goodwill, and a fandom that enjoys it. Watching the pilot, I can see why Firefly was so appealing at the time, and it was a good reminder that there was a lot that I liked — and still like — in the series. It has some real high points, a compelling world with plenty of interesting ideas, and some fantastic characters. Regardless of whatever future lies ahead of it, it was a fun ride, one that I'll embark on every now and then when I pull out those battered DVDs.
Have a good rest of the day — Andrew (who is counting down the hours before he can head home and watch Andor.)