Back in 2002, Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and more recently director of Marvel’s Avengers ) created a TV show that tried to do something different. A western themed space adventure called Firefly, it followed the exploits of a crew of misfits led by a broken war veteran . It had a great story, an amazing cast who truly clicked and spectacular visual effects. Above all of this and most importantly it had ambition and was crafted with love. So of course, it had to be destroyed.
In the year 2517 humanity had abandoned Earth and made its home in a system made up of dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Led by an amalgamation of the United States and China called the Alliance who ruled from the more developed Core Planets, whilst the people on the underdeveloped moons tried to scrape a life together. Settlers were often dumped on terraformed moons with little supplies or support, leading to resentment towards the Alliance and eventually the Unification War. The outer moons formed a loose coalition calling themselves the Browncoats and fought for the right to self-determination, free from what they see as a interfering government who didn’t care about them. They lost.
Introducing Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds and Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), two veteran Browncoats, disillusioned and broken after losing the war, they purchased themselves a Firefly class cargo ship which they named Serenity. Together they assembled a crew and decided to make a life for themselves with Mal avowing “No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get… we’ll just get ourselves a little further.”
Our crew of nine consisted of a rich doctor on the run (Simon), his damaged psychic sister (River), a greasy palmed but lovable mercenary (Jayne), a mechanic who got the job after she was caught humping the previous one in the engine room (Kaylee), a Shepard (Derrial Book), a Companion (Inara), and Zoe’s witty husband the pilot (Wash). They made their living by taking any job they could, including illegal ones like smuggling or carrying out elaborate heists.
One of the reasons Firefly worked so well was that it built a believable universe. As Serenity and it’s crew made their way from moon to moon you were introduced to different aspects of life in the far edges of this new frontier. If someone walked up to you in a pub and started babbling about cowboys in space, you would nod politely and leave. However, for the purposes of showing people struggling to make an existence with little to no infrastructure the old west aspect really worked. Characters who lived out in the rougher parts of space were often dressed like cowboys or, since this was a reality that the USA and China had joined together, in far eastern looking styles. Chinese influence was shown in almost every part of the show. Neon signs with Chinese writing were found in space ports and even in the old west saloons our crew frequent. On board the ship the crew can be seen eating dumplings, noodles and other traditional Chinese dishes. Members of the Alliance or people from the core planets were often dressed in more traditional Sci-Fi looking outfits adding to the impression they were more privileged and detached from the plight of our regular blokes/lasses.
Story telling excellence was achieved 100% throughout the show. In my opinion there was not one bad episode. The show was riddled with often-hilarious interactions and one liners between the crew, even in tense situations, which would remind someone watching for the first time today of the similar interactions between the heroes in Marvel’s recent movie releases. Characters were written in a way that there always seemed to be just a little bit more to them bubbling beneath the surface, for example Jayne Cobb was portrayed as heartless mercenary who would betray the crew for the right price. However, in the episode “The Message”, Jayne received a package which turned out to be from his Mother. He dutifully read the letter aloud revealing he had been forwarding money to her and he was excited to find a hideous knitted hat she had made him, proudly wearing it for the rest of the episode.
Another example of this was in the episode “Safe” where Shepard Book was injured in a shootout. With the ships doctor kidnapped the crew had no choice but to request help from the Alliance. When the Alliance soldiers arrived, they were openly hostile and suspicious of the crew, however Book produced an ID which prompted the soldiers to spring in to action and provide immediate aid. When Book returned to the crew Mal is suspicious and wonders how a Shepard could have such sway over the Alliance, Book just alluded that maybe someday he will tell the story. I love stories like this, where there are hidden agendas and history to characters which is hinted at and gradually revealed as the story unfolds.
Ultimately Firefly was a show about what matters most, your friends and those close to you. The way the crew were portrayed and interacted with each other is what made it special. They grew into more than a crew and became a family who relied on and supported each other, and as a viewer you were sucked into this and taken along for the ride.
Its easy to see why Firefly has such a devoted fan base who truly adore the characters that Joss Whedon created. In no episode is this shown better than in “Out of Gas”, in which Mal struggled to restore power to the ship whilst injured and alone. The episode was littered with flashbacks of how Mal and Zoe came across the ship and recruited each member of the crew. This episode underpins what the crew and ship means to Mal and it is truly a masterclass in shit hot television entertainment.
Unfortunately, Firefly was doomed from the start. Fox Entertainment Network did what networks always seem to do and started to meddle and helpfully suggest changes. They did not agree with Whedon that the show should be shot in widescreen, they also insisted he write a new pilot episode with more action. Fox felt that Mal, a man who had lost everything fighting in a war, was too serious. They didn’t like that Zoe was married to Wash and not the captain. When the show eventually aired they scheduled it in what the industry refers to as the “Friday night death slot”, so called because of the number of shows cancelled during it, all because of low ratings. Firefly was planned to last for seven seasons, it lasted for 14 episodes, of which only 11 actually made it to air. The episodes that did, were shown out of order, no doubt muddling the story and confusing viewers. Cancelling Firefly and the meddling conducted by Fox should go down in history as one of the stupidest and most short-sighted decisions a television network has ever made.
Although it only lived a short time, Firefly gained a fiercely loyal and passionate fan base. Whereas Star Trek has its Trekkies, Firefly has its Browncoats. In a coordinated effort they attempted to convince Fox to keep the show running and even attempted to convince other networks to pick it up. In the end Universal agreed to take on the franchise and signed a movie deal allowing Joss Whedon to complete his story with the film, Serenity. Whedon credits strong sales of the Firefly box set, which sold out at the pre-order stage as one of the reasons he managed to make the film. Well done Browncoats.
Fans were hopeful as the film neared release that if it was successful then it would spawn interest in making a second series and continuing the show. However, it was not to be. The film truly is the conclusion to our crew’s journey, it is seven seasons of an amazing story edited into a superb 2 hour film. Serenity premiered at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2005 with the initial premiers all selling out.
People are often dubious when it comes to watching Firefly. I’ve found there are two types of people in this world, those who love Firefly and those who haven’t watched it yet. People will watch an old woman shout at bakers in a field every week without fail (OK, I’ve never watched The Great British Bakeoff), but the thought of an epic space adventure makes them scoff.
If you consider yourself in anyway a fan of Sci-Fi or good television you owe it to yourself to watch this show and the film that concludes it. Space cowboys are not wank and anyone who says so is a tosser and should be shunned.
Watch it, or I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you.
You can buy the complete Firefly box set here