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Why Firefly was too awesome to live

Wednesday 17 March 2010, by Webmaster

The love Firefly has garnered among the typical internet forum user is legendary. So much so, in fact, that it’s almost unnecessary at this point to clog up the tubes with yet another “I love Joss Whedon and totally named my pet iguana after him,” type article.

But for a show that achieved cult status in record time, it has also been completely ignored as a possible force for positive change in the realm of science fiction television.

Firefly, for those unaware of awesome things, was a short-lived television show on Fox that blended space opera with traditional spaghetti Western tropes – with just an added dash of “Whedon-speak” for flavor.

It featured an eclectic cast of characters that spoke in mixtures of old-West English and modern Mandarin. The crew of the spaceship Serenity were not heroes or explorers, nor entirely nice people. They robbed and killed. This was not like any other spaceship crew that’s ever been on television, and the universe they traipsed around in was equally unique.

joss whedon

The worlds of the Firefly universe were not idyllic. Rather, galactic civilization as seen through Whedon’s eyes was bleak, dirty and completely dangerous.

Nothing ever worked right, and when Captain Mal Reynolds got into fights, he was more often on the receiving end of the beat down than the giving.

To the uneducated, namely the executives responsible for the shows untimely demise, the premise must have seemed haphazard, and hard to market.

Its quick death speaks to that fact. But regardless of the length of time Firefly was on the air, it was still popular enough to spawn a movie (which was then pirated into oblivion by so-called fans) and is often cited as a favorite show of creators in all types of mediums, from comics to filmmakers.

In short, it has same crossover appeal of the original Star Trek. But, where as Star Trek became an enormous influence on the sci-fi genre for decades after, Firefly’s best principles lay wasting away, untouched by the helmsmen of modern sci-fi.


Simple; because what made Firefly so fantastic, is also what made it so hard to explain to non-fans (or marketing executives). Firefly was difficult to quantify, repackage and resell – because it was different than anything else in the genre.

But while nobody wants a rehash of Firefly (or Buffy for that matter) without Joss Whedon directing, it bears pointing out the aspects of the show that made it so great. Hopefully, some of those reasons reach the eyes of somebody in search of the next show to greenlight on the Sci-Fi, sorry, SyFy network.

Let’s start with the characters. Like any Whedon show, comic or Internet musical, the characters are what distinguished Firefly from other sci-fi shows.

firefly tv

In most star journeying TV shows, the hero or heroes are somebody incredibly important. Whether it’s a Starship captain, the universe’s only hope for survival, or a president responsible for the last remaining vestiges of the human race, there isn’t a normal person among the group.

In Firefly, nobody is terribly important. The crew of Serenity are just ordinary humans. They’re more concerned about the availability of their next meal (and tank of gas in one spectacular episode) than the plight of the universe at large.

Yes, there is an evil government controlling everybody and everything, but the crew is more focused on surviving until the next paycheck, than doing anything about it. Sounds sort of relatable, doesn’t it?

More science fiction needs to focus on these sorts of characters, especially on television. Every other genre has played around with the concept of a relatable, everyman type of cast, with the notable exception of science fiction. Having characters that seem real grounds sci-fi shows in way that nothing else can. When you’re dealing with aliens, spaceships capable of impossible feats, or space hookers with space hearts of space gold, it’s good to ground the show in some areas.

Even in shows featureing warp particles and laser beams, having every visible character be an officer or a head of state is stretching the boundaries of credibility.

In addition to the realistic characters, Whedon also grounded the show by keeping the individual storylines low-key, while at the same time building toward something bigger. Sadly, what he was planning will never come to fruition, but that type of forward planning is another aspect that many shows get wrong.

Too many sci-fi shows are stuck in the rut that Star Trek dug in the genre over the decades. An epic story, some space fights, then a resolution that resets everything just in time for the next episode. It’s a formula that television shows stole from films, but it’s a theft that is wholly unnecessary.

In the span of two or three hours, movie scriptwriters have to introduce a world, characters, a conflict and then a satisfying resolution to that conflict, all while keeping viewers entertained.

Television shows have the luxury of taking their time to introduce those elements. Firefly was one of the best sci-fi shows to treat their episodes like scenes to an expanded movie. Traditionally, sci-fi has been content to treat each episode like a mini-movie, with the plot contained within each episode and then usually never mentioned again.

Having smaller stories, with an overarching plot to tie them all together, lets the characters and the universe grow naturally within the expanded television medium. It produces a way for the characters to become something more than an archetype.

Put another way, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, whom I’d consider the best Star Trek character ever, is Picard from the moment we met him, all the way until …All Good Things. Sure, we learned more about him, but the character of Picard never changed. Not permanently.

Malcolm reynolds firefly

In the span of one season and one movie, Mal showed growth, becoming a better leader, and better human being. His outlook toward doctors in particular grew much better, for instance. The same can be said with just about every character on the show.

Why? Because when written as people inhabiting a universe bigger than themselves, as opposed to a universe that responds only to the characters on screen, character growth become natural. More shows need to approach their characters like this.

Basically, Firefly set up a blueprint for anybody who cares to follow it. A few simple premises – relatable characters, unique setting and simple, well-crafted storytelling, led to a great sci-fi show that used the strengths of the television medium to become exceptionally popular. But those simple ideals remain untouched, and until somebody is brave enough to explore those concepts again, science fiction shows are doomed to redundancy.