The Geekery Guide: ‘Firely/Serenity’
The Supanova Convention is heading around Australia again, and they’ve got Nathan Fillion as their headline attraction! This has got everyone excited…but that excitement ebbed a bit when we saw the AUS$100 price tag for an autograph. We’re still going to pay it though, and it’s not because of Castle or even Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place. It’s because of Firefly. Here’s the deal…
In a Sentence: A sci-fi Western hybrid passion project for one of the most accomplished show runners in television.
Here’s a random fact: Joss Whedon is the first ever third generation television writer. Both his father and grandfather, and his brothers, have worked in the field of television, primarily as writers. Whedon cut his teeth on Roseanne, but it wasn’t long before his first big concept was adapted into the film Buffy the Vampire Slayer. His next script was Toy Story. Right out the gate we had a talent of note, and soon he was given the opportunity to give his creation Buffy a second life on television. Rather than the teen demographic pandering movie this television version challenged viewers with smart scripts, layered characters and complex themes. Even better? It was fun!
Following BtVS every member of the writing team went on to bigger and better projects. We’re talking things like Game of Thrones and Daredevil. Whedon was still wrapping up both BtVS and the spin-off series Angel when he launched an ambitious new project on FOX called Firefly. It’s a mash up of of the Western and sci-fi genres, following a gang of outlaws as they travel through space with a pair of fugitives and dodging the law.
Set in the 26th century and following a galactic civil war, the Alliance of Planets took control of the central systems while outer planets took on the feel of frontier towns. Capt. Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was on the losing side of the war and, along with his crew, scratch out a living smuggling and running illegal jobs on their junker ‘Firefly’ class ship the Serenity. Along for the ride is his second in command from the war Zoe (Gina Torres), her pilot husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), gun for hire Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite). The rest of the main cast is made up of their passengers. Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a professional ‘Companion’ to the rich, Shepard Book (Ron Glass) is a man of the cloth and Simon and River Tan (Sean Maher and Summer Glau) are genius siblings hiding from the law after River was subject to government military experiments and seems to have be driven insane as a result.
Although Whedon was a proven success with his previous projects and had a plan for this show to run a full seven seasons, Fox dumped Firefly after 11 episodes due to low ratings. Normally that would indicate that the show wasn’t very good, but the growing army of fans suggests otherwise. The show continues to be highly popular with conventions, merchandise and fan driven projects still big business more than a decade later. So what happened? Having already sunk a great deal of money into the series due to the sci-fi setting, Fox decided to not to spend much promoting it (logically) so even those looking forward to it didn’t know when it was going to debut. The little marketing they did billed it as an ‘action comedy’, leaving viewers confused and disappointed when they expected comedy. Fox then decided that the two hour pilot wasn’t actiony enough to hook viewers so they showed the episodes out of order. On top of every thing else the timeslot would be switched without notice to make way for sporting events.
In short, little was done to attract new viewers and those who were interested couldn’t predict when it would broadcast. The full 14 completed episodes were released on DVD and became a best seller, and continues to be popular on home video and streaming services. Seeing the potential Universal picked up the rights to produce a film under the title Serenity. Although it satisfied fans it didn’t draw in enough box office to restart the franchise. To this day it is widely considered the most egregious example of a show being canned far to early.
Why is it So Popular?
Only 14 episodes produced and somehow the popularity of the show still overshadows most television programs released in the 11 years since it was axed. Can this be justified? Absolutely yes. Those 14 episodes give us a rich, colourful sci-fi world, amazing and memorable characters and as much humour and action as you’d expect from Joss Whedon.
Most shows have one or two popular characters. Every one of the nine main characters in Firefly were somebodies favourite making the entire cast a star and icon in the geek community. Noble and tough Mal was Han Solo for a new generation, Wash was the relatable comic relief, Zoe was stoic and brutal, River was unpredictable, Kaylee was adorable…none of the characters was a Brendanawicz. Each had a distinct personality and style and somehow they meshed together perfectly. You can always tell when a group of actors enjoy working together, and these guys have awesome chemistry. All the support cast were equally notable, especially Mark Sheppard as low life gangster Badger and Christina Hendricks as con artist Saffron (or Bridgette or Yolanda).
Whedon was also smart not to bank to heavily on Western or sci-fi, taking the tone and themes of the former and the setting of the latter. The combination of Chinese and Western cultures at this point in the future is another creative idea that gives the show a unique feel. Plus the design was just wonderful. The Serenity felt more like a home to the characters than a spaceship, and every locale they visited felt believable.
The action was exciting and creative, the comedy was alternatively goofy and witty and the stories were engaging. We got some fantastic long term story threads teased out in the early episodes, such as Book’s mysterious past and Inara’s syringe, hinting at the potential the show had to offer.
You can catch the show on Netflix these days, so if you haven’t already checked it out you’ve got nothing to lose. Find out for yourself how shiny it is.
We’ve already noted that there’s something of a fandom surrounding this particular show. Saying that it’s a ‘cult’ show is putting it pretty mildly, as the term implies a small, intense following. Fan of Firefly are something of an army themselves, having ‘Browncoat’ chapters in every major city setting up screenings, quiz nights and cosplay events. Browncoats tend to get spoken of in the same way as Trekkies due to their devotion. Any member of the main Firefly cast appearing at a convention is an instant draw, clocking in some of the biggest autograph lines. At the 10th year anniversary of the series a crowd of ten thousand lined up to attend a panel with the cast.
Firefly‘s popularity has washed over into other TV shows, with the 200th episode of Stargate SG-1 was a tribute to the axed show, the Serenity appears in the background during Battlestar Galactica, the characters of The Big Bang Theory make frequent mention of the show including a guest appearance from Summer Glau and in Community Troy and Abed agree that, in the even of one of their deaths, they would stage it to look like a suicide caused by the cancelation of Firefly. The upcoming web series Con Man will be created by and star Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk as actors from an axed cult sci-fi series in a cycle of fan conventions.
Best tribute though? Nathan Fillion’s character Richard Castle modelling his favourite Halloween costume on Castle.
The merchandise train is still going strong as well. The Firefly board game is adding new expansions every year, retro style action figures have been hitting the shelves and collectibles are everywhere. A fan made MMO as been hinted at over the past few years, but that ambitious project appears to be in flux.
There has never been a show with such a disproportionate degree of success to running time in history.
How to Piss Off the Fans: “Well, if it didn’t have high ratings maybe it wasn’t that good to begin with.”
Is it Worth Checking Out? Yes, absolutely. You can marathon the entire series in a day and spend the rest of life wishing it would come back.