What is Firefly?
Back in 2002, the television show Firefly aired on Fox for the first time. It was created by writer and director Joss Whedon, who is known mostly for television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as both Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Why we’re talking about Firefly is because of a strange occurrence where it was cancelled after only eleven episodes, not even its complete first season. While it didn’t get much viewership then, it’s since garnered a huge cult following and fandom.
So what’s Firefly about? It’s set in a future where the prominent world governments, the US and China, have formed together into something called the Alliance. The show takes place on many different planets and moons, which often resemble a wild west setting, symbolizing the colonization and lack of government oversight over these fringe planets. We follow a starship of traders and mercenaries as they do jobs and tasks for others. You might consider them “space pirates,” since they often don’t perform legal operations and resort to smuggling illegal goods. The genre of the show would be considered a “space western” though.
Our lead character is Malcom Reynolds, played by Nathan Fillion, now known for his work on the show Castle. He’s the captain of a ship called Serenity, where a majority of the show takes place. The other lead characters all have various roles on the ship but in the first episode, we meet a brother and sister who join the crew and trigger a series of events that spiral the Serenity and its crew into some tough situations. The sister, a character named River, turns out to be an experiment from the Alliance and has telepathic powers.
Like I said, Firefly was cancelled after just a handful of episodes. Fans of the show called themselves Browncoats, which is a term used for people who fought the Alliance. These fans tried to rally support for the show but it was eventually cancelled. One of the most often cited reasons for the show’s failure was butting of heads with Fox as a network. Fox, for some reason, aired the episodes out of order, which made following the plot difficult, and made the decision to swap out which episode would serve as the premiere. Critics were split about Firefly, some thinking it was genius while others thought it was too off-beat and strange to be commercially successful.
After the show was cancelled, the fans tried to find a replacement network but failed to get a favorable response. The show found life in its DVD release though and even prompted a theatrical release of a movie called Serenity just three years later. It barely broke even though, making only $40 million total, including all international profits. And while yes, it broke even, it was #98 in the year 2005, which isn’t a great place to be.
And if you’re wondering why the movie wasn’t called Firefly, it’s because Fox still held the rights to the name Firefly and didn’t want to distribute the film, still believing it to be not commercially viable.
If the idea of a space western sounds appealing, Firefly is available for streaming on most sites, as is the movie Serenity. It’s a low time commitment, with only 14 episodes total plus the movie. Fans of the show have continued to find ways to celebrate it, including a 10-year-reunion at that year’s ComicCon which drew 10,000 people who wanted to attend the panel. There has also been a plethora of fan fiction and even fanmade sequels to show up online, hoping to continue the mythology.
So in a nutshell, Firefly was a science fiction show that was combined with elements of the classic western. It was cancelled too soon and its movie spinoff only broke even. Some critics call it a martyr effect, claiming that the show is only so popular because it was cancelled, as it never had enough time to go downhill, as many successful shows do. When pop culture websites make lists or do polls about shows that ended too early, Firefly is almost always at the top of that list.