On this, the 20 year anniversary of the cancellation of Firefly, let’s take some time to reflect. What are the odds that a canceled Space Western can make a comeback? —ed, N.E. Lilly
If the average sci-fi fan knows anything about Firefly, it’s that it’s a Space Western and that it was canceled.
It’s a Space Western:
Here’s how it is: The Earth got used up, so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths. Some rich and flush with the new technologies, some not so much. The Central Planets, thems formed the Alliance, waged war to bring everyone under their rule; a few idiots tried to fight it, among them myself.
I’m Malcolm Reynolds, captain of Serenity. She’s a transport ship; Firefly class. Got a good crew: fighters, pilot, mechanic. We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bonafide companion. There’s a doctor, too, took his genius sister outta some Alliance camp, so they’re keepin’ a low profile. You understand.
You got a job, we can do it, don’t much care what it is.Firefly Opening Monologue
It got canceled:
On the last day of shooting Firefly, we were doing the final scene on the bridge and it was really depressing. The red button had been put on after the bridge was built because it comes into the episode, “Out of Gas”. It was only stuck on with this tacky, gum stuff that you hang pictures on the wall with. So I was like, ‘I’ll be damned if I’m not taking something!’ I tried to pull a couple of things off but they were screwed on too tight. I grabbed a hold of that button and it came off and was mine! We then had to come back onto the bridge to shoot one last time — and so the button wasn’t there. I held onto it for a few days going, ‘I got this thing’ and then Joss had given all those speeches and I thought it was such a perfect thing for him to have.”Alan Tudyk, Firefly: The Official Companion: Volume One
Alan then sent that button to Joss Whedon with a note saying: “When your miracle gets here, call us back.”
Too soon? You may have to get used to it. There are a lot of heart skewering incidents throughout the story of the creation and cancellation of Firefly.
What the average sci-fi fan doesn’t realize, that Browncoats do, is that Firefly is all about love.
Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down.Malcom Reynolds, Serenity
Joss Whedon first caught a glimpse of Firefly when he was on vacation after the third season of Buffy, while reading Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel The Killer Angels…
…I read The Killer Angels which is about the Battle of Gettysburg and right after that I sort of became obsessed with the idea of life on the frontier, and that of course makes me think of the Millennium Falcon.Joss Whedon, “Future History: The Story of Earth That Was,” DVD bonus feature, Serenity (Universal Studios, 2005)
…and he fell in love with the idea. As part of his 1998 production deal with 20th Century Fox, which gave us Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series Angel, Whedon needed to pitch them a new series, and the pitch grew out of his new obsession, focused on the human aspect of life on the frontier, in space. To tell the boring, mundane stories
about Han Solo smuggling, before he became involved with the Rebellion.
[The Killer Angels] was about the minutiae of the soldiers’ lives. And I wanted to play with that classic notion of the frontier: not the people who made history, but the people history stepped on — the people for whom every act is the creation of civilization. Joss Whedon, “Must-See Metaphysics” New York Times — September 22, 2002
The same day that Joss pitched the series, before he even wrote the pilot, he wrote a love song to the series: The Ballad of Serenity. It became both a guiding light and an anthem for the series as it began production.
The day I sold the idea of the show to the network, I came home and wrote that song, then started work on the pilot. It’s a song of life in defeat, and that’s kind of what the show is about. It’s about people who have been either economically or politically or emotionally beaten down in one way or another and how they cling to each other and how they fail each other and how they rebuild themselves.Joss Whedon, Firefly: The Official Companion: Volume One
From the core idea of “life on the frontier,” Joss expanded the source materials beyond The Killer Angels. It became a potpourri of historical conflicts and places and times from Jewish partisan fighters during WW2 to his brother’s experiences on Alaskan fishing boats.
The concept for the show was developed with the constraints of television production in mind. A number of decisions were made that helped to keep the production budget low. Terraforming all the planets solved the location issue, preventing the need for complex and alien sets. He increased the initial cast from five to nine members, allowing more stories to be written about the interactions between them, preventing the need for costly special guests. After years of working on Buffy and Angel Joss was suffering from “latex fatigue”. He vowed that there would be no aliens:
The show is set 500 years in the future, but humans are still acting worse than any monster. He wanted,
No aliens, no monsters, no robots. This reduced the need for extensive, and expensive, special effects makeup as seen as part of the then current trends in sci-fi television (Babylon 5, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, etc.).
After production started, information about the upcoming series began to trickle out to the fans. Set in the year 2517, after humanity’s arrival in a new star system, the series follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a Firefly-class transport spaceship.
I want it to be Grapes of Wrath as much as Stagecoach. It’s not just about westerns, it’s about life when it’s hard and the idea of people always having the same problems they’ve always had … We have nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things. I want to know what literal objects and moral structures they bring with them into every situation.Joss Whedon, “Whedon creates space cowboys in ‘Firefly’” — July 22, 2002
Those early days must have been dreamy, inspiring, and full of potential for Joss, I’m sure, but Joss was about to be hit with his first dose of reality. With Buffy and Angel already in production, Joss needed a trusted second-in-command to help run Firefly. Behind the scenes Joss brought on Tim Minear as executive producer to fill that role. Joss Whedon pulled Tim Minear off of Angel, and made him second-in-command of Firefly, something he had promised David Greenwalt, the Angel show runner he would not do.
I could not find anybody even remotely of the caliber of Tim, and somebody — a very smart person and a good friend — took me aside and said, ‘Be realistic. If you don’t move Tim to Firefly, you will never see Buffy or Angel again. If you don’t have a second-in-command who can control the set when you walk away from it, you never will.’Joss Whedon
This move caused issues and eventually David Greenwalt left Angel, and his show runner for Buffy, Marti Noxon, left on maternity leave which pulled Joss away from Firefly, leaving it in Tim’s hands. Joss said about Tim,
…as much as anybody I’ve ever worked with Tim had the same voice and came in at the very beginning, the way David did with Buffy, and informed the voice of Firefly so much and did so much of the great stuff.
With his second-in-command secured, troubles came in from other angles. Among the Fox network executives Gail Berman was an early champion of Joss and the new show, but it seemed that they were expecting something similar to his previous works. More akin to another “Teen Drama” and/or “Buffy in Space”. As such, things like a stable marriage between two of the crew members or a dour world-weary captain, weren’t desired. The executives wanted something lighter and for Joss to inject more humor. The network wanted something less introspective and brooding, and more action-oriented; the opposite direction of the origins of the show’s conception in The Killer Angels and the plight of the downtrodden simple folk.
Joss Whedon reshoots the pilot for “Firefly”
Joss Whedon’s new series “Firefly” will take flight this fall on Fox, though the sci-fi drama won’t get exactly the start he had in mind. At the network’s behest, the creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” made a two-hour, $8.7 million pilot to kick off the retro-futuristic tale, about renegade space cowboys. What Whedon delivered was a drama heavy on character development and light on action — so light, in fact, that Fox asked him to bring in the booster rockets and quicken the show’s pace. More importantly, Whedon was told to shoot a new, one-hour first episode. “Fox came out of the box saying we’re looking for flash, we’re looking for comfort. Though I’m very much in love with what we did, there wasn’t a lot of either there,” admits Whedon. (Fox promises to air the original, two-hour pilot later in the season.) Despite the early confusion, Whedon insists fans will find “Firefly” easy to follow. “I make every episode early on like a pilot, so everybody who hasn’t seen the first one” won’t be confused, says Whedon. “The first six episodes are very stand-alone, very expository, and hopefully not boring.” When it comes to Whedon, that’s never a worry.Entertainment Weekly (June 14, 2002)
Joss had delivered the original pilot under budget: $8.7 million out of the initial budget of $10 million. Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough and asked for a second pilot. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear were given two days to write what was to become “The Train Job.” With the second pilot approved, the task turned to promotions, which also seemed to be out of sync with the original intentions of the series. The action oriented aspects desired by the Fox executives was what ended up being highlighted in the promos:
From the critically acclaimed creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer… comes an adventure as big as the Universe itself: Firefly!Firefly Teaser Promo
And some promos marketed it as a comedy, backed by the then popular “Walking on the Sun” by Smash Mouth. The promos even contained spoilers and clips from the original pilot. It seemed that the promoters latched onto the idea of an overt “Western in Space” — which hadn’t been seen outside of cartoons and anime — and decided that Firefly wouldn’t be a serious drama.
Take a Six Shooting Spaceman; Pilot Savant; Tough guy named Jayne; Cosmic Hooker; and a Girl in a box. What do you get? The most twisted new show on television.
Out there? Oh, it’s out there!Firefly Promo
And they attempted to make the series appear much more fastpaced, sex-filled, and action driven than it was.
Looking for some action next week?
“Here’s something you can’t do.”
TAKE A BREATH
HOLD ON TIGHT
PREPARE FOR WARP SPEED
“Time for some thrilling heroics.”
From the critically acclaimed creator of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer: Firefly!Firefly Series Premiere Promo
The series premiered September 20, 2002.
Objectively the show was well written, well acted, and the effects were cutting-edge. Episode teasers continued to be created in a similar pattern as the promos: to highlight humor, action, and lurid scenes. It was as if the show that the network was trying to sell was at odds with the show that Joss Whedon had in his vision.
When you’re captured by the galaxy’s deadliest gangster.[Mal being tortured]
Never lose your sense of humor.
“Listen. If you’ve got guests, I can come back later.”
The crew of Serenity is in for all kinds of action.[Scene of Inara with another woman]
“Oh, my.”Firefly Episode Promo for “War Stories”
In addition to the disconnect between the show and its promos, it had been scheduled into a bad time slot: the Friday night “death slot.” More than 30 previous shows that had been placed in that slot by Fox had been canceled. Episodes were then played out of order and/or preempted by Major League Baseball. Had it been on one of the other major networks it might have had a chance, ranking higher than other sci-fi franchises on the other networks at the time, but Firefly was the worst ranked Fox show in the Fall of 2002.
Tim Minear announced on his website that the series was canceled on December 12, 2002.
We did get word tonight, Fox won’t be ordering any new eps. That translates to ‘cancelled.’ We will finish shooting the ep now in production (I’m directing, in fact Joss came down to the set to break the bad news to cast and crew – we wrapped early, but are back at it in the am), we’ll finish post on all eps, and Fox says they’re going to somehow air all eps.timminear.net
The season would end after only showing 11 of the 14 filmed episodes. Firefly was Joss Whedon’s highest rated show, but still the ratings weren’t high enough for Fox Network in comparison to its other shows to prevent its cancellation.
The next thing we had to shoot was the scene of Zoë and Mal laughing their asses off, talking about their friend who was dead, and in a way, there couldn’t have been a more appropriate scene…Joss Whedon, Firefly: The Official Companion: Volume Two
Former Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman, the executive who initially championed the show, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “having to cancel it was very difficult.” Various reasons were cited: The cost of production and low ratings compared to other shows on the Fox network being the primary reason. The bottom line is it was canceled because of the bottom line: its ratings didn’t justify its cost. The other chain of events simply led up to that: poor marketing prevented attracting viewers, the Friday night time slot prevented viewers from staying home and watching (in the days before recorded television became accessible and easy), and airing the episodes out of order didn’t allow viewers that it did attract to make sense of the over-arching story, and all of this caused low ratings, which is the ultimate reason for canceling the show. As promised by the network the original pilot was aired… as the show’s final episode.
Fans looked for any and every way to help the show survive. They started a postcard writing campaign to Fox (and later UPN), generated a massive online presence, and placed advertisements in trade magazines to keep the show in the media and on peoples’ minds. While Joss shopped the series to other networks.
Eventually, Fox did something that was relatively unheard of at the time. Firefly became one of the first television shows to be released on DVD. The series wasn’t rescued, but the Firefly DVD was released on December 9, 2003. And that was when fans could begin to see the scope of the first season. All 14 episodes, with a true 2 hour pilot, in the intended order. In that context the show made much more sense. A subsequent fan campaign then raised over $14,000 in donations to have a purchased Firefly DVD set placed aboard 250 U.S. Navy ships by April 2004 for recreational viewing by their crews.
These, other continuing fan activities, and the fact that the DVD box set sold over 200,000 copies, eventually persuaded Universal Studios to produce the feature film, Serenity.
The SciFi Channel ran the remaining episodes in the US. A number of associated works were released leading up to the movie premiere. An unauthorized set of essays, Finding Serenity, was published on March 11, 2005, spearheaded by Jane Espenson. The R.Tam Sessions were released on the Internet as teasers for the movie Serenity. Dark Horse comics released Serenity: Those Left Behind three issue miniseries and a bridge to the movie. The novelization of Serenity by Keith R. A. DeCandido was published. The Serenity: The Official Visual Companion was released by Titan Books.
And finally, the movie Serenity premiered on September 30, 2005.
There would be no sequel.
But there has been a steady stream of Firefly/Serenity works since. Firefly: The Official Companion: Volume One in 2006 and Firefly: The Official Companion: Volume Two in 2007. Serenity Found, a book of essays as a follow-up to Finding Serenity, was published in 2007. Dark Horse released a series of Serenity comics beginning in 2008.
- 2008: Serenity: Better Days
- 2008: Serenity: The Other Half is an 8-page comic in Issue 13 of the online MySpace Dark Horse Presents.
- 2010: Serenity: Float Out
- 2010: Serenity: Downtime
- 2010: Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale
- 2012: Serenity: It’s Never Easy
- 2014: Serenity: Leaves on the Wind
- 2016: Serenity: The Warrior and the Wind
- 2016: Serenity: No Power in the ’Verse
Various themed games have been released.
- 2013: Firefly: The Game
- 2014: Firefly Role-Playing Game
- 2015: Firefly: Tall Card
- 2015: Firefly: Fistful of Credits
- 2016: Firefly Fluxx
In 2018 BOOM! Studios began producing Firefly comics and Titan Books announced new novels, the first, Big Damn Hero by Nancy Holder and James Lovegrove, and continuing with a steady stream.
- 2018: Big Damn Hero by James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder
- 2019: The Magnificent Nine by James Lovegrove
- 2020: The Ghost Machine by James Lovegrove
- 2020: Generations by Tim Lebbon
- 2021: Life Signs by James Lovegrove
- 2022: Carnival by Una McCormack
- 2022: What Makes Us Mighty by M. K. England
- 2023: Coup de Grâce by Una McCormack
Things aren’t exactly rosy, but it’s looking pretty hopeful. Hopeful enough to keep the fandom alive. After all, there was a time when the only thing keeping the Star Trek and Star Wars fandoms alive were novels, games, and comics.
Beginning in 2020, allegations came out against Joss Whedon. The accusations have wounded the fandom and potential return of the series.
If a reboot does happen, it seems unlikely that he will have any involvement. That doesn’t mean that all hopes of a Firefly revival are lost. The series itself is still incredibly popular and it could potentially recover. We’ve seen that series can have a life beyond the control of their creator. Star Wars still uses the Force without George Lucas and Star Trek still boldly goes without Gene Roddenbery. This quality may have been built into Firefly at the instance of its naming by Joss himself. Joss Whedon chose to name the show Firefly, breaking the trend seen in Buffy and Angel of using a titular character, because he didn’t want any one person to carry the show. He wanted an ensemble cast all focused around their individual experiences within a Firefly-class vessel. Any new show could be about a new set of “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things,” and while Firefly is nearly synonymous with Joss, he didn’t name it The Joss Whedon Show. Joss’ intent was that the show could live on, even if someone is replaced.
So, that’s the story so far…
What does the future hold? I’m no psychic, but like the Space Western genre itself, I honestly don’t see Firefly fading completely away anytime soon. Every day more people are being introduced to the series for the first time.
Firefly fan groups are still active online and in person. Still flying, still meeting new fans, and still holding charity events.
Currently being produced is the BOOM! Studios comic run of All-New Firefly. In the near future you can look forward to the novel Coup de Grâce by Una McCormack coming from Titan Books in April 2023.
Space Westerns in general are pretty hot right now: The Expanse, The Mandalorian, Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, not to mention all of the activity going in video games Outer Worlds, No Man’s Sky, and Starfield.
It’s been 20 years since the premiere of Firefly and almost 17 years since the release of Serenity… In comparison, it was a little over 20 years after Star Trek’s original premiere (1966) when Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered (1987). After a little more than 20 years Cowboy Bebop just saw a live action reboot on Netflix. It has been almost 20 years since the premiere of Babylon 5 (1993) and currently a reboot is being pitched by J. Michael Straczynski. It was little over 15 years after Star Wars: Return of the Jedi (1983) when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999), the first movie of the second trilogy, premiered. It was just under 25 years after Battlestar Galactica (1978) before the premier of that franchise’s reboot (2004). It seems that all Space Westerns inevitably get rebooted, remade, or revived. The wheel never stops turning.
In 2019 Disney acquired the rights to Firefly along with their acquisition of Fox. Rumors began in 2020 of a Disney+ Firefly Reboot and more rumors started earlier in 2022. There may be something to that, given John Favreau’s proven success with the Space Western show The Mandalorian on Disney+. Maybe something will come of it, but until actual names are announced as attached and working on the project it’s all just grist for the rumor mill. Browncoats remain hopeful, but pragmatic.
In the episode “Out of Gas” the captain Malcolm Reynolds never pushed the big red button that would call his crew back to the Serenity. He suffered from a near fatal wound causing him to pass out before he could reach it. Mal’s efforts may have ultimately saved the ship, but it wasn’t Mal that called the crew. The crew returned to Serenity of their own volition, without the intervention of their dashingly handsome and charismatic captain.
Firefly may not be “Out of Gas” but for the fans who love it, they desperately, desperately want it to be.
[Out of Gas] is my favorite episode — and that includes the ones that I directed — because I just think it’s so beautiful, and it just kills me. And, of course, Mal’s introduction to the ship, starting with ‘this ship will stay with you for life’ and then finding out it’s not the ship that’s being pitched to him. Which some people didn’t get. But no, no, no, you don’t go to a salesman and have him point out a ship. You see it across a crowded room, like Tony and Maria [from West Side Story]. And that’s probably the most romantic introduction of them all. Joss Whedon, Firefly: The Official Companion: Volume Two
Other works by N.E. Lilly
- The Emancipation of Bat Durston, or, “I’m from Iowa, I only work in Outer-space” (Dec 5, 2022)
- Interview with Phil Foglio (Nov 8, 2009)
- 10 Most Influential Space Westerns (Oct 25, 2009)
- Space Western Most Wanted (Jan 25, 2009)
- Interview with John G. Cawelti (Dec 7, 2008)
- more by N.E. Lilly
- 10 Most Influential Space Westerns by N.E. Lilly (Oct 25, 2009)
- Space Western Most Wanted by N.E. Lilly (Jan 25, 2009)
- Interview with Beth Nelson, 2008 Browncoat Ball Chair by N.E. Lilly (Sep 21, 2008)
- Finding Serenity Review by Kenneth J. Newquist (Feb 10, 2008)
- Space Western Holiday Specials by N.E. Lilly (Dec 16, 2007)
- Interview with Jane Espenson by N.E. Lilly (Dec 9, 2007)
- Space Western Limerick Contest Winners by Jane Espenson (Nov 25, 2007)
- Interview with The Bedlam Bards by N.E. Lilly (Oct 7, 2007)
- Interview with Matt Black, 2007 Browncoat Ball Chair by N.E. Lilly (Sep 2, 2007)
- Interview with Keith R.A. DeCandido by N.E. Lilly (Apr 22, 2007)
- Space Cowboys by Keith R.A. DeCandido (Apr 8, 2007)