There are two kinds of people in the world: those who know nothing about Firefly, and those who know everything about it. Finding anyone between those two categories is a rare experience, and I’m not kidding when I say I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who dislikes this show. You’re either alive with an intense burning passion about it… or else you’re just tragically ignorant. And that may not be your fault; if there ever was a sect of nerds that turned hipster (i.e.: “I liked that obscure show before it was cool!”), Firefly might be their holy grail.
Generally, when I hear about a show like that, I avoid watching it just out of spite. If you were to vow the same in this case, I’d respect you… but I’d certainly pity that you chose this show of all to reject.
So for those of you who have vaguely heard mention of this phantom in the shadows of Geekdom, I invite you to check out this user-friendly, spoiler-free article that will — if nothing else — give you an educated chance to feel superior over the other passionate nerds in your life.
Hogwarts Firefly, A History
If you’re at all steeped in the general “Geek” universe, you’ve likely heard the name ‘Joss Whedon’ before.
Many know him as the central creator of Marvel’s Avengers and contributor to the resulting television show Agents of Shield. Perhaps you know him as one of the main masterminds behind Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (And if you thirst for more of his genius after Firefly, then look into the two-season thriller Dollhouse, or keep an eye out for his brilliant one-liners in the animated space-flop Titan A.E.)
Out of his many creations, however, there is one in particular that Joss considers to be his baby: Firefly. He was inspired to create the series after reading an award-winning multi-protagonist novel on the Civil War: The Killer Angels. The book followed the paths of many different people on both sides of the conflict, and made them all intricately human. Inspired, Joss created a show centered around nine different characters, and the public got their first taste of it in 2002.
|Let the goosebumps commence...|
However, the show aired with only mediocre revenues. Not because the viewers didn’t like it — on the contrary! — but because there wasn’t a large-enough audience, and many professional reviews deemed it “odd” at first. See, the central problem with television (as opposed to film) is simple: it doesn’t matter how many stars you get, only how many viewers you get. And while Firefly was highly praised by those who did watch it, it simply didn’t have enough publicity to draw people in. (Not to mention that the executives over at FOX decided to air Episode 2 before the pilot episode: historically not a good plan.)
|Why... would you... do that... ...|
In short, the show was canceled in three months, before it had even finished airing its first season. And generally, when that happens, that means that a show is done for good. Many tears were shed on the set, and then the cast all went home and thought that was the end of it.
Rather than dying out, the show started to gain more and more fans, and what fans they were! After meeting one another on the FOX comment board (meant for viewer feedback), they organized, like some sort of underground rebellion. Websites and wikis appeared. Petitions were written. Public ads and campaigns were funded. They managed to convince FOX to release the series on DVD, and from there they merely gained momentum. In fact, it was the severe loyalty and determination of the fans that led to something simply unheard of: a movie.
No television show — particularly a canceled one — gets to have its own movie if it’s not funded by a network. FOX simply refused to spend the money. But at long last in 2005, Universal Studios teamed up with Joss Whedon to make a film entitled Serenity, to [somewhat] answer the show’s major questions and tie off loose ends. The fan response was mixed, but the fact still remains: the fans were a force to be reckoned with.
Firefly may not have aired for long, but it became a major sci-fi cult classic and (thanks to its fans, its multiple re-runs on channels like SyFy, and the slew of graphic novels that continue its saga) it's still garnering followers to this day. Lead actor Nathan Fillion not only keeps referencing it in his other roles on shows like Castle and even in the second Percy Jackson movie... but he swears that if he had the money, he would drop all his current contracts like hot lead and start filming Firefly again.
As mentioned earlier, the show was inspired by a multi-protagonist Civil War novel. The show is very similar, following a group of nine people with different personalities and different dreams as they struggle to put food on the table, find employment, reconcile religions, make a marriage work, and/or avoid the nightmarish savages that wander the wastes just out of reach. There’s just one major change.
…they’re in space.
Space has been called “the new western” by many storytellers, and after hearing Spock repeatedly entitle it “the final frontier,” you may not find the idea that hard to understand. It’s a treacherous wilderness yet to be explored, full of strange lands inhabited by strange beings. Those that venture there must survive by their wits and by the skin of their teeth, pushing themselves to their limits because the law cannot reach them, for good or for ill.
But Firefly is no mere sci-fi cruise. It doesn’t follow great warriors who battle aliens on shiny starships. It follows Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a man who lost his rudder of faith during a recent war — an entirely human war, as aliens don’t exist and man alone has populated the stars.
Reynolds, still unconvinced that the victors of the campaign were in the right, has managed to scrape up the money for a rust-bucket, Firefly-class ship called Serenity (hence the show and movie titles) and a crew of varying loyalties. They make a living delivering [and smuggling] goods on the outer reaches of civilization, when they're not snarking or pranking one another like all families do.
Then, when they get tangled up with some passengers on the run from the law, their lives erupt into a bit more chaos than any of them are comfortable with.
There’s not necessarily one major reason why people are drawn to this show, but rather a brilliant combination of smaller factors. The main reason, however vague, is because it all seems so real. The universe created by Whedon feels more like the future than any other portrayal that I’ve ever seen in my life. Why? Because it feels like the present.
Everything’s not new and sleek and shiny in the future (anymore than it is today, anyway): there’s still disrepair and decay. Much in the same that way that modern cars still possess vinyl seating and ceramic or sometimes even wooden parts, so too the buildings and vehicles and spaceships in Firefly. Some are practically falling apart at the seams.
Multiple races and languages and religions and cultures still exist. While some still struggle together, many have actually melded: the majority of the characters in the show communicate in both English and Mandarin (two of today’s modern powerhouses). The galaxy possesses its own form of slang, and dialects differ between the different characters.
And what characters! Whedon brings us aboard a voyage with people from all walks of life: the aristocratic elite, the religiously devout, and the uneducated common folk. Just when you think you’ve figured them out for good, they grow and develop and show a new side of their past. They’re always changing and maturing and have to deal with real problems, just like real people. Not to mention that they each come chock-full of Whedon wit!
You won’t hear or see much beyond anything PG-13, though the envelope is nudged on occasion.
Violence: There are solid war scenes, bloody wounds, cannibals, colorful threats, and literal torture.
Sex: Given the presence of a prostitute and a married couple in the group of main characters (and savage men roaming the stars… which doesn’t always mean the Reavers), undressed characters tend to make an appearance in just about every other episode.
However, let it be noted that most of said nudity is only partial, or implied. There are only two uses of full nudity (still carefully angled) in the show: one is simply for comedy. The other, however, was very respectfully and artistically done to portray the solemn situation of a main character. But to be frank, there are a couple scenes that I still cover up my laptop screen for.
Language: Nothing is said that can’t be shown on television, so R-rated words are mercifully absent for the most part… however, innuendos abound… and if you speak Chinese, beware: Mandarin is the language of choice for many of the cursing characters.
Believe you me, they can be either quaint or unbelievably vulgar if you understand what they’re saying (even if the actors’ accents are terrible).
If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy's genre just a little, you’ll fall head over heels for Firefly. It came first, and frankly (no offense to GotG) it’s better. However, there aren’t any alien villains to be zapped — though don’t throw in the towel just yet because of that. You haven’t met Reavers: the all-manner-o’creepy savage men just beyond the borders of civilization. They strike terror into the hearts of all: a terror the likes of which you’ve probably never known unless you’ve watched classic Westerns like The Searchers or Stagecoach. In fact, I give the Reavers of Firefly a perfect 10, as the only creatures to give me nightmares in nearly two decades.
But there’s so much more to Firefly than that. As mentioned above, space is the new wild west. And with that in mind, Firefly is about as literal a Space Western as you can get. There are massive space stations, herds of livestock, hovering cars, quick-draw showdowns...
...freeze-dried foods, courtesan saloons, digital newspapers, emotional scandals, high-speed chases with government agents, and just about everything in-between!
So is it worth it?
That depends on you. If Firefly has one flaw, it’s that the show simply isn’t long enough. With only one season prematurely cut off and one movie trying to pick up the pieces, you’ll barely fall in love with the good ship and her crew before you find your heart broken by their loss.
I knew what I was getting into well before I finished watching the series, but I still came close to tears when I was done (and you should know that —for me— moist eyes are the equivalent of emotional weeping. For some reason, I’ve never been able to turn on the waterworks for movies… but that doesn’t mean my heart doesn’t ache). I felt, quite simply, as if I had lost friends: real and actual, dimensional people.
However, that same flaw of brevity in the show is also a slight perk; there’s so little material to catch up on, you could become a Firefly connoisseur in less than a week, and an expert in less than a month. You’ll barely have time to open your mouth to say, “I’ll give it a try,” before you find yourself wailing, “You mean that’s all!?”
You don’t have to worry about getting caught up, especially since the entire season and movie are available on Netflix. Even if you just want to glance at a fan-made trailer before getting in too deep, you’ll have a difficult time finding a worthy trailer without spoilers. For example, this trailer is phenomenal in my opinion… but it does tend to reveal an awful lot if you’re a vigilant viewer like I am.
The decision’s always yours, but I can tell you right now that Firefly will differ from the other canceled shows you’ll ever see in your lifetime, because its fans are still making t-shirts and writing spin-offs and creating their own short films to honor it. And it's over a decade old!
You will never be able to look at a knitted hat the same way again, nor will you be able to pass anybody wearing a certain orange-and-yellow one without instantly bonding with them. Being a Browncoat (Firefly fan) is an instant pass to friendship.
Back in 2014, I called Doctor Who “the perfect eternal television show.” Well, right on its heels is a show that may have a smaller fan base, but one that is equally fierce. Firefly is the show that just won’t die.