Firefly – about a tight-knit band of war-scarred smugglers, seekers and runaways eeking out a semi-honest living in the final frontier of newly colonized space – is remembered as one of the great shoulda-been/coulda-been TV tragedies of the young century. A quirky blend of sci-fi space saga and Western frontier adventure, the short-lived Fox series arrived in the fall of 2002 with great expectations from critics and geek pop fans alike thanks to the pedigree of its creator: Joss Whedon, the acclaimed mastermind behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, an ace dramatist with a distinctive voice renowned for telling stories great with wit, scope, heady themes and psychologically complex, emotionally accessible characters. Also? Much with the Whedon Speaky and cool pop culture references. Buffy and Angel had been youth-skewing niche hits for The WB (and, during Buffy’s last two seasons, UPN); the hope was that Firefly would appeal to bigger, broader audience on Fox. It didn’t. The show – airing on Friday nights – premiered with 6.3 million viewers and declined from there. Fox cancelled the series, airing only 11 of 14 episodes produced by Whedon. Those who had taken an instant liking to the show – a tribe of fans who called themselves Browncoats – were heartbroken, as was Whedon and his cast, led by its breakout star, Nathan Fillion. An attempt to pull a Star Trek and keep the Firefly creative world alive as a movie franchise failed to launch: Despite admiring reviews, the Whedon-helmed 2005 feature Serenity grossed just $38.8 million worldwide. The dream of more Firefly was finally extinguished.
For those who want to know why Firefly died, you need look no further than… me. I consider myself a Joss Whedon-o-phile. Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Top five all-time. Every single episode was a weekly event. Angel? Not top five all-time – but I watched nearly every episode as they aired and enjoyed them, some seasons more than others. I so wanted to be a Firefly fan. On paper, the show promised to be more in my wheelhouse than either Buffy or Angel; I’m more of a spaceship guy than a vampire guy, more engaged by adult themes than coming-of-age allegories.
And yet, from the get-go, I was wary of Firefly. I covered the show for EW, and so I was keenly aware of its behind-the-scenes struggles – specifically, a disagreement between Whedon and Fox about the best way to launch the series. (Ultimately, Fox shelved Whedon’s original 90-minute pilot, entitled “Serenity,” in favor of a lighter, more action packed outing that dropped us into the Firefly story already-in-progress, “The Train Job.”) Consequently, Firefly earned something of a “damaged goods” rep – and I was affected by it. I couldn’t look at Firefly’s first couple episodes without wondering: Am I watching the show Joss intended, or am I watching a compromise of his original vision? Because I was viewing the show through that filter, I experienced Firefly less as a story and more as a collection of choices to be judged, none more so than its mash-up of sci-fi and Western genres. Inspired or contrived? I couldn’t decide. Ditto: The Western/Asian fusion thing. Firefly posited a future where the United States and China were the dominant cultural, military and spacefaring powers. The characters spoke Mandarin Chinese as a second language – or their primary language if they were swearing. Interesting. But also confusing. I couldn’t enjoy Firefly without being anxious about its most intriguing elements. I spent more time trying to “figure it out.” And because I suspected that Whedon and Fox were also trying to “figure out” the best expression of their peculiar creation, I didn’t ever trust that I was watching a fully-realized work.
To make matters worse, Firefly insisted on making the second biggest mistake a new TV show can make: Airing on Friday nights. (The worst mistake: Airing on Saturdays.) I was never home on Fridays circa 2002 – and if I was, it was because the missus and me couldn’t find a babysitter. And so it went that after watching the first three or four episodes of Firefly, either on TV or via screeners provided to the media, I stopped watching altogether. My attitude: I’ll just wait until the critics and the fans start buzzing that Firefly had finally gelled and cohered and “found its voice” and then catch up with it. Oops. By choosing to stop watching Firefly, I was dooming the series to early cancellation, thus denying it the time it needed to evolve into the thing I wanted it to become. Who’s to blame for Firefly’s early demise? It wasn’t Fox. It wasn’t Joss Whedon. It was people like me – people that should have been watching, but didn’t, for any number of reasons and rationalizations. The blood of Firefly is on my hands.
To be clear, I don’t feel too terrible about this. Sorry, but I don’t. I’ve helped kill many promising TV series with my ambivalence (Howdy, Lone Star!), and I’m sure I’ll do so again. But I do wish I had helped, not hindered, Firefly’s flourishing. I distinctly remember watching the entire series on DVD when it became available and getting to the last moments of the last episode, the sensational “Objects In Space,” and thinking: I made a horrible mistake! This is BRILLIANT! The whole thing just WORKS! Why was I ever “anxious”?! If only I could have experienced Firefly back in 2002 the way I am experiencing it now, binging on all 14 episodes in just two days; super-saturating myself in its wonderfully weird world and falling in love with it via the osmosis of just rolling with it... No, that logic doesn’t quite work, does it? But only if it did…
For those who have never seen a moment of Firefly – and for all the Browncoats who love to relive what few moments exist of Firefly over and over again – the Science Channel is offering the chance to start at the beginning. Tonight, the cable network will air the two episodes that can claim to be Firefly’s first episode: Whedon’s original pilot “Serenity” (which Fox ultimately aired in December 2002 after the initial run of episodes – a mournful coda) and “The Train Job.” Science Channel will air the other episodes in the Sundays to come. We here at EW.com will be watching. Come back here tomorrow morning for Ken Tucker’s take on the return of Firefly. And beginning next week, I’ll be posting recaps of each episode on Monday morning. Consider it an expression of my Firefly fandom – and atonement for not being a fan when it counted the most.
Will you be watching tonight on the Science Channel? If so, you’ll be treated to an intriguing extra – interstitial segments in which real-life scientists talk about the show’s science. Check out this exclusive video: