Does Firefly's appeal partly lie in its limited run?


This article contains spoilers for Sherlock.

For those of you who didn’t know, it is my solemn duty to inform you: Firefly got cancelled in 2002.

I’m sorry you had to find out this way. We had one (short) season and a movie, guys, but it was fun while it lasted.

On the bright side, the film was made after fan response to the cancellation convinced Universal to make Serenity (TV broadcasters Fox owned the rights to the name Firefly). Plus there’s still collected editions of a comics series, the next one due out later this year from Dark Horse. Ten thousand people queued to see a Firefly panel at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con. This series inspires devotion, and its cancellation became a rallying cry. Fox didn’t so much as cancel Firefly as martyr it.

What if, then, Firefly had not been given a difficult time by Fox, compromised, broadcast out of order, and then cancelled? Consider, as a point of comparison, BBC’s Sherlock. Created by writers with a track record of acclaimed and popular programmes, used to working on cult shows, it became a huge success and made Hollywood stars of its leads. However, in later series, the critical response was not as positive, and the show (and its writers) found themselves accused of sexism, self-indulgence, and moving away from a winning formula. Consider, as another point of comparison, Firefly creator Joss Whedon’s second Avengers movie, 2015’s Age Of Ultron, building on a critical and commercial smash to a less enthusiastic response.

As Ryan said in his article about backlashes, increased exposure produces more and varied reactions, some people noticing things about a series that early fans didn’t pick up on. If Firefly isn’t cancelled, if it builds an audience, gains more attention, suddenly there’s a different kind of pressure on it. ‘You can’t have too much of a good thing’, goes the idiom, but you can have too much of a crap thing that used to be good, such as [this joke has been cut for the sake of the editor’s sanity].

So it’s a mixed blessing, not knowing what might have been. We might have had more of a good thing, or it might have lessened the positive impact the first series had. History has shown that geek culture is not 100% on the whole ‘calm and measured response’ thing, but on the flipside this produces the passion that got Serenity made in the first place. Due to the film being made in these circumstances, though, means the creators must’ve known that it was a possible end, and wrote a finale that could serve accordingly. Due to the poor box office performance, this turned out to be a wise move. This keeps the Firefly legacy as a curtailed, cult concern. What we’re talking about, basically, is whether it is better to burn out or to fade away (hey hey, my my).

Certainly the film serves as a final furious spark, tying up a few loose ends and serving as a satisfying end point for those of us who aren’t following the comics. If the TV show had continued, there are a few unmade plots kicking around. A few were talked about on a Firefly reunion show on the Science Channel in 2012. Io9 have a few descriptions kicking around, including this one involving Mal and Inarra:

“Inara had this magic syringe. She would take this drug. And if she were, for instance, raped, the rapist would die a horrible death. The story was that she gets kidnapped by Reavers and when Mal finally got to the ship to save her from the Reavers, he gets on the Reaver ship and all the Reavers are dead. Which would suggest a kind of really bad assault. At the end of the episode, he comes in after she’s been horribly brutalized, and he comes in and he gets down on his knee, and he takes her hand. And he treats her like a lady. And that’s the kind of stuff that we wanted to do. It was very dark. And this was actually the first story that Joss pitched to me when he asked me to come work on the show. He said, ‘These are the kind of stories we’re going to do.’”

There are other ideas mentioned in that article, but this one stands out.

Rare items have value. Joss Whedon was famed as one of the few writers who wrote female characters with as much depth as male ones, which is a precious thing if – like everyone – you want to see someone like you on screen. It’s easy to see why Whedon’s work inspired the fervour that gave Firefly its legacy, so you can imagine the response to the male protagonist dropping his combative front only after multiple sexual assaults of a female character. Fiction is full of violence against supporting characters so that the protagonist can go on an emotional journey (Sherlock again works as a point of comparison) but this one especially would feel like a betrayal.

Now, whether or not this would ultimately have made it on screen if the show hadn’t been cancelled, we don’t know, but it’s indicative of where the show could have gone, with Morena Baccarin confirming at a 2008 convention that Inara was meant to have a terminal disease. There was a plan, then, but in the end Firefly did not go this way. It ultimately went in a better one.

It’s only really with hindsight that burning out has its positives, with the ensuing blaze of glory ensuring Firefly’s legacy and freeing up space for hundreds of thousands of head canons. That’s because fandom kept it going for long enough to die a hero. Firefly found someone to carry it.



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