Why the TV Show 'Firefly' Is Such a Fan Treasure
Let’s talk about the TV show “Firefly” (2002/2003) and why cross-genre shows are awesome.
Firefly written and directed by Joss Whedon came out 2002-2003. It’s a space western drama about a crew of outlaws in outer space.
In my opinion, this show is a perfect example of a cross-genre TV show. It combines science fiction and western-adventure, two popular TV genres. Even though it was canceled during the first season, it is one of the most treasured shows by many fans, like me.
But what makes it science fiction? And what makes it western-adventure? And why didn’t it succeed?
Let’s first dive further into the differences of each genre before I can explain what happened to this great show and why I think it’s (still) great.
The Science Fiction Genre
Science fiction has been on a long run. The first shows started in 1930 and these first years were also known as the “Golden Age of Science Fiction.” But it’s still very popular and TV Shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who, which started back in the Golden Age, have persisted through all these years and have a huge fan base.
The reason why science fiction is so popular might be because it gives us the perfect escape from reality. We can dive into other worlds, cultures, and different universes that we normally wouldn’t be able to experience.
Therefore this genre has a big entertainment factor but it also can make us think about the future and social issues in a new fresh way:
Will we live in space one day? Are there aliens and other creatures out there? Would I want to live on a spaceship? What happens when robots and AIs coexist with us humans? How would we react to aliens? And what would they think of us?… etc.
Firefly takes place in 2517 in outer space after a civil war has merged the two powerful governments—US and China—into one, “The Alliance.” The end of the civil war still has its bittersweet aftereffects on the worlds and the Alliance hunts the fighters of the lost side. One of these fighters was Malcom Reynolds, the Captain of Serenity.
In the show we follow him and his crew and encounter a lot of different planets and species through their adventures.
Although it’s a science fiction based show with all its technology and futuristic worlds, the core is still the crew of very different people who need to rely on each other and become more or less a family.
And that’s also what’s super fascinating about science fiction. On the one hand you can escape reality with all these futuristic techniques and outer space encounters but on the other hand, there’s still a personal core to it.
In Star Trek, for example, it’s about discovering other species and planets but in a peaceful way. You’re not allowed to interfere with their culture and laws. So topics like racism, sexism, and other relevant social issues can be explored in a different and sometimes not so obvious ways.
So science fiction has definitely its advantages and great angles for storytelling to explore social issues in an uncommon and entertaining way. Although you should keep in mind that science fiction also needs a lot of world-building. You need to create laws, rules, and cultures, maybe even languages and a lot of history for your show to make it as authentic and believable as possible. This can be very time consuming and therefore science fiction shouldn’t be taken on thoughtlessly.
With its specific sets, creatures, aliens or other spacey elements the production can be quite expensive because you need a lot of special props, CGI, VFX, SFX, make-up and sets that help to build your world. So the production costs play a huge part and often decide if a science fiction story is worth pursuing or not. Because we know unfortunately, it’s all about the money.
Another genre that doesn’t need a lot of world building, but offers great room to explore social issues and interesting characters is western-adventure.
The Western-Adventure Genre
This genre incorporates the “Western lifestyle” which mostly tells stories about the famous cowboys and gunslingers from the American Old West. It often stresses the harshness of wilderness and the rough living conditions with laws that don’t really protect you from outlaws and bandits.
Often these stories are revenge or redemption stories. From the early 20th Century to the 1960s this was the most popular Hollywood genre. But nowadays western have lost their charm to the audience and TV shows in this typical “western style” are quite rare.
But this genre doesn’t acquire a lot “fancy” stuff like science fiction. It’s more about the characters and how they live in the rough conditions of the Wild West. Often the loner hero plays a big role in this genre.
Firefly has definitely elements of a western and that’s why it’s also called a space western which is a very popular sub-genre of science fiction. But please don’t think of the film “Cowboy vs. Aliens” because the idea is great but the film sucked. Space western are way cooler than this movies has portrayed it.
What makes Firefly western is the rough and dirty environment of a western in space. You have guns which look like the old revolvers. The planets we visit often look like old western towns with their shabby saloons and corrupt sherifs. At one point the crew even rides horses instead of using spaceships.
Also the theme of outlaws aka bandits who run from the government and a bounty hunter seems to come straight out of a western. Another theme that is often used in westerns also plays a big role in Firefly and that’s:
Malcom, the Captain, lost a lot of good men in the war and he is broken inside because of that experience. Even though he has his own moral code he doesn’t really care about justice and “the right thing to do for the greater good” anymore. He’s done his job and now he doesn’t care anymore. Or at least that’s what he tells himself. Malcom is therefore the loner, unwilling hero who we often see in western.
The dirty “western” look is what made this TV show so special, in opinion. Because in other science fiction shows at that time, like Star Trek, everything was/is clean and futuristic. In Firefly the spaceship Serenity is a trash wreck that’s falling apart.
But that’s the charm of this show. It shows a dirty, rough, and hard future where it’s all about who you can trust and how you can survive.
Making Firefly a cross-genre TV show is an interesting choice. Because with cross-genre shows you not only have more possibilities to explore but you can also combine interesting elements of each genre with each other. And therefore you can create something new and interesting.
It can also be a challenge, of course, but it might be worth it.
Two different reasons why Firefly is such a fan treasure
1. Strong and great female characters
The women are the ones who keep the crew together and help the men with their disputes. Funny enough, even though they’re all different, they get along pretty well. What you can’t say for the guys.
Another nice touch is that for example Kylee is a mechanic and holds the spaceship and the Captain, Mal, together with her kindness and great mechanic skills.
For me as a woman this really got me because the women in this show are all badasses, but also the core and heart of the crew. They’re like their male crew members complex characters. And that’s often something that you wouldn’t see in a space western (or any other genre). Because this genre is still male driven.
2. The crew dynamic
Generally speaking, I really love the group dynamic and I think that Joss Whedon is really good with that. (reminder: he also did Avengers!)
He creates interesting characters and puts them together so that everyone has their moment to shine. Their dynamic and character differences intrigued me right at the beginning. And their dynamic is also really funny. I especially love Mal and Jane’s interactions.
That’s also a good example how crucial good characters for a good TV shows. Because at the end it’s all about the characters and their relationships to each other.
Why, for TV’s sake, got it canceled?
Well, like I said with science fiction the production costs can be very expensive and high. So if your producer doesn’t believe in your idea and doesn’t see the “green numbers” for the show, it can get canceled.
Joss Whedon wanted to produce Firefly with Fox and his own production company Mutant Enemy Production, but because of its low ratings Fox canceled it in December 2002 after only 11 of the 14 completed episodes had aired in the United States.
Even though the fans went on a huge campaign to get Firefly back on air, it didn’t help. Well, even though they couldn’t save the TV show, but the story of Firefly still goes on in comics and also the movie Serenity Firefly, 2005.
Like I said, this show is treasured by many fans and even though many might say that the effects are “trashy,” it still kicks ass and is one of my favourite shows.