Firefly: How Joss Whedon Broke Our Hearts in Less Than One SeasonMelanie Schmitz

Alright all you Firefly fans, this one’s for you. Yes, you, hiding there under the dining room table with your scale model of Serenity and a box of tissues. And you, sobbing in the corner and wearing Jayne’s hat. You didn’t think I’d forget you over there, with your plastic dinosaurs and the “I Aim to Misbehave” shirt, did you? Is everyone settled and tucked in? Shiny.

The name “Joss Whedon” is something of a household one these days. With blockbuster hits like The Avengers and the upcoming S.H.I.E.L.D. spin-off, the multi-talented writer, producer and director has proven that he can tough it out with the big boys. Whedon’s lovable Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues to garner cult-status fame and legions of fans that can’t get enough of the bad-ass Buffy and her vicious feminine wiles.

Quietly stowed away between those powerhouse productions is a lesser known television series, one with its own loyal and impassioned following. In 2002, Whedon and co-producer Tim Minear debuted a new kind of show made up of a smorgasbord of genres, including comedy, drama, and science fiction with a slew of western undertones. They dubbed the new production Firefly and, in September 2002, received the green light from network execs after a long battle over the show’s pilot episode.

Firefly follows the crew of space-transport vessel Serenity as they take odd jobs to make a living. Crew members include Captain Malcolm Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), a hardened former soldier and able leader who holds resentment towards the central governing authority (“The Alliance”), Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), his reliable and loyal first mate, Hoban Washburne (Alan Tudyk), Zoe’s husband and the talented and plucky pilot, Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s kindhearted and lovable mechanic, and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), the macho hired-gun. Accompanying them is Inara Serra (played by Morena Baccarin), a companion who serves as the ship’s “ambassador” at port.

In the intended pilot, “Serenity”, the crew stop on the planet Persephone to drop off cargo and finish a particular—ahem—“frowned-upon” business transaction trading goods on the black market, as well as pick up a few passengers in order to make a bit of money off of the traveler’s fares. It is in this episode that the crew and audience alike meet the soft-spoken Shepherd “Book”, played by Ron Glass, (“shepherd” being a futuristic term for a religious pastor or man of God), along with mysterious and sweetly proper Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a gifted trauma surgeon, and his emotionally and mentally disturbed sister River (Summer Glau), who is much more than your average genius. From the moment the siblings board Serenity, the crew’s lives are changed for better or worse.

Initial reviews of the show were mixed but it continued to garner support from a loyal and energetic fan base who vowed to do everything in their power to keep it on the air. Unfortunately, by December of that year, network executives had decided, due to falling ratings and competition from shows like Joe Millionaire (I know, I’ll never forgive America for that), to cut the program short before it was even able to reach a season finale. Eleven episodes into a 14-episode season, Fox cancelled Firefly and its accompanying fandom scrambled.

In spite of everything, however, Joss Whedon had somehow managed to capture the entire spectrum of human emotion in four months-worth of television programming; character backgrounds were investigated to whatever length possible, friendships and marriages were examined and wild antics ensued. Ask any Firefly fan about the show and they’ll most likely quote a line or two from their favorite scene or episode, including gems such as, “I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you” and “Also, I can kill you with my brain”. With dialogue like “When you can’t run, you crawl, and when you can’t crawl, you find someone to carry you”, Whedon pushed the boundaries of conventional science fiction and turned Firefly into something unique and complex.

Although the network finally agreed to release the final three episodes in late 2003, fans of the show were still left hanging: what was River Tam’s secret? Would we ever figure out Shepherd Book’s mysterious past? Did Inara and Mal ever acknowledge their undying love for one another and have dozens of chubby babies together? Whedon eventually began writing a script for a companion film, Serenity (which made it to theaters in 2005), but still confesses that, of all his productions, the one he harbors the most anxiety over is the regrettably terminated Firefly.

Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk, Tim Minear, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, and Joss Whedon attend the "Firefly" 10th Anniversary panel at Comic-Con, July 2012

Adam Baldwin, Alan Tudyk, Tim Minear, Sean Maher, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, and Joss Whedon attend the Firefly 10th Anniversary panel at Comic-Con, July 2012

In retrospect and in celebration of the show’s short-lived run, we can remember everything it taught us (and if you haven’t watched it yet, this should get you inspired to do so):

From Joss Whedon, we learned that a title is just a title. The things you do and the actions you take every day show who you are.

Mr. Whedon showed us that family is everything; whether it is the siblings you grew up with, the neighbor across the way, the stranger you befriend at work or the man or woman who fights through the years with you, they are your safety net. Be kind to them.

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  1. Joss didnt break our hearts- Fox did with their criminal handling of the show. Airing it out of order? Providing NO advertising for the show? Putting it in auto-death Friday night time slot?

    On the flip side, many Firefly fans broke the rest of our hearts when they didn’t support Serenity, which I still hold as the top sci-fi film ever made (near perfect casting (exception being the lord-of-hate Adam Baldwin), perfect script, perfect dialogue, perfect you-name-it). We could have had at least two more films guaranteed, but too many sat at home.

  2. Yes! Absolutely I miss Firefly and the crew’s antics. I think about the show often.

  3. I’m grateful for season 4 of Arrested Development. but if I could choose, I would take Season 2 of Firefly 999,999/1,000,000 over 3 more seasons of AD. That’s saying a lot.

  4. All the Sci-Fi is officially dead on every station. The only one even close left is falling skies and I wont be surprised when that gets its plug pulled as well.

    • That’s sad to me. I really liked Falling Skies, but you’re right. I foresee its end coming up pretty soon. Where are people with discerning taste these days?!

  5. I have loved the homage paid by Nathan Fillion in the Castle Halloween episode, makes me giggle & pull out my Firefly & Serenity dvd’s.
    See – there are people who respect Joss’s genius!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFj8eFZx-TA

    • Both Adam Baldwin and Gina Torres have been on “Castle”, and there was one episode that he spoke Mandarin, when Beckett asked him how he knew Chinese, he said, “Oh, a TV show I used to love”…
      Long live the Browncoats!

  6. 1) Fox has cancelled most non-comedy shows early. They purged almost all shows with content that season. If it is not comedy or gossip, it doesn’t seem to belong on Fox since Rupert Murdock took over.

    2) Watch the series and then watch the movie Serenity. The rest of your questions are answered in the books.

  7. What a coincidence! I’m re-watching Firefly right now and here comes this lovely article. I sometimes feel like a small part of our love for Firefly is because it got cancelled, and that what we image the show to be keeps us hyped. But I honestly think despite that possible bias Firefly is an amazing show and it’s cancellation was the biggest mistake of canceled-show-history! I love this show so much and it has SO much more to offer! It pains me always. Q^Q Also, that end got a good laugh out of me! I never realized how appropriate Wash’s line was as a reprimand for Fox! xD

  8. There’s a hole in my heart where seasons 2 – 7 belong :(

  9. When I see a new article like this pop up, I always get a little flash of hope that somehow there will be a correction in the verse. A personal fantasy that will bring everyone back from the void and right the wrongs of our past. Alas it is never to be. I would rather live with reminders of this amazing moment in time than let the idea fade away completely. Until next time thank you.

  10. I so love these occasional homages to the short-lived great TV shows of our time. And thank you for forgiving us for Joe Millionaire (and pretty much most reality shows’ attempt at rendering good programming obsolete). You’ve inspired me to climb up on my geek-soap-box this morning @ http://tueremorton.wordpress.com/ and for that I salute you. Lol! Yes, I die a little inside each time I see Serenity too *sighs*

    • You guys are making me a little bit weepy! I’m do glad I could start a conversation about something that is so bittersweet for so many people. Thank you! I will head right over and read your piece immediately!

  11. It’s important to remember that part of Firefly’s ratings troubles stems from the fact that Fox was airing the episodes out of order so the relationship arc stuff didn’t make much sense.

    • I remember that…. I’m pretty sure Joss still harbors resentment for that as well! Goodness. I mean, you think they would have listened to the Master.

      :)

  12. Oh to have those days of television sci-fi that we escape into that evoke emotion, that give us thought, that make us wounder and cheer for. Alas, we are left with zombies, vampire love stories and ghost hunting. But there is light at the end of the tunnel in the form of “Falling Skies” and “Revolution”. Lets hope the TV exec bean counters don’t screw that up….but then again as William Shatner said, “It’s just a TV show people!”.

  13. Aw, man I really wish I’d been able to watch the story of Serenity unfold over 4/5 season (or more), but alas some tit at Fox decided to cancel this, similar thing happened with Angel, I really do hope these people are no longer in the TV business…time for a re-watch.

  14. Joss Whedon did not break our hearts, the morons who run Fox broke our hearts. As they have done again and again whenever Joss Whedon has a show on that stupid channel!

  15. No, you fuggin bastids, Fox broke your hearts in one season. Joss was your loyal friend you needed for love.

  16. He also taught us how to curse in Chinese! Xièxiè Joss Whedon!

  17. This just summed up my entire love for this show. Firefly was a beacon of light in my dark world, the one show on television where I found myself emerging from my room (teenage angst galore) and sharing an hour of time with my parents. My mother and I finally got along long enough to send our e-mails to Fox for the cancellation, earnestly petitioning for them to reconsider and give the show a chance. It was a common bond between us, something that kept us from completely disowning each other. Thank you for writing this and reminding me once again how much this short lived show changed my world.

  18. Important info! There are three companion graphic novels to the Firefly/Serenity saga and they are awesome!

  19. YOU CAN’T TAKE THE SKY FROM ME! I love this show. I love the movie. I was heartbroken when it was canceled.

  20. I am crying at this article. I can’t tell if I’m happy or sad. I think both. Whedon and Firefly have changed my life and taught me so much. <3