Firefly: How Joss Whedon Broke Our Hearts in Less Than One Season Melanie 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. YES. I love this article. It’s tragic that Firefly was canceled after one season. TRAGIC. But that one season is eons better than most nine-season shows combined. So there’s that…

    • I cry every single time I watch “Serenity”… it’s like you get a little bit of closure and also die inside at the same time.

    • Well said. I’ve just started watching this show on DVD, and am already sad knowing that eventually the discs will all be watched. At least I’ll have “Serenity” to look forward to. I’ll never understand why shows like Firefly and Arrested Development are cancelled, but drivel such as American Idol and The Bachelor are renewed season after season.

  2. Amen!

  3. This is my favorite thing ever.

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