Still Flying: Firefly 20 Years Later

“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty” – Mal Reynolds

The TV junkyard is littered with dozens if not hundreds of gems that are shows that were killed off too early by dim-witted TV executives. Everyone’s got a favorite show that they loved but apparently no one else did, hence the quick cancellation. Firefly is a prime example. But unlike many of these forgotten gems, Firefly continues to shine 20 years after its debut on television.

Created by Joss Whedon, the man behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and of course, the first two Avengers films, Firefly premiered in the 2002 fall schedule on Fox and was quickly canceled after only fourteen episodes were filmed (fifteen if you count the original pilot episode “Serenity” as a two-part show). In fact, not even all the episodes were aired. But the show found a new life after cancellation in the world of home media. Word of mouth quickly spread and a cult following not seen since Star Trek blossomed.

For the uninitiated the show is basically a science fiction western taking place in 2517, showcasing a group of renegades and smugglers who eke out an existence on board a Firefly-class space freighter called the Serenity. This is the back story; humanity has used up Earth’s resources sometime in the future. Eventually, people abandoned Earth, traveled to another solar system and terraformed dozens of planets and moons to make them habitable. Now the original terraformed planets are the Core Planets and have the latest in technology and resources and are considered the center of the universe or ‘verse as said in the show. The outer planets in the system are known as the Border Planets or Outer Planets and don’t have access to the latest technologies. The people living there are left to fend for themselves with basic tools. In these backwater worlds, the highest level of technology is on the level of the nineteenth century with horses being the common mode of transport. This is why the show has that dusty and rustic Western look.  Basically, the show is set in an interplanetary society of haves and have nots.

In the pilot’s opening scenes, viewers witnessed a brutal battle in the civil war between the Alliance (the main governing body of the Core Planets) and the Independents, which was comprised of the Outer Planets. The Alliance won the aforementioned Battle of Serenity Valley and the war. During that battle the show introduced one of the soldiers who fought for the Independents, Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). According to interviews, Whedon stated that this was an allegory to the American Civil War with the main characters standing in for former Confederate soldiers.

Several years later and now a jaded cynic, Mal owns a beat-up freighter ship that he uses for smuggling operations. His crew is comprised of loyal first mate Zoë Alleyne (Gina Torres), another Independent war veteran; carefree pilot Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), who is married to Zoë and loves Hawaiian shirts, dinosaur figures and his wife; Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the whimsical ship’s mechanic and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) a greedy and not-too-bright muscle man. The rest of the cast are the passengers on board the ship for various reasons. Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) is a beautiful and cultured prostitute who rents a small shuttle on board and is attracted to Mal and vice versa. Their unrequited romantic tension was a major sub-plot. Reverend Book (Ron Glass) is a spiritual wanderer with a mysterious past with hinted ties to the Alliance. The final two passengers provided much of Firefly’s conflict; Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau), two sibling fugitives on the run. River was a gifted student who was forced to undergo deadly experiments by the Alliance and became a deadly psychic killing machine masked under the guise of a gentle and mildly mentally challenged teenage girl. Her brother Simon, a successful rich doctor, risked everything (including his wealth) to free her from the Alliance. In the pilot, Mal decided to allow them to remain on board, provided Simon took a job as the ship’s medic, and kept an eye on her. 

Throughout the series, they faced dangers in the form of cannibalistic savages called Reavers, other smugglers, criminals, the unscrupulous upper class and the Alliance itself. The stories were usually about capers and the mishaps they would get into. They were well written with witty dialogue that had an interesting touch; the characters would often speak Mandarin. Whedon surmised that in the future both western and American culture will blend with Asian cultures and great pains are taken to show this in the series. Signs and view screens show Asian and English script, while many crowd scenes had a multicultural ambiance with people wearing outfits influenced by various cultures.

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The Science Channel: A Successor To Syfy

Just look at the current schedules of both The Science Channel and Syfy. True most of the programs on The Science Channel are science based like How They Do That but any casual viewer will notice shows geared to sci-fi fans. The most recent example is a two-hour show called Trek Nation where Gene Roddenberry’s son examines the cultural impact that Star Trek has made. Other shows of note include Michio Kaku’s fascinating Sci-Fi Science, Mars Rising that explores how to get to the red planet and Prophets Of Science Fiction. Add to that the channel is also airing reruns of Firefly and ReGenesis.

Clearly there is an effort by the channel’s programmers to attract more serious sci-fi fans.

Now look at what plays on Syfy, a channel supposedly devoted to science fiction. What is found are wrestling shows and reality shows about a bunch of guys running around in the dark looking for ghosts. This is an exaggeration of course. Every Saturday night Syfy runs sic-Fi movies. Unfortunately they’re these zero budget craptaculars about giant mutant animals and disasters and feature actors whose fame are rapidly fading.

It seems that once the channel canceled more serious minded shows like Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, and Stargate: Universe it gave up. Most of their current actual genre shows are formulaic, lightweight affairs that aren’t engaging. Does anyone honestly think that Warehouse 13 will be highly regarded years from now?

There was a time that the average fan could look forward to running home and finding an oasis in the television wasteland.The channel actually catered to genre fans with fondly remembered programs like Farscape, MST3K and they commissioned new episodes of canceled shows like Sliders. Syfy or rather Sci-Fi, as it was called in it’s heyday, even had documentaries, reruns of classic shows, and making-of specials.

Well all of that is gone now. Sure they have those terrific Twilight Zone marathons and an occasional movie but it’s clear the channel is a shadow of it’s old self. It is evident that the channel will transition away from it’s original programming just like MTV. Syfy should just hurry up and do this. The way things are any real fan can find quality programming all over cable. BBC America has a Saturday night block devoted to genre programs like Doctor Who and there is The Science Channel.

With shows like Firefly on it’s schedule it won’t be long before more sci-fi shows will find a home in the channel. Don’t be surprised if Fringe or one of the Star Treks winds up on The Science Channel. And seriously they will nicely complement the thought-provoking shows like Prophets Of Science Fiction that examines the lives, inspirations and impact of giants like H.G. Wells, Philip K. Dick, and Mary Shelly. It’s very easy to imagine Michio Kaku hosting one of these sci-fi shows as he does with Firefly. This viewer cannot wait for that moment.

Lewis T. Grove