Let me get this out right now: I love Firefly. Really. I actually saw it in broadcast, I relished the DVDs, and I was there on opening night for Serenity. Firefly is a rare example of excellent scifi storytelling on TV, and one of the best shows of the past decade.
That said, over the past couple years I’ve started to get the feeling that the show’s been idolized way too much by fans who constantly beat the drum of “If only there had been more episodes… if only it hadn’t been cancelled!” Get into a discussion with any rabid Browncoat and you’ll be treated to a long dissertation on why Fox should bring back the show, despite the fact that the actors moved on and a good chunk of the cast was killed off in the film. Oh, yeah, this article’s going to have spoilers, never you mind.
So I’m going to take an interesting stance today and say that it was a good thing that Firefly was cancelled when it was — especially considering the developments that followed. Here are six reasons why.
1. It only got popular posthumously
We can all agree that Fox never really gave the show a chance — the network forced Whedon to write and air a second pilot (“The Train Job”), it played episodes out of order, it only showed a handful before pulling the plug, and it broadcast it on a night that was death for new shows. That said, Firefly wasn’t that popular when it was on the air, fluttering around the 98th spot on the ratings before its cancellation. There weren’t legions of fans rallying around it until well after it had been killed and then resurrected as an ultra-successful DVD set.
Sure, we can play the “what if?” game all the live-long day — what if Firefly had kept on going, would it have gotten as strong of an audience? — but what we know for a fact is that its tragic early demise coupled with the show’s excellent quality led to it being a DVD phenomenon. People love a tragic story, and Firefly’s history really helped it become as big as it did.
2. The film might never have been made
To give Fox credit, the network eventually realized it made a mistake with how it handled Firefly after seeing the bajillion dollars of revenue that the DVD sales brought in. So it did allow for the resurrection of the franchise, but in a movie format instead. And out of all of Joss Whedon’s shows, only Firefly has the distinction of airing on the big screen (we’re not counting the 1992 Buffy movie for obvious reasons).
Another point I’d like to make is that the film’s lackluster performance is an indication that this franchise’s base was decidedly niche, even after the DVD explosion. Fans were passionate about Firefly, yes, but there just weren’t enough of them to justify more movies or another run at the series.
3. You would’ve come to hate many of the characters
Here’s what a lot of Firefly fans willfully overlook: Joss Whedon hates his characters being happy. Watch Buffy, Angel or Dollhouse, and you’ll see a trail of tears and sorrow for each and every one of the main characters. Friendships are ripped apart, lovers die, brides left at the altar, and so on. Even worse, sometimes these character arcs turned beloved figures into hated ones — see Buffy circa seasons 6 & 7, Cordelia season 4, and so on.
The good thing about Firefly is that the show’s run was so short that Whedon scarcely had time to really start mucking about with the happiness of the characters. For most of its run, the crew got along and we genuinely liked all of them. This is why the movie is so disconcerting to some, because the death of Shepherd and Wash had to be shoehorned in (indications are that their characters would’ve died in the series anyway) and Mal had to get a lot meaner than he was originally.
4. The show and movie provided a complete arc
Unlike many other prematurely cancelled series, Firefly actually does have a beginning, middle and end to its arc. While there are plenty of threads left hanging, it’s not as though we’ll never know what the Reavers were about, or why River is the way she is, or if Simon and Kylee would ever hook up, or if the Alliance would get theirs for being such big jerks.
In fact, you could even argue that the show and movie provide four origin stories (one in the pilot, one in Train Job, one in Out of Gas, and the flashback at the beginning of Serenity) while the film provides the end point for the main story arcs.
It could’ve been worse, is what I’m saying. We could’ve been left hanging a lot more than we were.
5. Sometimes less is more, especially on TV
What’s worse than an excellent TV show killed before its time is a good one that wears out its welcome and tarnishes its good name. Great shows have been hobbled by lackluster seasons late in their lifespan, and Firefly could’ve gone this route — as did both Buffy (seasons 5-7) and Angel (season 4, but oddly enough, not 5).
While Firefly never got the chance to prove that it could succeed in the long-term, it never fell short, either. The episodes that were made were generally excellent and kept the “average” of the show’s quality incredibly high.
6. A quick death is preferable to a prolonged one
Let’s engage with a little bit of hypothetical musings, shall we? If Fox hadn’t cancelled Firefly but picked it up for the second half of season one or even season two, it’s entirely possible the network would’ve severely slashed the budget for the show. After all, Firefly was an expensive show to make, and without the ratings to justify it, it could’ve been left as Star Trek was in its third season: without the resources to really do it justice.
And given the choice between a drawn-out death to where everyone involved is upset and unable to do the story justice or a quick demise where they go out on top, I’d rather the latter.