Saturday’s Six: Why Firefly’s early death was a good move

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.

11 comments

  1. Point #1: The whole Out of Order Fracas has been grossly exaggerated. Now I’m hardly one to disagree with the sentiment that not accepting the double length pilot was a bad move. But if you actually look at the air dates, it’s just that Shindig and Safe were stuck in a bit later, and in a way that didn’t significantly affect continuity. If you want to see an airing order Charlie Foxtrot, I have two words: American Gothic. This was a one season wonder which aired back in 1995 on CBS with Gary Cole (of Office Space) as a sort of evil Andy Taylor. Now that was completely messed up. Adding insult to injury, the DVD release keeps episodes in broadcast order (check the TVShowsOnDVD review for more details).

    Point #2: And how exactly was that a good thing? Though you probably figured this out when I last applied for a Mutant Reviewer position, it’s my opinion that Serenity was to Firefly what Highlander 2 was to the first Highlander film.

    Point #3: It would have hardly taken that long. Personally I despised Simon and Inara nearly from the get go and found River’s Mary Sue tendencies to be grating. Ditch these characters and the show would have been even better.

    Point #5: The TV series was far from perfect. Shindig and Objects in Space were pretty meh, while Safe and Jaynestown sucked hard. Don’t get me started on Trash and Heart of Gold, which fully deserved their unaired status.

    • Meh does not strictly mean bad, just that a rewrite would have improved matters. And it should be noted that it’s hardly unusual for first season of a show to be wildly uneven (as an example, all but the most deluded fans will acknowledge that the first season of Buffy was for the most part not very good). I’m just not letting my judgement get clouded by its one season wonder status. 😛

  2. As someone who loved the later seasons of Buffy and Angel, I have to mostly disagree with this article. Joss’ characters got more interesting over time. Its even possible that Firefly would have killed off Wash or Shep, and then introduced us to someone we liked even more. Of all of the Whedon shows, Firefly is the one I like the least, but I see a lot of potential there. If it had gone for a few more seasons it could have been incredible.

  3. […] Saturday’s Six: Why Firefly’s early death was a good move « Mutant …In Theaters · Coming Soon · Top Movies · Showtimes · Watchlist · MyMovies · New: DVD & Blu-Ray · Top 250 · Genres · Editors’ … Firefly: Season 1, Episode 10 … […]

  4. Arsehole!!!!!!! I was just trying to find out who played Jubal Early and came here for a quick read. You spoiled the goddamn movie for me. Why not give a spoiler alert before you spoil the fucking film, dickhead???

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