Thursday, 20 September 2012

The 10th Anniversary of Firefly

On 20 September 2002 the television series Firefly debuted on Fox. Created by Joss Whedon, Firefly was decidedly different from space operas that had aired on American television in the past. For one thing, the show was quite accurately described as a "space Western." The vast majority of the action of the series took place on planets where much of the technology was not much more advanced than the 19th Century. For another, the planets on which much of the action of the series took place had a level of lawlessness and a lack of government that roughly corresponded to the American West in the late 19th Century. Unfortunately, Firefly would not prove to be a success in its initial run. The Fox network cancelled Firefly after only eleven of its fourteen episodes had aired. Despite this the show has maintained a cult following to this day. Indeed, it is possible that Firefly could be the most popular television space opera besides Star Trek, at least if activity on the Web related to the show is any indication.

Firefly was set in the year 2517 at a time when humanity had expanded into space due to overpopulation on Earth. The show centred on the crew and passengers of the Firefly class ship Serenity, commanded by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his second in command  Zoe Alleyne Washburne (Gina Torres). Both Mal and Zoe were veterans of the Unification War, a civil war in which the Indpendents (AKA "Browncoats") fought for freedom against the powerful Alliance. The crew and passengers of Serenity consisted of "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk), Zoe's husband and the pilot of the ship; Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship's mechanic; Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a morally dubious hired gun; Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a Christian minister who curiously had extensive knowledge of criminals and criminal activity;  Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a medical researcher who winds up the ship's doctor; River Tam (Summer Glau), Dr. Tam's mentally unbalanced sister whom he had broken out of an Alliance research facility; and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a Companion or courtesan who rents one of the Serenity's shuttles.

Joss Whedon came up with the idea for Firefly after he read the best selling and Pulitzer prize winning novel The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which centred on the Battle of Gettysburg during the War Between the States (the novel would also be adapted as the 1993 film Gettysburg).  The Killer Angels planted the thought in Mr. Whedon's mind of a show that would explore people, who had been on the losing side of a war, settling a frontier, much in the same way many Southerners migrated West following the War Between the States.  From there he developed the idea of a science fiction series centred on the crew of a spaceship, commanded by survivors of a war, on a frontier in space. Like the Old West, civilisation would be lacking. Many of the amenities found on the more settled planets would not be found on the frontier, and while there would be a greater level of freedom on the frontier, there would also be a greater level of lawlessness. Joss Whedon developed his idea into the space Western Firefly.

Surprisingly for a show that would have such a brief run, things were actually looking up for Firefly early in its history. In 2000 Gail Berman, who had served as an executive producer on Joss Whedon's shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, was appointed the President of Entertainment for the Fox Broadcasting Company, putting her in charge of the network's programming. In fact, it was Miss Berman who convinced Joss Whedon to turn his motion picture Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a television series. It should then have been no surprise that in December 2001 Fox ordered 13 episodes of Firefly as part of a $20 million deal with Joss Whedon. In January 2002 Fox provided Mr. Whedon's production company, Mutant Enemy, with the then unheard of amount of $10 million for the pilot for Firefly. "Serenity" would begin shooting on 20 March 2012. Before the pilot even began shooting,  the actress originally hired to play companion Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart, would be fired after only one day. In only a few days Morena Baccarin would be hired to take her place.

Unfortunately, the situation for the prospective new series at Fox would sour soon enough. It was in May 2002 that Fox rejected the original pilot for Firefly, "Serenity." The network thought the two hour pilot was both too long and too slow. The network also complained that lead character Mal Reynolds (Nate Fillion) was too dour and too unsympathetic. Mutant Enemy was forced to scramble to create an entirely new pilot, "The Train Job," which incorporated many of the suggestions made by Fox (including more action and giving Mal more of a sense of humour). The beginning of "Serenity" would also be reshot, incorporating more action. Despite "Serenity" being the original pilot, the first episode shot, and the episode that set up both the series' premise and many of its story arcs, it would be the last episode aired.

May 2003 would also see more bad news for Firefly than Fox rejecting its original pilot. On 15 May 2002 Fox announced that Firefly would be delayed until the spring of 2003 and instead the cancelled sci-fi show Dark Angel would return in autumn 2002. The very next day, 16 May 2002, Fox did a complete about face and announced that Dark Angel was cancelled and Firefly would indeed debut in autumn 2002. Unfortunately, Firefly was also scheduled in Dark Angel's former time slot on Friday at 8:00 PM EST/7:00 PM CST, a time period generally considered a death slot for any sort of genre or youth oriented programming.

Firefly would become one of the most highly anticipated shows of the 2002-2003 season, at least as far as fans of imaginative television were concerned. By the early Naughts Joss Whedon was already something of a name among sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fans.  He was creator of the critically acclaimed, cult series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a fact highly touted by Fox in its promos for Firefly) and co-creator of its spinoff Angel. He had also been a co-writer on the hit, critically acclaimed Pixar film Toy Story. It was not unusual for articles in newspapers and on websites from early 2002 to describe Firefly as "highly anticipated." On 3 August 2002 Joss Whedon discussed Firefly and showed a scene from the pilot at the San Diego Comic Con before a crowd of around 2000 people.

While Firefly may have been highly anticipated for much of 2002, there were signs that Firefly could have been living on borrowed time even then. Indeed, Firefly was scheduled in a Friday night death slot, a time when many youth oriented shows and genre shows have gone to their deaths. On 8 September 2002 Gail Berman, president of Fox Entertainment, gave an interview to Access Hollywood in which she mentioned many Fox shows, but failed to mention Firefly. Whether Miss Berman purposefully snubbed Firefly or not is perhaps besides the point. Given what would occur in the coming months, it might well have been a sign of a lack of faith in Firefly on the network's part.

Indeed, Firefly would not have a smooth run by any stretch of the imagination. As might be expected of a show in a Friday night death slot, Firefly debuted to poor ratings. While the show was #1 for its time slot in the important demographic of 18 to 49 year olds, it debuted with only a Nielsen rating of 4.1. Worse yet, starting on 4 October 2002, with the episode "Our Miss Reynolds," Fox began showing its episodes out of order. The series would not be helped by being somewhat frequently pre-empted. On 11 October 2002 Firefly was pre-empted for baseball play offs. On 22 November 2002 (Thanksgiving weekend) Firefly was pre-empted for a repeat of the Adam Sandler movie Happy Gilmore. On 29 November 2002 it was pre-empted for the made for TV movie The Brady Bunch in the White House.

While Fox did pre-empt Firefly several times and kept it in its Friday night death slot, the network did order more episodes of the show. On 25 October 2002 Fox ordered three more scripts, bringing the total number of episodes to sixteen (including the two part, original pilot "Serenity"). On 18 November 2012 Fox would order that two of the new scripts be produced. This would bring the total number of Firefly episodes to 15. Unfortunately, while Fox had ordered new episodes of the show, Firefly was apparently on its last legs. On 2 December 2002 Fox announced that Firefly would be going on hiatus in January 2003. On 12 December 2002 Fox officially cancelled Firefly. The final episode aired was the original pilot, "Serenity," on 20 December 2002. Even though three episodes remained unaired, Fox never aired another episode of the show. At the time Firefly was cancelled it ranked 125th in the Nielsen ratings and had an average audience of 4.48 million viewers.

Even while Firefly was still in its first run, the series had developed a loyal and, for a science fiction show, considerable following. Already in the early days of Firefly fandom the fans referred to themselves as "Browncoats," after the Independents who had fought against the Alliance in the Unification War. It was in November 2002 that fans organised a campaign to save the show, "Firefly: Immediate Assistance." A letter writing campaign to the Fox Broadcasting Company and to the advertisers on Firefly was organised and Firefly: Immediate Assistance began collecting money for an ad to be placed in Variety. The ad, in which fans urged Fox not to cancel Firefly, would appear in the 9 December 2002 issue of Variety. Unfortunately, history shows that the fans' efforts fell on deaf ears as far as Fox was concerned. While the fans failed to prevent Fox from cancelling Firefly, their efforts do appear to have done some good.

Even as Fox cancelled the show, they told Joss Whedon that he could try to sell it to other broadcast networks and cable channels. For their part, fans began writing now defunct network UPN in an attempt to persuade them to pick up the show. Unfortunately, on 12 January 2003 UPN turned down the show. On 15 January 2003 ABC, CBS, NBC, and the Sci-Fi Channel would all reject Firefly. Because of the cost of the series, Fox would rule out both syndication and releasing the show direct to DVD. It would be on 13 February 2003 that the sets for Firefly would be torn down.

While it seemed very unlikely in 2003 that Firefly would ever be revived as a television series, it was hardly dead yet. As early as April 2003 rumours of a Firefly motion picture would begin to spread. These rumours picked up considerable steam on the internet in the early summer of 2003. On 17 July 2003 Joss Whedon confirmed that he was writing a script for a Firefly film. It was on 4 September 2003 that The Hollywood Reporter reported that Universal had acquired the movie rights to Firefly. The series would also be released on DVD and prove very successful. On 22 July 2003 pre-orders for the Firefly DVD box set would drive it to #2 on Amazon. It would reach #1 on Amazon on 19 September 2003. The DVD box set would be officially released on 9 December 2003. The DVD box set featured the episodes in the order in which they had been intended.

It would be on 2 March 2004 that the Firefly movie was officially given a green light by Universal. Due to the fact that Fox still owned the rights to the name Firefly, the film was called Serenity. Serenity was released on 30 September 2005. Unfortunately it would prove to be a disappointment at the box office. The film grossed only $25.5 million, squelching any hopes fans might have had for a Firefly movie franchise. While the movie did poorly at the box office, it sold well when released on DVD.

While a Firefly movie franchise never developed, the show would live on in comic books. The limited series Serenity: Those Left Behind was published by Dark Horse Comics in 2005 as part of the promotion for the movie. It would be followed by Serenity: Better Days (2008) and several one-shots that have been published to this day.

Over the years Firefly would also be rerun on various cable channels. On 22 July 2005 the Sci-Fi Channel started rerunning Firefly for a time. In April 2008 Universal HD began rerunning the series, which had been recently remastered in high definition by Fox. More recently, the Science Channel started rerunning the show on 6 March 2011. In each of the instances the episodes were shown in their intended order.

Given the show's rather loyal following, attempts to revive Firefly have never completely gone away. In early 2011 Nathan Fillion jokingly tweeted that if he won the California lottery he would buy the rights to Firefly and revive the show, fans organised the campaign "Help Nathan Buy Firefly," with the goal of raising enough money that the actor could buy the rights to the show. Both Joss Whedon and Nathan Fillion squelched the campaign, with Mr. Fillion pointing out how difficult it would be to bring the show back even if Fox was willing to sell the rights.

To this day Firefly fans have remained angry at Fox for cancelling the show. Many of them have placed the blame directly at the feet of Sandy Grushow, Chairman of the Fox Television Entertainment Group, who it has been alleged did not like the show.  Others have blamed Gail Berman for the show's failure; she was the one who scheduled the show in a Friday night death slot and decided to air the episodes out of order. Many Browncoats simply blame Fox in general. Regardless, Firefly fans are not the only ones who were unhappy with the network. Following the cancellation of Firefly Joss Whedon said he would never work with Fox again. He only did so on the show Dollhouse (another series that fell victim to a Friday night death slot) because star Eliza Dushku had a contract with  the network.

Regardless of whether one blames Sandy Grushow, Gail Berman, or both of them, even at the time it seemed obvious to many that Fox was mishandling Firefly. In fact, this was obvious when Fox announced in May 2002 that the show had been scheduled on Friday night. The scheduling of a genre show or a youth oriented show on a Friday might was a practice that was established at Fox long before Firefly ever debuted. Starting in 1992 with such shows as Sightings, Fox would consistently schedule youth oriented shows or science fiction/fantasy shows on Friday nights. The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. The X-Files, M.A.N.T.I.S., VR.5, MillenniumThe Visitor, Harsh Realm, and Dark Angel were all placed on Friday night by Fox. While scheduling Firefly on Friday night was very much in keeping with Fox's scheduling practices, it was also very unwise. Friday night has traditionally been a very bad time to schedule any sort of programming that might appeal to young people, including genre shows. In fact, the term "Friday night death slot" appears to have been in use before Fox was even founded. Indeed, it must be pointed out that the vast majority of genre shows that Fox scheduled on Friday night died swift deaths. The X-Files would survive, but it barely clung to life until it was moved to Sunday where it became a hit. Scheduled on a Friday night, Firefly was then probably doomed from the start.

While being scheduled in a Friday night death slot was mostly likely the primary reason Firefly was cancelled, the fact that it was pre-empted three times in its short run did not help matters. Of these pre-emptions only one could not have been avoided, the Friday night that Firefly was pre-empted by a baseball play off game. Then as now Fox had a contract with Major League Baseball to air play off games, so that nearly every Fox show is pre-empted by baseball at some point. In fact, Firefly was lucky that it was not pre-empted more than once by a baseball game as many Fox shows were and still are in October. That having been said, Fox pre-empted Firefly two weeks in a row for movies in late November 2002, something that hardy helped the series in the ratings.

While many have blamed the episodes being broadcast out of order for the failure of Firefly, I seriously doubt that played a major role. I have watched the episodes in their proper order many times and I must say it is much preferable to the order in which Fox aired them. That having been said,  I must also confess that when I watched the show in its first run I did not even realise they were being shown out of order. If others were like me, then, it probably did not matter to most viewers that the series was being shown out of order. It would then have played no real role in the low ratings Firefly received.

 Of course, given the loyal following Firefly has maintained over the years the question is if it could have actually been successful in its first run if circumstances had been different. While it is impossible to provide a definitive answer, it seems likely that Firefly probably would have drawn better ratings had it not been scheduled in a Friday night death slot. It also seems possible that Firefly could have actually been successful had Fox chosen to move it to a new time slot rather than cancelling it. As an example one needs only look no further than another science fiction series, The X-Files.  Like Firefly, The X-Files had a fiercely loyal following even in its first season and like Firefly it debuted on Friday night. For its first season it only ranked #111 in the Nielsen ratings. Its ratings dramatically improved in its second season, when it ranked #63 out of all shows on the air, but not so much in its third season, when it ranked #55. Ratings for The X-Files would not improve substantially until the show was moved to Sunday night in its fourth season, whereupon it ranked #20 for all shows on the air in that season. The X-Files would rise to #11 in its fifth season and then fall slightly to #12 in its sixth season. Except for its final season when it ranked #63 (still higher than most of its run on Friday night), The X-Files spent the rest of its run in the top forty shows for its remaining seasons. Given the fact that The X-Files, a show similar to Firefly in some respects, maintained low ratings as long as it was on Friday night and did not become a hit until it was moved to Sunday night, it seems possible that had Fox either scheduled Firefly on another night than Friday or moved it to a new time slot in December 2002 rather than cancelling it, then they could have had a hit on their hands. At the very least Firefly might have gotten good enough ratings to have lasted one full season, perhaps more.

While Firefly might or might not have survived had it not been scheduled in a Friday night death slot, it developed a cult following regardless. While most shows with runs of only 15 or 16 episodes are forgotten after only a few months after their cancellations, Firefly is not only remembered, but boasts a rather large and faithful following. In the years since its cancellation there have been a role playing game (Serenity, published in 2005), comic books published to this day, and even plans for a MMORPG.  When Joss Whedon, producer Tim Minear, and the cast reunited for a panel at the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, ten thousand people queued up to see them. While Firefly lasted only 14 episodes and produced only one feature film, and while it seems unlikely that another feature film is in the offering, it is safe to say that Firefly will continue to have a large and loyal following for years to come.

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