Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres in Firefly.
Star Trek and Star Wars fans may fight to the death over which is the Number One science fiction franchise of all time, but there is surprisingly little disagreement over which television show is Number Two. Joss Whedon’s Firefly takes that honor, a show about a ragtag crew of spacers, forever running just ahead of galactic authorities, bloodthirsty criminal adversaries and their own personal demons. Firefly lasted only a single season on the Fox Network in 2002, but it has had an outsize impact on the imaginations of SF writers and producers, and here we are, 20 years later, still comparing new work to Whedon’s conceptual universe.
Most of us who are Firefly fans still remember the sense of betrayal we felt at the way Fox treated the show. The network executives never understood Whedon’s vision, and pressed him to do two mutually exclusive things with his work: lighten up a show they felt was “too dark,” and have Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion) shoot more people. They also didn’t like the inclusion of a married couple on the show (helmsman “Wash” Washbourne, played by Alan Tudyk, and First Officer Zoe Washbourne, played by Gina Torres); this precluded any romance between Mal and Zoe. When Whedon held firm on his principles, studio execs sabotaged the show by airing episodes out of order and with frequent pre-emptions. This after they had already diminished the show’s chances by advertising it as a comedy, not as a science fiction show or even a space western. No wonder it couldn’t find a wider audience and was canceled quickly despite a write-in campaign by Firefly’s dedicated fans to save it.
It is Firefly’s essential “darkness” that makes it stand out from the science fiction television that had gone before it and captures our attention. Captain Mal is a tortured soul, carrying the burdens of the loss of a civil war against the Alliance that now rules the galaxy. He’s testy, quick to anger, and not inclined to listen to advice from his crew. From the first episode, we’re clear this is not Star Trek and Mal is no Kirk, Picard or even Sisko. But this captain does have a code of ethics that he lives by, which is why we can see him as a hero despite his flaws.
He and his crew must scrape and scrabble to get by, taking any job they can find—legal or illegal—to make ends meet. Every episode brings new challenges to add to the ones they have just overcome (or are already trying to find a way out of). And those challenges are not just external; each member of the crew has his or her own obstacles to work through. A crisis of faith, PTSD, mental illness, terminal illness, insecurity, or just plain lack of empathy—all are subjects for Whedon’s pen, which explains why the show has been inspiration for so many other writers.
The show was a launching pad for actors, too. Fillion, of course, went on to star in the wildly successful Castle and currently stars in The Rookie on ABC. Gina Torres has starred in Suits, Westworld and now in Fox’s 911-Lone Star, Alan Tudyk has made a splash in Syfy’s Resident Alien and bad guy Mark Sheppard (Badger) was a regular as the King of Hell Crowley on Supernatural. Summer Glau, who played the tormented River in Firefly, went on to serve admirably in Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles television series, but has been mostly doing smaller parts since.
One thing I must give Firefly full credit for: spaceship Serenity’s engine thrusts in space are silent, as they should be in a vacuum that can carry no sound waves. Huzzah! Virtually every other screen space depiction has those engines blasting at full decibels. It’s almost enough to make me forgive the fact that the Serenity’s captain and crew carry projectile weapons—on a pressurized spaceship. One bullet piercing the hull and everyone is in deep trouble. There was a reason Kirk and company carried phasers.
So, okay, the show isn’t perfect. But it’s pretty close. I’m enjoying watching that precious single season all over again on Hulu. Those of you who own the series on DVD might want to dig it out again or you can check it out on the streaming service to remind yourself just how good SF TV can be.