Welcome to the first installment of Before Their Time, a monthly feature dedicated to projects that were so great so prematurely that cancellation found them before critical acclaim. Here I will lament ideas that sprang fully-formed from the minds of their creators complete with memorable characters, textured worlds, and smart writing only to be overlooked and undervalued by viewers and/or executives. Our inaugural column will be dedicated (of course) to that bottomless well of quixotic nostalgia: Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
I came to Firefly late and backwards, after an impulsive and regrettably-timed (read: December) relocation from northern New Jersey to Chicago. A new acquaintance moved, perhaps, by the spectacle of a destitute and frostbitten transplant invited me over to watch Serenity. When I confessed to a lack of interest in space operas and Westerns in general and ignorance about Firefly in particular, she smiled the way Browncoats do at the uninitiated before adding, offhandedly: “You’ll still be able to follow the movie. And we have the show on DVD in case you want to borrow it after.”
I devoured the show at least twice before returning it, and this gracious friend completed my introduction to the Whedonverse with subsequent loans of Buffy and Angel. Then Dollhouse aired, and after that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. But each time I started a new Joss Whedon show, I found myself looking for Serenity’s crew, mentally transposing them over the characters I was watching to unearth clues about how their stories would have unfolded given more than a scant 14 episodes.
To no avail, of course. By now it seems we’ve gotten all the time on Serenity we’re going to get. Comics, panels, novelizations, and board game notwithstanding, Firefly’s sudden truncation has become part of its mystique. Whether we entered The ‘Verse through the movie, Joss’ pilot (Serenity Pts. 1 and 2), or Fox’s (The Train Job), no Browncoat has ever really gotten over its sudden and inexplicable loss: the world, the ship, and its crew were all too fully realized for us to let go of easily.
It would have been hard for me to let go of such well-developed characters even if the show hadn’t so brilliantly rehabilitated tropes I’d given up for lost (such as marriage and sex work) or hadn’t even looked for in the early 2000s (like government and privilege). One of my favorite departures from the TV manual is the show’s willingness to explore closeness without romance. Among a tangle of profound loyalties, the show’s greatest devotion is that of Simon Tam, who turned fugitive to rescue his sister River from a series of experiments, surgeries, and brainwashing at the hands of the Alliance. And I have always appreciated the absence of sexual history or tension between Mal and Zoe: their closeness is that of two people who have helped each other survive some gnarly shit, and their bond, though intense, is never romantic. Not that I dislike romance; I love Zoe and Wash’s marriage. It is so textured and grounded and real. Neither their affection nor their conflicts are played for sitcom laughs. The anxieties that do surface (in War Stories and Our Mrs. Reynolds) suggest that Zoe and Wash’s own insecurities concern being rather than having an ideal partner. These are just a few examples of the emotional sophistication that makes all of the relationships on the ship so richly satisfying to watch and re-watch.
Of course, the other thing that ensures the show stands up to repeated watches is the world-building. None of its planets succumb to the Star Trek trap of being obviously designed to support a single episode or plot. Every time Serenity enters atmo, her crew encounters a world already going about its business, complete with its own economy and patois. It’s always easy to imagine life on that planet continuing, even after the episode ends and the ship moves on.
Although I’m still not a fan of Westerns (sorry, Deadwood), Firefly remains one of my favorite shows. Its ensemble cast, buoyed by terrific chemistry and thoughtful, fun writing, delivered characters I still care about, moving through a world that seems less like a sci-fi trope and more like a plausible (if distant) future. And even though I know the show is still cancelled and they already made the movie, I still continue to hold out hope that someday soon we’ll get all the seasons that should have followed this one.
MUST WATCH: If you’re new to the show, both the original pilot (Serenity Pts. 1 and 2) and Out of Gas are great introductions to the crew and the world. Be warned, though – I don’t know anyone who could watch just one episode without immediately binging on the whole season plus the movie.
PAIR WITH: Fresh strawberries, and a nice glass of hooch to celebrate every successful anti-Alliance exploit and maybe even to mourn a few of the less than successful ones. Leave a little in the glass to pour out after Objects in Space (or Serenity, if you proceed straight to the movie).
AFTERWARDS: I have watched every other Whedon show looking to replicate this experience. None have quite hit the mark. Of course, you could always try Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.