Death By Remote: Firefly

Mixing a Western with a science fiction yarn seemed like a hard sell in 2002. The television landscape was flooded with the usual police dramas and sitcoms.

Television needed a show to break the mold, and to be a little more adventurous with its genre and subject matter. Arguably, “Firefly” was that show, but it was unceremoniously axed from the airwaves before its influence could rub off on primetime. Nonetheless, a decade later, its impact is still felt.

The Show

Simply, “Firefly” can be described as a Western set in space. A distant solar system acts as the Wild West and is newly-inhabited by bandits, matchstick men and sheriffs all fighting for their slice of life’s pie.

The show centers on the crew of the Firefly-class space shuttle, Serenity, as they go from planet to planet, getting into trouble and trying to make some money along the way.

The look and feel of the show is not typical of anything considered science fiction on television today. It is grimy, dusty and covered in blazing sunlight. One scene could involve a dogfight between ships in space while the next might involve men riding through an Old West vista on horseback. The old-school country theme music is unforgettable.

If there is one aspect where the show shines, it is in its large ensemble cast of quirky characters who make their home on the ship. Each of the nine crewmembers, from the snarky, roguish captain to the childlike and slightly schizophrenic teenaged stowaway, all offer unique perspectives and conduct believable interactions with each other. They all carry the weight of the show equally and never allow things to get dull.

The show had a very distinct flavor, mixing old world, John Wayne wisdom with modern day skepticism and sarcasm. Plotlines involving war, corporate greed, economic imbalance and corrupt government are dressed up as Star Wars-flavored Westerns.

Perhaps this unique mixture confused the casual viewer, but those who stuck with it found its rhythm and instantly became enamored. It was certainly an oddball and unfortunately the odds were against it.

Cause of Death

The Fox Network should be charged with neglect for the death of this truly unique show. Underestimating its audience, Fox decided that the premiere episode did not have enough loud action to get its audience hooked from the start. This led the network to air the second and more action-packed episode first, completely skipping every character’s back story and motives.

As could be expected, this caused massive confusion to audiences. Horrible scheduling and frequent sporting event preemptions caused disastrous ratings and spelled a quick and dirty death before the season was finished.

The only smart decision Fox made was releasing the show on DVD. Shown in order and in its entirety, the series sold surprisingly well and found a whole new audience. In 2005, a feature film continuation, “Serenity,” was released in theaters to solid box office numbers.

Survived By

If shows like “Firefly” taught television executives one thing, it is that an audience is not always swayed by cheap thrills and safe concepts. Sometimes, oak-solid characters and plotting can carry a show far beyond the genre.

Some of today’s most successful series mix and match genre staples in even more adventurous ways than “Firefly.” “True Blood” mixes late-night soap opera elements with very aggressive horror movie sensibilities. “Glee” mixes high school drama with musical slapstick.

It seems like audiences are smartening up and are demanding that the barrage of new shows showered upon them every year at least make an effort to shake things up a bit. Usually, the shows that push conventionality’s boundaries the most are the ones that get the biggest ratings.

If “Firefly” could have let its oddball flag fly high today, it would probably still be sailing instead of being trapped on DVD shelves.