Firefly was a highly-innovative and beautifully-produced sci-fi series, with an innovative world setting, realistic technology designs, clever writing, quality scripts, equally quality acting and a clear dedication of its crew. But because the Fox network wasn’t enthused about the show (“Space ships and cows? And where are the Klingons? We don’t get it. Next!“), they constantly messed with its network scheduling, often pre-empting it for sports programs, and as a result, viewers hardly had a chance to see it before it was yanked altogether from the network lineup. Case in point: I, myself, only saw two episodes before it was pulled.
Nonetheless, the show found a greater following when DVD sets were released with all thirteen produced episodes. There was enough support to merit a feature-length motion picture which, unfortunately, didn’t do as well in theaters as many thought it would (“Space ships and berserker zombies? We still don’t get it. Next!“).
Why has Firefly never made it big in the American mainstream market? It’s certainly not the production itself… nor are there any issues or controversies about the actors. The issue surrounds the show’s setting: It’s just not considered… science-fiction-y enough for audiences. And that’s a shame, because Firefly is set in a natural period of human expansion into space that we should be spending more time in, for a lot of reasons.
Before Firefly, there were many other sci-fi series, but most notably the TV and movie empire that is Star Trek. Over many decades and multiple TV series, Trek has shown us the Federation’s exploration of the cosmos, full of the discovery of new planets, new races, unknown phenomena, hostile forces, dangerous artifacts and newfound knowledge of our place in the universe. In many ways, it was a dramatic reflection of the early exploration of the American continent by Europeans, forging out into the wilderness (which turned out to be a wilderness only to them) and discovering human natives, strange animals, varied landscapes and valuable resources. This format was picked up by many other TV series and movies since, as the idea of exploration and discovery has a romantic and exciting resonance with viewers.
As opposed to the format of Star Trek et al, Firefly‘s setting reflected a later era in American history. In Firefly‘s universe, humans had finished exploring their world (a large solar system full of planets), and had a drawn-out civil war that set planet against planet and left many citizens upset about the outcome. Of said planets, some became major living, cultural and financial hubs, while the rest became sources of commercial and industrial resources for the other planets.
In other words, Firefly reflects the period after the American Civil War, when people began to expand and settle into the American landscape, building major transportation hub cities like Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and Kansas City, and dotting the spaces in-between with small towns and settlements that primarily provided goods to the wealthier people in the hub cities. This was the period known as the Old West, the also-romanticized period of fancy cities and dusty remote settlements, isolated farmers, gun-wielding cowboys, “savage” Indians, rustlers, prospectors, mining and company towns, and varied levels of lawfulness. The American Western movies built upon this romanticized image and, with public support, helped build a Hollywood-based industry.
Today, a lot of the sheen has come off that Old West image: Between recently-uncovered evidence of the actual racial landscape of the west (where many more African Americans and Mexicans worked as cowboys, bossed by rich European men), the continuation of pockets of racial hatred and violence in the aftermath of the war, the complete fabrication of many of the trope’s most popular elements (the street duel, the “cowboy code,” etc), and even the revelation that many of Hollywood’s cowboy actors weren’t as upstanding as their public personas suggested (did you hear that John Wayne was a white supremacist?), the Old West is a lot less admired and adored today than it was 50-plus years ago. But it still has its fervent adherents of the old tropes and traditions.
And so we come back to Firefly, a show set in a futuristic version of an Old West that has lost its fascination with some, though not all, viewers. This show presents an amalgamation of a sci-fi future and the Old West mostly as it was supposed to be—the romanticized, Hollywood version—with only a few tropes removed.
The main characters are “no-collar” workers, living out on the rough fringes of society, the working classes of their universe, and rarely visiting the well-to-do major planets. They work menial jobs, get in fights, and sometimes act outside the law to survive. Their ship isn’t a shiny yacht or powerful battleship; it’s a used workhorse of a freighter running on a dirty nuclear power plant. Of the crew, three are ex-military (two, at least, on the losing side), one is a thug, and one an engineer. Their passengers include a former government figure of importance now masquerading as a priest, a girl who was captive of the government, and her brother, a now-disgraced doctor, who broke her out.
Firefly does present us with a female first mate and a female engineer—a bit rare in the past, probably more to do with gender inequality affording few women with professions that were so male-dominated—and an inter-racial marriage, something rarely discussed but was surely prevalent in an Old West that was much more racially varied than Hollywood ever hinted at. Both represent the kind of thing that is a lot more open today, and would be expected to be just as common in the future. But it also features the Old West trope of women as companions—prostitutes—as a slightly more empowered, but nonetheless quietly-tolerated part of the landscape.
So: Given a TV series that not only presents a well-thought-out and realistic science fiction future, but includes many of the old, romanticized tropes of the Old West, why wasn’t this genre-bending show more popular? The other half of the answer lies with the tastes of American viewers, and what they have been taught to expect from both sci-fi and western media.
Simply put, the typical tropes of both sci-fi and westerns have always been so far apart that it can be difficult for the fans of either genre to imagine a mix of both, in the same way that it’s hard to imagine a mixture of classical music and hip-hop. Remember how the old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup commercials went? “Hey… you got peanut butter in my chocolate!” “Hey… you got chocolate in my peanut butter!”
But unlike so many candy aficionados, many science fiction fans never developed a taste for the mix of sci-fi and westerns, significantly reducing the potential audience for the show; and outsiders, particularly western fans, wouldn’t even consider trying it. With its audience thus reduced (and added with Fox’s efforts to effectively conceal the show from its overall audience), Firefly struggled to be found, and was not accepted by a significant part of its own fan base.
But we haven’t heard the last of Firefly, nor its genre-bending setting. Sci-fi has given us so few programs (or movies) about humanity in a post-exploration galaxy, a period when we have set down our roots and live our daily lives much like we do today (or maybe very differently than how we live today). Instead of continuing to romance about shooting up our future frontiers, we could start thinking about the period after that, when humanity is settled down and putting its efforts into maintaining the lives and prosperity of its citizens.
My own series, The Kestral Voyages, is set in such a post-exploration future; if you’re interested in how interesting and entertaining such stories can be, take a look at the Kestral pages and try them out sometime.