What is it about Firefly?

Two nights ago, my fiancée and I were struggling to find something to watch. Nothing really fit our moods, and we’re big TV people. She suggested Battlestar Galactica, but it was too heavy and serious. X-Files was the same way. Veronica Mars was off the docket because we aren’t ready to delve into another series and not finish it (we’re in the middle of BSG and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer). I’ve been running an idea about Firefly through my head for the 2010 Slayage conference, so I made the comment that I really need to rewatch Firefly. My fiancée wittily responded “aren’t we always in a state of needing to rewatch Firefly?” We chuckled, and then snuggled in to start Buffy Season 3.

But her Firefly comment really started me thinking because yes, we are always in a state of needing to rewatch Firefly. The show really is that good.firefly

But what is it specifically about that one show that makes it so good? I’m having a hard time really placing any particular reason on why I (and many other Whedonites like me) hold the show in such high regard when other shows are equal, if not greater, in quality.

There are many shows I love that I consider myself a bigger fan of than FireflyLOST, for instance–but I don’t feel the ever pressing need to constantly absorb its narrative. I’ve seen LOST through multiple times, but I never feel the pressing need to constantly rewatch it like I do Firefly. I’ve seen Firefly more times completely than any other TV show, yet it constantly hearkens to me for another watch through.

It’s not that it’s better than, say LOST or True Blood or The X-Files­; it’s just that Firefly excels at every single facet of television production, whereas most other television shows (generally) excel at something singular.

The acting is superb, yes. Nathan Filion is perfect as Mal Reynolds, even if he does come across to the uninitiated as a cheap Han Solo. Alan Tudyk’s Wash is so quirky I can’t think of another actor playing him, and Adam Baldwin as Jayne Cobb is borderline flawlessness. The rest of the cast is equally impressive; not a single actor in the ensemble even comes close to being considered “weak.”

The writing is simply phenomenal. The narrative itself is wonderfully intricate with an entire ‘verse crafted with a backstory that never has to be referenced through hard exposition; it is woven through the series as an organic part of the world. It’s told through hybrid serialization—an ongoing story that takes a backseat to adventures of the week. The characters and their relationships are natural, not forced, and there really are no extraneous characters. Everyone has a purpose to be on the show, and the viewers care about everyone.

The world that Joss Whedon created has a world that is unique among TV shows. While there are lots of SF staples in Firefly, the Chinese and American Western influences blur the line as to just what the genre is. Other shows blue genre lines—Pushing Daisies is a fairy tale-esque police procedural, LOST is a sci-fi jungle adventure, Carnivale is a magical realist Grapes of Wrath (yeah, figure that one out!)—but Firefly might be the one that mixes them most successfully. The viewer never wonders “wait, is this a Western?” or “Is this actually sci-fi?” No, the viewer understands the genre mish-mash from the beginning.

Overall, I really don’t know what it is about Firefly that makes it so phenomenally addictive. I consider myself a Browncoat, even though I had no idea about the franchise until after Serenity’s theatrical release. I am even working through ideas about Firefly scholarship, and I really have absolutely no idea why I hold the series in such a high regard. In the end, I think it can boil down to two things more than even those I’ve outlined above: it’s short (meaning that it’s not a massive time-sink) and it will never be renewed (as sad as it makes me to say it, let’s not kid ourselves). The fact, above all else, that it’s easily accessible whenever we want makes it far easier to justify rewatches because it’s all that will ever exist. It’s not a mammoth undertaking to glean (or rather, try to glean) all the meaning and fun out of 14 episodes if one knows that no more will ever be produced. I think a major part of Firefly’s charm, unfortunately, is that it was cancelled, and it has become a case of ravenous fans wanting what we can’t have and not seeing what we had until it was gone.


By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. How about Babylon 5? 🙂 It has something special, too.

    You will crucify me for mentioning this series in a sentence with "Whedon" and "Firefly", but I quite liked the (very) trashy "Space: Above and Beyond", too. You just may not ask for innovative serialization or any other revelation while watching it. I really liked the Hammerhead space fighters. 🙂

  2. I think you're probably on to something. Part of the appeal of Firefly is the tragedy of it. It's become part of the mythology of geek fandom: Red Shirts always die, Han Solo shot first, Firefly was canceled too soon.

    It's a great show, and it was remarkable largely because it was great so immediately. It didn't struggle to figure out who the characters really were or to find its footing. But it also didn't have time to lose its footing or become stale. The X-Files eventually became frustrating as the writers refused to evolve the characters because they were too reliant on the believer/skeptic dynamic. Not to mention the disappointment when you realized that they had been making the mythology up all along and had no actual plan. Buffy sometimes gets a bit repetitive and formulaic, and the last two seasons, while solid and containing plenty of moments of greatness, do start feeling just a little bit stale on occasion.

    But Firefly never had a chance to do those things. It was a show that knew exactly what it was from the beginning and started its story brilliantly. The fantastic story in Serenity proves that Whedon had a planned destination for the show that was as wonderful as its start. But who knows what would have happened if that story had been dragged out over several seasons? I believe that it would have been amazing, and probably even better than the movie. But that confidence is part of the mythology. In reality, there would have been crappy episodes. There might have been a season that dragged. It still would have been brilliant, but it wouldn't have been as perfect as our imaginations. I would have preferred the imperfect reality, but I doubt we would talk about the series with the same reverence if it had been allowed to happen.

  3. Oh, I'll take the other side and say that the tragic cancellation of Firefly does *not* make an effective glamour. It's an unfinished work. It's about as satisfying as The Dark Tower… by CS Lewis. And while Serenity provides some closure to the series, the movie seems forced compared to how a Whedon series typically plays out.

    And of all the mishmashes we've seen lately, this is the least mishmashy. The Western is all about exploring frontiers, the boundary of civilization. For a space opera to be dressed as a Western isn't some peculiar hybrid, it's just *apt*. It's funny, but *this* is the series that's truly a Western set in space, which was the original pitch for Star Trek. Except, instead of belonging to a vast Federation, our heroes are on the fringe of society. Much like fandom. This makes them much easier to relate to.

    What really makes Firefly special is the Love. The outstanding acting helps the characters come alive, and they're all wonderfully written characters… but it's their *chemistry* that I find addictive. These characters become a *family*, and it's obvious that this sense of family pervaded the cast and crew as well. I think that's the lightning in the bottle, right there. Hmm… maybe it also has something to do with that small ship? It's cozy, like a cocoon. It's easier to establish a sense of family in that sort of environment, rather than on a dangerous Island with dozens of people, or a massive starship with a crew of hundreds, not to mention the excessive banalities of Buffy's high school environs.

    Maybe that's why I find it more difficult to go back and rewatch Firely, because it just makes me too sad. Firefly is gone, and I think I'm ready to let it go and rest in peace. LOST has become too… gargantuan to rewatch. It's just too big. So, I find my rewatch this season is all about the Dollhouse. Whedonesque, absolutely! It's still small and easily digestible, and there are many wonderful episodes to choose from, and the characters are so well drawn and they're starting to gel as an ensemble… and… it's alive! It's coming back for Season 2 at the end of the month, and there's something special about watching a series as it's airing, then hitting the boards and chats and getting all squeee with other obsessive friends. It's more… communal, I think. Then again, I'm all about family, so there you go. Or… here I am. Whatever the case may be.

  4. I think one big difference between Firefly's mishmash of western and sci-fi and that of Star Trek or Star Wars is that Firefly combines them visually and tonally, not just thematically. It's represented so well in the last shot of the opening credits, when you see the spaceship swooping over the horses. Many of the planets and moons they visit look like the Old West, and the crew members' dialects, though unique to the setting of the show, have a folksy quality to them. I presented a conference paper on the Western archetypes in Firefly (or more specifically, how Whedon modernizes those archetypes), and I was surprised to realize that,while Serenity loses a lot of the Western look and tone of the show, it actually ramps up the Western themes: You have the roguish outsider (Mal) who finds a cause worth fighting for and becomes a full-fledged Western hero in the end.

    But I've gotten pretty off-topic now. I very much agree with you, Jane, on the family feel of the show. Whenever I think of true camaraderie and joy in a piece of fiction, I think of the scene where the crew is sitting around listening to Mal and Zoe's war stories. You get the feeling that the actors sit around like that and tell stories from the show with just as much joy.

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