The cancellation of “Firefly” after only one season in 2002 has been held up as one of the greatest tragedies in science-fiction TV.A compelling account and new insight on what went wrong appears in the recently published “Joss Whedon: The Biography” by Amy Pascale.
“I’ve never seen him so mad,” actor Adam Baldwin told Pascale about when Whedon showed up on set to announce the cancellation. “He looked at me and said ‘I don’t have good news. They pulled the plug and this is the last episode. And I want you all to know immediately.'”
Whedon, who earned a cult following with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and later went mainstream by writing and directing megahit “The Avengers,” conceived of “Firefly” as show about a ragtag group living on the frontier of a space-age civilisation, a sci-fi ensemble show with a Western feel and “a gritty realism that wasn’t an ‘Alien’ ripoff.”
While the spirit and originality of “Firefly” would win many diehard fans, however, the show’s quirks met with resistance at Fox.
In fact the whole production was almost derailed before it started by a disagreement over a basic plot point. Fox executives didn’t like that Serenity spaceship second-in-command Zoe (Gina Torres) was happily married to pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), with no romance between her andCaptain Malcolm Reynold’s (Nathon Fillion).
“The last thing that Fox said was, ‘We will pick up the show, but they can’t be married.’ And I said, ‘Then don’t pick up the show, because in my show, these people are married. And it’s important to the show,'” Whedon said in “Serenity: The Official Visual Companion.
Once “Firefly” was picked up, it was an ominous sign when the network almost held the show to be a midseason replacement in 2003, and it was a likewise disadvantageous when the show was placed instead in the “Friday night death slot” for fall 2002, a time with historically low ratings.
Fox also created problems by airing episodes out of order. To start, network executives asked for a new pilot episode to replace the two-hour “Serenity,” which introduced characters with an “admirably relaxed (but TV-lethal) pace,” as noted by A.V. Club. Whedon and co-writer Tim Minear whipped together an alternative in “The Train Job” that was snappier but left out important exposition. The network continued to delay and move episodes, in part due to conflict from the Major League Baseball playoffs, and inexplicably held the original pilot to air at the end of the season.
The whole time Fox fought Whedon on plot points large and small.
Among other things, network executives paradoxically insisted that the show be less dark and that Reynolds shoot more people. And they definitely weren’t having Whedon’s idea of having high-end escort Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) inject herself with a serum that causes anyone who rapes her to die a horrible death and then having her get kidnapped and gang-raped, with that horrific scene only hinted at by the discovery of her dead kidnappers. There’s nothing that dark in the show that aired, but there are plenty of disturbing moments that must have made the network nervous.
Above all, Fox bungled its marketing. Pascale got the details on how bad it was from producer Chris Buchanan, as she describes in a passagethat will make fans of the show cringe:
Instead of advertising “Firefly” as a space western or a gritty sci-fi show, the promotional campaign suggested that it was a wacky genre comedy — “the most twisted new show on television.” Several promos strung together jokes about a “flighty pilot” (Wash), a “space cowboy” (Mal), a “cosmic hooker” (Inara), and a “girl in a box” (River, referencing a plot point from the pilot episode the network refused to air), tied together with the tag line “Out there? Oh, it’s out there!” …
“We knew we were in real trouble before the show debuted,” Chris Buchanan says. Fox sent them a promo reel of the spots they’d cut for the show, and the first opened with Smashmouth’s hit song “Walkin’ on the Sun.” They first thought that the promo was for Fastlane, Fox’s highly stylised police action drama. “Then all of a sudden it was like ‘Firefly, the cosmic hooker and a whacked out space cowboy.’ ” Buchanan recalls, horrified. “My mouth just dropped open. When the marketing guy called back to ask what they thought, I said, ‘Well, it’s really great, but that’s not what our show is.'”
As Pascale observes, the promos would have turned off anyone who would actually have liked the show, while anyone who liked the promos would have been disappointed by the real thing.
Whatever the reason, “Firefly” didn’t get high enough ratings, and even a concerted fan campaign wasn’t enough to keep it on the air. Although fans would get something of a sequel in the 2005 movie “Serenity” and a series of comic books, many would never forgive Fox.
Take it from Whedon’s mentor, film professor Jeanine Basinger, whose comments were recounted by blogger Nikki Stafford: “[S]he calls it the biggest screwup in television, and if she could kill television execs, she’d kill these guys. She apparently chews them out every time she sees them. She was in on the ground floor on this one, leading him to noir westerns to help him out with his idea. “
Whedon himself has said “Firefly” remains his favourite show, as he told Hero Complex’s Noelene Clark: “You know, I love all my raggedy children. But if I could be anywhere, I’d be on board Serenity.”