Whenever the topic of shows canceled before their time comes up, Firefly is usually the first name mentioned. The ill-fated sci-fi Western ran for only a single season, and most fans believe that was not enough (although star Nathan Fillion disagrees). The show had the potential to be incredible – a great cast, a unique and engaging premise, and of course, Joss Whedon at the helm. Mismanagement by the network led to episodes being poorly promoted, aired out of order, and scheduled in the Friday night ‘death slot’. The series, planned to continue for years to come, was canned almost as soon as it had begun.
Since then, Firefly has become one of the most publicly mourned cancelations in TV history. Browncoats have become one of the most vocal fandoms in the geek community, with their own conventions, petitions, and even documentaries about the passion they have for the show that was canceled too soon. But is it all bad? We love Firefly as much as the next nerd, but nearly fifteen years on, there are at least 15 Reasons To Be Thankful That Firefly Was Cancelled.
There is definitely a sweet spot for show cancellations. End a show too quickly, and fans are left unsatisfied… but keep renewing it for too long, and things start to go off the rails. After a while, writers start having to scrape the bottom of the ideas barrel, plot lines get crazier as each season tries to top the last, the big bads get bigger and badder, and before you know it, the shark has well and truly been jumped.
The beauty of a show being canceled too soon is that we don’t need to see it go bad. There are no awful extra seasons of Firefly, no episodes that make even the most devoted fan cringe, and no moments where fans are left wondering what the writers were thinking. Instead, the show remains absolutely perfect, and fans can fantasize about a perfect world where Firefly is still running, and it’s still as good as it was in the beginning.
There are plenty of other great shows from the early 2000s that have a solid foothold in nerd culture, but few (if any) that have the kind of passionate fandom that Firefly does. Part of this can be attributed to the series itself, but a large part of it is a direct result of the early cancellation of the show. As chronicled in the documentary Done The Impossible, the series cancellation galvanized fans.
It brought fans together and got them mobilized in their desire to see the show brought back. Done at a time before social media dominated fan culture, this was even more impressive – and none of it would have happened if the show had been renewed for several seasons. There would still be fans, of course, but the kind of connection and passion among Browncoats just wouldn’t be the same, and the stars would potentially have no greater a place in pop culture than those of Andromeda or Stargate.
The comedy brainchild of Firefly star Alan Tudyk, Con Man is a webseries that is heavily based on Tudyk’s experience with the show. It's written and directed by Tudyk, the man we all know as Wash. He also stars as Wray Nerely. Nerely is a struggling actor, on the convention circuit and still dining out on his brief time as the starship pilot in a short-lived sci-fi series that was quickly canceled before becoming a cult classic. Tudyk stars alongside Nathan Fillion as Jack Moore, the actor who played the captain on their fictional series, and who went on to action hero stardom. Sound familiar?
Con Man isn't just poking fun at Firefly’s cancellation, but rather using it as the backbone for the series. Not only is the series hilarious, and a great chance to see Tudyk and Fillion back together again, but it was entirely crowdfunded – using that amazing Browncoat passion to fund the project. In fact, Con Man broke the one-day record for crowdfunded web series, raising over $1 million in the first 24 hours. And none of these laughs would have been had if Firefly hadn’t been cancelled.
Admittedly, it’s possible that we could have seen Firefly make the move from screen to page whether it was canceled or not. Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues in comic form, and Angel also got the comic treatment. However, it’s not a guarantee, and we love the Serenity comic series enough to be glad that a cancellation made it happen. Starting in 2005, several one-shot comics have been published that both continue the series and provide extra backstory on the characters. (Including Shepherd, whose backstory was hinted at throughout the show, but never resolved, to the frustration of many fans.)
Although the series is unlikely to ever become a regular one, more mini-series and stand-alone stories are expected. Like the Buffy comics, the Serenity series doesn’t have to cope with the practical limitations of a live-action series, meaning that we can see bigger and better stories brought to life – and that the series doesn’t ever have to officially end.
Despite the huge amount of fan pressure put on Fox to bring the series back to TV, Firefly never returned to the small screen. However, the interest (and especially the pre-sale figures for a Firefly DVD) encouraged Universal to buy the rights to the show from Fox and turn it into a movie.
The result was Serenity, an award-winning big screen conclusion to the Firefly tale, and one that benefited from all the advantages of a feature film rather than an episodic series. Bigger effects, a longer production schedule, and years of writing and tinkering produced something that would be sorely missed if it was never made. And of course, this would not have been made if the series had continued – Serenity was a compromise to the fandom, not a natural conclusion, and few other TV series (no matter how successful or well-loved) have made the leap into feature film.
After Firefly was cancelled, Whedon moved on to another sci-fi concept: Dollhouse. Airing in 2009, the show starred Buffy alum Eliza Dushku as Echo, a human "doll" hired out to wealthy clients. The core concept of the series is that these dolls are willing participants who chose to have their minds wiped and programmed with a range of personalities, over and over again. They may be bought and sold for sex, for criminal purposes, or for a whole range of other needs – but there is a problem with the process…
It’s a dark corner of the Whedonverse, and one that began to beautifully explore topics of morality and reality. Again, Dollhouse was canceled early, after only two seasons. However, it is worth noting that not only would Whedon have been unlikely to create the show at all had he still been working on Firefly as an ongoing series, but that it was also renewed for a second season primarily because Fox didn’t want to see a repeat of the Firefly situation.
In 2004, Joss Whedon made his way from TV to comics, with a run on Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men. Along with John Cassaday, Whedon worked on the comic for four years, and breathed new life into the series. His run on Astonishing X-Men pays homage to Chris Claremont’s work, but he brings his own style to the stories to create something no one else could. His love of ensemble casts worked perfectly with a team title, and his dislike of crossover events kept the story self-contained and gave it clarity. Whedon is especially well known for his strong female characters, and he brought his feminist touch to Kitty Pryde, in particular.
One of the best-loved runs on the series, the X-Men wouldn’t be the same today if Whedon had been too busy on Firefly to join the Marvel family. Whedon’s X-Men run also undoubtedly had an impact on the creation of the Buffy and Serenity comics.
Ratings are still king in the world of network TV, but there have been some big changes in the way that networks consider fandoms. When Firefly was cancelled, it was because the ratings didn’t support a renewal. However, when Dollhouse pulled similarly low numbers in its first season, it was renewed for a second anyway. As we saw above, this was very much related to the network’s new awareness of Whedon’s fan power, and a fear of another Firefly-esque outcry if Dollhouse was cancelled too soon.
Firefly showed networks that fan power is worth considering when looking at the future of a show – not just numbers. Social media has continued to increase the power of fans to affect their favorite series (Community is another good example of fan demand leading to further episodes of a series), so it’s probable that attitudes towards fans would have shifted whether Firefly was canceled or not. However, the huge fan reaction to Firefly definitely boosted fan power in the eyes of the networks, and gives fans a greater impact on their favorite shows.
Although Fillion had several credits to his name pre-Firefly, there is little doubt that the star wouldn’t be enjoying his place in nerd-dom (and his subsequent success) without the sci-fi hit. Being able to play such a strong character without being tied to that character for years gave Fillion a boost that propelled him to stardom in Castle, as well as roles in various hit tv shows and several films.
Fillion has reappeared in the Whedon-verse several times, as the villainous Caleb in Buffy (the same year as his time on Firefly), and in Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. His fame in the mainstream may have been helped by his role as Captain Mal, but it’s his place in the hearts of nerds everywhere that was truly sealed by it. Fillion has become one of the biggest nerd names, with appearances on The Big Bang Theory, Robot Chicken, Community, and in the MCU to his name.
Fillion wasn’t the only one whose career benefited hugely from a stint on Firefly – and being part of a phenomenon like this one helped the rest of the cast as well. Christina Hendricks went on to star in Mad Men, Jewel Staite went on to Stargate Atlantis, Gina Torres moved on to Suits and Hannibal, and Morena Baccarin went on to star in Homeland (and is currently part of the Arrowverse as the voice of Gideon on The Flash, and Fox’s Gotham as Leslie Thompkins).
Firefly continues the Whedonverse tradition of launching the careers of its stars, with the show's writing acting as a perfect showcase for incredible talents. The show has given every one of the stars a place in nerdy hearts, as well, with many appearing regularly at Firefly conventions and on each other’s shows. (Which was the inspiration for Con Man.) While many of these stars would no doubt have risen to prominence without the show, it certainly didn’t hurt.
It’s not just the cast who went on to amazing things, but those behind the camera as well. Tim Minear stayed in the Whedonverse for a while, working on both Dollhouse and Angel, before going on to work on shows like Wonderfalls and American Horror Story. Ben Edlund moved on to Supernatural and Gotham, Jose Molina worked on Agent Carter and The Vampire Diaries, and Jane Espenson went on to shows including Once Upon A Time and Torchwood.
Like the actors themselves, these talented writers would no doubt have gone on to other great shows no matter what. However, had Firefly continued, they would certainly not have gone on to write the episodes that came in the early 2000s, and may have gone on to very different work once it eventually came to an end. That’s assuming that it would have ended by this point, of course! With Supernatural onto its twelfth season (and no end in sight), who knows? Firefly could still be going strong in another universe.
Yet more iconic roles that would not have been filled had Firefly continued… Summer Glau would never have become Cameron Phillips in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. A TV spin-off from the Terminator movie franchise, Summer Glau scored a huge role in the show-- one that often eclipses her Firefly role for sci-fi fans. (When she appeared on The Big Bang Theory, her Sarah Connor Chronicles was referenced in the episode title, not her time on Firefly!)
Without Firefly, it's very likely that Summer Glau wouldn't have the action-fan following that led her to the role of Cameron. However, had Firefly continued for several years, Glau would probably still have been appearing on that series when The Sarah Connor Chronicles was born. Firefly gave Glau the opportunity to break into sci-fi action, and its cancellation gave her the freedom to work on new projects. More recently, Glau appeared as Isabel Rochev in Arrow, as she continues to work at the nerdier end of the action spectrum.
In 2007, Joss Whedon was at something of a loose end. He had just finished working on Astonishing X-Men, Firefly had managed some kind of closure with 2005’s Serenity, and Whedon was left with time to do something new. He was starting work on Dollhouse, which would air in 2009, but was also able to do a little experimentation with a self-funded miniseries: Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.
Starring Nathan Fillion, Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day, the three-act musical was released online mid-2008, and is absolutely perfect. A hilarious superhero spoof, the series is told from the perspective of the hapless villain Dr. Horrible (Patrick-Harris) as he tries to compete with an arrogant fool of a hero (Fillion) and win the girl (Day). It’s sweet, funny, bright and catchy, and if Whedon had been too busy with Firefly to create it, the world would be a sadder place today.
There are plenty of storylines that we wish we could have seen on screen: Shepherd’s backstory, an extended unspooling of what happened to River Tam, Kaylee’s romance with Simon blossoming, all kinds of possibilities were left unseen when Firefly was canceled. However, we found out from the Science Channel’s reunion special that there were also some storylines that are very much left in the writers room trashcan.
In particular, a possible future storyline around Inara and Captain Mal’s relationship, where Reaver gang-rape is the central concept. Tim Minear discussed this potential future storyline as a way for Mal and Inara’s relationship to develop further, but we’re pretty appalled by the potential for sexual assault of a sex worker to be used as a plot device for romance. “She had this magic syringe, she would take this drug and if she were, for instance, raped, the rapist would die a horrible death. The story was, she gets kidnapped by Reavers. and when Mal finally got to the ship to save her from the Reavers, he gets on the Reaver ship and all the Reavers are dead. Which would suggest a kind of really bad assault. At the end of the episode, he comes in after she’s been horribly brutalized, he comes in, he gets down on his knee and he takes her hand and he treats her like a lady.” We’re more than happy the show got canceled if it means never seeing that make it into the Whedonverse.
Okay, we would still have the actual characters, as the Marvel super-team far pre-dates Firefly. We would presumably also have the movie itself, as the juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t have ground to a halt without Joss Whedon. However, we probably wouldn’t have the hilarious perfection that is the Whedon-directed The Avengers, and that would be absolutely heartbreaking.
Before Serenity, Joss Whedon had only directed on the small screen, and if Firefly had been the success we all wanted it to be, he probably would have stayed there. Without Serenity pushing him to make the leap to cinema, Whedon wouldn’t necessarily have been in the running to work on The Avengers. Although he had connections to Marvel, he wouldn’t have had the experience with a feature length production, and the first big Marvel team up may have landed elsewhere. Whether or not you enjoyed his later work for the MCU, there is no doubt that it wouldn’t be what it is today without The Avengers, and that alone is enough of a reason to be thankful that Firefly didn’t come back for season two.
Are you okay living in a world without Firefly season two? Let us know in the comments.