Saturday, September 15, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: Firefly

Welcome to our third installment of the "Cancelled Before Prime Time" series!  As I mentioned previously, Summer Glau has an unfortunate lot in life; she's talented, but when she pops up in a show it tends to go the way of the dodo.  I felt it only fitting to explore the first of many such series - Firefly!

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No!  Not that firefly!  This firefly!

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Firefly debuted on Fox on September 20th.  It lasted until December 20th.  That's right, folks - Firefly only had a grand total of fourteen episodes produced.  Not all of them aired.  But enough spouting on about the Wikipedia article's bottom-of-the-barrel facts, lets...Yammer on about more facts, actually.

Joss Whedon.  There, I've said it.  This man has serious hit-or-miss potential.  In the late nineties he created a tiny little movie-and-TV-show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Y'might have heard of it.  It had a spinoff series as well as an "expanded universe," I.E. comics and the like.  No big deal, right?  Well, here's the trick: Whedon's huge hits have always been betrayed by his, ahhh, smaller ones.  Firefly?  Smaller one.  Oh, it's a really good series!  But it's not Buffy.  Dollhouse is one of his most recent TV productions, and it didn't do so great (it also had some Summer Glau in it), but what came right after that?  The Avengers, that's what.

So Whedon goes from up to down faster than a manic depressive switching off between methamphetamines and booze.  And that'll be our offensive joke quota for this section of this article.  Let's look at character development.

The Souls Aboard the Serenity

In a startling departure from the ordinary "Name your series after a character or object in it" policy, Firefly is not the name of the starship carrying our protagonists around.  It's just the model; the actual vessel is called Serenity, and it's named (of course!) after a battle that our hero, Malcolm Reynolds (played by the Nathan Fillion) fought in and lost.

Serenity isn't a warship like the Death Star or a peaceful-but-deadly vessel like the Enterprise.  It's a small but resilient little transport ship.  That'd be fine enough, but it's inhabitants take Serenity on all sorts of crazy adventures.  There's an overarching space empire called The Alliance, which Mal's side fought against and lost to, and their grasp on their frontier territory is, well, exactly as great as a historian would imagine it to be.  There's also weird, half-legendary half-people called Reavers, who are crazy and barbaric and so therefore terrorize the fringes of Alliance space.  See:  The Native Americans (not the real ones, of course, but the mythical version).  So the Serenity's staff zips across the galaxy and transports priests as well as illegal contraband.

Malcolm himself is the heart-and-soul of his ship.  He's incredibly loyal to his friends, an unusual trait among outlaws but one that keeps Serenity's crew from dying, like, every episode.  There's Kaylee, a nice girl who is cute, quirky, and in charge of keeping the ship's engines running.  You've got your stoic second-in-command Zoe, a soldier who fought under Mal's command; she's married to Wash, your kooky pilot who fears the relationship the two old friends have...Waiiiitttt!  Why am I starting to sense stereotyped characters, here?  It's almost as if this is a spaghetti western!  Next you'll be telling me there's a priest who happens to have awesome skills with a gun and...

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...No!  Not him!    There is, however, Shepard Book; one of my favorite characters, he's a man who clearly has a history with the Alliance but has renounced his old life in favor of peace...Save that he's trapped in Serenity's hi-jinx and, furthermore, that we never get a really good explanation of what that past is.

See, this is the problem Firefly might have come across.  Many of its characters were reincarnations of old western themes with a space-faring twist on them, and that's great!  Hell, I genuinely loved many of the characters who fit those very stereotypes!  But it might have led to some viewers tuning out, saying "I've already seen this flick, only with horses," and moving on.

Where Firefly really broke with tradition was with the Tams.  Simon is a mild-mannered medical-genius prototype, just innocuously impressive enough to have a nasty little backstory all to himself.  It's revealed in episode one, when he's found to be carrying around a rather naked Summer Glau - his sister, River.  She's your "crazy, broken girl psychic" character, which I don't really remember being anywhere in the old westerns.  Anyway, she's a secret Alliance weapon of dubious nature, and her presence is a constant thorn in Mal's side.

There's also Jayne, the mercenary; Inara, the companion; "Saffron," a con artist who marries her marks, and other characters who are all awesome in their own rights, but not exactly the most original characters on the block.

Where Firefly Fell, Serenity Soared

As I mentioned earlier, maybe it was just that it felt like a rehash of a western to some people, but Firefly wasn't all that successful.  For a major network like Fox (who, you'll see, is a recurring villain in my series on cancelled projects), an average of 4.7 million viewers per episode just wasn't enough.  It got the 'ol axe. This didn't make those, y'know, millions of fans very happy - they launched all sorts of crusades.

In 2005, to shut up the aforementioned fans, a movie was slapped together, fittingly enough called "Serenity."  It's box office just about made back it's costs-of-production, while Node 3 of the International Space Station was almost named "Serenity," probably after this series.  Of course, the official poll was discarded and the name "Colbert" almost won it as well, so maybe that's not such a great sign to look toward...

...Anyway!  Serenity sold well enough to break even, but that doesn't get movie sequels.  On the other hand, there's a whole expanded universe - comics, novels, and even a roleplaying game!  For hardcore fans, some of these products might well be worth looking into, as might the fan-created sequel, Browncoats:  Redemption.

When it comes to an autopsy, however, there's really no reason at all why Firefly died; other than, perhaps, due to low ratings.  It's story was largely unexplored, but with eleven aired episodes (and fourteen produced, including one of it's best), the fact is that the series was never even given a chance.  4.7 million viewers really isn't that bad an average; but ten years ago "Reality TV" was starting to make it big, and perhaps that's the greatest lesson to be drawn from Firefly:

Great writing and development are little match for low-cost production.

Shameless Self-Promotion!

Wow.  That doesn't speak well for my chances as a writer; but, hey, you could always check out my latest novel and see if ya like it!

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