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Firefly: What Worked, What Didn’t… and WHY Was It Cancelled?

When all is said and done, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch

When everything is said and done, Firefly is an excellent series. So the question remains; why was it cancelled? Many opinions have been aired in the entertainment media. In my view, three major reasons stand out.

Number 1: The Friday night death slot. That;s what they call it when a show targeted at a younger audience runs in that slot because that audience was usually not at home on Friday nights. So, when the show aired, there was nobody to watch it.

Number 2: Bad marketing. It’s said that the promos advertised the series as more or less a zany comedy. While Firefly does have moments of levity, it is more of an action-adventure series. There are plenty of serious moments in the show and it also goes out it’s way to insert social commentary from time to time. Anybody watching it, expecting a straightforward comedy, was bound to be disappointed.

Number 3: The show’s episodes were aired out of order. If you’ve been following these reviews, then you’ll realize that, while the first half of the series is purely episodic, the second half of the series begins to tie in events from the previous episodes. So, anybody watching the show when it first aired would have a hard time following the series. The scheduling of the series was so bad, that the show’s pilot was actually the last episode to air during it’s initial run. Therefore, the introduction of the characters didn’t take place until the very end.

Not only did the studio run the episodes out of order, but it interrupted the series for ball games and even an Adam Sandler movie. To put it simply, the studio did not make Firefly a priority, so there was no real chance for any fan to figure out what the show was actually about, except those who were already followers of Joss Whedon, the show’s creator.

I would also like to add another thought to the mix. Running the episodes out of order was a mistake, but the error was compounded by the uneven quality of the writing. I would rank the episodes as follows:

Episodes One, Six, Seven, Nine, Ten, Eleven, and Fourteen are good to excellent episodes with engaging stories and very few plot holes.

Episodes Two, Three, Four, and Eight are mediocre, not bad, but they do have a number of problems when it comes to consistency and story.

And Episodes Five, Twelve, and Thirteen are nothing short of awful, bordering on incoherent.

(Note: My reviews of all these episodes are linked below.)

Now, it’s not uncommon for a series to have an uneven quality when it comes to writing. This is the result of using a rotating group of studio writers. But what’s interesting about Firefly is the order in which the episodes aired. They aired as follows: Two, Three, Six, preempted (which means to be interrupted for a ball game, movie, or special event put on by the studio) Seven, Eight, Four, Five, Nine, Preempted, Preempted, Ten, Fourteen, and One.

In short, the mediocre and bad episodes aired during the first half of the season while the strongest episodes aired during the last half of the season when those few people who were watching the show would’ve already dropped off because they couldn’t follow the story.

You’ll notice that I’ve categorized episodes Six and Seven as good episodes, but while Six would have been enjoyable and easy to follow, Episode Seven is “Jaynestown,” the episode where the gruff hitman Jayne Cobb is given an interesting character arc in which he has been miscast as the local hero to a group of laborers in a mudding colony. This episode only works if the viewer has already been given a chance to get to know Jayne as a character; otherwise it would be impossible to understand why anyone should care what this hit man thinks of his miscast role within the community.

Basically, Firefly put its best foot forward at the very end of the season when — given the already numerous audience reach problems thanks to scheduling — it should’ve done so at the beginning.

To be fair, episodes Twelve and Thirteen didn’t even air during the show’s initial run but in spite of this, the show’s other weakest episodes were still aired during the first half of the season. So it’s likely that the already dwindling number of viewers lost interest before the Firefly had the chance to hit its stride. It should also be noted that Fox Studios had low ratings in 2002, so Firefly aired in a poor time slot during an overall bad year for the studio. It also aired just when reality TV shows became all the rage.

This is a tragedy because the show really is very good, and I would highly recommend it — although I would advise you skip Episode Thirteen altogether. Five and Twelve are bad from a technical standpoint but they have strong individual scenes where the acting is superb.

In the end, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch. Had circumstances been different, I have no doubt it would be as well-known as Star Wars and Star Trek. Its devoted fan base accomplished the nearly impossible when it petitioned the studio to bring the show back. With their help, Joss Whedon was able to convince Universal Studios to produce the movie Serenity (2005) which will be covered in my next review.

Here are my reflections on Episodes 1 through 14 of the Firefly TV series, thoughts as to why the series was canceled, and my review — and defense — of the spinoff film Serenity:

Firefly: Can science fiction reimagined as the Wild West work? I strongly recommend the original 2002–2003 series for its careful development of the culture that grows up around world-building (terraforming). Firefly is an impressive blend of the future and the past and, if Disney+ carries through with its threat of a remake, be sure to see the original.

Firefly Episode 2: When Captain Mal gets a pang of conscience… In the 2002 series, he decides to return stolen goods when he learns of the plight of those from whom they are stolen — with fearsome consequences. The mystery deepens around the mind manipulation that new crew member River has suffered but we get at least one clue.

Firefly Episode 3: Should some people be left to die? After the space crew rescues the survivor of a pirate attack, Captain Mal faces off against The Shepherd on whether God can save even that man. Mal knows something of what happens to victims of Reaver attacks and he is soon grimly proven right about the ways they change.

Firefly Episode 4: Mal ends up in a swordfight amid outer planets. It all starts when ship’s engineer Kaylee decides she wants to dress like a Southern belle… The blend of space adventure and Western shows signs of strain in this episode but it advances the relationship between Mal and the Ambassador.

spaceships battle

Firefly Episode 5, Part 1: Brawls that don’t make sense, Part 1. In this episode, after the cattle are unloaded, characters act in an uncharacteristic way in order to create a plot crisis. The problem with characters acting out of role in order to drive the story is that the story begins to feel incoherent; the crisis doesn’t quite feel real.

Firefly Episode 5:, Part 2 So River is now a witch? Simon and River are captured because a town on the planet lacks a doctor. But things take an occult turn… As I noted when looking at the first part, the characters’ behavior seems to defy their history but it does create plenty of action.

Firefly Episode 6: We Meet a Stagecoach — and a Vixen! Gary Varner: In this enjoyable episode, there is only one plot hole and it isn’t really significant. After foiling a crime, Mal finds himself wed to a local woman due to town custom. Usually, these plotlines are easy to guess… but this episode fooled me!

Firefly Episode 7: Jayne can’t live with himself as a hero Jayne Cobb, otherwise dumb muscle, once helped many people — inadvertently — and is stuck with deadly consequences when the truth emerges. In this well-thought-out episode, the Firefly series examines the burden of being a bogus hero to those who desperately need something to believe in.

Firefly Episode 8: The ship breaks down in space. What next? Mal, expecting to suffocate alone on the ship while the other crew members escape, relives the life that brought him there. While the flashbacks were strong and well-acted, too many plot developments seem implausible. For example, why didn’t the ship have spare parts?

Firefly Episode 9: A medical heist — the best episode so far Simon, with access to medical equipment, diagnoses his erratic sister’s neurological issues — after she has unaccountably stabbed Jayne.
Jayne plots a dire revenge against the crew, leaving Captain Mal with a very difficult decision.

Firefly Episode 10: Jealousy divides the Firefly crew in space. And yet jealousy plays a key role in saving Mal and Wash from a villain’s sadistic torture. Episode 10 is much stronger for building on Episode 9 and introducing danger scenarios that follow logically from earlier plot developments.

Firefly Episode 11: The Vixen! She’s back! Firefly TV heats up So why is Captain Mal sitting naked in a desert? We get to hear the story leading up to that. Saffron is now hitched to Mal’s pal; so imagine the poor sap’s shock when Saffron and Mal draw guns on one another.

Science fiction illustration of a battle cruiser spaceship travelling faster than the speed of light in hyperspace, 3d digitally rendered illustration

Firefly 12: The Amazing Mail Order Human Body The episode, while still interesting, returned to a pattern of puzzling plot developments Kaylee falls in love with an organ harvester? But doesn’t that mean Dr. Simon has just dodged a bullet? More to come.

Firefly Episode 12, Part 2: Kaylee falls for a recently undead man Further thoughts on the strange developments regarding the organ harvester. Before he grabbed Kaylee, I’ll admit, I was on the organ smuggler’s side…

Firefly Episode 13: If you are stuck at home in a rainstorm… Otherwise, you may just want to skip this one. But let me explain why. I can’t say for sure what they were thinking, but I will say this was the closest I’ve been to being outright offended by an episode of really anything.

Firefly Episode 14: Ending on a high note River proves to be a telepath but highly unstable, as she mistakes a gun for a stick and Mal must get it away from her. But in the midst of the uproar, a bounty hunter boards the Serenity, unnoticed…

Firefly: What worked, what didn’t… and WHY was it cancelled? When all is said and done, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch. It was the victim of poor scheduling, out-of-order episodes and a confused marketing plan that sold it as a comedy — it’s an adventure with comic moments.

Serenity: My defense of the film’s initial choices (Part 1 of a three-part review) Some viewers have complained that director Joss Whedon changed the characters’s behavior in the film vs. the TV series. I believe they are mistaken. I fell in love with the film before seeing the preceding Firefly TV series. Possibly, failure to make that backstory clear enough cost the film a sequel.

Serenity Review Part 2: Great scenes dogged by bad plot choices. We meet fresh villains and finally learn River’s secret: She knows the origin of the malevolent Reavers and it is not neat or pretty. I believe that one of creator Joss Whedon’s critical story decisions probably killed the 2005 film’s chances of a sequel, despite continuing interest.

Serenity Review Part 3: Final thoughts on the movie and TV series. Despite some lapses that made me wonder if the same crew was doing the writing, they are on a par with Star Wars and Star Trek. Were the TV series cancelation and no film sequel a mercy in a way? The film ended things on a high note. Not all TV series or films with sequels are so lucky.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Firefly: What Worked, What Didn’t… and WHY Was It Cancelled?