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March 18 2003

Why Firefly Failed. Sci-Fi Weekly columnist talks about the pitfalls of mixing the scifi and the western.

(Note: the URL for this column will change next week when the current issue of SFW is archived.)

He's got a few good points, but one thing that irked me is his assumption as to what the overarching theme of science fiction. On one hand it is about new adventures, about a future yet unseen, but on another, more practical hand, science fiction has acted more of a mirror, than a glimpse into the future. Science fiction has always been about extremes: future tech, crowded society, powerful weapons. Everything in science fiction is taken to a max. This is not done without a purpose, however, it is done to prove a point, be it social or political. Often science fiction views the future as a crowded place, with cities building upon itself ala "Blade Runner" or "Soylent Green" in this case it is used to show the detrimental effects of unchecked growth, of massive consumerism. In other pieces of science fiction, such as Omega Man, and Last Man on Earth, the future is one where society is sparse, spread apart, ravaged by the sins of a nuclear past. This time it is used to make a political point, one of unchecked aggresiveness and power. Other times, science fiction is used as a parallel. Look at Star Wars, often described as Arthurian legend set in space, except a different setting is used to further portray the theme of the original story. Science fiction is not about "young men who possess amazing, almost magical powers—and don't know it..." it's about parallels and metaphors. In this case, a science fiction/westren SHOULD work, because science fiction would act as a mirror or filter of the genre Western. But, is Firefly a Western? Firefly has a western feel but paralleled, closely, the after affects of the Civil War. Little is about cowboys and wrasslin', but about people left with nothing after a war they didn't want. Firefly, then, failed because it *wasn't* easily catagorized: it wasn't really a westren, and it wasn't totally sci fi. When that happens, PR is left with nothing to advertise, nothing to set an ad campaign on because its *not* easily definable. And that's a shame, because Fox was poised to recapture the trek phenomenon if they put in a little effort. It could have hooked the female audience because of the characters and the male audience because of the wrasslin' and one liners. But bad time slots, stupid PR and horrible campigning left Firefly in the dust. And that's a shame.
Well said, and it is a shame indeed. I also think that one of the reasons Firefly was great - like Buffy and Angel are - is that the core characters and actors are so interesting. I *want* to see their struggles in this strange, barren place. As interesting as the obvious parallels to the Civil War are, I don't really think Firefly succeded as a show because of it, but instead it was the standard Whedon trademark of strong interesting characters. That said, your reason about why Firefly was cancelled, including the genre mixing is right on the money. And you assertion that "Science fiction is not about "young men who possess amazing, almost magical powers—and don't know it..." it's about parallels and metaphors." is right on the money. That last bit is like my mantra.
Firefly was unique & complicated show that would have had a difficult time finding an audience in the lowest common denomantor world of network TV to begin with but Fox would have had to show imagination in marketing & patience with viewers in order for the show to succeed and Fox demonstrated neither. Simpley put, Fox had no faith in Firefly and strangely enough they let this be known to the outisde world with the decesion to not air the pilot and then the public debate on Firefly or Dark Angel that went on for about week in the press.

A show like Firefly needs the kind of push that Fox gave 24 or ABC gives Alias (by the way, am I the only person alive not impressed with Alias. I find it humorless and overwrought) but Fox dumped it into a death slot and then marketed it like it was Fastlane (which the seemed far more commited to).

Critical acclaim may have given Fox more of an incentive to keep the show alive but they killed any hope of that with the decision to not air the pilot which offically labeled Firefly as a troubled show. They also held out giving any critics screeners of the first several episodes unitl the last minute as if they were afaraid of bad press. This is indicitive of a network believing a show is a failure.

I don't know if Firefly would have found an audience even if Fox had confidence in it. Sci-fi is a difficult sell on network TV so maybe no amount finesse would have put this show over but it would have been nice to see Fox try.

In the end, I am glad to see what I got to see of Firefly and hope we get to see the three unaired episodes one day.
Why not go a different route?
There ain't nuthin' wrong with the genre mix of scifi western itself. The problem is in the execution. I personally never got much into Firefly. When I did catch a couple episodes, I had no idea who was who or where they were or what the conflict was. I think one of the problems with Firefly was Whedon was simply trying to put too much of everything into it. It reminded me a bit of the old John Byrne comic book series Alpha Flight - great comic by the way about a Canadian super hero team. The problem is the team kept changing and each episode focused on different characters and nothing was solid. It keeps the audience guessing, but it also keeps them off balance and uncomfortable.

Firefly had no comfort zone. There was too much uncertainty and chaos about it. Too many characters. The plots were kinda soapy. I think that was part of what Whedon wanted to do. Make it more gritty and real. Do what no other television series has ever had the cajones to do.

This would have worked over time, but time wasn't in Firefly's favor. Had Whedon started this series back in the middle 1990s, it would have been more successful. Today's political and societal climate is a bit too conservative for such experimentation.
Hrm, see, what shocked the hell outta me when I saw Firefly was how I automatically *connected* with the characters, how I felt attached to them even after one episode: Mal, Zoe, Kaylee, Simon, River, I wanted to see more of their stories.

The problem, I think, was not so much as the fact that you couldn't understand what was going on, but the fact that Fox never aired it in order in the first place. They showed the fifth episode first, the first introduction last, everything was mixed up, out of the loop. Where one story left off, wouldn't get picked up until episodes later. The execution, in my opinion (but then again I'm biased to Captain Spacepants)wasn't the problem, it was Fox's delivery.

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