Every fandom has its myths. Firefly seems to have more than its fair share, and people tend to mythologize its cancellation without understanding the way these things used to work. See, when Firefly debuted in the fall of 2002 on a Friday night on the Fox network, it was just the latest in a long, long series of Friday night sci-fi bombs that stretched back a decade, to when The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and The X Files were treading Nielsen water. Files grew into a mammoth hit and cultural touchstone, and the network spent the next ten years trying to make lightning strike twice, constantly and impatiently forcing the process to hurry up, failing every time.
Firefly wasn’t treated any worse than any other teevee program in its day. Unless a show was an established hit, it was, of course, going to get preempted for specials and sports events. Any which way you look at it, even if the network had ordered a full 22 episodes, they were still going to spread them out over 39 weeks. All the networks did that for every program. If I may continue to act like a mythbuster, the show was only preempted three times, and I daresay that if you go look through the listings for 2002 at TV Tango, you will find that almost all of that season’s hour-long dramas, most of which you never heard of, were probably preempted about three times in any given three-month run.
Its fans often complain that the network aired episodes out of the intended order, but all networks did that with all sorts of series. But Firefly was different, people said, furious, with emphasis, because it had a carefully crafted and ongoing storyline. Yeah, so did every drama of every shape and size made for any American network since about 1990.
In point of fact, during its Fox run, Firefly was the lead-in to another sci-fi program called John Doe, which had precisely the same problem of the network screwing with its intended running order and preempting it for baseball games and movies. Nobody remembers John Doe anymore, but the ratings don’t lie. It got audiences 40-50% greater than Firefly, and made it to the end of the season, while Firefly was gone before Christmas.
No, Firefly‘s audience of hardcore fans came too late; they found it on DVD and just didn’t want to accept that the crappy way Fox treated it was no different to the crappy way Fox treated everything else. But that makes a little sense. Firefly is about scrappy underdogs trying to get a little respect and pay some bills when the government and corporations do not care about their problems, so it naturally grew fans who saw the program itself as a scrappy underdog crushed by the wheels of an uncaring multinational corporation. It was a fun, smart, and occasionally blindingly intelligent series with some great writing and terrific performances, but it had exactly the same problems with a network run by greedy, desperately demanding pinheads that the TV version of Logan’s Run had dealt with a quarter-century previously, along with countless programs, forgotten and beloved, in between.
Well, having said that, choosing to hold back Firefly‘s original pilot to some nebulous “later date” and showing it as the series finale after it had already been axed… that is, admittedly, possibly unique.
If you’ve never seen Firefly, it wouldn’t surprise me if you’d heard that little factoid. The network bought the show, but hated the pilot, and asked for a brand new one. Not a cut-down version of the already-filmed pilot, not a one-hour version, they wanted something different and punchier, and they shelved the movie that introduced the premise. Fox only aired 11 of the 14 stories, across 14 weeks in the same timeslot, and saved the first for last.
And frankly, as much as Firefly‘s bungled network run was business as usual for bungling networks, every time I have watched this pilot, I remain utterly baffled by Fox’s brain-deadedness. It is a truly fine pilot, it moves fast, it introduces all of the characters incredibly well – Jewel Staite’s Kaylee is so perfectly defined by little touches in her props, like her little parasol and the nameplate above her door, that the actress could have played the part silently, with smiles, and the audience would still adore her – and it tells a simple and uncomplicated story. I will never understand why they found this baffling.
The only thing I don’t like, and never have, is Nathan Fillion’s lead character being a jerk to and around Inara. There’s a truly great moment about three-quarters of the way through the film where the crew shares a loud and raucous laugh over a “psychotic” prank that Mal has played on Simon that finally gives some badly-needed levity to his obnoxiousness and rudeness, and gives some color and explanation to his character that the script had ignored to that point. That doesn’t mean I like seeing him be snide to Inara, or use her to get under other people’s skins. But that’s probably in part because everybody likes Inara more than Mal.
The kid was extremely happy with this, which is nice because, as I’ve been relating, Stargate SG-1 has been disappointing him and Jason King is touch and go. He said that it didn’t feel like two hours, and I said that’s because it was only 86 minutes. It didn’t feel like 86 minutes either, he emphasized. But the real test will come later, Marie added. We’ll have to see whether he likes the Firefly enough to try making it in Lego. Dear readers, you’ll be the first to know.