I'm Still Not Over... the lost potential of Firefly
15 years later, it's still a shame the sci-fi Western never got the chance to tell its full story
Still crying over a fictional character’s death from a movie you saw years ago? Having trouble letting go of that one episode of your favorite series? Grieving a gone-too-soon show? We are, too — so with this column, EW staffers pay tribute to something in the pop culture world they’re still not over. This time, Christian Holub mourns the squandered potential of Firefly on the 15th anniversary of its Fox premiere.
I am aware that missing Firefly in 2017 is beyond cliché. Fans have been longing for more of the one-season wonder ever since Fox canceled Joss Whedon’s science-fiction Western series back in 2002. Those fan campaigns were passionate enough that they were rewarded in 2005 with Serenity, a film sequel that tied off some loose ends and even killed a few major characters. Unfortunately, more than a decade later, it seems safe to say that’s all we’re getting. Firefly is dead, and I’m still not at peace with all the lost story potential that died with it.
We live in a golden age of TV revivals. Both Will & Grace and Roseanne will be back on networks within a year, and even Twin Peaks recently returned for a new season 26 years after the last. So it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say we might see the Serenity crew reunited on screen someday. But even if Whedon and Co. cobbled together Firefly: The Return at some point, it would be hard to recapture the lightning in the bottle that makes those 14 episodes crackle with energy and verve. The cast had great chemistry back then. Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Inara (Morena Baccarin) put on one of my favorite will-they-or-won’t-theys in TV history, and Whedon seemed to take a particular delight in finding new monkey wrenches to throw into their deep and complex relationship. But even aside from their electricity, Wash (Alan Tudyk) and Zoe (Gina Torres) had a fascinating marriage. The dynamic between the badass warrior wife and the nerdy ace pilot founded one of the series’ best episodes, “War Stories,” and it would’ve been amazing to see them grow and deepen their bond over subsequent seasons; there frankly aren’t enough relationships like that in pop culture. I will concede that Summer Glau’s River Tam was probably the weakest link of the bunch, mostly because she spent most of the show screaming and throwing fits without explanation. But she grew as the show went on, and the final episode (“Objects in Space”) presented things from her perspective in an intriguing fashion — it would’ve been awesome to explore her powers and worldview in even more depth.
One obvious reason that a return couldn’t capture those cast dynamics is the body count of the movie Serenity. I mean, would you even want to watch a Firefly show without Wash? Shepherd Book also met his end in that film (and his actor, Ron Glass, passed away last year), robbing us of the chance to learn the truth about his mysterious past piece by piece. Though he presented himself as a peaceful pastor, Book’s in-depth knowledge of Alliance protocol — as well as the expert marksman skills he deployed in “War Stories” — hinted at a much darker and more interesting past. Thinking about how Whedon and his team might have rolled those secrets out over the course of multiple seasons makes me giddy for that alternate timeline where Firefly wasn’t canceled after only 11 episodes were aired in the wrong order.
It’s worth pointing out that Book’s story has now been told, along with several others featuring the Firefly characters — albeit in a different platform. The last few years have seen a flowering of Serenity comic books. Some, like Better Days (written by Whedon and Brett Matthews, and illustrated by Will Conrad), imagined new adventures set during the crew’s heyday. The Shepherd’s Tale (written by Zack Whedon and illustrated by Chris Samnee) fills in the blanks on Book’s backstory. Others, like No Power in the ‘Verse (written by Chris Roberson and illustrated by Georges Jeanty), pick up the threads of the story in the wake of Serenity. These comics are fun enough, and I’ve read every single one in my desperation. But what they really do is highlight the tragedy that the series was cut short. These stories hardly add any new characters or concepts to the mix. Villains who were probably intended as one-offs, like bounty hunter Jubal Early (Richard Brooks), are brought back, apparently because that’s all there is to play with. Even Dobson (Carlos Jacott), who was hilariously killed by Mal at the end of the pilot, is resurrected as an evil cyborg in one of these comics. By contrast, practically each episode of Firefly produced a new planet, or new characters, or a new side to the conflict with the Alliance. That universe could have and should have been fleshed out more. What a fertile playground it was — now reduced to a shrunken shadow of itself.
Happy 15th anniversary, Firefly. You deserved the chance to tell your full story, and I’ll never get over the fact that you didn’t get it.