Quick Answer: Firefly was mishandled by its original television network, FOX, who advertised it as something it wasn't and aired it during a notoriously ineffective time slot. When the series was canceled, fans rallied to create a movie, and the universe has thrived and endured because of its rich characters, innovative concept, and the mystique of wondering what could have been.
Oh, Firefly (2002 - 2003), we hardly knew ye. Joss Whedon’s short-lived steampunk series about a ragtag group of space cowboys navigating a futuristic frontier universe remains one of the hottest and most passionately-discussed subjects in science fiction fandom. Its cult following is among the strongest of any television show, yet the series has been off the air for more than a decade and only produced 14 episodes. As it is, those facts are a big part of why it has endured in the hearts of so many.
Firefly’s cancelation was the product of many factors, with one outweighing the others: the show was too expensive. Firefly required a great deal of money to produce and people just weren’t watching it, which is the simplest formula in television that leads to cancelation. A great many fans blame FOX for the series' failure, and that argument has merit. FOX made Whedon rewrite episodes to their liking and attempted to force his hand on character details. They wanted more guns and less sex. And then they completely fumbled the marketing.
Firefly’s promotional trailers did nothing to capture its true nature or encourage viewership, instead billing it as some sort of weird genre comedy as opposed to the gritty space drama it was. The ensemble cast was dubbed with identity-swaying taglines, billing Wash (Alan Tudyk) as a “flighty pilot,” Inara (Morena Baccarin) as a “cosmic hooker,” and River (Summer Glau) as “the girl in a box,” all of which establish false preconceptions about what people are going to see. The goofy advertisements made Firefly look like something entirely different and didn’t capitalize on the strengths that defined the series as an original. Just consider the tagline they came up with: “Out there? Oh, it’s out there!”
...Right. As Business Insider says, “the promos would have turned off anyone who would actually have liked the show, while anyone who liked the promos would have been disappointed by the real thing.”
Then there was the matter of when people could watch the series. This was the pre-DVR era, and people had to actually sit down and watch television when it aired. Firefly got stuffed in the “Friday night death slot,” the least-watched prime-time position where shows went to die in the early 2000s. If that wasn’t enough, FOX broadcasted the serialized show’s episodes out of order (including airing the two-hour pilot episode at the end of the season), breaking the continuity of the narrative and maligning the arc of the characters’ growth. Finally, it never aired the last three episodes at all, cutting short a series that was already cut short by poor management and marketing.
FOX’s former President of Entertainment, Gail Berman, was a long-time fan and collaborator of Whedon’s. She is quoted as saying she loved the series and wanted it to succeed, but it wasn’t pulling the numbers and was simply too expensive. It’s a case of FOX paradoxically rallying behind a project while simultaneously contributing to its demise. But as a network, FOX is notorious for cutting shows short when their numbers aren’t immediately impressive. When Family Guy (1999 - ) was canceled and resurrected (marking the first time a series had been killed and brought back by the same network), it opened its return episode by shining a light on all the series FOX had created and canceled during the three years Family Guy was off the air. Firefly was in the mix.
All of that is a bummer, but simply smothering a series and causing its premature cancelation isn’t enough to ignite the fires of fandom the way Firefly did. So what led to its cult status and iconic position as a science fiction classic? Simple -- it was a really good show with intriguing characters, a fresh and original premise, and tons of potential. Cut that short, and you start a riot. Start a riot, and you gain attention.
Firefly felt like a fully-realized concept from the beginning. Most series take a while to gain traction and find their groove. Often, it takes a whole season. But Firefly had a solid identity and objective from the beginning, setting the stage for what could have been plenty of good material. As a western space opera, the show was a fresh twist on tried-and-true genres -- a little bit Star Trek (1966 - 1969), a little bit Deadwood (2004 - 2006), and little bit Blazing Saddles (1974), offering a seamless blend of action, adventure, humor and romance. And its stories, if watched in the proper order, are clearly part of a bigger arc that would have been wonderful to witness. But just as things really start to get ultra awesome, the episodes stop.
Just look at this trailer Syfy put together a few years ago when they aired all of Firefly's episodes. It is a good nutshell of fan response and the enduring passion for the series.
Firefly has a cast of characters with a tangible, tribal feeling of community. They are very different people with developed individualities, yet they coexist as a familial unit. This promotes a sincerity which turns television’s fourth wall into a transparent one, allowing the viewer to step into their world as an accepted member of the crew, joining in the adventure. One of Joss Whedon’s strengths as a writer is to avoid characters becoming tertiary plot pieces or existing only to service other characters. Every finely-drawn personality on Firefly had something to offer and was played beautifully by their actor. The show would have been something else -- something less -- in their absence.
The fandom also emerged from the show’s accessibility. It is a science fiction series set in space, but the science of the universe is never the show’s point. Space and space travel, intergalactic enemies and crazy alien foes are merely the backdrop for dramatic and funny stories. There aren’t any Star Trek-style conversations between Data and Geordi-like characters shouting exposition about heavy fantastic science terms. Firefly avoids indulging in the logistics of what’s behind the curtain, instead focusing on the performance on-stage.
The cast of Firefly
It didn’t take long after cancelation for the fans to take up arms. Websites were made in support of the series, and Browncoats (the name to which loyal fans are ascribed, as a reference to the show’s protagonists) demanded closure. A documentary, Done the Impossible, was made and released in 2006, chronicling the series cancelation, emergent fandom and its rebirth. That rebirth came in the form of the 2005 movie Serenity, a film largely commissioned as a result of fan response which allowed Whedon and company a two-hour window to attempt to wrap up a story that could have spanned dozens of hours of more television. The film did poorly at the box office but was beloved by fans, and by most critics. Roger Ebert said Serenity is “made of dubious but energetic special effects, breathless velocity, much imagination, some sly verbal wit and a little political satire. The movie plays like a critique of contemporary society.”
There are some arguable upsides to Firefly’s cancelation. First, it got Joss Whedon behind the camera as a director, as Serenity was his feature film debut, having only previously directed episodes of Firefly and his earlier series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1996 - 2003) and Angel (1999-2004). Because of his experience with Serenity and his 2008 passion project Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, he was handed the keys to The Avengers in 2012. It’s unlikely he would have been given that responsibility if he hadn’t been behind the camera before. As for all the actors on the series, they got a chance to play iconic science fiction characters without becoming typecast by them, as happens to so many sci-fi stars. Nathan Fillion has had a tremendous run as the titular character on Castle (2009 - ), Gina Torres is a regular on Suits (2011 - ), Alan Tudyk has been in dozens of film and television projects in the last decade, Morena Baccarin had significant roles in V (2009 - 2011), Homeland (2011 - ), and Gotham (2015 - ), and Adam Baldwin was a central character on Chuck (2007 - 2012). Whedon also went on to create Dollhouse (2009 - 2010), another series FOX killed before it had a chance to thrive, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 - ) which, despite its issues, has a loyal fan base and a sustained existence.
Nonetheless, the series lives on. A copy of the Firefly and Serenity DVDs reside permanently at the International Space Station thanks to NASA astronaut Steven Swanson. A few years ago around the series’ 10th anniversary, a Firefly reunion panel was held at Comic Con for which 10,000 Browncoats showed up in a room designed to hold 5,000. “When I see you guys, I don’t think the show is off the air,” Whedon told them. “I think it’s going on in all of us. The story is alive because of you.” A number of Firefly comic books and supplemental materials have been written to continue expanding and explaining characters that didn't get enough treatment in the film and show (such as Ron Glass' character Shepherd Book). As such, the universe still builds on the mystery of wondering what could have been.
That is the endurance of Firefly. It is a series that happened, albeit for a short time, and has not lost its following. As “The Ballad of Serenity,” Firefly’s theme song says, “Take my love, take my land; Take me where I cannot stand; I don't care, I'm still free -- You can't take the sky from me.”
Nobody can take Firefly from its fans.