'Firefly' debuts on Science Channel tonight. We'll be watching. Will you? (Plus: Exclusive video!)

fireflyImage Credit: 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection Firefly – about a tight-knit band of war-scarred smugglers, seekers and runaways eeking out a semi-honest living in the final frontier of newly colonized space — is remembered as one of the great shoulda-been/coulda-been TV tragedies of the young century. A quirky blend of sci-fi space saga and Western frontier adventure, the short-lived Fox series arrived in the fall of 2002 with great expectations from critics and geek pop fans alike thanks to the pedigree of its creator: Joss Whedon, the acclaimed mastermind behind Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, an ace dramatist with a distinctive voice renowned for telling stories great with wit, scope, heady themes and psychologically complex, emotionally accessible characters. Also? Much with the Whedon Speaky and cool pop culture references. Buffy and Angel had been youth-skewing niche hits for The WB (and, during Buffy’s last two seasons, UPN); the hope was that Firefly would appeal to bigger, broader audience on Fox. It didn’t. The show – airing on Friday nights – premiered with 6.3 million viewers and declined from there. Fox cancelled the series, airing only 11 of 14 episodes produced by Whedon. Those who had taken an instant liking to the show – a tribe of fans who called themselves Browncoats – were heartbroken, as was Whedon and his cast, led by its breakout star, Nathan Fillion. An attempt to pull a Star Trek and keep the Firefly creative world alive as a movie franchise failed to launch: Despite admiring reviews, the Whedon-helmed 2005 feature Serenity grossed just $38.8 million worldwide. The dream of more Firefly was finally extinguished.

For those who want to know why Firefly died, you need look no further than… me. I consider myself a Joss Whedon-o-phile. Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Top five all-time. Every single episode was a weekly event. Angel? Not top five all-time – but I watched nearly every episode as they aired and enjoyed them, some seasons more than others. I so wanted to be a Firefly fan. On paper, the show promised to be more in my wheelhouse than either Buffy or Angel; I’m more of a spaceship guy than a vampire guy, more engaged by adult themes than coming-of-age allegories.

And yet, from the get-go, I was wary of Firefly. I covered the show for EW, and so I was keenly aware of its behind-the-scenes struggles – specifically, a disagreement between Whedon and Fox about the best way to launch the series. (Ultimately, Fox shelved Whedon’s original 90-minute pilot, entitled “Serenity,” in favor of a lighter, more action packed outing that dropped us into the Firefly story already-in-progress, “The Train Job.”) Consequently, Firefly earned something of a “damaged goods” rep — and I was affected by it. I couldn’t look at Firefly’s first couple episodes without wondering: Am I watching the show Joss intended, or am I watching a compromise of his original vision? Because I was viewing the show through that filter, I experienced Firefly less as a story and more as a collection of choices to be judged, none more so than its mash-up of sci-fi and Western genres. Inspired or contrived? I couldn’t decide. Ditto: The Western/Asian fusion thing. Firefly posited a future where the United States and China were the dominant cultural, military and spacefaring powers. The characters spoke Mandarin Chinese as a second language — or their primary language if they were swearing. Interesting. But also confusing. I couldn’t enjoy Firefly without being anxious about its most intriguing elements. I spent more time trying to “figure it out.” And because I suspected that Whedon and Fox were also trying to “figure out” the best expression of their peculiar creation, I didn’t ever trust that I was watching a fully-realized work.

To make matters worse, Firefly insisted on making the second biggest mistake a new TV show can make: Airing on Friday nights. (The worst mistake: Airing on Saturdays.) I was never home on Fridays circa 2002 – and if I was, it was because the missus and me couldn’t find a babysitter. And so it went that after watching the first three or four episodes of Firefly, either on TV or via screeners provided to the media, I stopped watching altogether. My attitude: I’ll just wait until the critics and the fans start buzzing that Firefly had finally gelled and cohered and “found its voice” and then catch up with it. Oops. By choosing to stop watching Firefly, I was dooming the series to early cancellation, thus denying it the time it needed to evolve into the thing I wanted it to become. Who’s to blame for Firefly’s early demise? It wasn’t Fox. It wasn’t Joss Whedon. It was people like me – people that should have been watching, but didn’t, for any number of reasons and rationalizations. The blood of Firefly is on my hands.

To be clear, I don’t feel too terrible about this. Sorry, but I don’t. I’ve helped kill many promising TV series with my ambivalence (Howdy, Lone Star!), and I’m sure I’ll do so again. But I do wish I had helped, not hindered, Firefly’s flourishing. I distinctly remember watching the entire series on DVD when it became available and getting to the last moments of the last episode, the sensational “Objects In Space,” and thinking: I made a horrible mistake! This is BRILLIANT! The whole thing just WORKS! Why was I ever “anxious”?! If only I could have experienced Firefly back in 2002 the way I am experiencing it now, binging on all 14 episodes in just two days; super-saturating myself in its wonderfully weird world and falling in love with it via the osmosis of just rolling with it... No, that logic doesn’t quite work, does it? But only if it did…

For those who have never seen a moment of Firefly – and for all the Browncoats who love to relive what few moments exist of Firefly over and over again – the Science Channel is offering the chance to start at the beginning. Tonight, the cable network will air the two episodes that can claim to be Firefly’s first episode: Whedon’s original pilot “Serenity” (which Fox ultimately aired in December 2002 after the initial run of episodes — a mournful coda) and “The Train Job.” Science Channel will air the other episodes in the Sundays to come. We here at EW.com will be watching. Come back here tomorrow morning for Ken Tucker’s take on the return of Firefly. And beginning next week, I’ll be posting recaps of each episode on Monday morning. Consider it an expression of my Firefly fandom – and atonement for not being a fan when it counted the most.

Will you be watching tonight on the Science Channel? If so, you’ll be treated to an intriguing extra — interstitial segments in which real-life scientists talk about the show’s science. Check out this exclusive video:

Comments (170 total) Add your comment
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  • Jon

    I was in the audience at the San Diego Comicon when Joss debuted the first footage of Firefly.
    .
    I was in love from the very start.
    .
    I am not a Browncoat necessarily, as I am not one to actively campaign for shows. I am a street-level evangelist who tells everyone I know about the shows I think they will like. And I told everyone I could about Firefly.
    .
    I will be watching and enjoying every episode and catching new fun stuff every time.

    • James D

      brother, you are a true browncoat for going around and telling everyone about firefly

      • Samantha

        Another horrible article from Jensen that looks like it was written by a 11 year old simpleton.
        What a fruitcake.
        EW has become a joke.

      • Emilio

        @Samantha: Can you please explain your judgement? I am curious to see what I missed, ’cause I enjoyed the article very much.

      • scotty1701

        @ Samantha….What?

      • Kate

        @Samantha Can you read?! This was brilliant. You’ve obviously never seen Firefly before otherwise you would’ve understood this article and enjoyed it. Please go ahead and educate yourself (preferably on Sundays on the SyFy channel).

      • Me

        Samantha…Shut it, skank!

      • John

        I agree with Samantha. First, judging a show by your knowledge of behind-the-scenes struggles adds nothing to an evaluation to the show.
        Plus, this article seems like something written 10 years ago. Heard of tivo, dvr, streaming video or a freaking VCR to watch shows when you go out on the weekend? If you don’t get this message let me know I’ll give you a call and leave it on your cassette gobbling answering machine.
        Granted I’ve had a date or two put off when I whip out my iPad to get caught up on the Daily Show, but a man must have priorities.

    • Barry

      My daughter just turned me on to Firefly. what an exceptional show! I would think with the release of Cowboys and Aliens, this could possibly resurrect the show. What an outstanding concept. The stories were riveting and humorous! I WANT MORE!!!!!!!

  • HannaSolo

    I was, sadly, too young to watch it when it first came out (I’m 17 now). But I very recently became obsessed with it, watching nine episodes in a single day this weekend, and now I can’t believe they cancelled it. I distinctly remember thinking “This is it?” Such a tragedy.

    • Madison

      THIS. I’m 15 and I almost yelled “That’s it?” when I finished watching the series. It’s sad that the fan base has grown this much a few years too late.

      • Tasmin

        I can’t believe that Firefly aired in 2002; something seems wrong with that. Nine years have gone by? Yiiiikes. I get the feeling FF will be the next Trek; Fox has a love of rebooting stuff. Don’t think we’ve seen the last of FF.

      • HannaSolo

        @Tasmin If they bring it back now, that means they’ll bring it back without Wash. And that just won’t work.

  • Trisha

    I LOVED Firefly but didn’t even know about Browncoats! Never got into Battlestar Gallactica, never watched Buffy/Angel, Firefly was the successor to all the Trek series for me. And I’m in awe of Morena Baccarin as the lovely Inara who’s now the nasty Anna on V! The film Serenity just made me sad about what could have been.

  • CJ

    Not starting with the pilot hurt the series terribly on Fox. Making that even worse was the showing of episodes out of order: starting with Ep.2 and 3 before skipping to episodes 6,(pre-emption), 7, 8 then 4 and 5, then…. even we Browncoats spent the first several eps trying to figure out what was going on. Amazingly, people watching the eps in order on disc didn’t have this problem. Go figure.

    Starting a series is a tenuous thing at best. The network confusing the heck out of the audience might not be the best formula for success.

    • Kate

      Don’t mean to rain on the party, but it should have been expected. Fox killed off an earlier (and IMHO much better) Scifi/Western crossover – The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.

      Fortunately, the creator of Brisco went on to co-produce LOST, so all was not, well, Lost. Heh.

  • Johnification

    I was just like you back in 2002, Jeff – shoulda been watching but didn’t, and I’ve actually thought some version of this to myself before.

    • Dan

      Jeff Jensen seems a tad full of himself to think that his waning interest in the show when it originally aired was responsible for its failure. Get over yourself, Jensen.

      • Carrie

        I really don’t think he was refering to himself, but everyone in general who started out watching the show, then stopped because they thought they could catch up later, or had something else to do. After all, a show only makes it if it has the ratings.

  • ItsTheRocketeer

    The nerd in me is dying that they’re calling the engines in Firefly “warp drive”.

    Word of Joss has said that there is no warp or Faster Than Light(FTL) in Firefly

    • Joss

      WARP means Wildly Accelerated Reactor Propulson, it’s an ASFAL drive, an Almost As Fast As Light drive.

    • Brent

      There is no “warp drive” because that’s stepping around unnecessary copyrights. And there isn’t FTL because even if you warp space, your speed through it is still below the speed of light. So it is technically accurate.

    • Steve

      Firefly takes place in one solar system. There is no need for a warp drive, because every (terraformed) planet can be reached in a matter of days/weeks.

      I still love Dr. Kaku though, he’s great.

  • MWeyer

    I know I’ll get it from some but even a Whedon fan like me finds the show a bit overrated. Don’t get me wrong, it had good moments and a great cast but in no way should it count as one of the ten greatest sci-fi series of all time. It was nice fun but not some sort of grand event in television so many like to paint it as.

    • jba

      burn him! burn’em at the stake for such heresy! LOL!

    • Steve

      Thou shall not suffer a witch to live! LOL.
      No, just kidding. I personally feel that Firefly is some of Whedon’s best work, but to each his own.

    • Rooster

      You obviously have no taste or an inkling of good Scifi. Firefly was fantastic

      • MWeyer

        Yeah, guess my love for Babylon 5, Star Trek and BSG shows my dislike of sci-fi.

  • Nicotine

    After years of hearing about Firefly’s greatness and sad story, I just started to catch up on the episodes on Netflix.
    I’ve seen Serenity and The Train Job so far, and I already feel I’ve missed out on a lot. We’ve all missed out on what could have been a great show with an excellent story to tell.
    I watched the movie Serenity when it came out, so I have a working knowledge of the story so far, but I’m sure the fanboys will tell me that the movie is not as good as the show. I look forward to finding that out myself.

    • jba

      whoever let you watch serenity without the emotional investment of the series already in your mind cheated you out of one of the greatest moments ever…seeing the loss of beloved characters on film. Without previous sentiment you can not and will no grasp the loss of the movie, granted it is shocking, but the full effect will not be felt until you watch the series…then go back and watch our pilot’s final moment.

      • Ryan

        I suspect they meant the pilot episode, “Serenity”, not the film.

      • Rachel

        @jba
        I can honestly say that though I watched the movie Serenity first and had tears when Wash died and when Shepard was killed too, though not so much with Mr. Universe, but I think it all has to do with how you react to the characters when you first meet them no matter if it the movie or the series. Watching the movie made me want to watch the series!

  • Emma

    I watched it all, including the movie, about two weeks ago. I was, alas, too young to watch this when it came out. I wished it could have continued.

    • Emma

      Also, reavers = scariest things ever

      • Fireball

        For sure!

  • Penny Barner

    My teenage daughter shared Firefly and Serenity with me a few years ago and I absolutely loved it! I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me. Loved the entire cast and still have hope that some day they will see sense and get them back together!!

    • Rachel

      Recently Nathan Fillion said that if he ever had the money for it he would bring back Firefly in a heart beat!! He said Mal was his most favorite character he’d ever played! So here’s to hoping Castle does well enough to give him a pay raise! lol

  • Brownimation

    So this is something that always confuses me. If I don’t have a Nielsen box, whether I watch a show live makes no difference right? There are plenty of shows that I want to help stay on TV, but as far as ratings go there is really nothing I can do right?

    • myname

      Certain satellite and digital cable providers track viewership statistics and provide those numbers to the industry. Your individual watching habits aren’t necessarily tracked, but they can tell how many people are watching or recording programs. This is in part due to the rise of DVR technology changing the way many people would traditionally watch TV. Advertising rates sometimes still rely heavily on the Nielsen system… much to the chagrin of networks and producers.

      Basically, it comes down to cost. Whatever information can be used in an organization’s particular interest will be pushed as most important.

      • Brownimation

        Oh I see. Thanks, I appreciate the info.

  • Genna

    Overrated.

    • Dwight K Schrute

      Okay, have fun watching 2 1/2 Men.

      • Genna

        Uh no. I watch sci-fi, I just watch sci-fi that *doesn’t* suck out loud.

      • MikeB

        @ Genna. Those slurping sounds must getting annoying for you then cause you sure do suck out loud!!! Go enjoy DS9, Voyager, The Prequels, Space Precinct, and all the other crap sci-fi out there and leave real sci-fi to people who know what good is when they see it.

    • Steve

      Overruled. Next.

    • Les

      Gina, you suck out loud!!

      • hooloovoo

        Gina, you may suck quietly if you wish. Just keep sucking!

    • TREY

      A “Browncoat” (the term for rabid fans of the show) talked my ear off about the show about 5 years ago, until I finally gave in and borrowed the DVDs from the library. I was ready to hate it — nothing hyped up that much is ever as good as they say — but I was hooked within the first 10 minutes. And what surprised me most is how FUNNY the show was. And how much I cared about the characters. Count me among those who hope the show gets revived one day.

      • HannaSolo

        Agreed. It’s not a comedy, but it’s consistently made me laugh harder than I have at a lot of shows whose principal aim is to be funny. And I fell in love with all the characters too. But that’s exactly why it can’t be revived, because certain characters would be missing. Maybe they could just pretend it never happened? At least the soul-crushing leaf-on-the-wind scene.

    • Traverse

      I don’t think you can call a show that got cancelled after just 14 episodes due to low viewership, and then got made into a movie which likewise failed, “overrated.” If Firefly truly were overrated, it would be on it 9th season, and some people would be whining about how the writers were just making it up as they went along.

  • myname

    These are the old episodes, right? These aren’t new ones?

    • B

      Right, myname.

  • Mike J.

    I am not a fan of Westerns, so I was bored during the first episode. I revisited it a couple of years later and was hooked. First, the cast is filled with charimatic performers, toplined by the adorable Fillion, but anchored by Baldwin and Baccarin along with the rest of the gang. And Whedon’s vision of the future is never less than fascinating. Along with Lisa Kudrow’s “The Comeback,” this is one of the best cancelled shows ever. I’m not counting last year’s “Lone Star” which died on the vine long before it gelled.

  • Dale

    If this talk of trying to ssomehow revive the show seems almost impossible with all the actors on other shows (Nathan-Castle, Adam-Chuck, Morena-V, etc), I wonder why don’t they just do an animated series or DVD movies ala Star Wars-The Clone Wars. And still keep the stories PG-13.

    • TREY

      If we can’t get a new show, I wouldn’t mind a TV movie or miniseries once a year, perhaps filmed when the actors are on hiatus from their regular shows.

    • Jack

      I might suggest that you try reading the graphic novels (available at your local book store — until that closes, too!).

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