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Revisiting Firefly: What Made it Great

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A Look Back at the Cult Classic Space Western

Firefly was a space western TV series created by Joss Whedon (who we won’t discuss directly in this article) that Fox Network canceled in 2002 after 14 episodes, but even today, fans still want more of this cult classic, so let’s revisit Firefly and what made it great.

The sci-fi series follows Mal (Nathan Fillion), ex-military sergeant and current captain of the space-pirate vessel Serenity, as he and his crew travel the Verse and take whatever jobs they can find to keep their ship in the air. It sounds like a simple concept, and it is one of those shows that’s just easy to watch, but a lot went into this show to make it so popular, including the rich and well-developed world.

How Firefly’s “Verse” Made it Great

Firefly takes place 500 years in the future after humans have depleted Earth’s resources and must move on to other planets. The show implements some poorly pronounced Chinese curse words to get around the network sensors, but this becomes part of the world–that English and Chinese are the primary languages in this universe. The knowledge of how this world resulted from ours and the familiar earth languages keep Firefly grounded and more believable than some of our other science fiction favorites. With the crew of Serenity flying to different planets every week, the audience also sees various corners of the universe. In “The Train Job,” Mal and Zoë (Gina Torres) get stuck in a mining town where folks have little money, dirty clothes, and kind hearts. In “The Shindig,” Mal and Kaylee (Jewel Staite) attend a gala among Persephone’s snobbish elite. Firefly takes the audience across the Verse in a couple of episodes and creates a world with real class and economic issues.

One of the main concerns in this universe is the government, “the Alliance,” and how it treats the people within the Verse. Mal and Zoë fought in the war against them years before the show begins, and Mal remains sick over losing. By including the war in the show’s narrative at the beginning of the pilot, the audience is immediately aware of the tension with the Alliance. River (Summer Glau), whose brain the Alliance tampered with to make her into a weapon, appears in the first episode along with her brother Simon (Sean Maher), who rescued River from the Alliance’s clutches. These combined struggles against the Alliance and the constant necessity to flee from them provide Firefly with a serial element that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and eager to tune in every week. Meanwhile, Firefly never gets bogged down by its serial storylines. Sometimes purely serial shows can get heavy and almost boring because they continuously harp on the same problems in their A-story every week. On the other hand, Firefly keeps things light and constantly exciting by accompanying serial elements with procedural elements, which come through in the jobs the Serenity crew has to accomplish weekly.

How Serenity’s Crew Built Great Chemistry

One of the other things that fans love about the series is the cast of characters. Aboard Serenity, each crew member has their job, and everyone is useful, but they also have their jobs within the ensemble and in terms of providing great chemistry. Mal is in charge. He’s witty and clever but sometimes makes bad choices. Man needs his second in command Zoë, who provides a voice of reason but is also just a kickass lady. Mal and Zoë often pair with their third fighter: Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Jayne is crude, rude, and often present for comic relief. Zoë and Mal also work well with Wash (Alan Tudyk), the silly, self-aware, light-hearted pilot capable of providing a voice of reason while still being impulsive and goofy. Wash and Jayne also mesh well because they use two different types of comedy. Jayne is a fool who the audience laughs at, while Wash uses humor to point out Jayne’s faults.

Among the other crew members, Serenity houses Kaylee, a bright and happy mechanic; Simon, a nervous but clever doctor; River, a simultaneously logical and unpredictable girl; Shepard Book (Ron Glass), a steady but occasionally delightfully holier-than-thou preacher; and Inara (Morena Baccarin), a sarcastic, classy companion. Firefly’s ensemble cast creates excellent chemistry with their conflicting personality traits. Not everybody gets along, especially not with Jayne, who tries to sell Simon and River to the law and wants Mal’s job, infusing the ship with tension and conflict in addition to the show’s laughter and comedy.

Firefly Mid Image

Firefly: Love & Heartache in Space

In addition to creating ample conflict in and outside of Serenity and providing the audience with plenty of laughs through the ensemble’s chemistry, Firefly also followed three different couples whose romances provided more conflict. These romances, which kept each relationship from hitting similar beats, provided audiences more of a window into the minds and hearts of the characters than any other type of conflict in the show. Simon and Kaylee display a new, somewhat childish romance, complete with awkward moments, quite a bit of blushing, and a few misunderstandings, which lead to Kaylee getting upset with Simon. 

But there’s also Zoë and Hoban Washburne, the usually happy married couple who share many tender moments and get into their share of arguments. However, Zoë and Wash never argue for bad reasons. They’re always about real problems, never petty or toxic, so we’re always rooting for this couple. Unlike Simon and Kaylee, Mal and Inara (who we’ll discuss in a moment), Zoë and Wash supply that steady relationship we all love to watch and take comfort in. They also deliver an image of a realistic, healthy married couple, which is rare in television or media. Their storylines together delve into some of the problems in their marriage, but at the end of the day, they always make things work and try to understand where the other person is coming from.

Finally, Mal and Inara provide all the tension Zoë and Wash lack. Mal is jealous of Inara’s clients. Unlike everyone else, Inara doesn’t think it’s funny when Mal appears to have married Saffron (Christina Hendricks), and she cries when he has sex with her friend in “Heart of Gold.” The audience knows they like each other, but they never say anything, which frequently leads to jealousy, hurt, and tears.

These three romances all supply the audience with a taste of something different and keep the show constantly interesting, but still, the show is not a romance. It’s just another aspect of the show tagged into almost every episode, but each character is complete and engaging on their own.

Firefly’s Unique Dramedy Style Provided a Distinct Tone

Finally, one cannot discuss Firefly and what makes the show great without diving into its unique dramedy tone. The series is undoubtedly a funny show. Mal is witty, Zoë’s a great straight man, and Wash is silly and quirky, but nobody tops Jayne. Jayne is crude and rude, and his occasionally surprisingly clever humor makes him the comedic centerpiece of the show with lines like, “Do you know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command.” Even audience members who have watched the show ten times over can’t help but laugh when Jayne appears to threaten Mal with a huge gun then looks at his weapon lovingly and says, “I call it Vera.” But Jayne isn’t just a comedy character. He’s one of the show’s most fascinating, emotionally complex characters, which the audience gets a full demonstration of in the show’s seventh episode, “Jaynestown.”

Firefly is complete with danger, action, and adventure. It always has high stakes, as their lives are constantly on the line, whether through their normal criminal activities, the Alliance’s pursuit, or other dangers in space. But, early on, the show makes it clear that it’s not only about the survival of the people aboard Serenity. In “The Train Job,” Mal and Zoë sometimes have to check their morals and save other people rather than themselves. With moments like these and the instance in “Jaynestown,” Firefly proves it’s a lot more than a space-western about fighting the power of the government. It’s interested in kindness, people helping one another, and basic human decency. 

If you’re ready to rewatch your favorite cult-classic space western, Firefly, you can see all 14 episodes on Hulu. Rent Serenity (2005) on Amazon or YouTube, and buy the Firefly novel series on Amazon!

Firefly Season One Trailer 2002 Fox Network

Source: Dead Talk Live

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Syd Sukalski attends Sarah Lawrence College and studies television writing and production and fiction writing. Syd aspires to write novels that she will adapt into a television series. She recently finished a draft of her first novel and is hard at work on her second.