20 years ago, one sci-fi failure almost changed everything

Space cowboys by no means tried fairly as laborious to be area cowboys as they did on this contentious cult sci-fi sequence.

20 years in the past — on September 20, 2002 — this brainchild of Joss Whedon took a giant swing at altering the sci-fi TV style. And for practically a decade after it was canceled, followers would let you know the present succeeded. But 20 years later, the existence of Firefly isn’t revolutionary or profound. Instead, it occupies an odd place in science fiction historical past as each a much-discussed cultural touchstone and a blip between higher sci-fi TV sequence.

On the present’s anniversary, let’s retrace the rise and fall of Firefly and its complicated cultural legacy.

In the early to mid-aughts and into the 2010s, if you happen to have been in “geek” circles and also you vocally disliked Firefly, you have been shouted down fairly rapidly. As a critic, if you happen to talked about that you just disliked the dialogue in Firefly in an essay you revealed someplace, Firefly followers would discover you and ship you impolite emails. And by the point Joss Whedon directed The Avengers in 2012, the cult standing of Firefly turned unassailable. There have been solely two mainstream opinions obtainable: both you worshiped on the altar of Whedon otherwise you have been an outcast.

But the issues in Firefly have been at all times there. For one factor, the casting makes zero sense when you think about the present’s world-building. The sequence takes place in a distant future the place the U.S. and China merge to type a Union of Allied Planets. Chinese phrases are combined in with English as a kind of futuristic slang. And but, there are basically zero Chinese folks within the sequence.

It’s a bizarre flex to say you hated one thing earlier than it was cool to hate it, and but, the distinction between 2012 and now’s clear: Disliking Whedon’s writing — and his again chatty dialogue in particular — shouldn’t be solely acceptable however now has turn into a dominant view amongst varied sci-fi/fantasy/superhero fandoms. This was not the case simply ten years in the past. People nonetheless beloved Firefly a lot in 2012 that everybody let Whedon make a model of Much Ado About Nothing starring two Firefly alums: Sean Maher and Nathan Fillion.

Summer Glau as River in Firefly.Fox

However you’re feeling about Firefly’s dialogue, the signature cadence of a Whedon script made the sequence distinctive, and lots of sci-fi followers responded to that high quality. Firefly aired only a yr after the start of the least profitable Star Trek sequence, 2001’s Enterprise, and no one on Firefly talked like folks on a Star Trek present. Babylon 5 was nearer to Whedon’s extra naturalistic strategy, however it had been off the air since 1998. Firefly additionally predated 2003’s Battlestar Galactica reboot by one yr, and the 2005 revival of Doctor Who by three years. In brief, you possibly can argue that science-fiction followers have been ravenous for sci-fi TV in 2002 and Firefly was not solely higher than anybody anticipated but additionally, higher than its largest sci-fi “competitor.”

However, in contrast to Whedon’s most well-known cult sequence — Buffy the Vampire SlayerFirefly hasn’t aged properly. The present’s intense curiosity in creating the Old West in area (no matter if it is smart inside the story’s world) feels juvenile, particularly by at the moment’s post-Westworld requirements. The reality that everybody is making a wisecrack could have felt like a revelation for sci-fi exhibits in 2002. But within the period of Marvel film quips that Whedon helped launch, it feels performed out. River Tam’s male-gazey vibe may need been contextualized as cool by popular culture progressives again then, however performs out as a foul fanboy trope now — particularly given our shifted understanding of Whedon’s conduct behind the scenes.


So, what was Firefly good at? What is the constructive legacy of the present, apart from the cool spaceship design? This is a straightforward one: The actors are all fairly nice. Nathan Fillion is ideal as a sugar-free Han Solo. Gina Torres is deeply underrated. Summer Glau does an admirable job of escaping varied annoying Whedon tropes. Morena Baccarin is enjoyable. And, in fact, Alan Tudyk is reliably hilarious.

If you consider characters are greater than the narratives they occupy, then the true energy of Firefly was its capability to mainly map varied points of fandom obsessions just about on accident. For higher or worse, these performances mirrored one thing in sci-fi and fantasy followers of the time. In the tip, the sky could have been taken from the crew of the Serenity, however for a quick second, this gang of desperados captured the soul of science fiction.

Turns out, they simply couldn’t maintain it.

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