Why Firefly Was Canceled – Here's What We Know

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Cult sci-fi series "Firefly" was canceled after a rocky, but wondrous first season that aired way back in 2002. Its scrappy charm and unexpected mashup of genres found plenty of fans, myself included. A classic space western, "Firefly" used well-written scripts, some intriguing characters, and a handful of the best actors in the business to make something really special.

It was a hit amongst fans and critics alike. At least, those who saw it.

"Firefly" averaged 4.7 million viewers per episode during its short-lived original run on Fox, placing it 98th among the Nielsen TV ratings at the time, according to E! Online. It may have been cutting edge, well-made, and an absolute riot, but "Firefly" was a staggering flop.

It wasn't long before the axe fell. But what exactly led to this remarkable show's demise?

What is Firefly?

Created by Joss Whedon, "Firefly" was an epic space western that told the story of a rag-tag bunch of adventures aboard the Serenity — a Firefly-class spaceship that our favorite space cowboys call home.

A handy introduction at the start of the show brings us up to speed:

"After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system, and hundreds of new Earths were terraformed and colonized. The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule. There was some disagreement on that point. After the war, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggle to get by with the most basic technologies. A ship would bring you work. A gun would help you keep it. A captain's goal was simple: Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying."

Starring Nathan Fillion as Captain Mal Reynolds, "Firefly" also starred Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, and Ron Glass as series regulars.

Fox scrapped Firefly before its first season ended

That's right, "Firefly" was canned before its first season was broadcast in full. Only 11 episodes of the show's 14-episode run were aired by Fox, leaving three whole episodes completely unseen until they were later released on DVD.

It was a travesty, leaving fans wondering what happened next.

But when it comes to the ratings, it was an obvious move by the network. At the time, Fox was known for its aggressive cancelation policy, nixing "Arrested Development," "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," and many others that didn't immediately meet expectations.

"Firefly" averaged 4.7 million viewers per episode during its extremely limited run, with the show hitting its peak at just 6.2 million viewers. But there were some serious problems with the show's initial broadcast which might just explain its poor ratings.

The series originally premiered in September 2002, but was broadcast out of its intended order. The show's two-hour pilot was (obviously) supposed to be its first episode, but this ended up being the last one shown. The episode "The Train Job" was created specifically to act as a replacement for the pilot episode, according to Joss Whedon on an audio commentary. But it was noted by AV Club that the show introduced characters at an "admirably relaxed but TV-lethal pace".

Additionally, episodes 4 and 5 became episodes 7 and 8, shifting a lot of the first season's story out of order.

The result was a plot that often seemed to go nowhere or had confusing jumps back and forth between the episodes. But that's not even the worst of it.

Firefly production was troubled from the start

It's no secret that "Firefly" creator Joss Whedon clashed with Fox over many, many aspects of the show. Most notably, they felt its tone was initially far too dark and serious.

And it's all because of Captain Mal Reynolds.

Played by Nathan Fillion, Reynolds was initially said to be too dark in the show's original pilot. This was largely due to a scene in which he suggests "spacing" Simon and River — a potentially horrific death by being thrown out of an airlock into the vacuum of space. As a result, Fox forced Whedon to rethink the character, making him more "jolly".

But that wasn't the only push and pull during production. Fox also disliked the fact that Mal's second in command, Zoe (Gina Torres) was happily married to Wash (Alan Tudyk).

"The last thing that Fox said was, 'We will pick up the show, but they can't be married,'" Whedon explained in Serenity: The Official Visual Companion. "And I said, 'Then don't pick up the show, because in my show, these people are married. And it's important to the show.'"

It seems the network wanted Zoe and Mal to share a romantic connection instead, but Whedon refused to budge when it came to her relationship with Wash.

Apparently, Whedon and Fox fought extensively throughout production, on even the smallest plot points. But on this occasion, he was sticking to his guns.

The show's marketing didn't help, either

Although production was clearly fraught, the final nail in the coffin came from the show's marketing. "Firefly" was clearly a gritty new sci-fi in the style of a space western. But Fox insisted on marketing it as a comedy.

"We knew we were in real trouble before the show debuted," said producer Chris Buchanan in Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe – A Biography.

Before the first episode aired, Fox sent the crew a promo reel revealing the spots they'd cut to promote the show. The first opened with Smashmouth's rock hit, "Walkin' on the Sun." According to Buchanan, it looked more like a promo for the new police action drama, "Fastlane":

"Then all of a sudden it was like 'Firefly, the cosmic hooker and a whacked-out space cowboy. My mouth just dropped open. When the marketing guy called back to ask what they thought, I said, 'Well, it's really great, but that's not what our show is.'"

The problem with these promos was twofold. Striking completely the wrong tone, they risked turning off viewers who may otherwise have loved "Firefly." But anyone who did like the promos would have equally been turned off by the actual show.

It was a colossal blunder ... and it might go some way towards explaining the show's terrible ratings. Either way, "Firefly" was a colossal ratings failure, and was ultimately canceled by Fox. But there could still be hope for a return...

Firefly fans sparked a DVD release ... and a movie

Although "Firefly" only ran for around three months, it gained a loyal and dedicated fanbase. When the show was ultimately canceled, these fans (or "Browncoats," as they called themselves) weren't going to take it lying down.

Soon enough, a fan campaign began to save "Firefly."

The goal? To find another network willing to take on the failed sci-fi series. Their first order of business, according to CNN, was to take out an advert in Variety calling on supporters to help save the show. They even mounted a postcard campaign, writing to UPN to ask them to step in and broadcast the show.

Unfortunately, none of this worked. But it did show Fox that there was enough demand for a DVD release. In December 2003, "Firefly" came to DVD in full – including the three missing episodes that were never broadcast. Better yet, the episodes were all in the order they were intended to be broadcast.

The DVD release, in turn, sparked a "Firefly" resurgence of sorts. According to USA Today, it sold over 500,000 copies over the next two years, convincing Universal to take a punt on a movie.

"Serenity" was released in September 2005, continuing the story from the original TV show. Taking place after the events of the final episode, it saw the return of Nathan Fillion as Mal Reynolds, alongside the rest of the Serenity crew.

It's exactly what we had all been waiting for, and the fans loved it. But while "Serenity" was a critical success, it failed to ignite the box office. After a failed movie and a canceled series, it looked as though "Firefly" was dead in the water.

Could Firefly be picked up 20 years on?

There are plenty of "Firefly" fans, like me, who want to see more of the cult sci-fi show. There's certainly a lot more story to tell, and with the cast and crew still keen to make more, it feels like a no-brainer.

Here's what Nathan Fillion told Entertainment Weekly back in 2011:

"I'm a little gun-shy. If I got $300 million from the California Lottery, the first thing I would do is buy the rights to Firefly, make it on my own, and distribute it on the Internet."

Obviously, this sparked yet-another fan campaign from the Browncoats — this time, to raise $300 million so that Nathan Fillion could buy the rights to "Firefly." And obviously, yet again, it didn't work. But in just one month, supporters pledged $1 million to bring "Firefly" back.

Clearly, there's still an appetite for more.

Just a few years ago, Fox Broadcasting President of Entertainment David Madden revealed that the company was interested in a "Firefly" reboot. And before that, writer-producer Tim Minear said he was open to bringing the show back:

"I think a limited series of some kind would work best. Something like that could also work if, say, 20th [Century Fox] could partner with Netflix or another distributor."

Whether or not "Firefly" will make it back remains to be seen. But after several attempts to breathe life into the show failed, it looks as though it may have had its day.