Fox's Demands For Firefly's First Episode Put The Writers Under The Gun

Twenty years after its cancellation, "Firefly" still casts a large shadow. Its ensemble cast, its space Western setting, and the way it wasn't afraid to tackle darker themes earned the show a loyal fan base that continues to support "Firefly"-themed projects to this day. But one thing's for certain: Fox never knew what to do with "Firefly."

For starters, there was the marketing. An initial promo for the show used wacky sound effects and Smash Mouth's "Walkin' on the Sun." It referred to Morena Baccarin's Inara Serra as a "cosmic hooker." And it contained perhaps the most groan-worthy pun, suggesting "Firefly" was "out there." Because outer space. Cue laugh track. 

The "Firefly" promo was a far cry from the dark, character-driven narrative that captivated a generation of fans; viewers more than likely suffered from mood whiplash when they watched the actual show. It also didn't help that Fox scheduled the show on Fridays, aka the one day people want to go out and socialize rather than watch TV. But as it turns out, Fox's issues with "Firefly" even had an effect on its pilot episode.

Leaves On The Wind? Not Exactly.

During a 15th anniversary retrospective with The Hollywood Reporter, "Firefly" showrunner Tim Minear discussed how the pilot episode, "The Train Job," came to be. Fox was apparently not a fan of the original two-hour pilot that series creator Joss Whedon shot, and wanted him and Minear to come up with a new one. Specifically, they wanted the humor that had come to permeate Whedon's early work such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." One problem: Minear and Whedon were up against the wire — and up against fellow sci-fi series "Dark Angel," which boasted the pedigree of one James Cameron. Minear explained:

"[Fox] never really understood what 'Firefly' was and never loved it. This was all happening right before the 2002 upfronts, and the network was trying to decide if it was going to go for another season of their sci-fi show 'Dark Angel' or pick up this Joss Whedon space show. They couldn't see in their head what an hour of this show would look like and told us they weren't sure we'd get a pickup. Joss and I said we'd write a first episode over that weekend before the announcements and they said OK. Then we asked ourselves, 'Are we crazy? Can we do this in two days?'" 

Despite the short notice and the pressures of competition from "Dark Angel," Minear and Whedon put their heads down and managed to write "The Train Job" in two days. Satisfied with this new iteration of the pilot, Fox eventually gave "Firefly" a series order.

Planes, Trains, and TV Pilots

Looking at "The Train Job," it does do a solid job of introducing the world and characters of "Firefly." The humor Fox requested is present; in the opening sequence, Jayne (Adam Baldwin) declines to help Mal (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres) in a fight, but wishes them the best of luck. And the setup — a train robbery — is a neat sci-fi spin on a Western staple. Not bad for a script that was written in a couple of days.

"Firefly" has managed to find life in other media, including comics and novels, but it owes its lasting power to "The Train Job." Despite a network that never really knew what to do with the series, and circumstances eventually leading to its cancelation, the pilot helped set the tone for what would come — including the feature film "Serenity." As Wash would say: It truly was a leaf on the wind.