The Phoenix Phenomenon

Who heard about a little show called Firefly three years ago? How about recently?

Okay, for those of you who don’t know anything about this, listen up: Firefly was a short lived show that FOX aired during the fall of 2002, and quickly cancelled it after 11 episodes. The show, created by Joss Whedon, who was also the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, centered upon a group of misfits in space, on board a little pile of scrap called Serenity. In the first episode, the crew picks up a pair of siblings, Simon, a naïve doctor and River, his psychic and sometimes insane sister. They also pick up a guy named Dobson and a preacher named Book. Dobson’s later shot in the face, but he wasn’t important. Rounding out the rest of the crew is Mal, the captain, Wash, the pilot, Inara, the ‘Companion’ (A high class prostitute), Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic, Zoë, Mal’s second mate and Jayne, the ship’s gun expert. Together, they have their various adventures, although now, the interstellar government is now after River and Simon. Sound like fun? FOX didn’t seem to think so.

So why has Firefly died, and now coming back as a feature film called Serenity?

The main and simple answer: The fan community, who call themselves Browncoats.

While Firefly was still on the air, it gathered a fairly small but extremely devoted group of fans, who a) knew what a good show was, and b) knew how to tell people. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to keep the show online due to poor ratings. However, it was when the DVD was released that the show really took off. The DVD Boxed set, available at and anywhere you can buy movies, became gold and quickly sold out in some places, taking some people by surprise.

It was also enough to spurn Joss and crew to begin looking for a new home for Firefly, and a feature film, called Serenity, went into the works, this time under Universal Films, which owns the SciFi channel. Great news. The fan community went nuts, and support for the film and series grew. When the first trailer hit, the Firefly boxed set jumped from about 200 on the charts to the top twenty for science fiction DVDs. Two out of three comics have been released to stores, which have also sold out and gone to reprints due to demand. Actors in the movie and series have gone on film and told us that it was our support that brought the movie to life. For once, it pays to be a fan of something. And now, we have something cool to watch again.

Firefly - The Complete Series

This is probably the first time that a movie has been made out of a TV series that was cancelled due to poor ratings. But it’s not the first time that outcry from a fan community has brought back their special show.
During the winter of 2004, Farscape came back in spectacular fashion as a SciFi channel miniseries. Farscape was another TV show, this one run by the SciFi channel, which was cancelled due to lower than desired ratings. Farscape had a more successful run than Firefly did, burning through four full seasons before it was pulled. Once again, the fan community pulled itself together and websites formed that brought the show back to life in a similar, but new form.

Farscape - The Complete Season One

This doesn’t seem to work all the time though. Anyone watch Enterprise? That show was on for several full seasons as well, and despite being on a broad access channel, it was pulling in lower ratings than the SciFi channel’s new Battlestar Galactica. (SciFi doesn’t reach as many people) We saw the same thing here; a small, dedicated group of fans came together, made webpages, went to conventions, wrote letters and all the usual things, even went to the point of trying to finance the show themselves, but only to have the show cut completely.

Why did Firefly and Farscape succeed where Enterprise failed? Surely not because Firefly and Farscape both begin with the letter F, where Enterprise begins with an E. There’s a number of other reasons and influences that probably caused those to continue whereas Enterprise did not.

First, Enterprise is a Star Trek show. They’ve been around forever, and have been one of the main influences on how Science Fiction TV is perceived. It’s huge, and when something like that starts to go wrong, people realize it, and back off. This happened with Enterprise, which started off strong, but lost a huge part of its audience quickly. Firefly and Farscape, on the other hand, were fairly new. The main reasons that they succeeded were mainly because they both had to work extremely hard to expand the audience AFTER they went off the air. This can probably be attributed to the quality of both shows, which are well written and acted. Enterprise was still on the air, had been on for longer and already had enough bad press against it that it was becoming hard to find a bigger audience.
Second, Star Trek has been around for a very long time, and has gone through a number of incarnations in the form of TV shows, movies, books and computer games. It’s essentially flooded the market. People are looking for something else, something new. This is probably one of the reasons why shows such as Stargate and Battlestar have surpassed Enterprise in the ratings game. In addition, it’s also fairly easy for Paramount to begin work on yet another incarnation of Star Trek, in hopes that this one will be better for the fan community. I wouldn’t hold my breath yet, but you never know…

Finally, Firefly and Farscape were highly original shows. They broke a number of the rules in science fiction up to that point and backed it up with some incredible stories, acting and set work that was completely different than Star Trek. The same goes for Battlestar Galactica, which seems to show that the networks have finally realized what a good thing is.

Battlestar Galactica  - Season One (2004)

So, while you go to watch Serenity in theaters later in September, remember that it was a huge uphill battle that was mainly fueled by the fan’s enthusiasm and sheer energy that brought it to the big screen. As they said in the show: We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.
Well said.