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Firefly Reconsidered: Why Firefly Isn't "Hall of Fame" Great

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I have a thing about creating various lists. Top five action heroes of the 80s. Best miniseries on Netflix. Top Three Heuristics to use while DMing. While creating these many lists that I like to make, primarily for my own enjoyment and others’ suffering, I realized something. Reading isn’t just fun, it’s FUNdamental. HA!

No, really, I learned my own reliance on rules. Rules are good. Rules are what keeps society going in an orderly fashion, allowing the transfer of wealth from the have-nots to the haves. Most importantly, rules allow for the creation of functional lists to argue about. And one of the most important rules for any list of the greatest X, is that the X in question must be complete.

This is one of those “canon” or “Hall of Fame” questions that has already been debated ad nauseum in other areas. It is very hard to judge the body of work of an athlete, an artist, or anyone when the work is unfinished- when there is more to add (or, perhaps, to subtract) how can you properly rate it? If you look at the rules (yes, rules) for the greatest in various types of sports, the “Halls of Fame” you will see one rule in particular that always stands out- that the career must be complete. Basketball player? Retired for four years. Baseball player? Retired five years. NFL? Five year retirement requirement. NASCAR? Used to have a three year retirement requirement, now must be 55 years or older and competed for ten years or more (or 30 years regardless of age ... um....).

It’s the same even in squishier areas. You want to get in the Rock and Roll hall of Fame? Gotta wait 25 years after you release your first album. So it is pretty well established is most areas that you either need to be COMPLETE (retired) or at least BEEN AROUND SO LONG YOU CAN BE PROPERLY JUDGED (at least 25+ years) in order to be eligible for consideration as the best of something. As hall of fame worthy. As a true great.

And I think it’s important to apply the same standard when discussing the greatest television series. Perhaps even moreso, because of the particular issues of television. We can call this the Firefly/Dexter paradox.

A show can be great for a short period of time. For example, the first season of Dexter was some groundbreaking television for its time. If you had asked me, in 2006-07, when all we had was the very first season of Dexter, I would have guessed that this was a show that (like the Sopranos which was wrapping up, and the Wire which had just completed Season 4, arguably its greatest season) was heading to the “all-time greats” list. But while there were some occasional good points later in the series, for example, the Trinity Killer, on the whole the series became an exercise in trolling its fans, eventually ending on a season so bad that it is an infamous marker of terrible television. That's right- your show either gets cancelled while you're a hero, or you live long enough to become a lumberjack.

Firefly, while overrated for reasons I will explain later, had a string of very good episodes, with amazing acting. But it only had 14 episodes (and a movie, but that's neither here nor there). It never had the chance to get bad, or improve. It is forever frozen in amber as what it was, but, and this is important, the show could never disappoint its fans. It will always live on as the show that would have fulfilled all of its fans wildest expectations, if only it hadn’t been cancelled.

That’s why Firefly doesn’t work, for me, on any “best of” lists. Sustained excellence counts for something. Even if the sample size is relatively small, like shows that are self-contained and complete (The Prisoner, The Leftovers), they still have finished telling the story. And as anyone who is a fan of Lost or the X-Files will be more than happy to explain to you, it is quite easy for a show to provide mysteries and questions; it is much more difficult for a show to provide answers that satisfy.

That's why we always those love things that end prematurely, and accord them added weight, because what they did in our imaginations is so much better than what actually was likely to be produced. But the sad reality is that, in all likelihood, the longer something goes on, the more likely it is to disappoint.

Think of Star Trek, the original series. Sure, it is sad that it was cancelled. But then again, season three was ... uneven at best. Think of all the best Star Trek episodes .... yep, none of them (with the exception, maybe, of the Tholian Web) occur in Season 3. It's hard to keep compelling stories going for long periods of time- arguably, this learned lesson is why we have been seeing shorter seasons of TV, and why many shows have (smartly) chosen to end rather than keep churning out episodes.

And now, time for my unpopular opinion. Firefly? It’s fine. A bit overrated. It gets way too much credit because 1) it’s sci-fi, and there aren’t a lot of good sci-fi shows (especially back then); 2) it’s Whedon (ahem, I will address this); and 3) it was cancelled. But if you really, really look at it .... meh.

Let’s start with the obvious. It's not great because it's a sci-fi show. It wasn’t hard science fiction, like the Expanse, or even Babylon 5 (for its time, they tried to get it pretty accurate all things considered). It wasn’t “ideas” sci-fi, like the best Star Trek or Twilight Zone. It was, you know, “fun.” A good story. That mix of individual and lightly serialized storytelling that was becoming popular in the 90s and early 2000s (like other sci-fi shows, such as Buffy, Angel, and X-Files).

It was a western in space. Cool, right! More importantly, it was a lightly fictionalized and futurized re-telling of the “Lost Cause” myth. Which, um, yeah...... So the "western" part was kinda cool, but there are those of us that are still a little uncomfortable with the whole "the good guys are lightly re-skinned ex-confederate soldiers, y'all."

And then, of course, we don’t know what would have happened if the story had continued. As many people know, there was the whole idea of Inara and the Reavers (I will spare anyone coming in on this conversation the details, but it wasn’t pleasant). Now, we only have second-hand descriptions of how this story would have played out ... but it wasn’t a good look for the show. And if you're familiar with that planned plotline, then you also know that there have been certain other issues involving the creator of the show, which make it, maybe, a good thing it didn't get the time to tell that particular story.

I personally understand why people enjoy the show; I loved Buffy, and Angel, and Dollhouse. It would have been great to see the show develop (absent that one planned plot), and more likely than not, it could have/would have/should have been a classic. And, of course, there is also the lingering knowledge of Fox killing off shows ... this was a long trend for them ... Action, Profit, Almost Human, Undeclared, Wonderfalls, The Adventures of Briscoe County Jr., The Tick, etc. etc. etc. etc.

But in the end, it was a promising show, not an all-time great.
 
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payn

Hero
Not much to argue about really. Firefly was a whimsy character driven show that was fun to watch but often felt at odds with its all too serious setting and writing. A perfect storm of Wheddon fans, starving sci-fi enthusiasts, and cult followers of another too soon cancellation. The capstone film was a feat in itself. Many a cancelled too soon shows look on with envy.

I do think television has been evolving in the last couple decades and you can see some trends for sure. Moving to a serialized story instead of episodic allows for less filler and a better concentrated plot, al beit often at the expense of character development. As for episode #s declining, that has a lot to do with shooting in more interesting and expensive locations. A lot of those 24 episode shows shoot in the same set over and over again. Like friends apartment and coffee shop or Marvel netflix shows and their not so secret hideouts. You also cant overlook the talent. Film and Television used to be quite segregated. Now its not uncommon to see popular film stars take stabs at television series that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

There is always the risk of jumping the shark. Lindelof and Abrams never wanted Lost to go more than 2 seasons. It was too popular for the studio to let it end that soon. I think Sopranos ran into this issue too where you have every actor on the show directing and writing episodes. Sooner or later you get too many cooks in the kitchen at the cost of consistency and quality. Breaking Bad was just long enough. The wire was too (woof that final season was getting bad, good time to call it quits) that these series will be remembered fondly. Dexter and Walking Dead type shows may have moments of brilliance, but extend themselves into irrelevancy, which hurts their overall legacy, IMO.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't think that length is necessary. HBO's Chernobyl miniseries was phenomenal. I think it should go down history as one of the best works of history inspired drama on TV. It did not need to be six seasons and a movie to count.

From the OP:
That’s why Firefly doesn’t work, for me, on any “best of” lists. Sustained excellence counts for something. Even if the sample size is relatively small, like shows that are self-contained and complete (The Prisoner, The Leftovers), they still have finished telling the story.

Miniseries are self-contained and complete.

Also completely agree about Cherenobyl. There were dramatic liberties taken (of course), but that was a truly inspired bit of television.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
No, really, I learned my own reliance on rules. Rules are good. Rules are what keeps society going in an orderly fashion, allowing the transfer of wealth from the have-nots to the haves. Most importantly, rules allow for the creation of functional lists to argue about. And one of the most important rules for any list of the greatest X, is that the X in question must be complete.

I mostly accept this argument. Yeah, Firefly's full potential wasn't seen, so it is hard to put in a "best of sci-fi list".

I note, however, that it was cut off after what, these days, would be one season of TV. It probably fits on a list of "Best Seasons of Sci-fi" list pretty reasonably.

Let’s start with the obvious. It’s not “real” sci-fi.

Ah, gatekeeping. Great Maker, save us from the purists who want to define the genre for us.

It wasn’t hard science fiction, like the Expanse, or even Babylon 5 (for its time, they tried to get it pretty accurate all things considered). It wasn’t “ideas” sci-fi, like the best Star Trek or Twilight Zone. It was, you know, “fun.” A good story. That mix of individual and lightly serialized storytelling that was becoming popular in the 90s and early 2000s (Buffy, Babylon 5, X-Files, etc.).

Firefly rather comfortably fits in the realm of soft SF, right alongside B5 (which is not hard sf - it usually avoided talking about the actual science as much as possible, and when it did, it got it wrong), and Star Trek.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Ah, gatekeeping. Great Maker, save us from the purists who want to define the genre for us.
Oh, stop. There is nothing more chilling to conversation and understanding than condescension and throwing around terms like "gatekeeping."

The "real" was in those quotes for a reason. I wasn't defining the genre. Instead I was going into the more common point that Firefly is, for all practical purposes, a western (and a "Lost Cause" inspired western, at that). This is not any different than someone saying that Star Wars is really fantasy.

Define things however you like, and leave the nastiness elsewhere, please.


Firefly rather comfortably fits in the realm of soft SF, right alongside B5 (which is not hard sf - it usually avoided talking about the actual science as much as possible, and when it did, it got it wrong), and Star Trek.

B5 was most certainly as hard as you'd get for the time. It famously had the JPL advise on the science in the show, and the JPL advised on the science used in B5- the writing was changed due to their input at times. Moreover, they strived to do things "correctly" (such as the spinning for gravity, or explanations when there wasn't spinning) unlike the vast majority of science fiction at the time.
 

Campbell

Legend
Mostly I think Firefly, Buffy, and Angel all have outstanding casts with great chemistry. The acting is usually on point, but the direction and writing often leave something to be desired. Especially when it comes to longer arcs. I think the strength of the casting covered up a lot of the flaws elsewhere.
 

Ryujin

Hero
While I can agree that "Firefly" isn't as epic as we want to remember it, largely due to the "it might have been" (thanks to John Greenleaf Whittier) factor, I do take issue with a couple of points; your definition of Science Fiction and that a body of work must be complete, in order to be of "hall of fame" calibre.

Firstly, if someone metaphorically knocks it out of the park then it's just plain excellent. Duration or level of 'completeness' is immaterial. Maybe you need to be more careful that you don't project your own expectations on what the completed thing might have looked like, but good is just plain good.

Secondly, your definition of "real" SciFi is far too narrow. I'll start by being a little pedantic. Common use for the whole genre tends to be what you said; SciFi. That encompasses a whole lot of sub genres. When we think of the term 'Science Fiction' it tends to invoke the hard science stuff. Then you have Science Fantasy (Star Wars, etc.). There's Military SF that might be hard science, or otherwise. To my mind, "Firefly" is undoubtedly SciFi. Even "Star Trek" was billed to Paramount Studios execs as, literally, "a Wagon Train to the stars" by Roddenberry and so a "space western." You can clearly see that DNA in some episodes. By your definitions we would throw things like Doc Smith's "The Lensmen" series out of the SciFi category. Sorry, that doesn't fly with me.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
From the OP:
That’s why Firefly doesn’t work, for me, on any “best of” lists. Sustained excellence counts for something. Even if the sample size is relatively small, like shows that are self-contained and complete (The Prisoner, The Leftovers), they still have finished telling the story.

Miniseries are self-contained and complete.

Also completely agree about Cherenobyl. There were dramatic liberties taken (of course), but that was a truly inspired bit of television.
Completeness of story isn't necessary either. There should be the potential for a series to burn with the brightness of potential only to have it snuffed out by corporate fecklessness. Any criteria about needing to tell a complete story or last for many seasons is just arbitrary at best, biased against any series killed before their time at the worst.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Mostly I think Firefly, Buffy, and Angel all have outstanding casts with great chemistry. The acting is usually on point, but the direction and writing often leave something to be desired. Especially when it comes to longer arcs. I think the strength of the casting covered up a lot of the flaws elsewhere.

Well, I think that all of them tend to pale in comparison to more modern TV, which has the luxury of being able to focus in on plots, and without the hectic schedule (again, Buffy and Angel were shot on the typical 22 season schedule, and they were one-hour dramas ... that's an insane pace by the standards of prestige TV today!). They had to appeal to both the habitual viewer with the arcs (both mini-, in the sense of over the course of several episodes, and maxi-, in the sense of the season-long arc) as well as the intermittent viewer with the "monster of the week" that they were still doing.

That said, I don't understand the writing point. One of the hallmarks of Buffy/Angel/Firefly was they stylized dialogue and plots.
 

Ryujin

Hero
Oh, stop. There is nothing more chilling to conversation and understanding than condescension and throwing around terms like "gatekeeping."

The "real" was in those quotes for a reason. I wasn't defining the genre. Instead I was going into the more common point that Firefly is, for all practical purposes, a western (and a "Lost Cause" inspired western, at that). This is not any different than someone saying that Star Wars is really fantasy.

Define things however you like, and leave the nastiness elsewhere, please.

B5 was most certainly as hard as you'd get for the time. It famously had the JPL advise on the science in the show, and the JPL advised on the science used in B5- the writing was changed due to their input at times. Moreover, they strived to do things "correctly" (such as the spinning for gravity, or explanations when there wasn't spinning) unlike the vast majority of science fiction at the time.
It also didn't hurt that they specifically employed Harlan Ellison as a "continuity consultant." His ego may be as big as the galactic disk, however, it's almost (almost) justified.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Completeness of story isn't necessary either. There should be the potential for a series to burn with the brightness of potential only to have it snuffed out by corporate fecklessness. Any criteria about needing to tell a complete story or last for many seasons is just arbitrary at best, biased against any series killed before their time at the worst.

shrug

Not the point. The point is this ... "Sustained excellence counts for something."

Miniseries, and shows that are complete in telling their story (such as The Prisoner, or The Leftovers) can be judged in toto.

The problem is judging shows like Firefly against shows that had to keep plugging away. Lost had an amazing two seasons, and some really good ones after that. But it gets dinged because it had to keep churning out episodes. Same with so many other shows- when a show is cancelled, what could be in the imagination is always greater than what can be produced. Moreso when it's in the first season- the first two seasons are usually when the show's creators use up most of their best material.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Secondly, your definition of "real" SciFi is far too narrow.

That wasn't the point. Science fiction is broad enough to cover Buffy, or Angel. It covers Person of Interest. It's 3% and the Handmaid's Tale. Watchmen and Russian Doll.

It's all SciFi.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It also didn't hurt that they specifically employed Harlan Ellison as a "continuity consultant." His ego may be as big as the galactic disk, however, it's almost (almost) justified.

Harlan's vast talent ensured that he continued to get work, and his personality ensured that the work was in short supply and not commensurate to his talent.

It was one heckuva balance. ;)
 

Grendel_Khan

Adventurer
I have a suspicion that all Whedon shows age terribly. You can definitely grade them on a curve, based on when they were made, the fact there was little to no prestige TV at the time (and so everything that requires tons of wacky sets and special effects looks like dinner theater), and that a lot of writer rooms sort of lifted his best qualities and distributed them across subsequent TV and movies, retroactively making him seem less innovative...but whatever the reasons, fair or unfair, I think the end-result is just not very rewatchable.

That's my experience, at least, and I really really liked Dollhouse and Firefly at the time. I also rewatched the first Avengers recently and thought it really held up, with a waaaaaaay better sense of story, pacing and characters than Endgame or Infinity. And Cabin in the Woods is great! Still!! The guy could write.

But something seems to have happened to him after that first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is just limping through story beats. Justice League? The Snyder Cut's no masterpiece but it revealed that the worst, just laughably bad parts of the original were almost all Whedon. And then whatever happened with the Nevers, who knows. But it's like he just imploded, creatively, around 2012. It's obvious now that he was always a complete naughty word to work with, but that's not the only thing killing his career. He was in a tail spin well before Ray Fisher exposed him.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Oh, stop. There is nothing more chilling to conversation and understanding that condescension and throwing around terms like "gatekeeping."

How about you listen to dissent before you accuse folks of condescension or chilling conversation.

The "real" was in those quotes for a reason. I wasn't defining the genre. Instead I was going into the more common point that Firefly is, for all practical purposes, a western (and a "Lost Cause" inspired western, at that). This is not any different than someone saying that Star Wars is really fantasy.

Membership in genres is inclusive, not exclusive. You can be a western and sci-fi. Or sci-fi and a noir mystery. Embrace the power of AND.

Snarf Zagyg said:
Define things however you like, and leave the nastiness elsewhere, please.

Well, dude, one of the major supports for your thesis is this classification. There's nothing nasty about pointing out that you rather abitrarily drew a line in the sand and said, "This is Out". And there's a word for that.

B5 was most certainly as hard as you'd get for the time.

In the genre as a whole? Goodness no. The genre is much, much larger than the TV medium.

Hard SF is when the story is about or largely driven by the details of physical laws of the fictional universe. Soft SF is when the story forgoes the technical details, to get at the sociology, psychology, politics, economics, and anthropology speculation that results from the science and engineering.

Babylon 5 largely foregoes the technical details to get at the sociology and politics. Ergo, it fits in the soft bucket.

But both B5 and Firefly fit n the Sci-fi bucket overall.

"It's been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things; science-fiction the improbable made possible, fantasy the impossible made probable."
Rod Serling


It famously had the JPL advise on the science in the show, and the JPL advised on the science used in B5- the writing was changed due to their input at times. Moreover, they strived to do things "correctly" (such as the spinning for gravity, or explanations when there wasn't spinning) unlike the vast majority of science fiction at the time.

Pretty much none of this had relevance to the plot, though. It was window dressing. JMS is many things, but willing to allow technicalities to get in the way of a good story isn't one of them :)

Note: I love B5. I am currently rewatching Season 2.
 
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billd91

Hobbit on Quest (he/him)
shrug

Not the point. The point is this ... "Sustained excellence counts for something."
And sustained excellence should count for something. But so should excellence even if it's cut short. Nobody's gonna say Jimi Hendrix shouldn't be in the same Hall of Fame as Eric Clapton simply because he only survived long enough to make 3 studio albums compared to Clapton's 40+. It just means there should be multiple ways to be considered.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I have a suspicion that all Whedon shows age terribly. You can definitely grade them on a curve, based on when they were made, the fact there was little to no prestige TV at the time (and so everything that requires tons of wacky sets and special effects looks like dinner theater), and that a lot of writer rooms sort of lifted his best qualities and distributed them across subsequent TV and movies, retroactively making him seem less innovative...but whatever the reasons, fair or unfair, I think the end-result is just not very rewatchable.

That's my experience, at least, and I really really liked Dollhouse and Firefly at the time. I also rewatched the first Avengers recently and thought it really held up, with a waaaaaaay better sense of story, pacing and characters than Endgame or Infinity. And Cabin in the Woods is great! Still!! The guy could write.

But something seems to have happened to him after that first Avengers movie. Age of Ultron is just limping through story beats. Justice League? The Snyder Cut's no masterpiece but it revealed that the worst, just laughably bad parts of the original were almost all Whedon. And then whatever happened with the Nevers, who knows. But it's like he just imploded, creatively, around 2012. It's obvious now that he was always a complete naughty word to work with, but that's not the only thing killing his career. He was in a tail spin well before Ray Fisher exposed him.

I don't want to derail this into a Whedon thread (his issues are ... well-known).

I do think that it's possible to at least partly separate the art and the artist, and that he helped to create some powerful and meaningful works. OTOH, I also think it can be difficult to separate aspects at times, and having just re-watched Buffy in its entirety, there were a few parts that were more cringe-y, in hindsight (and with Whedon-knowledge) than expected.

That said, I would disagree that his shows "age terribly."

I think that, FOR ME-
Dollhouse aged worst. I enjoyed it at the time, but I can't imagine watching it again, now, given ... everything.
Firefly is second-worst. Every thing about it, from the Lost Cause mythology, to Inara, to the Inara/Reaver plot, that slightly skeeved me out before ... is so much worse now. I can't see re-visiting it.
Angel & Buffy? Not too bad. Buffy has a few moments, but what's surprising is how well parts of it aged. IMO. Angel, however ... the Charisma Carpenter stuff goes from "What? What happened?" to "C'mon, man, you really suck."

Agree on first Avengers and Cabin in the Woods.
 

Ryujin

Hero
That wasn't the point. Science fiction is broad enough to cover Buffy, or Angel. It covers Person of Interest. It's 3% and the Handmaid's Tale. Watchmen and Russian Doll.

It's all SciFi.
You made a specific point of defining "real" Science Fiction. I simply responded to that. Your original statement doesn't really support this response, in my estimation.
 

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