Into the Black

I’m going to start with the big news of the week (At least in my world): Yes, CBS announced a new Star Trek television series…kind of.  Since we have pretty much zero in the way of details, I really don’t have much to say beyond that I’m not at all pleased that the show will be exclusive to CBS’s streaming service, CBS All Access.  I have no interest in anything else on the service, so I’m going to have to decide it Star Trek is worth $5.99 per month to me.  It just might be.  Or I might end up waiting for the DVD set.  I’m sure I’ll be talking about this more as additional details become available, but for now that’s all I have.

Onto my actual topic…

A few weeks ago, I attended the Browncoat Ball, which is a yearly gathering of Firefly fans.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with Firefly, it was a television series that aired on the FOX Network in the Fall of 2002.  Firefly was created by Joss Whedon, who at the time was best known for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series, Angel.   

It was a science-fiction series set approximately 500 years in the future.  At that time, Earth had been used up and abandoned, and humanity had settled into a new area of space (We won’t get into the science here.).  The series took place some years after a civil war between the technologically-advanced “core” worlds of the Alliance and those on the outer rim.  The outer rim worlds, which were settled by colonists using much less advanced technology than the core, were not pleased with being controlled by the Alliance, hence the war.  Those who fought against the Alliance came to be known as Browncoats, due to the color of their uniform coats.  The Browncoats lost the war, and at the time of the series a former Browncoat officer, Malcolm Reynolds, captains a spaceship doing odd jobs and generally trying to stay away from the Alliance.

Calling Firefly a space western is a gross oversimplification, but that was the feel Joss was going for.  In Firefly fan circles, what happened next has become legendary.  FOX executives decided that the show’s two-hour pilot that set up the situation and introduced the series’ 9 main characters was too talky and asked for a second pilot episode.  The marketers had no idea what to make of the show and aired ads, such as THIS ONE, that completely misrepresented it.  There’s one I remember that described one character as a “cosmic hooker.”  FOX then scheduled the series on Friday nights, doom for a show that was going to skew young, as most science-fiction series do.  And once it was on the air, FOX showed the episodes out of order and often preempted it for baseball.

Not surprisingly, Firefly didn’t do well in the ratings and was canceled.  And in what felt to me like added insult to injury, they aired the excellent pilot episode last.  For a fuller description of the whole mess, check out THIS 2014 ARTICLE from Business Insider.

Despite only making 14 episodes, Firefly gathered a very devoted fan base, and, once the DVD set of the series was released, those fans set about making new fans.  It worked.  In 2005, there was enough interest in this short-lived show that Universal Pictures produced a feature film, Serenity, set approximately six months after the end of the series.  And a decade after that, fans, who have taken to calling themselves Browncoats, are still getting together to talk about a series they loved.

Attending the Browncoat Ball got me thinking about the series again.  Specifically I wondered if the show would have better odds of survival if it premiered now.

While Joss Whedon had some renown in 2002 due to the critical acclaim Buffy received, he was not a major Hollywood player.  Between then and now, though, Whedon directed two very successful Avengers films and has been a key architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That might give him the clout to insist that FOX actually air the show the way he wanted and in the proper order.  However, in the Fall of 2013, Almost Human, a FOX series produced by Hollywood-heavyweight JJ Abrams, suffered a similar issue with episodes being aired out of order, damaging the plot progressing and character development.

Would Whedon’s name now be enough to draw more viewers to Firefly than in 2002?  Probably not.  While The Avengers was hugely popular with audiences, my guess is that most people couldn’t tell you the name of the man who wrote and directed it.  No doubt FOX’s marketing department would play up this fact when advertising the show, but there are no guarantees that they would do any better job actually describing what the series was to potential audiences.

If they were able to somehow get the same cast, the actors wouldn’t much more of a draw for audiences than they were in 2002 either.  Nathan Fillion has been starring in Castle for several seasons now and probably would have the greatest name recognition, but none of the other actors have really broken out into the mainstream.  Most of them are still working steadily.  Morena Baccarin is currently on Gotham and will be in next year’s Deadpool film.  Gina Torres is a regular on Suits and had a recurring character on Hannibal.  Adam Baldwin was on Chuck for several years and is now on The Last Ship.  Alan Tudyk has been in a number of films and will be in the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  But despite a huge amount of talent, the Firefly cast still aren’t household names that a marketing team can use to get viewers interested in a new show.

My hope would be that in this era of incredibly well-written shows, such as Mad Men and Breaking Bad, that have garnered an audience, Firefly would attract viewers who appreciate a unique situation, compelling characters, and fantastic dialogue.  Of course, both Mad Men and  Breaking Bad aired on basic cable, where the ratings expectations are lower.  The best network equivalent I can think of is Hannibal, which only survived as long as it did because it was an international co-production.  If NBC had been footing the bill on its own, I doubt that the series would have made it past the first season.

I’m forced to conclude that Firefly would be just as dead today as it was 13 years ago.  Actually, the situation might even be worse today, since networks have taken to cutting series orders when they see that the ratings aren’t as high as they want.  This season’s Minority Report series recently had its order cut to 10 episodes, effectively cancelling the show.  Three Firefly episodes never aired during the show’s FOX run.  Today they probably wouldn’t have even been made. 

As much as I want the show back, I wouldn’t want to go through the same pain of losing it again,  which I’m fairly certain would happen if FOX or any other major network tried to make Firefly again.  Also, unfortunately, basic cable probably couldn’t afford to make it.  A space-set series with that size of a cast is going to be a bit more expensive than something like Breaking Bad.  Syfy Channel is bringing back some space shows, so we’ll see if I end up being wrong here.

Really, though, I think the hope for Firefly fans lies elsewhere.

Hello, Netflix?  Amazon Prime?  Anybody?

- Alan Decker

@CmdrAJD on Twitter