Welcome to a new feature: Point/Counterpoint, where we debate, vehemently, angrily, over issues of extreme importance. Today: Does Firefly still matter?
Image by Sam Woolley
Taking the pro side is James Whitbrook. Taking the con side — and her life into her own hands — is Katharine Trendacosta. This debate took place via chat, and below is a transcription of that chat, edited for clarity and for typos.
Katharine: Point/Counterpoint. Let’s do this.
James: Yes. It’s time for a debate on the TV program literally no one has heard of: Firefly.
James: We should probably hash out some opening statements. You’re taking the side that Firefly is in the past and not worthy of the reverence is has today, and I’ll be arguing that it still deserves the hype all these years later.
James: You want to go first?
Katharine: Technically, James, I think you go first as you have the higher burden of proof, as the question is “Is Firefly still relevant” and you’re taking the Yes position.
James: Haha, fine then!
Katharine: Yes. I did just google debate rules.
James: Excellent. I think Firefly still has relevance today because a lot of what you see in modern television is something Firefly was actually doing all these years ago. It’s almost like it was a product out of time — its lived in realism, its humour, its heroes with grey areas. It’s not necessarily that Firefly was the genesis of those ideas — I doubt even the most ardent of fans could claim that — but you can see a lot of its legacy in the sci-fi and genre shows we see today.
I think a big part of it as well is that science fiction fans sort of love the underdog. The story of a creative visionary going up against the big bad TV network that doesn’t understand. Even over a decade later, Firefly has sort of become the martyr, the sort of symbolic icon for every TV show cancelled before its time, and that’s kept it constantly within the pop cultural Zeitgeist. Whenever there’s a scrappy TV show on the bubble, someone will always evoke Firefly as this banner of unfulfilled potential. Despite not actually having any new material since Serenity, it’s managed to stay in the conversation for ages and ages, essentially on that potential.
It’ll always remain relevant that way because it’s evolved at this point. It’s gone beyond being just a TV show — a pretty good TV show, at that — and become a symbol for nerds all over as the ultimate Sci-Fi underdog.
Katharine: Nice. To that I say: Bullshit.
Now let me start by saying that I like Firefly as a show. It was good and fun and I even own it on DVD. But it’s not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a well-executed version of ideas we’ve seen before. Did Fox screw it? Possible. Probable, even.
But what effect, in the end, did Firefly actually have?
Fox didn’t bring it back. And even when they did cave and let Joss Whedon make Serenity? IT STILL DIDN’T DO WELL
You had your Star Trek in syndication moment, Browncoats, and you blew it.
No one cares about this show anymore except its fans. Which is fine! Enjoy it! It’s good. But it’s not relevant anymore.
James: I’m willing to grant the point of Serenity’s box office failure — which I think was probably one of the biggest examples of a fanbase failing to put its money where its mouth is in science fiction history. But I think the idea that no one outside of the loveably diehard fanbase cares about it isn’t 100% the case. I think if that were true, you’d be right: no one would be having conversations about Firefly any more.
But the fact that we are having those conversations speaks to the fact that it’s not just a one-and-done franchise. Firefly is, like you say, a mix of ideas from all over the place, executed well. It presents itself very well, even today — and that makes it still approachable.
Katharine: James, we can have this conversation because I’ve seen the show. If I hadn’t, every single comment would just be me going “Who?” “What?” “I don’t care.” You can’t have these conversation with anyone else.
And when I say that conversations about this show can only happen among fans, that’s a big relevance issue. I can and have referenced Star Trek and Star Wars — and even Buffy — in conversations with people with only a passing understanding of those shows.
James: Sure! But If anything, its short run makes it all the more so — it’s something you can recommend to someone who’s not heard of it before, not watched a Whedon show or much science fiction, and be like “Here you go, enjoy”.
It’s not really like, say, introducing someone to old Doctor Who or Star Trek where there’s all this background information that is intimidating, or you have to defend its weaker aspects to get someone to watch. Because the show still holds up, has a very modern feel to it, it’s something that people can get into very easily.
Especially in the day and age of Netflix binges where people are fine with consuming a show in big, multiple-episode chunks.
In fact, I came to Firefly quite late — I first saw it in probably 2009, 2010, as I was just a bit too young to watch it when it was new in 2002. Hadn’t heard of it before. Wasn’t even a particular fan of Joss Whedon, I’d watched some Buffy but not much.
But anyway, I got introduced to it with basically no context, no familiarity, and over the course of a weekend, I had seen it all and loved it. And I think, because it still feels like quite a modern show — personally I don’t think it’s aged all to well visually, at least in terms of CG and what have you — you can still do that today.
That’s what’s helped to keep it as this force today. You’re absolutely right that the Firefly fanbase when it was actually on wasn’t all that big. It didn’t help Serenity revive the show either. But by now, you’ve had people sharing it with friends, with colleagues, it’s sort of permeated into the science-fiction ether, so to speak.
Katharine: I also came to Firefly quite late — and let me tell you, I spent years in online fan spaces wondering what the fuck it was. And there was no way to pick it up from context.
I saw it in a binge watch my freshman year of college, when a floormate decided to get his friends into it. And here’s what happened: It was good, but it did not blow me away. The hype killed it.
And that’s, I think, where Firefly will end up. People are going to keep sharing it with friends and colleagues, and it’s just not going to meet the hype. And, it’ll just fade into memory. Loved by a few.
James: I agree to an extent — the fervent nature of a Browncoat can be a little offputting, and in that context, the show could never compete. After all, very few things can live up to the hype of a diehard fan.
I think it’s interesting you mention the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek though. I’m not going to deny them their place as cultural touchstones, that would be crazy, but they’re also 40, 50 year old properties at that point. They’re proven in their places because they’ve become these pan-generational behemoths.
Katharine: They also slept for huge chunks of time. As did Doctor Who. I don’t think Firefly gets off the mat.
James: Firefly is pretty old now, at what, coming up to two decades. But it’s still in its relative infancy — it’s barely left the mat yet!
Katharine: What’s the built-in expansion for Firefly?
Star Trek got movies and then The Next Generation. And for the longest times, for most people, Star Wars was just three movies. And Doctor Who was revived by a fan and the very nature of regeneration meant that there was a viable way to reboot it.
What keeps 14 episodes and a movie relevant beyond “Watch this thing I like”?
James: I think as the show is now, sure. There’s not much room for expansion — they had their chance with Serenity and it didn’t pan out. But as a franchise, as an idea, that expansion lies in its status as this symbol of what might have been. Its cancellation is almost as important as the actual show at this point.
Like I said earlier, its relevance in the conversation has become just as much as it being a show cut down before it could take off as it is about it being a well-executed piece of sci-fi.
That’s what’s kept it alive today, and I think it’s that, that, whether it’s Whedon or it’s someone else with his blessing, that some day someone will go “Huh. This was a great idea and we only got so little of it. Let’s do more.”
Katharine: The idea of Firefly being cut down has been so mythologized at this point, it’s kind of ridiculous.
I not only keep coming back to Serenity failing at the box office but to the fact that when Whedon worked with Fox again — on an arguably much weaker series — Fox didn’t make the same mistake, and renewed it.
James: I think science fiction TV, and genre as a whole, is in a different place now than it was even in the early 00’s. I wonder if that, in a way, has also kept it relevant. TV networks, and audiences in general, are a bit more accepting of its quirks. Do you not think Firefly would last longer today if it was a new series in 2015? Alongside stuff like The Flash or Game of Thrones, or revived Doctor Who?
Katharine: I don’t know, James. You’ve just listed a bunch of properties based on already successful things. I think Firefly might have lasted longer on Syfy. Or any cable network, really.
James: I agree that it’s become quasi-mythological though. But then again, deserved or otherwise, that’s sort of what’s kept it going. It’s embedded itself in the wider psyche as this thing that short lived, and got a rough deal. It’s essentially remained in peoples minds because of that. Perhaps a more relevant question isn’t if Firefly is still relevant and worth talking about today more that how long will it be before it’s forgotten forever.
Katharine: I think the problem with being so short-lived and mythologized is that, eventually, something will take its place in the myth. Something else will get treated poorly. And it’ll return to just being a TV show.
James: But nothing really has yet, and nothing feels like it will for a while. It’s not a wholly original show — after all it’s predicated on “Let’s mash cowboys with spaceships.”
But even today when we have this huge variety of sci-fi on TV, either based on established properties or new ideas, there’s still been nothing quite like it.
James: I’m not going to argue that in 50 years down the line we’ll still be talking about these 14 episodes of Firefly as they are today, because honestly, I don’t think we will. Any sensible person who likes the show would agree with that, I think.. But I would argue Firefly as a thing will be picked up on, whether it’s that property or something of it’s ilk born out of it. I think that will be its legacy, that this short lived weird little show came and went, but still had people talking about it, remembering it for so long, that eventually someone decided to bring it back or someone said “I want to make a show like that”.
Katharine: And I think it’ll just be a show. Just a show that some people watched and liked.
And that’s fine. Things don’t have to stay relevant forever.
James: I think so too. But I think while the show itself will eventually fade, the idea of it — the memory of it, will live on and inspire other things. Maybe I’m just a hopeless idealist who watched 14 episodes and thought Joss Whedon was on to something.
With the debate over, we do have to admit that after we shook hands, we were both convinced of the other person’s point of view. Katharine now thinks Firefly will someday inspire something great, and James thinks it’s just a good show.