When Joss Whedon's sci-fi/western mashup Firefly premiered on Fox in 2002, it almost immediately sank to the bottom of the Nielsen ratings. Only 11 of the 14 produced episodes were aired before Fox pulled the plug on the series. But somehow, someway, Firefly has become one of the most beloved television series of the 21st century, spawning comic books, action figures, fan conventions, and a major motion picture adaptation.
Rumors of a revival or reunion never seem to go away because fans are just as passionate, if not more so, about the show today as they were back in the early 2000s. For comparison, Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda, which aired around the same time as Firefly, lasted five seasons and 110 episodes. Fringe lasted five seasons and 100 episodes. SyFy's Warehouse 13 survived for five seasons and 64 episodes. Firefly is a certified cult classic, while its longer-running counterparts are lost to pop culture history.
Firefly's legacy is undeniable, and its fingerprints are all over modern science fiction and genre fandom.
Before Firefly, the way science fiction TV shows and movies were filmed was fairly uniform. Sweeping, clean camera moves and an emphasis on composition were hallmarks of sci-fi on screen. Think of the majestic flyovers of the Star Trek films or the expansive desert vistas of Star Wars. Firefly changed all that, partly out of necessity.
Without the massive special effects budget of a feature film, a unique visual style would help the show stand out. Firefly borrowed many of its cinematic techniques from documentaries. Firefly cinematographer David Boyd told Vulture that the aesthetic was meant to feel "'accidental,' and therefore truthful," though it was entirely intentional.
Ben Edlund, creator of The Tick comic book and TV franchise, was a writer on two episodes of Firefly, and pointed to how special the show was, saying how "the sci-fi universe has a real amount of depth." That depth and realism came partly from the camera work.
Lens flares, shaky cameras, and snap zooms were frequently used for exteriors and ship-based action. It gave the show an immediacy and a believability that set it apart from more fantastical sci-fi. The snap zoom - in which the camera catches a far-off detail, pans over, and then quickly zooms to catch the object in close-up - became one of the most popular filmmaking techniques for big-budget genre directors. Snap zooms came back to sci-fi TV with the release of Battlestar Galactica in 2004. Galactica took many of its cues from Firefly, but perhaps the biggest influence was in the handheld, documentary-style cinematography. BSG even hired the same special effects company from Firefly, Zoic Studios, to create its visuals.
Robert C. Cooper, creator of the Stargate SG-1 spinoff, Stargate Universe, told the fan site Gateworld that Firefly also influenced his show's more grounded approach. "Maybe we could get audiences to embrace the science fiction elements and the characters in a realistic way if we shot the show using the 'language' of documentary and reality," he said in 2009. The technique also made it into the movies, as snap zooms can be seen in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot films, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel, and, of course, The Avengers.
The Firefly movie spinoff, Serenity, was the film that proved Joss Whedon could handle the rigors of studio directing. While Serenity's box office gross wasn't enough to generate interest in a sequel, its engaging tone and quip-laden script encouraged Marvel Studios to take a chance on Whedon.
Whedon subsequently became the person who wrangled the most ambitious crossover in cinematic history. The MCU would not be what it is today if Whedon hadn't brought his trademarked bickering family vibe to the superhero genre.
Before Firefly, Nathan Fillion was a working actor who'd popped up in a few TV shows and films, most notably the ABC sitcom Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, as well as a brief cameo in Saving Private Ryan. After Firefly, he was a genuine leading man who could anchor popular dramas like Castle and The Rookie.
He also became a household name for sci-fi fans around the globe, making him a popular attraction on the convention circuit and the sentimental favorite for movie roles like a rebooted Indiana Jones or Nathan Drake from the video game Uncharted. Fillion even played Drake in a 2018 Uncharted fan film that has over 6 million views on YouTube. In June of 2019, Firefly fans started a petition to get a building named after him in Fillion's hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
In a social media post on the occasion of Firefly's 15th anniversary in 2017, Fillion said, "Firefly is close to my heart, but I think more accurately, my heart still lives there."
Besides Whedon (or Christina Hendricks, who went from playing a con artist antagonist for Mal to being cast as Joan on Mad Men), it's hard to point to someone whose life changed more thanks to the "little sci-fi show that couldn't, but did."
Part of the thrill of imagining space travel is getting to meet all manner of exotic alien species. What would Star Wars be without Hutts, Jawas, Wookies, and droids? Star Trek has Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, the Borg, and so many more alien characters that define the franchise. The trippy SyFy series Farscape, which premiered three years before Firefly, was filled out with characters who were either a human actor in alien makeup or a Jim Henson Company puppet.
Firefly consciously avoided all of that, making its space-bound universe alien-free. The closest we get to exotic creatures was the Reavers: grotesque human beings driven mad by the infinite darkness of space (and maybe something else, but that would be a spoiler). Whedon told journalists at a summer press tour to promote Firefly that he believed humans "are the only sentient beings in the universe, and... that 500 years from now, we will still be the only sentient beings around." He further elaborated on his decision to keep aliens out of Firefly, saying, "I'm really interested in 'you are there,' in 'you are a part of this.' And I think aliens take you out of that."
The idea that humanity would venture out into the stars to find nothing was picked up by future space shows like Battlestar Galactica and the current Amazon Prime series The Expanse. Fans routinely compare Firely to The Expanse, pointing out the similarities in tone and style. Both are more pessimistic about human nature than something like Star Trek, and try more than most shows to depict space in a realistic fashion. The creators of The Expanse even went out of their way to include an Easter egg shoutout to Firefly in their show.