December 20 marks a dark anniversary for sci-fi fans. On that day in 2002, Fox aired its last episode of Firefly — which, due to scheduling shenanigans on the network’s part, was the pilot episode of the series.
Created by Joss Whedon, Firefly was a spacefaring Western about the crew of the Firefly-class vessel Serenity as they eked out a living on the fringes of an Alliance-controlled star system. “When I pitched the show, I said this is about nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things,” Whedon told reporters in 2002.
Those nine people were captain Mal (Nathan Fillion), lieutenant Zoe (Gina Torres), pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), companion-for-hire Inara (Morena Baccarin), mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), surgeon Simon (Sean Maher), child prodigy River (Summer Glau), and religious sage Book (Ron Glass).
The show, given a Friday-night death slot, was practically doomed from the start, but the cast and crew soldiered on. “We were always hopeful that people would find us,” Tudyk told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. “We were, as a group of actors, what the show itself was: people who were completely outnumbered but didn’t give up.”
And though the show met its end on Fox after 11 episodes — with three installments left unaired — the Browncoat fandom lives on. Comic books, novels, and the 2005 feature film Serenity continued the story, and the Firefly cast continues to be major draws at sci-fi conventions, even now, 20 years after the show left the airwaves. In honor of Firefly’s “fancible” legacy, here are anecdotes from the show’s production history.
Fox aired the episodes out of order
When Whedon turned in “Serenity,” the two-hour Firefly pilot, Fox executives “outlined a list of reasons why they felt that it didn’t work, including that it was too dark and not filled with enough action to keep a younger audience engaged,” Amy Pascale wrote in Joss Whedon: The Biography (via Tor). “The network asked him to produce another episode with which to introduce the series — one that was less ‘Stagecoach in space’ and more like an action-oriented futuristic spin on Sam Peckinpah’s violent 1969 western The Wild Bunch.’
So Whedon and executive producer Tim Minear spent two days writing another episode, “The Train Job,” to serve as the series premiere. Fox ended up airing “Serenity” as the 11th episode, and it was the final hour to air on the network. In another switch-up, Firefly’s fourth and fifth episodes aired between episodes eight and nine.
Fox also marketed the show as a “wacky genre comedy”
“Instead of advertising Firefly as a space western or a gritty sci-fi show, the promotional campaign suggested that it was a wacky genre comedy,” Pascale wrote.
“We knew we were in real trouble before the show debuted,” Chris Buchanan, former president of production company Mutant Enemy, told Pascale. One Fox promo reel for the show used the Smashmouth song “Walkin’ on the Sun,” and the Firefly team thought it was a promo for the action-packed police drama Fastlane, another Fox show debuting that season. “Then all of a sudden it was like ‘Firefly, the cosmic hooker and a whacked out space cowboy. My mouth just dropped open,” Buchanan said.
“I’ll never forget when they first sent some of the promos to us — they used a scratch track for the voiceover but the announcer mispronounced our names,” Tudyk told THR in 2017. “So on the set, we started calling each other by those mispronounced names.”
The role of Mal was reportedly written for Nicholas Brendon
Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Nicholas Brendon told convention attendees in 2014 that Whedon wrote the part of Mal for him, as reported by a Reddit fan and seemingly corroborated by Brendon himself on Twitter in 2010. But when Fox pushed up Firefly’s production timeline, the part had to go to someone else, since Buffy was still filming, as the story goes.
The network didn’t want Zoe married to Wash
Fox executives balked at Zoe’s marriage to Wash, since they wanted her to romance Mal. “The last thing that Fox said was, ‘We will pick up the show, but they can’t be married.’ And I said, ‘Then don’t pick up the show, because in my show, these people are married. And it’s important to the show,’” Whedon said in Serenity: The Official Visual Companion (via Insider).
“Summer” became an expletive on set
When Firefly cast members made mistakes during takes, they yelled “Summer!”
As Glau explained at Phoenix Comic-Con in 2015, the tradition started after she forgot her one line at the end of a lengthy, one-take shot. “So I heard Nathan from way across the ship say, ‘Summer!’ … From then on, he started blaming me for anything that went wrong, even if I wasn’t in it, or wasn’t there that day, or I wasn’t on the show, because he took it onto different sets!”
In 2012, Fillion tweeted, “Summer rarely made mistakes, so when the rest of us screwed something up, we blamed her.”
Firefly was Zac Efron’s first screen credit
A 14-year-old Zac Efron made his screen debut in the Firefly episode “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” playing a younger version of Simon, a role he’d reprise in the subsequent episode “Safe.” His breakout role in High School Musical came three years later.
Firefly DVDs have been to outer space
In 2007, NASA astronaut Steven Swanson brought Firefly and Serenity DVDs along with him on the Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-117 to add the discs to the International Space Station’s DVD library, according to collectSPACE.
The show’s cancellation wasn’t a total surprise to the cast
The cast and crew of Firefly were shooting the episode “The Message” when they got word that Fox had canceled the series. “We had to shoot for a whole week after we got the news. That was hard to do,” Torres told THR. “One of the little games we played in those final days was that providing little Easter eggs, liking coming up with innovative ways to flip the bird. Like a scene where I tucked all my fingers but one into my pocket.”
But the actors had seen the writing on the wall for a while. “This was a terrible sign right from the start: Fox made us pay for our lunches,” Tudyk said. “We’d have to go to the commissary to buy it, and that wasn’t worked into the schedule, so we had to make it over there and eat in costume sometimes. Which was very weird. I’ve never had that experience again on anything else I’ve done.”
Added Staite, “I remember driving home from work one night along Sunset Boulevard and one of Fox’s other new shows, Fastlane, was having this huge premiere party with a red carpet and press and everything. I just drove by it, like, ‘Cool… I better start packing.’ But hey, they don’t have Fastlane conventions now, do they?”
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