Firefly is an American space western television series created by writer and director Joss Whedon, under his Mutant Enemy Productions label. Whedon served as an executive producer, along with Tim Minear.
The series is set in the year 2517, after the arrival of humans in a new star system, and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a “Firefly-class” spaceship. The ensemble cast portrays the nine characters who live on Serenity. Whedon pitched the show as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”. The show explores the lives of some people who fought on the losing side of a civil war and others who now make a living on the outskirts of society, as part of the pioneer culture that exists on the fringes of their star system. In addition, it is a future where the only two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form the central federal government, called the Alliance, resulting in the fusion of the two cultures. According to Whedon’s vision, “nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today”.
Firefly premiered in the United States on the Fox network on September 20, 2002. By mid-December 2002, Firefly had averaged only 4.7 million viewers per episode and was 98th in Nielsen ratings. It was canceled after eleven of the fourteen produced episodes were aired. Despite the series’ relatively short life span, it received strong sales when it was released on DVD and has large fan support campaigns. It won an Emmy in 2003 for Outstanding Special Visual Effects for a Series. The post-airing success of the show led Whedon and Universal Pictures to produce a film based on the series, Serenity. The Firefly franchise expanded from the series and film to other media including comics and a role-playing game.
The series takes place in the year 2517, on a variety of planets and moons. The TV series does not reveal whether these celestial bodies are within one star system, only saying that Serenity’s mode of propulsion is a “gravity-drive”. The film Serenity makes clear that all the planets and moons are in one large system, and production documents related to the film indicate that there is no faster-than-light travel in this universe. The characters occasionally refer to “Earth-that-was”, and the film establishes that, long before the events in the series, a large population had emigrated from Earth to a new star system in generation ships:”Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many”. The emigrants established themselves in this new star system, with “dozens of planets and hundreds of moons”. Many of these were terraformed, a process in which a planet or moon is altered to resemble Earth. The terraforming process was only the first step in making a planet habitable, however, and the outlying settlements often did not receive any further support in the construction of their civilizations. This resulted in many of the border planets and moons having forbidding, dry environments, well-suited to the Western genre.
The show takes its name from the “Firefly-class” spaceship, Serenity, that the central characters call home. It resembles a firefly in general arrangement, and the tail section, analogous to a bioluminescent insectoid abdomen, lights up during acceleration. The ship was named after the Battle of Serenity Valley, where Mal and Zoe were on the losing side. It is revealed in “Bushwhacked” that the Battle of Serenity Valley is widely considered the loss which sealed the fate of the Independents.
Throughout the series, the Alliance is shown to govern the star system through an organization of “core” planets, following its success in forcibly unifying all the colonies under a single government. DVD commentary suggests that the Alliance is composed of two primary “core” systems, one predominantly Western in culture, the other pan-Asian, justifying the series’ mixed linguistic and visual themes. The central planets are firmly under Alliance control, but the outlying planets and moons resemble the 19th-century American West, with little governmental authority. Settlers and refugees on the outlying worlds have relative freedom from the central government, but lack the amenities of the high-tech civilization that exists on the inner worlds. In addition, the outlying areas of space (“the black”) are inhabited by the Reavers, a cannibalistic group of nomadic humans that have become savage and animalistic.
Into this mix are thrown the protagonists of the show. The captain of the crew of Serenity is Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the episode “Serenity” establishes that the captain and his first mate Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) are veteran “Browncoats” of the Unification War, a failed attempt by the outlying worlds to resist the Alliance’s assertion of control. A later episode, titled “Out of Gas”, reveals that Mal bought the spaceship Serenity to continue living beyond Alliance control. Much of the crew’s work consists of cargo runs or smuggling. One of the main story arcs is that of River Tam (Summer Glau) and her brother Simon (Sean Maher). River was a child prodigy, whose brain was subjected to experiments. As a result, she displays schizophrenia and often hears voices. It is later revealed that she is a “reader”, one who possesses telepathic abilities. Simon gave up a highly successful career as a trauma surgeon to rescue her from the Alliance and as a result of this rescue they are both wanted fugitives. In the original pilot “Serenity”, Simon joins the crew as a paying passenger with River smuggled on board as cargo. As Whedon states in an episodic DVD commentary, every show he does is about creating family. By the last episode, “Objects in Space”, the fractured character of River has finally become whole, partly because the others decided to accept her into their “family” on the ship.
Learn more about the concepts, principles and symbolism behind the subliminals found in this television series: