Firefly And The Success/Failure Of Genre Mash-Ups

I have a confession to make.

I started watching Firefly for the very first time last week on streaming.

I’ve only seen five episodes of the show so far and I’m in love.  Totally in love with the concept, the characters, the world created by Joss Whedon.

For those of you as clueless as I was until a week ago, Firefly is a space Western TV show.

A what?


It sounds crazy, but it’s awesome.  In the show’s premise, Earth’s resources were used up a long time ago, forcing humans to find another solar system to populate and terra-form.  The central planets formed The Alliance, while the smaller, independent planets staged a rebellion that failed miserably.  One of the former rebels, Malcolm Reynolds, captains a “firefly” called Serenity, a transport ship that travels the outskirts of the system.  Mal and his crew take any and all jobs they can to survive.  On board with them are a brother and sister on the run from The Alliance.  They’re like a band of outlaws (the kind forced to be that way because of oppression and circumstance) in outer space.

Where has this show been all my life?  Or, at least, how could I have been oblivious to it the last ten years?

I have always loved the Western genre, since I was a kid watching them with my dad on TV.  When I was a real little kid, the genre was still going strong, with shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Big Valley.  When I hit my early teens, there was my all-time favorite (also destined to be prematurely yanked from the air) Alias Smith & Jones, a TV riff on the popular feature film Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.  As the years went on, the Western waned significantly on TV and in film, to be revived a bit by the popularity of the Lonesome Dove mini-series.  I became a huge fan of the (again, brief) weekly TV series, Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.  And, of course, the brilliant Shakespearian Western from HBO, Deadwood.  (Which also–aargh–should have lasted at least one more season!)

I’ve also always loved sci-fi.  From the time I first watched Star Trek as a kid, I was hooked.   So what a great thing to see a show embody aspects I love so much about two genres I adore.

It’s too bad the show began 10 years ago on network TV.  I can imagine it being a huge hit on a cable station today.  People at this moment are petitioning Netflix to revive the series.  It was announced today at Comic-Con that The Science Channel will air a reunion special in November.  This newly-minted fan girl was squealing with delight at her desk at work when she read the news.  Not to mention, enjoying how other fans were having the same ecstatic reaction on social media.

So, why does this mash-up work so well?  And why do some genre mash-ups fail?

Take last year’s movie Cowboys & Aliens, which on the surface would seem to be a similar mash-up.  It flopped big-time, not just at the box office, but people who did see it mostly disliked it.  Why is that, while Firefly remains a cult favorite 10 years later?

I think it’s because Firefly uses elements that sci-fi and Westerns share.  Both are about new frontiers.  Both are often about people seeking a clean slate and/or autonomy, as well as the creation of civilization where one didn’t previously exist.  These shared elements are the backbone of Firefly’s stories.

It was also smart for Whedon to pick space opera over other sci-fi sub-genres, because that’s the one that has the most obvious Western subtext.  This is the first time I’ve seen one where the Western elements are right in the text.  The result is a total blast.

Cowboys & Aliens, on the other hand, did not bring elements of the sci-fi and Western genres together in a cohesive way.  What the movie tried to do is tack the alien invasion story on to a Western.  Maybe there’s a way to mix those two things up successfully, but C&A did not achieve this.  Both the alien and Western elements were approached in a very pedestrian way.  It’s as if the filmmakers thought the basic concept was enough to carry the movie.

Firefly doesn’t stop at the concept, or even with understanding the shared elements of the genres.  The writing is sharp, the stories evolve from characters (male and female) who are complex and flawed.  The details are so well thought out, from the costumes (so refreshing to see a sci-fi show where people aren’t wearing unisex jumpsuits) to the way the characters talk (old-fashioned syntax mixed with technospeak).  It’s pretty obvious all the talent involved were having a whole lot of fun.

In spite of the ones that don’t work, I love when writers take a chance on mixing up two genres and giving both some new life.  I wish they all could be as good as Firefly

Excuse me now while I go watch another episode!


9 thoughts on “Firefly And The Success/Failure Of Genre Mash-Ups

  1. I ADORE this show. I’ve always been a Whedon fan. The man knows his audience (case in point: The Avengers) and he knows how to deliver what they want.

    Speaking of sci-fi, have you seen Battlestar Galactica? That’s another one my boyfriend and I discovered recently, and after we watched the first episode he turned to me and said, “Tell me again why we waited so long to watch this?”

    1. I’ve seen the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica. I was watching them on my old media player during my daily bus commute and then the player broke. This was before I had streaming. This is a good reminder that after watching Firefly I have to get back to watching the rest of BG! That’s another show with amazing characters. Love Katee Sackhoff as Starbuck.

    1. The special is not a reboot, unfortunately. It will actually be about the cast reunion at this year’s Comic-Con.

      But it would be cool if Netflix could be persuaded to revive the show. I would assume they could only do a handful of episodes, or maybe another one-off movie, because several of the actors, like Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres, are committed to other shows right now. Let’s hope the excitement over the cast’s appearance at Comic-Con convinces someone in Hollywood to do it!

  2. Firefly is one of my absolute fave shows. Everything about it works.

    Think the blending worked because Whedon didn’t force it. He didn’t think “cowboys and aliens” but used themes we could relate to…and a future we could imagine with the well to do making decisions for the “greater good” and those left on the fringes…

    Sigh. Gone way too soon.

    1. I agree. It seems even more relevant now.

      The awesome response to the Firefly panel at Comic-Com makes me hopeful we’ll get some version of Firefly again in the near future. Fingers crossed!

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