In 2002 Fox cancelled Joss Whedon’s Sci-Fi western, Firefly without even screening the entire series. In Australia, Channel 7 did not even bother advertising the schedule, and most episodes were shown out of sequence. It is now the fifth most popular DVD series sold by Amazon. The growth of the international underground audience and the imminent release of Serenity, the film based on the series, is a triumph of word of mouth marketing. It is also one of the first indications of the way its target audience, Generation Y, operates.
Firefly failed commercially because of poor decisions by network programmers. In the US, Fox showed it on Fridays, a time when no respectable teenager would bother watching television. In any case it was often replaced with baseball. In Australia Channel 7 did worse, scheduling it for school term time Tuesdays, late at night, way past midnight, thereby losing its entire audience.
Cast from Joss Whedon’s Firefly
The story of the Firefly class frontier spaceship, Serenity, and its motley crew of law-breakers and refugees was only released on DVD in January 2004 because of the pester power of fans on the web. Again, because of pester power the movie length version, Serenity, was made and released.
The Firefly DVD set was not sold in Australia until August 2004, but fans who followed Whedon’s other successes (Buffy and Angel) ordered the set from Amazon. Once customers would wait for weeks for Amazon orders but now they arrive in two days, airfreight from Hong Kong. Australian DVD players are often sold with restricted coding to prevent us from using international orders. There are two solutions to this. The first is to play the disk on computer. The second is to look up the manufacturer’s specifications on the web and reformat the DVD player. Most fifteen-year-olds can do this.
What is it about Firefly that speaks to this generation? For speak it does (see:
These are only a few of the sites that have grown up about the actions of Mal, Inara, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Simon, River, Jayne, and Shepherd Book. It has the post apocalyptic vision common in science fiction and even some superficial connections with previous sci-fi series. There is the element of outlaw behaviour as in Blake’s Seven; the isolation of Star Trek, and the cross cultural references familiar to watchers of Dr Who. But this is a reasoned universe. The heroes are placed, western style, in opposition to a large but clumsy empire. They include the survivors of the last rebellion against its supremacy (a direct parallel to the role of former Confederate soldiers in nineteenth century westerns), a refugee brother and sister, and a courtesan whose presence makes the crew almost respectable.
The attraction of Firefly for this generation is that most of the sexuality is out in the open, and no one takes a subservient role. The married couple, Pilot Wash and second in command Zoe, have a robust relationship, but she is the warrior woman while he is the sensitive guy in the Hawaiian shirt. Mal, the captain cannot rule his crew by authoritarian means, but must respect their individual skills. In one episode, when he rescues River, the psychic refugee, the mob who are about to burn her, call her a witch.
Yeah. But she’s our witch.
So cut her the hell down.
It is this sense of collaboration, ‘All for one and one for all’ that is so appealing. The dominant characteristic of Generation Y is that their strongest connections are with each other, not with institutions or nuclear families. Their bonds begin to be formed in early childhood, and as they grow they give each other strength. In this way Firefly, with its sense of a group against a less than thrilling universe, speaks for them.
Most importantly, Firefly speaks for Generation Y’s rejection of archaic sexual mores. Sexuality for this crew is about sensuality and freedom of choice, not possession and power. There is the running subtext of the corrosive value of patriarchy and power politics. When a woman plays at being subservient to a man, she is inevitably a gangster playing on his ego. When a man claims a woman as possession, he is inevitably defeated.
This is most clearly seen in the position of Inara, whose status is Companion, a position reasonably analogous to that of a courtesan in eighteenth century France. Inara not only chooses her lovers, she bestows her favours on them at great price. A man who humiliates her is rejected not just by her but by her Guild. He is therefore black banned from further gracious sexual activity.
This code comes into sharpest focus in the episode Heart of Gold. In this, a friend of Inara’s who has left the Guild of Companions to become a Madam with her own brothel calls for help when a pregnant prostitute is under attack by the thuggish mayor of a border town. He claims he is the father of her baby, and therefore wishes to take it as his possession. Not only do the crew of Serenity come to the rescue of the prostitutes, but in the denouement, the murderous patriarch is first shown his new born son by the mother, and is then executed by her:
Jonah, say hello to your daddy.
BURGESS smiles like a proud papa. He’s actually moved at the sight of his son.
PETALINE raises her free hand in which she holds Nandi’s favorite gun. She aims it at BURGESS’ head.
Say goodbye to your daddy, Jonah.
CLOSE PETALINE: Camera looking up the business end of a gun, she fires.
PETALINE looks up from Burgess’ dead body, icy “ (read more of the script here)
This episode is the first of three that never went to air. But teenagers of both sexes celebrate the defeat of tyranny.
Those who think the coming generation is apathetic are looking in all the wrong places.
Jane Espenson & Gleen Yeffeth (ed.) Finding Serenity BenBella Dallas USA 2005
Firefly DVDs on Amazon, click here
Firefly discussion on Polytropos (a blog of twists and turns), click here
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