Big Damn Heroes – Learning about Joss Whedon’s Firefly

Firefly is a science-fiction space western television series that aired on the Fox Network in 2002, for approximately four months. The show was cancelled after airing only 11 of the 14 produced episodes. The feature-film, Serenity, continued the story. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear combined their efforts to create the show, which fused science fictional concepts, such as spaceships and interplanetary travel, with a western setting. Firefly told the story of a captain, a crew, and passengers trying to get along in space in the aftermath of a civil war.

The TV Series

Under the Mutant Enemy Productions label, writer and director Joss Whedon created the American space western, Firefly. The television series premiered in the United States on September 20, 2002, on the Fox network. By mid-December of 2002, Firefly was 98th in Nielsen ratings and averaged 4.7 million viewers per episode, leading to its cancellation after airing only 11 of the 14 produced episodes. Despite the relatively short life-span of the series, sales drastically increased when the series was released on DVD, along with strong fan support. Firefly won an Emmy award in 2003 for Outstanding Special Visual Effects.

Inspiration for the Show

Whedon became inspired to create Firefly after reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels. The novel portrayed the experiences of those people who had fought on the losing side of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon wanted to show the drama of what it was like to live in a bleak environment, where existence was difficult. He wanted to create a show that was more realistic and character-driven than most science fiction series of the time.

Backstory and Overall Plot of the Series

Firefly takes place in the year 2517 on a variety of moons and planets within one large system. The characters of the show occasionally mention the “Earth-that-was”, and that a large population had emigrated from Earth to a new star system because the Earth could no longer sustain the overpopulation. Many moons and planets were terraformed, a process in which a moon or planet is altered to resemble Earth, making it habitable. The series gets its name from the “Firefly-class” spaceship, known as Serenity, which is home to the main characters. The Serenity crew travels across the outskirts of space, in search of money, food, and ways to make a living, while staying under the radar of The Alliance.

Main Characters

Captain Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion) is a prior war veteran. He is also the captain of Serenity, the space ship the main characters call home. Zoe Washburne (played by Gina Torres) is second-in-command, the wife of Wash, and a wartime friend of Captain Reynolds. Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne (played by Alan Tudyk) is Zoe’s husband and the pilot onboard Serenity. Inara Serra (played by Morena Baccarin) is a companion who rents one of the ships’ two small shuttles. Other members of Mal’s transport team, include Jayne Cobb (played by Adam Baldwin) as the hired muscle, Kaywinnit Lee “Kaylee” Frye (played by Jewel Staite) as the ship’s mechanic, Dr. Simon Tam (played by Sean Maher) as the trauma surgeon and medical researcher, River Tam (played by Summer Glau) who was smuggled onto the ship, and Derrial Book (played by Ron Glass) who is a Shepherd.


Greg Edmonson composed the music for Firefly. He stated that he wrote the background music according to the emotion of the moment, blending cowboy guitar with Asian influence. Edmonson developed a collection of musical symbolism for individual characters of the series and to fit the lifestyle of the crew. For example, “Peril” – a low heartbeat-like pulse – was used to denote impending danger. The Firefly theme song was called, “The Ballad of Serenity”, and was written by Joss Whedon and performed by Sonny Rhodes. The series soundtrack was released onto CD on November 8, 2005 by Fox Music.

Broadcast History

The series had a total of 13 one-hour episodes, including 1 two-hour pilot. While Whedon had planned the series to run for seven years, the low-ratings caused the show to cancel after only 11 of the episodes had aired in the United States and Canada. Prior to the show being cancelled, a group of loyal fans came together to form the Firefly Immediate Assistance campaign. They sent postcards to the Fox network to support the production of the show. After the show was cancelled from Fox, the campaign worked to get the show on another network, including UPN. The campaign was unsuccessful with their attempts.

Critical Review and Fandom

Many reviews of the series, Firefly, focused on Whedon’s collaboration of outer space and the Wild West. TV Guide’s Matt Roush, called the show “offbeat” and “oddball”, but found the characters cleverly conceived. He also found a good balance of tension, acting, and humor from the series. Firefly generated a loyal group of fans, the self-styled Browncoats, during its brief on-screen appearance. Due to the continuing efforts of these loyal fans, Universal Studios was persuaded in creating a feature film, Serenity. In July of 2006, a fan-made documentary, titled Done the Impossible was released. The documentary tells the story of how the series affected the fans, and features interviews with Whedon and cast members from the show.


Serenity is a 2005 space western film that continues the drama that took place during the final episode of the television series, Firefly. The film was written and directed by Joss Whedon and released in North America by Universal Pictures on September 30, 2005. The film is set in 2518 and continues the story of the captain and crew that struggle to thrive on the cargo ship, Serenity. The film received many positive reviews, and took in $10.1 million during its first weekend. Serenity spent two weeks in the top ten and had a box office gross of $25.5 million and a foreign box office gross of $13.3 million.

Join the discussion