"I don't care, I'm still free / You can't take the sky from me"
After Buffy The Vampire Slayer and before The Avengers, Joss Whedon scored big when he created and directed the cult hit TV show Firefly. Simultaneously a sci-fi show and a Western, Firefly followed the crew of the renegade spacecraft Serenity, along with several passengers, as they try to survive and travel unknown parts of the galaxy 500 years in the future. Firefly was axed after one season by FOX, but the story was continued in the feature film Serenity, made by Universal. Director Joss Whedon’s success with The Avengers films makes a Serenity 2 unlikely, but the franchise lives on in the hearts of its die-hard fans. Here are 42 facts about Firefly and Serenity!
Firefly and Serenity Facts
42. Failed Mission
Although creator Joss Whedon had big plans for his space-western series Firefly, the FOX Network cancelled the show after airing only 11 of 14 episodes. A postcard-writing campaign by fans voicing their support of the show to FOX failed, and so to did a bid to get another network to pick up the series for a second season.
41. Out of Order
The initial run of Firefly may have been doomed from the start, as FOX didn’t even air the episodes in chronological order. Instead of airing the episodes in an order that would, you know, make sense, they cherry-picked the episodes based on what they thought was crowd appeal. “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement, while the show’s pilot was aired as the final episode.
The episodes were only put back in their original intended order for the DVD release.
40. Voyage to Space
Speaking of the DVDs, the DVD set of Firefly and Serenity were flown to the International Space Station by astronaut Steven Swanson in June 2007. Swanson served on the space shuttle Atlantis during its STS-117 mission.
39. What’s in a Name?
The full name of the Alliance is the “Anglo-Sino Alliance.” Conceived of as a merging of the USA and China, the world’s last two superpowers, the flag (seen in the original pilot) blends the American and Chinese flags. This also explains why many characters speak Chinese as well as English.
The use of Chinese phrases in the show had another purpose: to have characters able to swear, yet to get around censors.
In 2014, writer Amy Pascale published a biography of Joss Whedon that shed some light on the fraught relations between him and FOX executives while making the show. Whedon had to go to bat for many of his core ideas about the plot and the characters; FOX initially didn’t like the fact that characters Walsh and Zoe were married, because it made other romantic pairings for these two impossible. Whedon fought for this concept, and glimpses into the marriage between Walsh and Zoe are some of the show’s most tender and affecting moments.
Another complaint from FOX executives: the show was too dark. They wanted a more upbeat show, but confusingly they also asked for the character Mal to shoot more people.
Perhaps the most baffling example from Pascale’s book of how badly FOX executives misunderstood the show is in how they promoted it: instead of selling the show as either a science-fiction show or a western (or both) they promoted it as an off-beat comedy. One ad was scored by Smash Mouth’s wacky 1997 hit “Walkin’ On The Sun.”
34. Lifelike Setup
The interior and exterior of the Serenity were almost entirely contiguous—that is, built as a whole, not split up into segments across many sound stages that only look connected on-screen. The ship was built in two full-scale segments across only two sound stages: one for the upper deck, and another containing the lower deck, shuttle docks, and hold.
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33. Why Build a New Prop?
It’s can be a lot of work to build “realistic” looking props and sets for things like spaceships, that don’t actually exist in real life. Serenity's engine room includes the center console from a Boeing 737, complete with throttles, fuel cutoffs, spoiler and flap levers, and pitch trim wheels.
32. Source of Inspiration
Where did Joss Whedon come up with the idea for Firefly, a sci-fi western? Perhaps it was while working as one of the screenwriters of Toy Story, a film about a cowboy doll and a toy spaceman.
31. Steady Work
Joss Whedon loves reusing actors across his various projects, and he’s had quite a few: Nathan Fillion appeared in season seven of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002); Summer Glau and Alan Tudyk appeared in Dollhouse (2009); and Gina Torres and Adam Baldwin appeared in different seasons of Angel (2003 and 2004, respectively).
30. Love Eternal
Joss Whedon’s shows often feature characters romantically coupling and uncoupling—it keeps storylines fresh, and for shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer (set in a high school) it’s realistic. Whedon said in a speech at Harvard University in 2009 that, had the show not been canceled, Zoe and Walsh are the only on-screen couple he would never have broken up.
29. But Which Ones?
When Firefly was originally conceived, the Serenity had 5 main crew members. However, throughout development and casting, the character list was increased to 9.
28. Familiar Steed
Notice that all horses in the future seem to look alike? Every time Mal rides a horse, no matter what planet, it's always the same horse. According to Firefly lore, the horse’s name is Fred.
27. Lasting Legacy
Even though Firefly was canceled after only one season, it made its mark: in 2004, the character of Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds was ranked #18 in TV Guide's list of the "25 Greatest Sci-Fi Legends.”
26. Same Outfits
The uniforms worn by Alliance officers and soldiers may look a bit familiar to those who watch a lot of sci-fi: they were left over from the 1997 film Starship Troopers.
25. A Storied Past
The character Inara, played by Morena Baccarin, was named after a goddess worshiped by the Hittite Empire circa 1800-1200 BC, in the area that is now Turkey. Inara was the goddess of the wild animals of the steppe—analogous to the goddesses Artemis and Diana in Greek and Roman mythology.
24. A Comfortable Place
While waiting to begin filming between takes, much of cast preferred hanging out in the lounge of the Serenity to spending the time in their own dressing rooms.
23. Weapons Old and New
Many of the weapons in Firefly were contemporary with the time of production (the show was shot in 2001), and were chosen because of their futuristic look, requiring only slight modification. Alliance soldiers carry British L85A2 rifles and Heckler & Koch MP5s; the Browncoats use Heckler & Koch G36 rifles.
However, some of the guns are classics: the pistol-sized lever action gun Zoe wears on her hip is called a "Mare's Leg”—it’s a cut-down Model 1892 Winchester, the same gun used by Steve McQueen in the 1958 TV series Wanted, Dead or Alive.
22. Repeated Appearance
The stun gun used by the Alliance was re-used as a prop in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. The gun was used as the “death ray” in Dr. Horrible, but if it looks a bit different, it’s because the gun was held upside-down.
In addition to appearing in Joss Whedon projects, five Firefly cast members joined Nathan Fillion on Castle during its eight-season run: Richard Burgi in season four; Adam Baldwin in seasons four and eight; Gina Torres in season five; and Summer Glau and Jewel Staite in season eight.
20. True Fans Obsessed
An article in the September 2012 New York Times reported that an American couple, Amber Balmer and Trey Memmott, were such fans of Firefly that they wanted references to the show in their wedding ceremony. The references were to last for the rest of their lives: they also changed their last names to “Reynolds”, in honor of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the Serenity. After introducing the new Mr. & Mrs. Reynolds, the officiant quoted, "No power in the verse can stop them!"
19. One Big Shot
Nathan Fillion is a big star now—he was the star of the hit mystery show Castle and has starred in roles on Modern Family, Desperate Housewives, and Con Man. His career wasn’t as distinguished in 2002, and his role on Firefly as Captain Malcolm Reynolds was Fillion’s first-ever role as a leading man.
18. The Height of Nerd Humor
Firefly has gotten a couple shout-outs on CBS’s smash-hot nerd comedy The Big Bang Theory: in one episode, Big Bang characters run into Summer Glau (playing herself) on a train, and one says to her, "Come on. When you were on TV in Firefly, you were actually in space.”
In another episode, the early cancellation of Firefly is referenced: in a flashback showing the two characters agreeing to be roommates, Sheldon requires Leonard to sign an agreement reserving Friday nights for watching Firefly, as the show is “going to be on forever.”
17. Musical Talent
Joss Whedon’s musical talent is well-known: he wrote the songs in “Once More With Feeling,” the famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and went on to produce the delightful Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He contributed a song to Firefly as well: he wrote the lyrics and music to the opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”
16. Before He Was Famous
In addition to introducing Nathan Fillion as a leading man, we have Firefly to thank for introducing Zac Efron to the world. A 13-year-old Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.
Many of the characters on Firefly were named after real people: the characters of Bester, Brennart, and Ellison are named after science fiction writers Alfred Bester, Alan Brennart, and Harlan Ellison.
14. No One Can Hear You Scream
While many movies set in space feature loud explosions and sound effects of spaceships zooming around, Firefly’s external sequences stayed true-to-life and featured no sound at all (save background music). In reality, sound waves cannot be heard in the vacuum of outer space.
13. A Second Chance
Firefly was canceled after one season of only 14 episodes but was granted an amazing second chance at life when Universal decided to revive the series as a film in 2004. The film, titled Serenity, owes its existence to Firefly’s loyal fan base and Whedon’s unfailing efforts to give some closure to the show’s characters and fans. Serenity was released in 2015 and went on to win a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, along with a Prometheus Special Award and a Nebula Award for Best Script.
12. Moving Up
Joss Whedon had plenty of TV directing experience under his belt when he directed Serenity, but the movie was actually Whedon’s debut directing a feature film. Good thing it was a success: Whedon has gone on to direct box office smash-hits The Avengers and The Avengers: Age of Ultron and will be directing the upcoming Batgirl movie.
11. Rebuilding The Ship
The set for the Serenity was dismantled and destroyed when the first season was canceled and had to be entirely rebuilt for filming Serenity. The original blueprints were lost, but the ship was able to be rebuilt to spec with a little help from star Nathan Fillion: he had been so excited about starring in Firefly that he had documented everything, including taking photos of all preproduction materials, including the original blueprints!
10. Inside Joke
As a subtle joke about the original Serenity ship being destroyed after Firefly was canceled, the rebuilt ship seen in the movie Serenity has crates labeled “Reusable Container: Do Not Destroy!” in its cargo bay.
9. Working Overtime
Many of the actors in Serenity performed their own fight sequences. Summer Glau, a trained dancer, was able to perform her own stunts in her character, River’s two fights. Even still, she trained with a fight choreographer for three months prior to filming.
8. Drawing On Experience
In one of Summer Glau’s fight scenes, the camera operator was also a trained dancer and was able to skillfully move around the combatants to achieve the scene’s dynamic camera angles.
7. Punching Bag
Nathan Fillion and Chiwetel Ejiofor also performed their own stunts in Serenity. Often, fight scenes don’t have two actors at the same time: they will feature one actor and one stunt double, but in Serenity, Ejiofor and Fillion were both in the scenes together. Whedon said in an interview, “Nathan can take a punch in an almost extraordinary fashion.”
6. Realistic Acting
In the DVD commentary for Serenity, Joss Whedon says that the most difficult scene to film was the final scene with River and Simon, after he has been shot. Actors Sean Maher and Summer Glau had grown so close during the filming of Firefly, and Sean’s acting was so good that Summer kept bursting into tears while trying to film the dramatic ending scene.
5. Blooper Reel
During the filming of Firefly and Serenity, whenever an actor would flub a line they would yell “Summer!” The gag originated while filming the TV series after actress Summer Glau forgot her lines while filming a long and difficult scene. Morena Baccarin, Nathan Fillion, and Sean Maher can all be seen doing this on the Serenity blooper reel included in the DVD extras.
4. More Reused Costumes
If some of the costumes in Serenity look familiar, they might be. Not from Starship Troopers this time: actors in the docking station scene wear the "Army of 8" uniforms from Kevin Costner's apocalyptic film The Postman.
3. New Technology
In 2005, Serenity was the first film to be released by Universal studios on HD-DVD (High Definition DVD).
2. Under Budget
Universal Studios estimated that making Serenity would cost $100 million, but Joss Whedon said he could do it for $39 million. Using his TV experiences, he meticulously storyboarded everything, which meant they could save time and money while filming. That’s a savings of $61 million.
1. Shocking Revelation
Joss Whedon initially planned for seven seasons of Firefly before it was cancelled. One arc that he'd planned for would have involved a slow, tragic death for of Inara, who was going to at one point contract a terminal illness. This is just one small hint, among countless others, that the show could have ended up becoming so much more, and that it's premature departure is a real tragedy of the silver screen.