FOX’s ‘Firefly’ Keeps the Lights On


Fri, Nov 1, 2002 05:40 PM PDT

by Kate O’Hare

LOS ANGELES ( – To quote a would-be plague victim in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” : “I’m not dead yet.”

Despite a rocky development process, a last-minute pickup by FOX, a tough time slot, preemptions by baseball and sagging ratings, Joss Whedon’s science-fiction/Western drama “Firefly” is still alive and kicking on Friday nights at 8 p.m. ET.

Some reviewers rated the Oct. 25 episode, “Out of Gas,” as the best yet. Written by executive producer Tim Minear (who shares that title with creator Whedon), it used flashbacks to give viewers hints as to how the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity came together in a post-civil-war solar system 500 years in the future, under the command of losing-side-combatant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion).

Of course, all this was also laid out in the series’ two-hour pilot, but, as Whedon says, “There’s a lot of confusion, because they didn’t air the pilot, which explains everything. We tried to do that as best we could in an hour show.”

Reportedly not met with unreserved joy by 20th Century Fox Television studio head Sandy Grushow, the pilot is scheduled to finally air on Dec. 20, begging the question of whether “Firefly” is likely to stay on the air until then.

“Looks like,” says Whedon. “We’re hoping that we’ll get some slow growth, which is what Sandy Grushow said before this season ever started. He said, ‘Look, you’re going to be hit with baseball. It’s not an out-of-the-box thing, we don’t expect it to be.’ So there’s something good on that side. They’re letting us keep going, and it really feels like we’re ready to hit our stride.”

“The shows that we’re working on now have the adventure and the excitement that FOX is looking for, along with all the character stuff, which is why I show up.”

“I think we’ve found it,” says Minear. “I do, I do.”

FOX has ordered three more scripts, over and above the original 13-episode order. “That makes 16,” says Minear. “I think I can count. This is the land bridge that connects the two continents. The notion being, they haven’t made a decision. If they decide to pick us up, the scripts will already be in development, in the stages of being written, and we won’t have to stop production.”

One major difference between “Firefly” and Whedon’s previous shows — UPN’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and its spin-off, The WB’s “Angel” — is that there is no obvious mission for the characters of “Firefly.” They’re not charged with saving the universe from anything, and seem to have no mystical destiny to fulfill.

“I wanted to get away from this sort of overweening Chosen One,” Whedon says. “There’s a messianic steam in popular culture right now, with ‘Buffy’ and ‘The Matrix.’ One chosen person — it’s been cropping up a lot. I want to get away from that.”

“I want to show people — although they have River there [a disturbed ” genius” girl, played by Summer Glau], who’s extraordinary, and they’re big damn heroes, all that good noise — I want to show people that really aren’t chosen, who would not make the list, who are not the saviors of the world.”

“Frankly,” Minear says, “Mal’s mission is to keep these people alive and keep flying. It’s just about getting by. That’s always been the mission statement of what the show is — getting by.”

Asked if he thinks that’s enough for appointment television, Minear says, “I do. It depends on who the people are. It depends on if an audience resonates with the stories that are told week to week, and if the cast is engaging.”

One cast member seems to have broken through already — the mercenary Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin. Blunt and lumbering, his deadpan humor and bullheadedness have struck a chord with fans. “I was a little surprised that Jayne was as popular as he was,” Whedon says. “He’s kind of like Cordelia [on ‘Buffy’ and ‘Angel’]. He’s the guy who says the thing that other people are afraid to say. That usually means that it’s the funniest thing in the room.”

Minear says that “Firefly” is not planning any particular story arcs for the November ratings-sweeps period. “Actually, we’re trying to make every episode big,” he explains. “Something big for the series does happen, pretty much in every episode, but it’s not a three-episode arc like we would do on ‘Angel’ yet. We’re not to that point.”

“We’re trying to make sure that it’s user-friendly for as long as we can make it, so we can hopefully build an audience and stay on the air.”