Pulp Appeal: Firefly (and Serenity)


There aren’t many self-respecting fans of science fiction who haven’t at least heard about the masterpiece Fox television show Firefly, sadly cut down in its prime by network executives without a clue. At the time of its release, I was simply too pissed off at Fox for canceling my weekly date with Jessica Alba[1] , and could read the writing on the wall. In the early 2000s, Fox had a nasty habit of airing promising sci-fi shows in the Friday night death slots. Firefly is no exception. And then Fox went and made it even worse by airing the episodes out of sequence and taking seven months between the first 11 and last 3 episodes. Fan outcry wasn’t enough to save the show—it rarely is—but creator Joss Whedon did manage to spin out a feature film, Serenity, to wrap up most of the story. Sadly, Serenity didn’t live up to its potential and the franchise died for good.

So, since it is a sci-fi masterpiece and since a lot of people know about it, why am I talking about it? Because it’s pulp, of course. The protagonist, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is one of the losers of a civil war, The Browncoats, and now makes his ends meet smuggling goods through the galaxy. His second-in-command, Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), had served with Mal during the war and continues to be his trusted advisor. Not everyone on the Firefly-class ship Serenity are remnants of the losing army. Zoe’s husband, Hoban Washburne (Alan Tudyk)—called Wash by nearly everyone—is the Serenity’s pilot, but never actually served in the war. Then you have the amoral musclehead mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), an escort/geisha/courtesan with advanced social standing Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), preacher-who-knows-a-lot-about-crime Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), young virtuoso engineer Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), Simon Tam (Sean Maher) a doctor who worked for the winners of the war, and the doctor’s sister River Tam (Summer Glau) a psychic badass who Simon broke out of a secret government training facility.


Malcolm Reynolds in his suspenders and 1870s-style leg holster.

Each of these characters has a major arc throughout the short-lived series (only 14 episodes and a 2-hr movie), but the one constant is the pulp-y nature of the show. Malcolm Reynolds could be John Carter from ERB’s A Princess of Mars. The loser in a rebellion ends up leading people, somewhat reluctantly, into another rebellion. The echoes of the US Civil War and the Western expansion are not unintentional, including faux Southern accents shot through with Chinese curses[2] and corrupted modern slang, and 1870s-style Wild West garb and weaponry, with many of the worlds echoing directly the feel of frontier towns at the edges of civilization during the Reconstruction era.

As a tv show with most episodes containing a completed storyline, it naturally falls into the way pulp serials were written and consumed, but the particular stories are always quite pulpy in themselves. In one episode the crew is hired to steal and smuggle goods only to learn the goods they’re stealing are necessary medical supplies for the outpost world. In another, a former friend is being laid to rest and the crew show up for his funeral only to discover he’s using them to smuggle human organs, and ultimately Mal is forced to kill his friend. It’s this mixture of moral complexities that makes for some of the best pulp, as I’ve discussed before in other articles.


Not the best DVD cover out there, but not the worst, either.

Star Wars clearly mixed space exploration with Westerns and Asian culture before Firefly, and Buck Rogers did it even earlier, so it’s not like Firefly is particularly original in concept. That said, its execution was a damn sight better than many people at the time, myself included, thought. As I said earlier, I missed Firefly the first go around and didn’t watch it in earnest until it hit Netflix some years ago. I went and bought the DVD set after watching the first two episodes, as at the time Netflix was far more volatile and less regular with shows’ comings and goings. I felt like a fool for skipping past the show as it aired, but then given how it was mistreated by Fox (and how viewers in general had been mistreated) perhaps it was for the best.

In any case, if you haven’t already hit the bandwagon on this show, which seems expressly unlikely given the demographics of our readers, do yourselves a favor and watch Firefly and Serenity. Though the latter lacks some charm, has too much exposition (gotta fill in those who didn’t watch the series), and moves too quickly through the story, it’s still worth it as a series ending wrap-up.[3]

[1] Dark Angel – one of the few shows my wife (then girlfriend/fiancee) and I agreed wholeheartedly on at the time, both for the cyberpunk dystopia and for the physical looks of the main characters–she for Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly) and me for X5-452/Max Guevara (Jessica Alba). And yes, we own the DVD sets—and book trilogy.

[2] This is a bit of worldbuilding that avoids explicit explanation until Serenity’s movie exposition overload. It’s hinted at through flags in the background and intimated simply because of the fluency of characters in both English and Mandarin, but it’s not until the film where the full history of the Alliance is delivered. Frankly, I think we were better off without it.

[3] If you feel like the movie failed to adequately close certain left-over threads from the series (the Blue Hands, why Inara and Book weren’t onboard at the start of the movie, etc.) there is a series of graphic novels penned by Whedon that fill in those gaps.

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4 Responses to Pulp Appeal: Firefly (and Serenity)

  1. Karandi says:

    Firefly and Serenity are both a joy to watch. I actually had never heard of Firefly as it barely aired on Australian TV at all so the first I knew of this was the cinema release of Serenity back when I lived near a cinema and saw every sci-fi. I went in expecting another B Grade story and got something far more compelling (not perfect to be sure, but really entertaining). It was after that I found out it was made to finish an unfinished TV series and I ordered the DVD box set without ever having seen an episode. So glad I made that choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Mangled Latin and commented:

    Today I discuss the pulp appeal of Firefly/Serenity.


  3. Reblogged this on Dark Perceptions and commented:

    Cameron talks about the sheer joy that is FIREFLY.


  4. One of my favorites!


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