Aaron Steinmetz

...be very still...the bird's angry...and I think he can see us.

Firefly (A Story from Master Control)


I first heard about Firefly while I was working in master control, a job in which I was paid to essentially sit on my butt and watch television all day.  I learned about Firefly first as a rumor down the pike: Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel was making a show for Fox.

Not that we were bereft of the Joss: my station also had a UPN channel which by then had picked up Buffy from The WB, so I was aware of it and The Joss on the peripheral.

I have something to confess: I wasn’t much of a Joss Whedon fan at the time.

Now, now, Internet voices, calm your steely nerves and remember: there was a time before Netflix. There was a time before television shows on DVD. Back in the dark days before binge-watching was a household term, if you didn’t have cable, you didn’t see shows. You had what came across the airwaves and that was it. And I didn’t have cable.

So I hadn’t seen much of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, didn’t recognize its greatness. From time to time I would run reruns over the weekend, and I did on occasion run the then new episodes of the sixth season of Buffy, including the musical episode, which we had hyped like crazy and, to the immense surprise of us all in master control, didn’t suck. It was actually quite good, and it should have been a signal to me that this show everyone around me seemed to be ga-ga for was actually decent.

It didn’t. Because I wasn’t initiated, the episodes were a baffling mix of characters I didn’t know and stories that didn’t make much sense. Plus it was kinda violent; I’m not a fan of casual violence.

And let’s be honest: that first season? Not its best.

So I couldn’t fully appreciate what Joss Whedon had brought to television storytelling, a style that changed TV shows for decades to come.

I couldn’t understand why all the other operators in master control were so excited by The Joss making a show for The Fox, something called Firefly about space something-or-other. There was a naked girl in the commercial, and I’m always pleased with nudity, but that was all that interested me about it.

And then I saw the pilot.

(In the television world, a pilot is the episode used to sell the show, generally the first episode of it, and I saw it several weeks before it aired: one of the perks of working in master control.)

By that point I’d already been running commercials for the show, had seen the shot of the naked girl in the module more times than I could count, and I was confused. Where was the character introduction? Where was naked River? And what was she doing in the module with all the CO2 gas floating around her?

Bah. I put it all aside. What a pilot! Captivating, engrossing, amusing: even with the special effects incomplete (a computer-generated train hadn’t yet been inserted into the show by that point) I was enthralled by such an original story.

I started telling everyone about it. It was new, it was different. "Space cowboys!" I would say, driving everyone a little nuts as I ceaseless and breathlessly ranted about it.

"A western?"

"No, it’s set in space!"

"So it’s a sci-fi."

"Yeah! With horses and train heists and bar fights!"

"So it’s a western."

"Yeah, with spaceships!"

"This is the show with the naked girl lying on her side?"

"Yeah." I’d cringe. "Well, I didn’t see her in the pilot. In fact, the episode I saw didn’t really introduce any of them. I’m sure the first episode will though!"

I mean, it would have to, right? We’d been promoting the show vociferously using naked River in the module in every single commercial. You’d think, the first episode would contain that moment and explain it.

It didn’t.

On September 20, 2002 I watched the official airing of Firefly from my desk in master control, in the basement of the Fox 30 building in Chico, CA, and I was confused. Why had they aired that episode and not whatever other episode contained all the introductions to these characters? And what was the deal with the naked girl in the module?

It got worse.

Suddenly, all the promos for Firefly started dying off, dropping out of the playlist. Instead, we were running promos for a show called John Doe. A mystery series about a man with no memory, John Doe seemed like an intriguing and promising premise, but the pilot lacked the magic of Firefly and contained a disturbing amount of dudity. (Dude-nudity. Try to keep up.)

I was enraged. Why, oh Fox, why, when you had clearly spent more money on this brilliant space cowboy western sci-fi by the indomitable Joss Whedon (yeah...I was a fan), why on Earth were you promoting this clearly inferior show? It couldn’t be because this show was cheaper. It wouldn’t last. It was a dead show walking, and we all knew it.

And we were right. John Doe made it through its first season and never returned.

Firefly didn’t even get the dignity of an ending.

A few of us, myself included, did our part, though. During its painfully brief run, anywhere I saw a John Doe promo in the list I’d cut it out and replace it with a Firefly promo. Not sure if I was allowed to do that, but I’m guessing the statute of limitations has run out on that little protest. We master control operators told our friends about it, practically begging them to watch the show, but Fox kept changing the schedule and we never knew when it was on, let alone our friends.

Also before DVRs, children. Dark times indeed.

And then it finally happened.

December 15, 2002.

My birthday.

I turned 23 years old, and my present from Fox? Cancellation. I found out about the cancellation of my new favorite show at a Christmas party. The manager slipped it in while he was talking about the line-up: "Blah-dee-blah-something, something, we're bringing back Jerry Springer, yadda, yadda, oh and it looks like Firefly was cancelled after all. Now for the gift exchange!"

Merry gorram Christmas. Happy gorram birthday.

I'm sure it's in a box somewhere.

I'm sure it's in a box somewhere.

Our efforts to save the show were for naught, risking my job tampering with the promo line-up to promote what should have been their signature show, wasted. I assumed, in the years to follow, I would never again enjoy the show that introduced me to Joss Whedon, and Firefly would slip from public memory into quiet ambiguity.

I am delighted to be wrong.

In fact, I feel vindicated that everyone seems to have sided with me and my fellow master control operators. I am pleased to see others sharing in my confusion with Fox’s decisions, my anger at their actions (like airing the second episode first and the first episode last) and I’m pleased to have at least gotten a movie and something vaguely resembling an ending, even if it cost us two main characters to get there. The show is on Blu-Ray now, and available to watch and rewatch again and again to my heart’s content, something Early Twenties Aaron would not have thought possible.

But it’s a bit hollow, only having one season, feeling that ulcerous anger building in me for Fox burying and then cancelling one of the greatest shows on television.

I mean, seriously? How many of you even remember John Doe?

Not trying to be mean here; I’m sure it was a decent enough show.

But he was no Malcolm Reynolds.

Browncoats forever.