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Goodbye Backwords Press: A Personal Note from Matty; Or, What the 'Firefly' Cancellation Has

My favorite TV show, possibly ever, is the short-lived sci-fi/western masterpiece, Firefly.

Not many people watched Firefly when it aired in 2002, heralded (as it was) by a perfect storm of insurmountable obstacles: interference over the show’s characters, a network “deathslot” (right in the middle of Friday night baseball), low ratings, and incomprehensible decision-making by Fox executives about how to market and air its planned 14 episodes. The show’s creator, Joss Whedon, was fresh from the dual-successes of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Angel; and Fox was keen to share the profits from another Whedonverse idea, what Whedon himself called “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” But Fox executives didn’t play nice. Many said, and have said, that Firefly was doomed from the start.

Of course, I wasn’t there for any of this. I was still on my LDS mission in 2002. I didn’t return until August of 2003, months after Firefly had been cancelled by Fox—11 episodes into its 1st season. The show’s original pilot episode, a two-hour world-building and expository welcome to Firefly’s cast and story, aired December 20th, the 11th aired by Fox and last of all.

Me? Friends introduced Firefly to me on DVD. These friends had been introduced to Firefly on DVD. I was to learn, as I’ve grown to love the show more and more over the years, that much of Firefly’s enduring popularity and fanbase are due to its DVD and BluRay sales: it was enough in 2005 to launch a feature film (by Universal Pictures) to finish out the show’s primary hanging threads, but never enough to have saved the show originally. What a 2014 Business Insider article called “a sci-fi ensemble show with a Western feel and ‘a gritty realism that wasn't an 'Alien' ripoff,’” critics and fans alike have called “one of the greatest tragedies in science-fiction TV.” I’m still sad about it, wondering what might have been.

And so we come to it: why I’m talking about Firefly when our little press, Backwords, is the one closing down…

My co-founders and friends, Jenny, Phillip, are likely lovingly rolling their eyes at this point. Jenny never really saw the appeal with Firefly, try as I might; and Phillip greatly prefers “Buffy” (with arguments I’d bow to wholeheartedly, as I love “Buffy” too, if not for my own nostalgia). Moreover, Firefly’s apparent relevancy has long-since burned out. And while it’s unheard of for a cancelled TV show to get its own feature film, or frankly to have news outlets still writing about it 12 years later, Firefly fell from the sky before I even knew it existed.

Why are we here? This isn’t about the press, not really—certainly not as an enterprise. Nor is it about saving the ‘Verse (read = Whedon slang for “universe”) of poetry via conversations about how the written word is commodified/valued in our culture, despite it being one of the Backwords Press goals. Those are good things (practicality, a certain ethos) but they’re not why we’re here...

I think it’s because Firefly is mimetic, in its own particular language and way, of the competing forces at work on art, even artistic venture, within the known universe. The venture failed spectacularly, despite having a lot going for it; and it achieved posthumous (can you use that word for phenomenon?) success after its failure was ensured. Firefly was always a small ship, a small crew. It had obstacles endemic to its genre and form, further complicated by its own stylistic choices within that form; it’s a historical irony, though not that uncommon, to find that Firefly’s inconsistencies with genre and form are a great part of its unique charm, especially among hardcore fans. Honestly, I can’t help making the connection...

I keep thinking about Firefly, whenever I keep thinking about Backwords Press coming to its end.

When something you love is like something else you love, and it too ends, you think about the something else you love a whole lot more. Truth is, I hope that people keep wearing these shirts, sporting these totes. I hope they still start conversations at the grocery store, at the bar, at a concert between sets; that strangers comment on the artistry of their design. That their readers find more poets to admire. I hope these poems mean to their (sometimes unwitting) audiences the same, or similarly, that they mean to me: that a “dead form” once more weaseled its way into surprise, into another sparrow-sized phoenix-birth. Because that is poetry. It’s presented under false pretenses, or relegated to a bad timeslot, or merely cancelled. It survives after it dies. And most of all, against all obstacles, it keeps flyin’.

Just one more thing, if you’re feeling extra sappy. There’s a bit of dialogue from Firefly’s principle character, Mal, during a flashback in Episode 8, “Out of Gas,” that forms something of a thematic backbone for the series: Mal’s giving his second-in-command, Zoe, a tour of his newly-purchased ship; what he says about freedom and living like real people (despite being at odds with any sort of practicality one might espouse) speak to the heart of the show’s message about work and chosen family.

MAL: Well?

ZOE: You paid money for this, sir? On purpose? MAL: What? Come on, seriously, Zoe. What do you think? ZOE: Honestly, sir, I think you got robbed. MAL: Robbed? What do you mean? ZOE: It’s a piece of fei-oo [junk]. MAL: Fei-oo? I... Okay, she won’t be winning any beauty contests anytime soon. But she is solid. Ship like this, be with you till the day you die. ZOE: Because it’s a deathtrap. MAL: That’s not... You are very much lacking in imagination. ZOE: I imagine that’s so, sir. MAL: C’mon. You ain’t even seen most of it. Lemme show you the rest. And...and try to see past what she is, and on to what she can be.

MAL: Tell you, Zoe. We get a mechanic, get her up and runnin’ again. Hire a good pilot. Maybe a cook. Live like real people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come — ain’t never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.

Shiny, eh? Think this could be applied to making art? I think maybe so.

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