Anybody in Hollywood can tell stories about how their visions got tampered with by suits. By marketing people who think the movie would be more successful if the ending were a little more upbeat. By producers who insist that half an hour has to go. You can fight. Sometimes you even win. But there’s always another suit with another idea for how to make it just a little “better.”
Fans can point to any number of movies and TV shows that have been ruined by suits. The FOX network in particular has a reputation for buying shows and then wrecking and cancelling them. A famous example is Joss Whedon’s sci-fi/western mashup Firefly.
Fox picked up Firefly, paid a lot of money for it, with the intention of filling an hour of incredibly important prime time with it. They must have believed in the show, right? Right? Well, Fox immediately ditched the pilot and ordered Whedon to come up with a new first episode. They aired episodes out of order, marketed it horribly, preempted it for sports programming, and then, when viewers couldn’t find Firefly, Fox cancelled it with three episodes still unaired.
Back in the day, that would have been that. Firefly never found its audience. James Cameron’s The Abyss got a huge chunk taken out of the story near the end. Blade Runner had that voiceover narration so audiences would understand it. And the audience would never have known any better.
But on DVD, audiences can now see movies and TV shows the way their creators intended. Lots of movies are released in “Director’s Cuts” which restore trimmed footage and otherwise undo the suits’ meddling.
And as a fan, I have to admit I’ve been kind of surprised by what I’ve learned from Director’s Cuts. I’ve learned that the suits are right more often than I’d like to admit. A lot of the time, cutting that footage actually makes the movie better. Put it back in and the story feels slow and flabby.
James Cameron’s The Abyss is again a key example. The studio forced Cameron to cut almost half an hour from the back end of the film. And while The Abyss is one of the best action movies ever made up until the end, the end is just a mess. I’d always told myself the studio had ruined it. I rejoiced when the uncut Director’s version came out on DVD. At last I’d get to see it as it was supposed to be.
Imagine how surprised I was to discover that the problems with the film weren’t the studio’s fault at all. With the cut material restored, the end of The Abyss was still a mess. It was just a much, much longer mess. That time, the suits were right.
But Firefly? Firefly was Joss Whedon at his best. And Fox was so arbitrary in the way it messed with Firefly. And I saw the show on DVD in the proper order, with the lost episodes in place, and loved it. Surely this time the suits had to be wrong, right?
Recently I showed Firefly to a couple friends who’d never seen it. And we started out with “Serenity,” the original two part pilot, just the way Joss Whedon wrote it. My friends were sort of lukewarm, but I kept raving. It was only after we watched Fox’s choice of first episode, “The Train Job,” that they really started to get it. “That was more like it,” they said.
I was astonished. I thought Firefly worked just fine with Whedon’s pilot. But my friends, who aren’t science fiction fans in particular, didn’t really get it. It was “The Train Job” that roped them in so we could all have a blast with the rest of the series.
As much as I hate to admit it, for the broader audience, “The Train Job” might have been a better first episode than “Serenity.” The suits might have actually been right again. (There’s still no excuse for the way Fox mishandled the show after that though…)