2013 is rapidly approaching and I realized that no one is going to do another in-depth look back on Firefly until 2022 when the show turns twenty and that is just too damn long. So the following is my love letter to a show that found life in its death. A program and culture that has taken on a life like no other cancelled show in history ever has and inexplicably continues to grow in popularity despite being off the air for almost a decade. Joss Whedon may be in the $600 Million directing club nowadays but before the leap to the big screen, he was a TV big shot. Admittedly I am not the biggest Whedon fan on the planet save for Firefly and The Avengers but I have always respected his outstanding writing and eye for detail. I think I never got into his first major hit because my first taste of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in the laughable 1992 movie starring Kristy Swanson and Luke Perry (which did contain one of the best death/dying scenes ever – thank you Paul Reubens/AKA Pee-wee Herman). Son of a veteran TV writer, Whedon made his bones in LA penning shows like Roseanne and the original Parenthood movie spin-off before working as a script doctor on some very high profile feature films. Although he was happy to get his original Buffy creation made into a feature film, Whedon was notably not thrilled with the final outcome of a property he worked so hard to develop. In 1996, after several years toiling away on other people’s projects Whedon was given a chance to resurrect Buffy according his original vision, for the fledgling WB Network. Whedon’s dream of maintaining full control of his property had come true and he was rewarded with Buffy the Vampire Slayer becoming one of the WB’s first bona fide hits. Spinning off from Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s success was the successful Angel. Angel managed to last five seasons on its own. But it was within that time frame that Whedon’s foray into Sci-Fi TV that struck such a chord with his devoted fans.
In the Fall of 2002 Firefly premiered on Fox and was the textbook definition of a bomb. It was here and gone before you even realized what you had missed. Firefly’s abysmal ratings gave the suits the power to cancel the show just as it was getting out of the gate. After all, it takes some good word of mouth for a brand new show in its first season to get solid ratings before a network decides to pick up a complete first season, let alone a second. With just eleven of the scheduled fourteen episodes produced aired, Firefly very publicly stalled and it was looking like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel series were flashes in the pan from a creator only capable of a single genre. Whedonites were barely given a chance to decide whether or not Firefly was a worthy successor to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then something strange happened over the next two years. In 2003 Firefly was released on DVD (yes this was pre Hi-Def) and message boards and Whedon-friendly chat sites began to sing the praises of the short-lived series. Furthermore, the example of how Family Guy resurrected itself from cancellation through DVD sales to become one of Fox’s most enormous hits, began a call for action to revive Firefly. The fanbase of what had seemed just another cancelled show began to pick up steam and suddenly the “Browncoat” movement was in full swing.
Before Cons were what they are now (i.e., basically corporate events) and when die-hard fans still had the run of the convention centers, whispers began to speak of the little show that could and that the Firefly DVD was must-watch material for all of Geekdom. The Firefly DVD/resurrection campaign was the digital age’s equivalent of a grass roots movement and it was picking up unprecedented steam. I bought in and picked up the Firefly DVD set for a paltry sum and waited with bated breath when Whedon and company announced that a movie was being set up and produced at Universal to answer all of the Firefly faithful’s long gestating questions. Whedon has gone on record saying that without the “Browncoat” movement of faithful fans the film Serenity in2005 would just not have been possible. Serenity went on to become a modest hit but more than anything was a tribute to the fans who had stuck by Firefly for all those years. Without a doubt Serenity carried the same familial attitude that Firefly did; it wrapped up the ultimate fans’ major concerns and tied things up with a nice big bow.
I want to reiterate that although I am a crazy Firefly/Serenity fan it is not because Joss Whedon is behind either property. As I mentioned earlier I think I caught the pilot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and maybe a couple of early episodes because my college roommate assured me that he had hooked up with Sarah Michelle Gellar the previous summer back East. Still, the show just never did much for me save for the collective eye candy of SMG and Charisma Carpenter. I did enjoy Whedon’s short lived run on Marvel’s Astonishing X-Men and some of his other comic book contributions because I greatly admired his writing and the narrative structure of his stories. However, as far as Whedon’s prime-time hit shows went they were just not for me. I was far from a Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel-phile who could not stand to miss a single episode. I guess the vampire genre really began and ended for me back in 1987 with The Lost Boys (read our lookback/review here: Lost Boys). Still, I knew that Joss understood how to cultivate a fanbase rather than alienate one, like so many other show runners and EP’s have managed to do over the years.
As the years went by I found myself watching the 14-episode complete Firefly series over and over and then capping it off with the Serenity feature. It became one of my favorite pastimes, every couple of months (OK weeks) and I simply never grew tired of Firefly, its characters or its premise. Firefly’s premise is one of continued debate. While some consider it to be a Sci-Fi Western, others see it as a Space Opera with Western overtones and homage to films and series like Star Wars and Star Trek. After all the late Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train for the stars.” Still, Firefly is very difficult to box in to one simple description that “fits all.” It is a post-war action-adventure drama known for its realist future with relatable material. Firefly has comedic moments as well as heartbreaking turns with characters we sincerely care about. It is easy to see parallels to movies about the Old West and the adjustment to the new American Frontier and establishing a new society in a post-Civil War era. Those themes are strongly apparent here as evidenced by the Alliance and Independent/Browncoat War remaining very much alive and well in the hearts and minds of those in Firefly who survived.
In the distant future of the 2500’s “Earth-that-was” has become a distant memory. Knowing the history of Firefly and how we got where we are in the Firefly universe is just as important as knowing the episodes because it helps the viewer understand minutiae and important details. (For the most detailed timeline map in the gorram ‘verse, please take a look at Edgar Governo’s amazing http://www.mts.net/~arphaxad/firefly.html). The Earth that we know became impossibly overcrowded as both China and the United States grew to massive proportions. Upon the discovery of a new solar system with dozens of planets and hundreds of moons the government began the task of terra-forming these new discoveries making them habitable for humans. The process took decades and the Interplanetary Parliament more commonly known as “The Alliance” began its reign throughout the universe. The Alliance was meant to be a beacon of civilization, but some of the planets on the outer rim that were a great distance from the more enlightened core planets simply refused governance. Those opposed to Alliance control were collectively known as The Independents or “Browncoats” and underestimated by the omnipresent governing body. The War to Unite the Planets or Unification War, as it came to be known, lasted much longer than expected and the final battle, which sealed the Browncoats’ loss, was fought in Serenity Valley on Hera. The war devastated the universe, causing a permanent gulf between the people desiring to be free and the Alliance’s stronghold over the universe. While detailed, volumes of Firefly lore have been written, this is the gist of the underlying story preceding the adventures of the little ship that could, The Serenity; best boat in the ‘verse.
Years after the war Mal and company (See Characters below) sail across the universe in his Firefly-class ship Serenity. While their main mission is to avoid any Alliance entanglements, the ragtag crew thieves and scams its way across the galaxy to make as much coin as they can and, ironically, do what’s right, on most occasions. The Serenity’s real story begins after Mal and Co. take on new passengers in the pilot episode. These new passengers, taken on at Persephone include a wealthy young Doctor and his stowaway sister. Firefly is a deeply layered tale of good vs. evil and there are no “throwaway” episodes in the bunch, all topped off with the feature film Serenity.
Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds
I would be remiss did I not compare Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds to Han Solo, the greatest smuggler in modern American Science Fiction. Mal, as played with assured confidence by Nathan Fillion, is a veteran of the war with the Alliance whose last stand was in the Battle of Serenity Valley. A volunteer from the outer moon Shadow, Mal was a highly-decorated Sargeant known for both his bravery and sincere loyalty, first to his troops and later to the crew of the Serenity. While constantly compared to the aforementioned icon Han Solo, Mal is much more of a scoundrel than the Star Wars character ever was. In Firefly Mal tells the occasional joke and he is not above the occasional ship hijinks, but Mal Reynolds is not someone to be trifled. Known for his hand-to-hand combat and being skilled with a side-arm, Mal is a leader who is not above killing. He follows no moral code unless you count wanting to govern yourself. Mal’s love for his ship and his crew is unlike anything I had ever seen in a modern day anti-hero. While Mal aims to misbehave you root for him every step of the way. I credit Whedon and his writing for this because on paper Mal is a difficult character to love. But the name Mal Reynolds has risen to the highest ranks of legendary Sci-Fi characters in just a decade. Considering the discerning crowd that is the Fanboy set, that is no mean feat.
Zoe Alleyne Washburne
Whedon’s history of writing strong female characters continues with Zoe Washburne, Captain Mal’s right-hand “man.” Actress Gina Torres plays Zoe with a calm coolness that is rarely seen in such a hardcore soldier. As the only one on the crew who served with Mal in the war, Zoe has a keen insight into what motivates the Captain and she answers to him first, even before her husband “Wash,” who happens to be the pilot. While it is hard to ignore Ms. Torres’ sex appeal and legs that go on forever, she reminds me of Linda Hamilton in T2 with her devout faith in the cause and her Captain.
Hobash “Wash” Washburne
Alan Tudyk is Firefly’s comic-relief, playing the Hawaiian shirt wearing pilot of the Serenity. A veteran actor, Tudyk manages to steal many of the scenes he shares with his very serious co-stars. Known only as “Wash” to his onboard cohorts he is a remarkable pilot who is very modest about his abilities and uses his sense of humor to diffuse the ever present tension aboard the Serenity. Despite their differences, Wash also happened to steal the heart of Zoe along the way. If there is a heart of the ship it is most definitely Wash.
The awesome Adam Baldwin plays the Serenity crew’s unapologetic mercenary, whose sole motivation is money. With his Southern drawl, broken English and massive size; Jayne is easily the happiest when fighting and being paid. Baldwin’s range is impressive as Jayne as he has appeared in such movies as Full Metal Jacket, D.C. Cab and the amazing My Bodyguard (not to be confused with the crapfest The Bodyguard). Easily one of my favorite episodes is “Jaynestown,” in which the crew returns to the small moon of Canton to find that Jayne is the workers’ folk hero. While Jayne can be intimidating he is a merc that you want fighting on your side. There are many times in Firefly that you get the sense that Jayne enjoys people thinking he is just a dumb lug hired for his strength. Clearly there is more to him than that.
The stunning Morena Baccarin lends some respectability to the Serenity as a “Companion” who rents one of the two shuttles that the main ship is equipped with. A companion is the future equivalent of a high-priced Geisha who requires a great deal of schooling and academy training. Ironically, Inara is somewhat of a moral compass for the Serenity and is well schooled in how to deal with people. She and Mal clearly have an unspoken “thing” for each other through the series and it is one of those “will they or won’t they” situations that never feels stale. The reason Mal rented a shuttle to Inara was to lend an air of respectability to the Serenity, as Companions have an air of nobility about them.
Kaywinnet Lee “Kaylee” Frye
As the stalwart and savant like mechanic of Serenity, Jewel Staite is wonderful as “Little Kaylee.” If Captain Mal has a favorite it is most definitely Kaylee. Her air of positivity and general sweetness comes across in everything she says and it is one of the roles you cannot imagine another actress being cast in. Kaylee is quite taken with Dr. Simon Tam and most definitely has a paternal thing for Mal that has developed over the years. Kaylee just seems to “know” machines and “speaks” to Serenity in a way no else can.
Dr. Simon Tam
The brilliant young doctor played by Sean Maher is one-half of the driving force of the central plot of Firefly. Privileged and well read, the doctor joins the gang at Persephone with mysterious cargo that we learn later is his little sister River. Despite his wealth and education Simon lacks interpersonal skills and it takes a good while for him to adjust to living a life of crime. Simon spent his fortune and jeopardized his future by breaking River out from the institute where she was being held. A constant thorn in Mal’s side and always seeming to be on the verge of being thrown off the ship, the doctor is still needed by the crew.
Summer Glau plays River, the catalyst for the entire show, with a detached brilliance. A girl who overshadowed her older brother’s gifts by leaps and bounds when they were children, River was selected to be part of a new school for “The Best of the Best.” After a period away from home Simon begins receiving letters from River that are encoded attempts to tell him what is being done to her. Simon breaks River out of the “school” where her brain was fiddled with to make her into the perfect weapon and takes passage on Serenity without the Captain or crew’s knowledge that River is in tow. When Summer unexpectedly awakens from the state of suspended animation in which she was traveling, it becomes clear that she was deeply affected by the Alliance run school’s experiments on her brain. River is now a “reader,” someone who sees things before they happen and a psychic of sorts. She is proficient in hand to hand fighting as well as firearms and was a highly valued subject by the Alliance. Oh and she also is the keeper of the biggest secret of the universe.
Shepherd Derrial Book
Shepherd Book takes passage on Serenity at Persephone and although he claims to be a man of the cloth and a devout Christian, “Book” has a checkered past that he is reluctant to speak about. Ron Glass of Barney Miller fame does a wonderful job as the religious man with a past. It becomes a running gag on Firefly regarding how much the Shepherd knows about war, battle and general combat. In one episode in which Shepherd is badly hurt, his ident card secures him Alliance treatment without any questions. His stock answer is “I wasn’t always a Shepherd.”
While discussed and not seen as much as fans would like, Reavers, in my opinion, are one of the keys to the entire Firefly universe. It would be awful to ruin the secret behind what and who they are so I will just say this: Reavers are space scavengers who fly from place to place raping and killing people and using other people’s flesh as their own. Not only do Reavers slice their own flesh, but they use others’ flesh as well to cover themselves. They scare the hell out of even Jayne.
A Firefly Reunion?
It has been ten years since Firefly came and went, but like any good legend it has grown exponentially since. Fan sites, maps, graphic novels, historical data, books and toys are just some of the Firefly branded things that have spread like Pax (not going to spoil it!). While I assure you that if you are late to the party and are just getting into Firefly for the first time, you will not be disappointed. Firefly is like a penny stock that goes sky high. By that I mean Firefly requires the minimal investment of a day to witness a Sci-Fi marvel in its entirety. Joss Whedon has hinted at a Firefly reunion and played coy at the 10-year Browncoats Unite panel on the Science Channel earlier this year. I have to imagine that the documentary was shot before The Avengers became a box office juggernaut grossing over a billion dollars worldwide. Imagine what he could do with just a tenth of that money for Firefly? I know it’s not “his” money but you catch my drift. Money has a way of making people forget where they came from anyway, but Whedon still seems dedicated to the cause. Browncoats everywhere are hopeful that, with the rumored conclusion of Nathan Fillion’s hit show Castle not far off and the start date for Avengers 2 already set that the sky could be the limit for Firefly.
Even if a Firefly reunion does not happen I think we will all press on okay. There is something amazing about catching lighting in a bottle so ahead of its time that it takes people a few years to realize its glory. The magic may not be there in future endeavors but I would be lying if I said I would not love to see some sort of spin-off; be it a film or a TV series. Remember, you can’t stop the signal. The fans will remain faithful as long as there is a glimmer of hope; another new rumor that hits the web that the show is coming back. And in the end that is what it is all about; the hope for something better or a continuation of what was the best time you can remember: Firefly. It’s all about staying Shiny…