On the Occasion of Firefly’s 10 Year ‘Versary
Let me paint for you, dear reader, a portraiture in words.
The date is September 20, 2002, and the Fox network debuts a bold, new science-fiction television program. It is a genre-demolishing blend of space opera and stagecoach western. The universe in which it plays out and its nine principal characters are complex and fully realized. It is smart, exciting, funny, and often very touching. After airing only a few episodes, however, the network gets nervous. Have viewers grown too accustomed to the utopian sterility of Star Trek? Have they come to expect that from science-fiction? Do audiences understand this seamless blend of cowboys n’ spaceships? Are they comfortable with spaceships being combined with a fiddle and acoustic guitar soundtrack? Horses, but no aliens?!
The network starts to meddle, shifting the show’s schedule around, airing episodes out of order, and generally doing everthing it can to ensure the show can’t grab a regular audience. Only eleven of its fourteen filmed episodes are aired before it is cancelled. The reaction from its small but devoted fanbase is swift and severe. When released, DVD copies of the series fly off the shelves. Petitions and letter-writing campaigns flood Fox headquarters. Eventually, enough interest is generated that Universal Pictures agrees to produce a feature film based on the series (really a continuation of the story.) The film is released in 2005 and receives critical praise (often more positively received than another tentpole sci-fi film released that year, much to fanboys’ chagrin). Despite these achievements, it generates a healthy but admittedly unsatisfying box-office yield. However, the series’ universe and characters live on in graphic novels, toys, t-shirts, and sly references in other shows.
This has been the story of Firefly. Until The Avengers, it remained writer/producer/director Joss Whedon’s crowning achievement. In Firefly, it is the year 2517 and humans have long left a depleted Earth behind to terraform an assortment of planets and small moons. Settlers and pioneers endure a hardscrabble existence as it is, but they also have to contend with spacefaring savages known as Reavers. In this time, the two major cultures to have survived “Earth-that-was” are American and Chinese. Thus nearly everything in this universe, from costumes to customs, is a blend of the two. Even language is affected, with characters dropping in and out of Chinese without warning (though their meaning can be gleaned from context). In the show’s recent past, a body known as the AngloSino Alliance (or simply the Alliance) sought to unify all terraformed planets under one government. A civil war was fought, Alliance versus Independents, and the Independents lost.
It is now a few years after the war and former Independent army sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the captain of his own small, run-down ship, a Firefly-class cargo/transport called “Serenity.” (Named for the Battle of Serenity Valley, which is believed to have been the defeat that sealed the Independents’ fate and ended the war.) Mal and his trusted war buddy turned first mate Zoe (Gina Torres) travel from planet to planet and take work as it comes, including work that is not exacty within the law. Their crew consists of Zoe’s husband the skilled, wisecracking pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk); not-quite-trustworthy gun thug Jayne (Adam Baldwin); and cheerful young mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite). They are also joined by Inara (Morena Baccarin), a respected professional courtesan known as a “Companion.” In the show’s first episode, Serenity takes on passengers: Alliance fugitives Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his mysteriously and uniquely gifted sister River (Summer Glau); and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher who seems to know an awful lot about weapons and crime.
This sci-fi pioneer story was gritty and almost exclusively character driven. Everyone is dirty and poor; and if they’re not dirty and poor, they’re Alliance, and they’re the bad guys. As Whedon himself said, “these are people [Star Trek's] Enterprise would have just flown right on by.” This is Han Solo: The TV Show. Malcolm Reynolds is a scoundrel, but man of deep conviction who will lay down his life for any member of his crew; he’s also the kind of guy who will shoot an enemy in the face or blithely kick a man into a jet engine if necessary.
Really, Firefly was the abused step child of the Fox line-up. Misunderstood, rescheduled, second-guessed at every turn, the show still managed to do a lot with very little. As a favorite Internet quote goes: “Firefly: doing more in 1 season than most shows manage to do with 5.” Interestingly, many fans and critics have explored the idea that Firefly was of such high quality because it was treated so poorly by the network. Great art is often born of hunger, pain, and suffering. When you’re worried that you’ll be cancelled next week, you have to decide: you can either phone it in, do a half-ass job because you’re defeated and you don’t care anymore; OR, you can do the best work of your life because you believe in this project and if it’s going down, it’s going down fighting. To wit, the show’s final episode, “Objects In Space,” was a boldly shot, cerebral story involving an existentialist bounty hunter who sneaks onboard the ship and waxes philosophical as he tries to snatch Simon and River.
The show’s 14-episode run handled episodic stories while maintaining a series arc that dealt with hiding Simon and River from Alliance detection. The feature film, Serenity, essentially tells the story that would have been Firefly‘s second (and possibly third) season arc had the show survived. Serenity also features a spectacular performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as a signature Joss Whedon villain, The Operative. It would not be a Joss Whedon production if someone important didn’t die, and Serenity provides death aplenty, sparking cries of “WHY?!?” from fans.
Here we are, 10 years later, and Firefly fans remain extremely devoted to this little show. A fan-made documentary, Done the Impossible, was released in 2006. When cast members speak at convention panels, they are greeted with extended standing ovations. Comic cons are crawling with people dressed as Malcolm or Kaylee, or wearing the now-iconic Jayne hat (or dressed AS the Jayne hat.) LEGO’s crowdsourced idea site Cuusoo has had to reject several Serenity models over licensing issues. Two books have been published featuring essays about aspects of the Firefly ‘verse. Nathan Fillion’s current show, Castle, regularly features winks and nods at his Firefly character. The same is true for Adam Baldwin’s most recent show, Chuck. And you don’t have to wait long in the one-off t-shirt community to see a Firefly in-joke.
The wife and I watch the entire series at least once a year. In fact, we’re having people over tonight to celebrate, in part, this 10 year ‘Versary. Perhaps it’s serendipitous that this anniversary comes less than a week before the release of The Avengers on DVD/Blu-ray. In many ways, the massive success of that movie proved Whedon’s ability as a mainstream storyteller; he is no longer just a geek god, but a movie god with the #1 opening weekend of all time. Whedon’s star has certainly risen, though it is far, far too late for our little Firefly-class midbulk freighter and her crew. Still, there’s always DVD.
So, dear reader, if you’re not doing anything tomorrow, get a copy of Firefly and watch it. In fact, that’s an order. Don’t make me invoke the Chain o’ Command. (“It’s the chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command here.”)