“Firefly” Felled by the Fox.
Continuing the success afforded by his back-to-back TV successes “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003) and “Angel” (1999-2004), writer/producer/director Joss Whedon (currently of Disney/Marvel “Avengers” cinematic fame) created, along with “Angel” partner Tim Minear (“American Horror Story”), a short-lived TV series (2002-2003) that could be described in broad terms as ‘Han Solo: The TV Series’; a roguish hero who, along with his patched-together space freighter & crew, would roam a newly settled, post-Earth star system in search of work (legal or otherwise).
“Firefly” is based loosely on a concept first tested with Whedon’s own screenplay for 1997’s “ALIEN: Resurrection,” which saw the outlaw crew of a small transport ship, the “Betty,” getting caught up in a much bigger government conspiracy. The Betty was a rundown little ship doing off-the-books jobs to support her motley crew. Said motley crew included a morally dubious captain, a hired muscleman, a waifish android, a paralyzed mechanic and a dreadlocked weapons expert.
The subsequent “Firefly” TV series would take those core characters of “ALIEN: Resurrection” and warm them up considerably, adding greater wit, vulnerability and charm. The morally dubious captain became the more lovable war veteran Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), the cool-under-fire weapons-guy became Mal’s fellow war vet turned first officer Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), the impish mechanic became the jokester pilot & Zoe’s husband Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), the waifish android became sweet-natured engineer Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), and the hired muscle became…well, hired muscle Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin). Instead of transporting the human-xenomorph hybrid Ripley-8, the crew of the Firefly-class vessel “Serenity” were transporting registered “companion” Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), former-operative-turned-preacher named Book (Ron Glass), and a pair of highly-sought after fugitives; a traumatized, weaponized teenaged psychic named River Tam (Summer Glau), who is under the care of her devoted older brother Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher).
A botched rollout by the Fox TV network saw the episodes airing out of order, with the pilot episode airing last (“Serenity”, not to be confused with the later feature film/subject of this article). With the network rapidly losing faith amid poor ratings, the final few episodes weren’t even broadcast in the series’ initial run, and “Firefly” was unceremoniously cancelled. This caused a huge uproar with the show’s passionate fans (“Browncoats”, aptly named after the losing side of a solar system-wide civil war), who petitioned the network to bring the show back. Long before Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo were actual things, Whedon repackaged the return of the Serenity crew as a feature film for Universal, whose own rebooted “Battlestar Galactica” TV series (2003-2009) became a critical darling. It was hoped that if the film was successful, it might spawn sequels, or perhaps a return to the small screen. Whedon held a touring series of fan-attended preview screenings of the film, which arguably cut into some of the film’s initial box office when it finally hit movie screens in late September of 2005, six months after its planned release for April. The film marked the feature film directorial debut of Whedon, who would later experience great success with 2012’s “The Avengers” (and the Marvel cinematic universe in general).
The movie opens with a clever spin on the Universal Pictures’ logo, which uses its image of Earth in the story, showing a dying planet, as hundreds of spaceships flee the husk of their home world. The narration fills in some gaps for non-fans of the series, showing the settlement and terraforming of the faraway star system where the TV series was set. We also see the establishment of the wealthier Alliance core planets and the rugged, more hostile frontier planets of the outer rim.
The ‘narrator’ is a teacher (Tamara Taylor), who is seen during flashbacks of a preteen River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wryn). In the idyllic outdoor classroom, the teacher is quizzing the students about the causes for the system-wide civil war between the Alliance and the losing “Independents” (the Browncoats).
She calls on River for her answer, and young River pulls no punches when she says, “Because we meddle. We tell them what to do, and what to think.” The teacher, unfazed by River’s rebelliousness, tells her that “we don’t tell them what to think, we show them how…”
Cut to a 17-year old River (Summer Glau), being tormented in a government laboratory, with electrodes and needles placed all over her body as she’s strapped into a chair. In the lab, we see a ‘medical inspector’ allegedly from Parliament quizzing the lab’s director Dr. Mathias (Michael Hitchcock) about the ‘subject’s’ stamina and psychic abilities. Mathias comments on River’s physical dexterity, which prompts the inspector to remark, “Yes, she always loved to dance.” The ‘inspector’ is then revealed as River’s physician brother Simon (Sean Maher) who’s invested his personal fortune to smuggle his brilliant, tormented sister the hell out of this hi-tech torture chamber.
The following chronicles the Tam siblings’ elaborate escape from the lab up into a waiting spaceship; this is a prequel to their initial appearance in the original “Firefly” pilot. We then see that the ‘escape’ is actually detailed holographic footage recovered from the lab’s security monitors, now being reviewed by a real Alliance “Operative” (Chiwetal Eijofor). The Operative has no name, and no rank; he is a ghost whose job is to do the sorts of horrific jobs that, by their very nature, need to stay off the Alliance’s ‘official’ accounts.
Mathias reveals that “key members of Parliament” have already seen River Tam, prompting the Operative to run Mathias through with a samurai sword after paralyzing him by jabbing a nerve cluster in his back; the doctor’s “sin” was pride, for letting the psychic River Tam gain access to the minds of those same “key members” of Parliament. The Operative’s job isn’t to know the government’s secrets, nor does he care… he only wants to protect them, which he accomplishes with cold-blooded efficiency. He gazes into the frozen hologram image of the escaping Tams, and asks aloud, “Where are you hiding?”
The answer to the Operative’s question is revealed as we cut to the familiar setting of the Firefly-class transport “Serenity”, whose captain, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is preparing to land his crew on a remote frontier world in order to rob an insured payroll from a local, privately-contracted Alliance security force on the planet. Should be an easy heist. However, the patched-together ship has a rocky, malfunction-laden descent into the planet’s atmosphere, prompting a few angry shouts from Mal directed to his pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) and mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite), both of whom do their best to keep Mal’s ‘boat’ from crashing. Pieces fly off the ship as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. First officer Zoe (Gina Torres) has faith in her hubby Wash’s piloting skills, while the ship’s hired muscle Jayne (Adam Baldwin) readies his personal arsenal for the job ahead. The ship lands, and the crew preps their anti-gravity “mule” vehicle (like an industrial-style landspeeder) for departure into town.
Before they leave, Simon angrily confronts Mal about his taking River along on the heist, since her acute mind-reading abilities might come in handy on the job. Mal and Simon nearly come to blows, as the captain reminds the doctor that he and his sister are ‘guests’ aboard Serenity and need to earn their keep, since their fugitive status is a hindrance to Mal’s crew getting legitimate work. Simon loses the argument, but tells River before departure that it’s “okay” to leave Mal’s crew behind if they run into trouble. Mal sarcastically assures Simon that if anything happens to her, he’ll be touched…there might even be tears. With that, they fly their antigravity mule into town…
The heist of the payroll is more or less successful, thanks to River’s psychic assistance in weeding out any would-be ‘heroes’ and after a few comic missteps. However, things go south very quickly when River senses the planet is currently being raided by “Reavers”… those rogue humans from the TV series who’ve gone savagely insane, resorting to live cannibalism and grisly, hideous self-mutilation. The Reavers are essentially spacefaring versions of the ‘running zombies’ seen in “28 Days Later” as well as the 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” reimagining. After herding a few civilians to safety within the vault he and his crew just raided, Mal and his own crew take the money, hop onto their mule, and get the hell out of Dodge. A terrified civilian tries to hop aboard the mule, as he is being chased by ravenous Reavers. Mal, in a rare act of desperate inhumanity, kicks the frightened man off of the mule, only to see him mauled by Reavers. Thinking quickly, Mal shoots the man dead, preventing him from being eaten, as the ferocious Reavers only eat live prey.
The mule hurriedly hovers back to Serenity, only to find they are being chased by a Reaver spaceship. The Reaver ship is characterized by smeared red paint (blood?) on its hull and an unstable reactor which belches black smoke in its wake. Zoe calls out to her husband aboard Serenity and tells him they’re being chased by Reavers. Wash and Kaylee quickly power up the ship, and prepare for a ‘barn swallow’; opening the ship’s main cargo bay as the speeding mule flies right into its open ramp. Barely making it aboard with their lives, Mal is ‘greeted’ by a pissed-off Simon who decks the captain for endangering his sister’s life. Matching the doctor’s anger with plenty of his own, the two mutually agree that the Tams will take their cut of the heist and disembark at the ship’s next port of call on the planet Beaumonde. As Serenity reaches outer space, Zoe sympathetically confronts her increasingly desperate captain over his not saving the townie who was grabbed by the Reavers. Mal reminds her of their own desperate situation, and that maybe losing the Tams might make all of their lives easier.
Cleaning up after a crashed dead Reaver’s remains which made it into the cargo bay, Jayne and Kaylee talk about Mal’s tendency to scare people off of the ship; first Shepherd Book (the late Ron Glass) who went to live on the scruffy mining world of Haven, as well as the ship’s ‘registered companion’ Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who left Serenity six months earlier due to increasing romantic tension/friction between herself and Mal. As Jayne and Kaylee are discussing the situation, an unreadable River is listening overhead in the ship’s catwalks…
Landing on the industrialized world of Beaumonde to split their share of the payroll heist with the heist’s contractors, Fanty and Mingo (played by identical twins Yan & Rafael Feldman), the crew enjoy a little rest and recreation. As the too-trusting Mal is (once again) conned by the twin brothers, River’s attention is firmly held by a creepy candy commercial on one of the bar’s video screens.
Frozen in place, River’s eyes widen as she utters a single word, “Miranda.” Her own recitation of the word triggers her to begin kicking the asses of every single patron in the place. Using elegant balletic moves combined with bone-crushing martial arts (Glau’s earlier career as a ballerina really comes to play in this film), River really tears up the joint, and even thick-headed muscleman Jayne is knocked out cold while trying to subdue her. All of this mayhem, as expected, is captured on the bar’s Alliance-run surveillance equipment. In desperation, Simon shouts a Russian ’safe’ phrase (loosely translated as “it makes chickens laugh”) that instantly renders his sister unconscious. Realizing she could be traced back to him, Mal takes River and Simon back aboard Serenity and leaves Beaumonde immediately. Once in space, the crew try to figure out what to do with their lethal passenger, when Wash suggests they seek out the sleazy master of the internet, “Mr. Universe” (David Krumholtz), who has eyes and ears on the entire star system.
Mr. Universe lives safely nestled in a large network super-hub with his android wife “Lenore” (Nectar Rose) under his planet’s thick, storm ridden atmosphere. Meeting him in person, the crew learns that River was activated by a subliminal signal used to test the Alliance’s control on her, as well as flush out her position with her burst of preternaturally violent activity being captured on security monitors. Mr. Universe recognizes the activation signal as one he’s been seeing all over the solar system, apparently in an effort to find River. With that information, the crew leaves Mr. Universe’s hub…
Note: While the “Mr. Universe” character serves largely as exposition, he is also something of a slur on sci-fi fandom itself; representing the stereotype of the socially awkward, sleazy voyeur who lives vicariously through others in a virtual rather than actual existence.
Meanwhile, Inara’s new life as an instructor at a companion training ‘abbey’ is interrupted by a visit from the Operative, who coerces her to send a baiting message to Mal, urging him to help her deal with some “locals.” Mal and Zoe immediately realize it’s a trap, but Mal decides to go in anyway, given that he still has strong, unresolved feelings for Inara that never had proper closure. Arriving at her place of worship, Mal is immediately admonished by Inara, who didn’t think Mal would really be stupid enough to accept her clearly false invite. The coolly menacing Operative soon interrupts their reunion. Mal wastes no time and shoots him square in the chest, but (of course) the Operative is wearing body armor. The powerful man then proceeds to effortlessly kick the living crap out of Mal, who is barely holding his own when Inara sets off a flash bomb disguised as slow-burning incense. The flash bomb provides cover for she and Mal to escape back to Serenity, as the Operative slowly regains consciousness and rallies his support troops.
Note: “Companions” of this ‘verse are far more than mere prostitutes or ‘common whores’ by the 26th century; they’re a refined combination of geisha, entertainer, sex worker and spiritual adviser. It takes many years of discipline and training, beginning as early as age 12. In some ways, it’s analogous to how the profession of acting used to be frowned upon in the United States as a vagabond existence, but is now highly coveted and rewarded, especially when an actor is commercially successful.
Back in space, an increasingly desperate Mal is running out of options as River makes her way to Serenity’s cockpit, knocking her brother unconscious to prevent his using his safe words to make her sleep. While Mal tries to negotiate with the skyjacking River, she finds what she was looking for; on the ship’s navigational screens appears the unlisted “black rock” planet of Miranda… a secret source of River’s anxieties. According to buried records, Miranda is a world where the terraforming process apparently didn’t hold, leaving the planet quickly abandoned and hurriedly forgotten. Miranda is also deep in Reaver-controlled territory…in fact, it’s the base of their operations. En route to Miranda, the crew decide to once again seek temporary shelter on Shepherd Book’s ‘safe’ mining world of Haven, which has been completely ransacked and its population slaughtered. Mal finds his friend Book, laying in a pile of wreckage. The dying preacher tells ex-soldier Mal that he needs a cause to believe in. Courage of his own convictions will be the only way for Mal to defeat the Operative, who is similarly driven by his own diabolically unwavering beliefs. Onboard Serenity, Mal receives a broadcast from the Operative, who calmly takes credit for the savagery, and lets Mal know that all of his previous safe havens have been similarly destroyed. “If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to,” the Operative coldly reasons. Mal’s fury is white-hot, and he abruptly disconnects the communique.
Following the shepherd’s death, Mal has a grim new resolve; anyone not onboard with his plan will have to stay behind. He intends to place dead bodies and weapons onto the hull of Serenity, rigging the ship to appear like a savage Reaver spacecraft in order to fly directly into their space towards Miranda… taking their lone spacecraft into the most hostile and dangerous place in the entire solar system. Zoe quietly objects to desecrating Serenity’s hull with corpses and blood red paint, but Mal overrules her. Fearing Mal’s newfound take-no-prisoners ferocity, the crew goes along with his suicidal plan. Mal is clearly not screwing around anymore…
Serenity’s red-painted hull is littered with skeletons and a retrofitted gun turret, as the ship inconspicuously cruises into volatile Reaver space. Over the comm channels, the only sounds heard are the muffled screams of the permanently enraged Reavers, who leave their comm channels open to broadcast without cessation. It’s a chorus of pure horror, and one of the most nerve-rattling scenes in the film, as Wash does his best to pilot their ship unnoticed through the herds of monstrous spacefaring cannibals.
Landing at Miranda, the planet has many large abandoned cities with no active power source, save for a lone distress beacon coming from a nearby building. River begins to weep and sob uncontrollably as she is overwhelmed by the thousands of corpses found in the otherwise inert buildings (“Oh god, please make me a stone,” she begs). The corpses are not in pain or agony…they’ve apparently just laid down to die, in place, all over the planet. They didn’t die in agonizing, painful, violent deaths…they seemed to just collectively stop living. Soon, the crew find the source of the beacon; a crashed rescue ship, the C57-D, slammed into the side of a building.
Note: “C57-D” is a reference to the spaceship in the 1956 classic sci-fi film, “Forbidden Planet”, which is one of the many inspirations for Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek.” Joss Whedon has often joked that “Firefly” was intended to be the inverse of Roddenberry’s iconic show, noting that the Serenity is a little ship the mighty USS Enterprise would fly right by, without giving a second look…
Aboard the wreckage of the C57-D, the crew finds a holographic playback device with a recording that tells the entire story. The scientist in the recording (an early appearance by Sarah Paulson) states that Miranda was successfully terraformed, and quickly became an ideal planet for mass colonization. But the planet’s inhabitants were used by the Alliance as guinea pigs to test a gas called “pax” (peace) in order to chemically weed out aggression and make Miranda a ‘paradise.’ In most cases, the gas worked all too well, making the majority of the populace docile to the point of lifelessness; they simply chose not to work, breed, eat or even live anymore. The remaining ten percent suffered the opposite reaction to the gas, which enhanced innate violent tendencies into a state of permanent rage, thus creating the Reavers. This is the Alliance’s dirtiest secret; their attempts to covertly pacify their population unwittingly created the star system’s worst nightmare. The recording ends as the scientist shoots herself in the head to avoid being eaten alive by the ravenous zombies of her own creation. River then unexpectedly upchucks, but quickly tells her brother with newfound clarity, “I’m alright… I’m alright.” The unburdening of Miranda’s secret has helped ease River’s pain. With his crew by his side, Mal’s plan is to take the recording back to Mr. Universe’s hub and broadcast the truth of Miranda (and the Reavers) to the entire solar system. It’s his hope that the truth will break the Alliance’s fascistic hold over the many worlds of the star system…perhaps even overturning the outcome of the lost war for independence.
Note: I’ve noticed that both left and right-wing factions of the hotly divided current United States tend to see themselves in the role of the “Browncoats” (the Independent heroes of “Firefly” and “Serenity”), with their respective oppositions cast as the domineering “Alliance” (whose ships have also a Star Trek-style elegance to them as well… got it, Joss). Whedon cleverly keeps the ultimate political aims of both Alliance and Independents somewhat muddled, perhaps in an effort to placate both sides of fandom. Within the “Firefly” universe, both left and right are allowed to see themselves as the ‘heroes’, with neither side being completely right or wrong. My own politics aside, I gotta say, that’s a clever way to make all of your fans feel included.
Back in space, the crew gently tiptoe around the fleets of Reaver vessels, but Mal has a new plan. Knowing that an Alliance fleet will be waiting for them at the hub world, Mal stations himself at the retrofitted gun turret on Serenity’s hull. Just as they are about to clear the Reaver flotilla, Mal fires the cannon at a Reaver vessel which is looking them over too closely, destroying the ship, and attracting the attention of all Reaver vessels. Wash pours on the gas, as Serenity makes a beeline for the hub planet. Once there, we see the Operative in command of a shiny Alliance fleet, which is patiently waiting as a desperate Serenity rips though the planet’s surrounding storms. “Bastard’s not even changing course,” the Operative sneers. Just then, the Operative’s eyes go wide as Serenity is followed by the entire Reaver armada. Soon there is a pitched space battle, which provides cover for Serenity and a single pursuing Reaver ship to duck into the planet’s atmosphere. The Reaver ship hits Serenity with an EMP beam, knocking out her controls. Meanwhile, as the savage Reavers rip into the Alliance’s pristine ships, the Operative sneaks into an escape pod and fires himself to the planet as well…
Wash feverishly pilots the disabled Serenity into a controlled crash landing on the hub planet, walking distance from Mr. Universe’s control nexus. The ship finally comes to a stop, just as Wash is violently impaled through the ship’s windows by a Reaver harpoon! Mal grabs a frantic Zoe and the two veterans suddenly back into soldier mode. The two retreat with their remaining crew into the complex, away from the ship, which is still under assault from Reaver harpoons. Mal takes the recording and proceeds to Mr. Universe’s control complex. The others, Zoe, Kaylee, Inara, Simon and River vow to hold their position against the Reavers until he returns. A confused Kaylee anxiously asks, “Where’s Wash?” Zoe responds icily, “He’s not coming,” summoning all of her might to focus on the task ahead, and not wasting energy on even her own grief.
Inside Mr. Universe’s complex, Mal finds the young man dead in the lap of his android bride, who’d recorded his final words and is now replaying them back to Mal in her own voice. She/he tells Mal with dying breath that while the Operative impaled him with a sword and torched his media center, there is a backup hub under the complex. Mal takes the recording and winds up meeting the Operative there as well. The two fight again, but Mal’s grim resolve is making him a more formidable opponent this round. The Operative strikes the same nerve cluster he used to paralyze Dr. Mathias earlier, but he is surprised to learn that Mal’s cluster was removed following an old war injury, and he overpowers the Operative with a surprise impact to the throat! With the Operative temporarily disabled, Mal wastes no time in securing him to a railing with his own sword, and forcing him to watch the recording as he broadcasts it throughout the solar system. The Operative is forced to watch as the ‘truth’ he so ruthlessly protected is all laid out for him, and he is unable to turn away. He learns that the Alliance’s dream of a perfect world is nothing but a horrible lie, and he’s murdered so many to protect it.
Meanwhile, the crew of Serenity is taking heavy hits, with Zoe, Simon and even Kaylee all receiving massive battle injuries. Simon left his medical bag on the other side of passageway they just secured from encroaching Reavers. With her brother and friends in mortal danger, River activates her warrior conditioning and jumps through the doorway, closing it behind her. There, she begins slicing and punching her way through the Reavers with the same lethal efficiency she used on the bar patrons at Beaumonde. She grabs Simon’s medical bag and reopens the door, just as Alliance troops surround her and demand that she stand down or they’ll shoot. Calling the Operative for instructions, the dejected Operative tells his soldiers to stand down and let the Serenity crew go. The damage is done, and there is nothing for the Alliance to protect now.
At a memorial for Hoban “Wash” Washburne and Shepherd Derrial Book on a beautiful desert hilltop (very much like Kirk’s final resting place in “Star Trek: Generations”), the crew pay their respects to their fallen friends. With the Operative’s newfound change of heart, Mal is allowed to fully repair the ship and peacefully leave the hub planet. The remorseful Operative quietly promises a justifiably angry Mal that they’ll never see each other ever again.
River assumes Wash’s place as the Serenity’s new pilot, already showing an exceptional aptitude. Mal assigns her the nickname of “little albatross” (which, as Mal recalls, was “a ship’s good luck charm until some idiot killed it”), as she gracefully raises the ship out of the planet’s atmosphere. We then see a piece fly off the old ship, as Mal nervously asks, “What was that?”
“Serenity” still very much fits within the same ‘verse as the TV series, especially with series’ creator Joss Whedon ring herd on the production as both writer and director (his feature film directorial debut), so I find arguments I’ve read to the contrary to ring a bit hollow. The movie has many marks of a 2000s production; almost every line of dialogue is a witticism/quip of some kind (kind of a Joss Whedon thing, really; “Buffy” “Angel” “Avengers” etc), and some of the early-mid 2000s CGI work is a bit dated. Strange how early 2000s CGI-heavy films are aging more poorly than older films that used more practical FX.
For the most part, “Firefly”’s prevailing western vibe, including its “You Can’t Take the Sky From Me” main title song (sung by Sonny Roades) gives way to “Serenity”’s more sci-fi tone. Not a bad thing, really, apples and oranges. Westerns haven’t been terribly popular in cinema since their brief renaissance in the early 1990s, so the conscious decision to downplay that aspect of the series was understandable. “Serenity” still has a lot of western influences, but the overall gestalt feels more science fiction.
The TV series’ original mandate against sound in space is cheated now and then (especially during the final dogfight between the Reavers and the Alliance ships), but that’s to be expected in a sci-fi adventure film these days; very few films have the discipline to stick to the ‘no sound in a vacuum’ law of physics. Some of the futuristic tech seen in the film, particularly in Mr. Universe’s network hub, look almost embarrassingly dated at times (the clunky hologram playback device, for example).
If I have any serious criticisms with the film, it’s that there is a lag in the final act; the Alliance/Reaver space dogfight, as well as Mal’s lengthy fisticuffs with the Operative, could’ve easily been tightened in editing, especially since their outcomes are never really in doubt. River’s ‘cure’ from her prior dissociative condition seems a bit abrupt as well…as if by simply sharing the dark secret of Miranda, most of her issues were somehow magically ‘cured’ (with a good puking). Sharing pain arguably eases trauma, but it doesn’t magically wipe it away. But I accept that as Hollywood’s need for happy endings, especially since the latter half of the film is unyieldingly grim.
There’s also sudden loss of the affable Wash, as well as the earlier loss of Shepherd Book. It’s a double-whammy of grief for “Firefly” fans, leaving the Serenity ‘verse without its plucky comic relief or its wise sage. This was certainly a ballsy move on Whedon’s part, killing off two fan darlings and upping the movie’s stakes, though the dual losses are arguably a step too far. The ending of the film feels less like a family coming together and more like siblings quietly returning home after a wake. Either way, it’s emotionally impactful, and that’s ultimately the point of any dramatic art.
San Diego Comic Con 2004.
I’ve been attending sci-fi/fantasy conventions for nearly 20 years now (late-bloomer, didn’t attend my first until my 30s), and I attended my very first San Diego Comic Con in the summer of 2004. Earlier that same year, I’d just been introduced to the world of “Firefly” at another convention by my friend Jess, who brought his DVD box set of the series up to our hotel room. He put the pilot episode “Serenity” into his laptop and we gathered around to watch. An hour an a half later, I was hooked. We immediately followed it up with “Train Job” (the 2nd episode produced, but first aired). All I could think at the time was, ‘Why didn’t I watch this series in first-run? What the hell else was I possibly watching instead of this show?’
After returning home from that convention, my wife and I bought the series DVD box set and binge-watched all 14 episodes in about a week or so. So by the time Comic Con came around, I was up to speed on “Firefly” and a passionate, newly-minted “Browncoat.” My wife pointed out a group autograph signing by the entire cast, including Joss Whedon (my wife and I were huge “Buffy” fans; it was ‘our show’ when we were dating in the late 1990s). The entire cast were slated to be there to promote the feature film “Serenity.”
My wife had already attended San Diego Comic Con previously in 1998, so she had a bit more experience than I did when I first attended in 2004. She (wisely) told me that if I wanted to get those “Firefly” autographs, I’d best be in line hours early. I thought she might be exaggerating, but I took her (good) advice nevertheless. I got to the line about three hours early, and it was already about 30 people deep (!). I immediately became ‘line-buddies’ with a cosplayer dressed as Alvin the Chipmunk (who also appeared in 2003’s “Comic Book: The Movie”).
I also learned a very wise lesson that day… one that I’ve taken with me to every convention since; when you’re in a long line, it’s a very good idea to make friends with the people around you. That way, you’ll have each other’s backs when someone has to eat, use the restroom, or step out of the queue for any other reason. Well, “Alvin” and I had a great chat and we looked after each other when we needed to exit for a moment. We’d meet again over the years at various other Comic Cons.
The minutes of waiting turned into hours, and we all had our various “Firefly” items we’d hoped to get autographed; I had my newly purchased (and heavily watched) DVD box set of the TV series. It was about 15 minutes before the cast came out that the line-handlers told us the cast would NOT be signing personal items, but only the mini one-sheet “Serenity” posters at the autographing tables. Bummer! However, I was undeterred, since I was still going to get the entire cast’s autographs, including Joss Whedon. Hardly worth pissing and moaning about, right?
Well, the wait was more than worth it. I got a brief meet-and-greet with the entire cast, despite the long queue for autographs. I remember chatting with Adam Baldwin about his role in the 1980 dramedy “My Bodyguard” (a middle-school survival guide), meeting Nathan Fillion (who didn’t have his ‘prairie accent’ from the show), Sean Maher, and (the sadly late) Ron Glass, whom I also remembered from TV’s “Barney Miller.” I also met Summer Glau, who thanked me when I told her I thought she deserved an Emmy for her work. The cast were all very ‘green’ at this point in their careers, and were very accessible. Jewel Staite in particular, seemed very close in personality to her sunny character of “Kaylee.” Even as a very happily married man, I have to say that Morena Baccarin is one of the most luminously beautiful women I’ve ever seen; the camera captures about half of her real-life poise and radiance.
Gina Torres was very warm as well, and I congratulated her on her then-recent marriage to Laurence Fishburne (sadly, they’ve since divorced). I then shook hands with Joss Whedon, who seemed more like a fellow Comic Con fanboy who’d somehow wandered onto the wrong side of the autograph table. Despite his many years in television (starting as a staff writer on TV’s “Roseanne”), Joss Whedon seemed very much like one of us. “One of us, one of us…”
The only person of the cast I didn’t personally speak with was Alan Tudyk, who seemed to be caught in the grip of a very intense phone call on his flip phone (this was 2004, mind you). The talented Tudyk would later re-team with Morena Baccarin in 2009’s reboot of “V” and steal the show as android K2SO in 2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”
To this day, that group signing was one of my most amazing Comic Con coups ever, and it happened at my very first, no less. The autographed mini-poster is now framed and on my wall, where it’s been since 2004.
Here’s hoping they create a COVID-19 vaccine or effective treatment as soon as possible, because I deeply miss conventions. At the time the pandemic broke out, my wife and I were attending an average of around 8 to 10 conventions a year, and I’d gladly return once there is a reasonable guarantee of personal safety.
With most of us having to remain at home for our entertainment these days, “Serenity” is currently available for viewing on STARZ, as well as Prime Video and YouTube streaming rentals for around $3.99. The DVD and Blu Ray can also be purchased contact-free by mail from Amazon.com (prices vary, depending on copy and format).
To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States have surpassed 137,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, there’s no vaccine or even effective treatment for COVID-19 as of yet. Yes, businesses are reopening, but the overall situation is far from safe. So, for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible.