“You can’t stop the signal.”

Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free, you can’t take the sky from me

Take me out to the black, tell ’em I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me

There’s no place I can be,
Since I found serenity
But you can’t take the sky from me

September 20, 2002 – FOX-TV premiered an odd little show from the brilliant Joss Whedon (previously responsible for the wildly popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It was billed as a “western in space,” and it lived up to that description, and surpassed it.

Firefly is set at least 500 years in our future. The Earth was exhausted, used up, its ability to support life becoming tenuous – so mankind found a system of many planets and large moons and set out to terraform most of them. Most, if not all of humanity emigrated to these worlds.

The innermost, Central Planets, were the home of The Alliance, the governing body for the entire system. As corrupt, autocratic, and heavy-handed as a government could be, the outer planets were largely ignored, the terraforming unsupported beyond the bare minimum necessary to support human life, which made these frontier worlds harsh and unforgiving – much as the 1800’s American west is often portrayed. To enforce and expand their rule, The Alliance’s great ships of war patrolled the skies.

And there was war. A civil war that pit the Alliance against those who would end the oppression and the expansion into the Outer Planets. The Alliance prevailed.

That sets the stage for this unique production; this is the universe that created the remarkable individuals that inhabit it. Because above all else, Firefly is a character-driven story with an ensemble cast with genuine chemistry with each other that comes through the camera.

Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) had fought in the war on the Independent side – the Browncoats. After the war ended, Reynolds found and purchased an older Firefly-class transport ship he named “Serenity.”

It would be revealed that he chose the name because he took part in the final significant battle of the war, in the Serenity Valley. Reynolds never lost his motivations for fighting the Alliance, at one point telling an Alliance officer “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.”

Mal, as he was known, was a man of singular honor and intensely loyal, yet not above petty thievery when the moment called for such. He smuggled, he robbed, he did what was necessary to survive and stay away from the Alliance, and he gathered about himself a crew.

Zoë Washburne (Gina Torres) had fought beside him during the war, and she was now his second-in-command. Zoe is unconditionally loyal to Reynolds, except for her marriage to Serenity’s pilot:

Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), to whom flying was second-nature. His wife’s loyalty to Reynolds was something of a sore spot for Wash – until the episode “War Stories.”

Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) kept Serenity in the sky. Her intuitive mechanical skills (she apparently had no formal training) were constantly tested. She also carried a torch for Simon.

Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) was a mercenary, a hired gun, and did not have problem with killing for money. Or for much of any reason.

Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin) was a Companion who leased one of Serenity’s lifeboats. As a fully qualified and licensed Companion, she lent an air of credibility to the ship. She and the Captain fought their mutual attraction, and that usually created fights between them.

Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a brilliant young doctor with a bright future, booked passage for himself and his cargo aboard Serenity – many of the small interplanetary cargo ships took passengers for the added profit – without informing them he was a fugitive from the Alliance, because his cargo was:

River Tam (Summer Glau), his psychic/savant sister, whom he had rescued from a secret Alliance laboratory where they had conducted invasive experiments of a cruel and morally reprehensible nature only slowly revealed. The Alliance wanted her back at any cost.

Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass) – “Shepherd” a title equivalent to “Pastor” – was also a passenger. A simple Christian preacher by outward appearances, he seemed to know a great deal more of the seamier underside of the Alliance and how the Alliance worked than a simple Christian preacher had any right to know.

The passengers would quickly become part of Serenity’s crew.

These brief character descriptions only begin to hint at the complexity of the individual characters and their relationships that would be developed. These people would come to care for each other and become an extended family as they took whatever job came their way – legal or otherwise.

Whedon mapped out a 7-year story line for Firefly. He fleshed out his characters fully, giving them quirks, foibles, and weaknesses. He presupposed that as the “Earth-that-was” was dying, the two remaining superpowers – the U.S. and China – joined together to find a new home for humanity and would form the central government – the Alliance. So he interspersed the dialogue with Mandarin Chinese phrases – usually curses – which is exactly what happens when two languages begin to merge.

Further, the universe he created was one of stark contrasts and gray areas. The Central Planets held the intelligentsia, the seat of government, the best universities and hospitals, the best technology. The outer planets never got the attention, beyond the most basic terraforming, and the people deposited on those worlds were left to eke out subsistence living as best they could.

Quite often, the only way to hold on to that living was with a gun.

And then there were the Reavers…

They’d probably been human, once. But now – “horror stories” told across campfires paled in comparison to the actuality of the Reavers. The would suddenly appear out of the Black; everyone in the Outer Planets lived in terror of them.

And I’m not going to tell you any more. I want you to get your hands on the DVDs and watch this show.

It’s that good.

And so, naturally, FOX-TV wasn’t satisfied with the 2-part pilot episode and ran another episode first. They pre-empted Firefly for sports. Although they had experience with quirky but successful sci-fi (X-Files), they disregarded the careful character building and ran episodes out of order. They marketed Firefly as action/adventure rather than the character drama it was. In short, they did their level best to kill it. They were successful, taking it off the air after only 11 of the 14 completed episodes.

But Firefly wouldn’t die.

The Browncoats (as Firefly fans would quickly be called) began to rally around the repeats, and once the DVD set for the series went on sale its popularity exploded. So much so that Whedon took the story to Universal Studios and they green-lit a feature film.

Released in 2005, the film was called Serenity after the ship (and because the name “Firefly” is owned by FOX). Whedon recapped the “story so far” with only a few alterations so that moviegoers unfamiliar with the ‘verse could be quickly brought up to speed. He sprinkled the entire film with “in-jokes” for long-time fans that didn’t interfere with the story, but probably left a few in the theater wondering why others were laughing knowingly.

As with the TV series, the film was smartly written, the portrayals solid, the special effects spot-on. The crew of Serenity tackled the problems that Whedon would have brought to the series had it continued. The Reavers figure prominently – and by the end Captain Reynolds and his crew know both great loss and redemption.

As might be expected by those of us who study the history of sci-fi, though, Universal Studios lived up to its reputation as being unable to properly handle potential franchises. The marketing for Serenity was lackluster, although Browncoat groups around the country did make a great effort to hold special screenings and build events around the film. Despite their best efforts, the film’s receipts did not meet expectations.

But Firefly still wouldn’t die.

In 2012, at the San Deigo Comic Con, there was a 10th Anniversary reunion of most of the Firefly cast. It was mobbed, even by SDCC standards. Nathan Fillion commented, there and elsewhere, that Firefly was the best acting experience he’d ever had, and he is on record as saying that if Firefly is ever resurrected he’ll be there in a second.

So will the Browncoats.

You can’t stop the signal.

– Written by John Pickard