by Chris Tobias
If you spend any time at all online, you’ve probably seen speculation every so often about a possible return of Joss Whedon’s space western Firefly, the Fox series that was cancelled in 2002 after only 11 of its 14 episodes had aired– mostly out of order and with gaps in its weekly broadcasts due to Major League Baseball playoffs and holiday programming.
And why not? The series only grew in popularity after its cancellation. Its devoted fan base, who came to be known as “Browncoats” (taking their name from the Independent forces in the series who fought for their freedom against the corporate super-government known as the Alliance), spurred brisk sales of the series’ DVD box set, and Universal Studios greenlit a major motion picture, Serenity, that was helmed by Whedon himself and reunited the series’ original cast to tie up most of the show’s loose ends.
Serenity debuted in theaters in August of 2005, and although there was never a sequel, both the movie and the TV series that inspired it have spawned a number of additional stories set in the Firefly ‘verse. There have been several comics series published by Dark Horse Comics and Boom! Studios that follow the exploits of the crew of Serenity, and publishers like Insight Editions and Titan Books have published numerous volumes covering every detail of the Firefly ‘verse, from handbooks and episode companions to prose novels and cookbooks. It also seems as though Firefly- and Serenity-licensed merchandise is at an all-time high. A quick online search will reveal clothing, board games, prop replicas, action figures and much more.
It’s obvious that the love of Browncoats the world over has kept Serenity relevant for nearly twenty years, so with reboots and revivals being all the rage in Hollywood these days, you’d think it would only be a matter of time until the executives at 21st Century Fox (now owned by the Walt Disney Company) decide to send Malcolm Reynolds and his crew back to the black. I’m sure if that happened, there’d be more than a few Browncoats that would be all manner of glad to see it.
I just wouldn’t be one of them.
I know what you’re thinking: “How could you say that, Chris? You’re a hardcore fan. There aren’t many folk out there whose coats have a more brownish color than yours. You’ve even spent the past seven years spearheading a movement to convince Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to name its first Crew Dragon after Serenity. Why wouldn’t you want to see Firefly on the screen again?”
Well, read on and I’ll explain.
What makes Firefly special?
As I am fond of saying when discussing the show among friends and at conventions and CSTS screenings, I think Firefly is a rarity in that it is a very popular franchise that died young and beautiful, before it had the chance to churn out any episodes that just weren’t very good. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, considered by many to be Joss Whedon’s magnum opus, went through some very weak periods, especially when Joss had to step away from the show to concentrate on Angel and Firefly. Season six of that show produced the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling,” which is generally regarded as one of the most groundbreaking hours of television in pop culture history and likely inspired numerous other shows (like The Office, Grey’s Anatomy, The Flash and Legion to name a few) to incorporate song and dance into their narratives or even include musical episodes of their own. But if you ask fans of the series, they’ll often tell you that the rest of season six was the low point of the series, with episodes and storylines that some fans sometimes wish they could simply forget.
But if you ask someone to think of their least favorite Firefly episode, while the response you get might vary, what is generally consistent is that the answer will come with a coda that goes something like, “It’s not a bad episode. I just like the others better.”
My least favorite episode is “Bushwhacked.” I don’t even have to ponder the question long to arrive at that. Yet that episode still contains some of my favorite scenes and dialogue from the series, most notably the interrogation sequence, which, in addition to some great comedic moments and insights into the nature of the crew, features Malcolm Reynolds’ now iconic line, “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.” The episode may be my least favorite, but Firefly just wouldn’t be the same without it.
Firefly is the James Dean of 21st century television. It died young and beautiful, and shortly thereafter became the stuff of legend.
So what’s wrong with bringing it back?
Hollywood generally follows two strategies when bringing back a television or movie property. I’ll call them “the reboot” and “the return.” They are most definitely not the same thing, though I would argue that both produce far more misses than they do hits.
Arguably the more popular strategy for resurrecting a Hollywood property nowadays, the reboot keeps the core premise and many of the main elements of the original intact, but gives the showrunners, writers and directors (who are often not the same as those who worked on the original) more license to make changes. These changes most often manifest themselves in the form of modifications to the setting and/or characters of the story, with the latter sometimes leading to what could be described as bold casting choices. The supposed advantage to a reboot is that it gives the production team a means to modernize the story and attract a new audience, but this strategy often has the side effect of alienating hardcore fans of the original. The list of recent reboots is probably as long as my arm. MacGyver, Hawaii Five-O, Charlie’s Angels, Battlestar Galactica and Magnum, PI are just a few of the high profile television reboots that have been attempted in recent years.
The problem with almost all reboots is that the new creative team often feels compelled to make noticeable changes, which might not be a big deal to casual fans, but leaves diehards feeling like they ignored the cardinal rule: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
For me, there is no better example of this than the reboot of Magnum, PI. The original series from the 1980’s remains my second-favorite television series behind Firefly. It became a hit on the strength of its lead actor, Tom Selleck, and on the clever use of its Hawaiian setting almost as another character in the story (much like Joss Whedon would do with the spaceship Serenity years later). But what made the original Magnum, PI groundbreaking was that it was the first Hollywood property to portray veterans of the Vietnam War as something other than emotionally damaged individuals who were unable to re-assimilate to civilian life after experiencing the horrors of combat. Magnum, Rick and TC were able to return to American society and resume healthy and productive lives while continuing the close friendship that they forged during their wartime experiences. Also of significance was the relationship between Magnum and Higgins, which was full of mutual respect between two former soldiers, yet at the same time provided loads of “buddy comedy” in their weekly clashes on the grounds of Robin Masters’ estate that just oozed with “Odd Couple” dynamic. To me, Magnum, PI was much, much more than just another flashy detective show.
The reboot of Magnum, PI made its debut on CBS last year. I knew almost immediately that it was going to lack the magic of the original. Magnum, Rick and TC are still veterans, but the fact that America now embraces veterans of more recent conflicts (and their struggles) in a manner that Vietnam veterans were never afforded lessens the sociological impact of those characters, and Magnum’s interactions with the new Higgins, who is now Juliet instead of Jonathan, inevitably (and sadly) have an element of sexual tension that has more in common with Moonlighting than The Odd Couple. Other trademark elements, like Magnum’s mustache (now a goatee), his Vietnam-issue Colt 1911 .45 (now a STI Costa Comp Carry) and the Ferrari 308 GTS (now a 488 Spider), while certainly more modern, don’t seem as iconic to the character as they were in the original. The rebooted Magnum, PI has become just another flashy detective show that is not likely to be long remembered, whereas the original, which ran for eight seasons and became synonymous with the decade of the 80’s, isn’t likely to be forgotten. I find it sad, though, that those too young to remember the original probably only know the Magnum they see now.
That’s not to say that reboots never work. The Sci-Fi Network’s Battlestar Galactica is perhaps the best example of a reboot that was well received by critics and fans in addition to being commercially successful, despite incorporating such drastic changes as a female Lieutenant Starbuck and organic Cylons– as well as giving a clever cameo to a certain Firefly-class transport in its pilot movie. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell has even publicly stated that the new BSG and Firefly are her two favorite sci-fi series. But I would argue that for every reboot that is embraced by the fans, there are a half dozen that have people shaking their heads and asking who at the studio thought that the property was something that really needed to be remade.
If the suits ever decide that a reboot of Firefly is the way to go, I reckon the odds are that Browncoats won’t find it to be an improvement on the original. In fact, with almost twenty years having passed since the original aired, I’m fearful of what today’s studio execs might feel compelled to change. Would they object to the idea of a clergyman or a prostitute on board? Would they find Jayne too misogynistic or enamored of guns? Would they insist on changing the gender or ethnicity of what is already a relatively diverse cast of characters? It’s hard to say, but whatever changes they decided to make would likely leave those Browncoats whose love kept the original in the air even after its initial cancellation feeling somewhat violated.
If you want to bring back a property in a manner that causes more excitement than uproar, a simple return to the original narrative with the original cast and showrunners seems to be the way to go. The most recent example of a successful return was Fox’s The X-Files, which returned for two seasons (in 2016 and 2018) nearly fifteen years after its original run had ended (in 2002, right along with Firefly). The show made a mockery of the notion that “you can never go back again,” bringing back nearly all of the original cast (and even finding clever ways to feature characters who had met their demise during the series’ initial run) and incorporating many of the major elements of the original narrative (including the show’s original intro and theme music) while at the same time acknowledging the real-world passage of time. Strong performances from lead actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson helped series creator, writer and director Chris Carter recapture the tone of the original run, and for two brief seasons fans felt as if the show had never left the air.
That’s not always the case though. Sometimes when a show returns, it goes in a direction that the fans hadn’t anticipated given how it originally “ended,” and when that happens, the reaction can be much more mixed. A very good example of this would be the latest incarnation of Veronica Mars, the UPN/CW show that was cancelled in 2007 but brought back after a successful 2013 Kickstarter campaign (which at the time also sparked additional speculation about Firefly.) More than a few “Marshmallows” (fans of the original series) took to the internet to express their disappoint and/or displeasure to series creator Rob Thomas over the most recent 8-episode season after it was released on Hulu this summer. In an era when the fans not only feel invested in a show, but have also quite possibly actually invested in the show, there is more pressure than ever on showrunners not to leave them with the feeling that the latest incarnation somehow tarnished some of the luster of the original.
Given the critical success of the motion picture Serenity (as well the favorable reaction of fans despite some rather shocking plot developments), it’s probably safe to say that a simple return to the Firefly ‘verse would be a safer strategy than a reboot. But in the case of Firefly, there are more than a few logistical issues that would make that difficult, not the least of which being that series creator Joss Whedon is now under contract to create another show– HBO’s The Nevers. The original cast members have been working on other projects relatively steadily as well, and at least three of them (Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres and Summer Glau) are currently attached to other series as regulars. And that’s not to mention the fact that two members of Serenity’s crew– Hoban Washburne and Shepherd Book– did not survive the movie, so although it might not be popular with fans, that fact (along with the death of Ron Glass, who played Book) would almost certainly preclude their involvement in any further on-screen adventures– and in Book’s case that would include previously-unseen flashback sequences. Even if returning to the Firefly ‘verse in a way that just resumes the story roughly fifteen years after we last saw it might be the more attractive option, that doesn’t make it the more realistic one.
The truth is, regardless of whether it took the form of a reboot or a return, a new season of Firefly would hardly be guaranteed to enhance the legend of the ‘verse. I can’t speak for all Browncoats, of course, but this fan would rather see them leave well enough alone and simply enjoy the seventeen magnificent hours of story that we already have.
If the show never comes back, it’s not the end of the ‘verse.
Those who are reluctant to let go of the idea of another season of Firefly need to remember that just because we don’t see any more on-screen adventures of Serenity and her crew doesn’t mean we can’t have new stories. The Dark Horse and Boom! Studios comics and original graphic novels have been excellent. The two prose novels that Titan Books has already released were quite entertaining, and two more are scheduled to hit bookshelves in April of 2020. The beauty of Firefly tales that are written (and in some cases drawn) is that they have no constraints as to when they take place in relation to the original show/movie and no budgetary or logistical hurdles to overcome. When it comes to new Firefly and Serenity books, the sky’s the limit, and they really can’t take it from us.
Can’t Stop the Serenity is another unique way to celebrate what we have and keep the fandom active. If you’ve never attended a CSTS event, you have been missing out on something really special. This year 15 cities in the US and Australia are holding CSTS events to raise money for Equality Now and other charities, and most of them include screenings of Serenity in theaters. There are a lot of fandoms that raise money for charity, but since 2006 Browncoats have come together annually around the globe (in 124 cities and counting) for the same two reasons: to watch Serenity on the big screen and raise money for Equality Now– and so far they’ve managed to raise just under $1.3 million!
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, then you already know that Browncoat Ball is yet another shiny way to keep the spirit of the ‘verse alive. Each Browncoat Ball is unique because it has the flavor of its host city. This year’s event in Las Vegas, Nevada is a sure bet to be a mighty fine shindig, and although the location of next year’s ball will remain cloaked in secrecy until the end of this year’s event, I have it on good authority that the destination for Browncoat Ball 2020 is a city known for its magical atmosphere. If you consider yourself a Browncoat but you’ve never attended a Browncoat Ball, you owe it to yourself to get to one. I had one of the most memorable weekends of my life at the 2017 Browncoat Ball in Gettysburg, PA, and I can’t wait to attend another one.
You want another season? Here’s an even better idea.
I have been the local coordinator of Pittsburgh’s Can’t Stop the Serenity events for the past seven years, and while I have found those efforts very rewarding, there is another labor of love that allows me to feel an even greater sense of connection to the Firefly ‘verse. I am referring, of course, to my role as co-founder of Take Back the Sky. I believe that a real manned spaceship named Serenity would truly cement Firefly’s place in American pop culture, and having a spaceship with that name would also be a lasting tribute to Joss Whedon and the entire cast and crew of the show and movie. Personally, I feel that a reboot or return of Firefly to the airwaves runs a certain risk of detracting from the show’s cult status, but a SpaceX Crew Dragon named Serenity would only serve to increase its legend.
So the next time someone sends that retweet or Facebook post with the link to the petition asking Fox to bring back Firefly, encourage them instead to send a letter to SpaceX’s founder and CEO Elon Musk and/or President and COO Gwynne Shotwell asking them to name the company’s Crew Dragon, which will soon carry NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station as part of the Commercial Crew Program, after Serenity. I can assure you that if we succeed in convincing SpaceX to name its Crew Dragon capsule after our favorite Firefly, there’s no way Browncoats will be disappointed when a transport ship named Serenity breaks atmo once more.
Peace, love and rockets…