The fireflies you saw glimmering in the dusk this summer will not be around next summer. They’re short-lived creatures that make their brilliant little spark in the darkness and then they’re gone. We remember them fondly from our childhood, their glow providing a little magic on the breeze. We never see the same ones again.
So it is with the short-lived but long-loved sci-fi TV series, Firefly. The series enjoyed an all-too-brief broadcast run for a few weeks many years ago, just a little longer than the life of an actual firefly.
As the “two weeks to flatten the curve” Wuhan virus pandemic has stretched to “you’ll be free when we say so and we may never let you go to church or synagogue again,” many of us have turned to TV to fill the hours and help us mark the days. Woke sports provide no respite from the social civil war anymore. TV is mostly mental poison these days, but not entirely. Firefly is flying again, with all its episodes available on Hulu. I’ve turned to re-re-re-watching Firefly over the past week or two. It’s not as good as I remember it being when I first watched it. It’s better now.
Fifteen years ago I got tickets to screen some obscure film called Serenity, so I checked out its promo material. I was unimpressed but went to see the film anyway, figuring I could get a negative review out of it. Negative reviews are always more fun to write than positive ones. But instead of hating Serenity, I loved every second of it. Serenity was quirky, funny, scary — perfect.
We’d seen the Star Wars prequels by that point — Revenge of the Sith debuted the same year as Serenity — and OG fans were somewhere between despondent and horrified. As one friend put it after seeing The Phantom Menace (1998) on opening day, “I now live in a world in which a Star Wars film sucks. I do not want to live in this world.” It was hard to argue with him. TPM was hot garbage, Attack of the Clones (2002) was wet slop, and Revenge of the Sith (2005) was better but still bad. Star Wars was now 50% dreck. More, if you really hated the Ewoks.
Serenity had everything the Star Wars prequels lacked: compelling characters, an interesting story, nuance, plot, quotability and humor, believable acting, and that undefinable edge that makes the original trilogy so great even after all these years. Serenity had a shiny, swashbuckling heart.
Serenity is, as I learned while writing the review, based on the Firefly series that Fox TV ruined in 2002. Firefly is one of the greatest gorram sci-fi universes ever put on screen. Firefly also pays homage to Star Wars: little carbonite-frozen Han Solo figures can be spotted in the background in several episodes.
Firefly springs from deep source material. Creator Joss Whedon read Michael Shaara’s fantastic Civil War story The Killer Angels and was enthralled by it. When he set about creating his post-Buffy the Vampire Slayer series (1997-2003), he decided to use the Civil War as a backdrop but moved the story from the war itself to Reconstruction. The dust hadn’t settled yet. Surviving losers knew they’d been on the losing side but weren’t convinced they’d been on the wrong side.
That’s the world of Firefly, in which the Alliance has crushed the Browncoat rebellion, but then-Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds has managed to survive despite his heroism in a brown coat.
Firefly is a spaghetti Western set on the edges of a galaxy still in turmoil, much like The Mandalorian is now. Firefly has trains and cattle drives and heists, and it probably shouldn’t work. But it does. Capt. Mal christens his beat up but mostly reliable ship Serenity after a climactic but losing battle, despite knowing the very name will raise suspicions about him and his crew with the Alliance and its operatives. He’s more loyal to the cause than it was loyal to him, but that’s just who he is.
We shouldn’t carry the historical analogies too far. Mal isn’t a Confederate. He fought against an overweening corporate government that believed its mission was to eradicate “enemies of the people” and their sins, and it believed it could perfect humanity, which is foreign to the Civil War but sounds all too familiar now. For storytelling and setting, Whedon undeniably made the right choice. The underdog is always more interesting than the favorite. The loser tends to have more pathos than the victor. The rough and rowdy Browncoats contrast well with the austere, authoritarian Alliance. A chaotic universe provides storytelling opportunities limited only by a network’s imagination and funding.
Whedon might not be able to get away with choosing the setting or the sides now that he chose then. When Lady Antebellum and the Dixie Chicks make a splash removing time or geographical references that have suddenly become problematic from their names, setting a series in a post-bellum, post-rebellion universe can be risky.
Firefly stands the test of time now because it does start from a rich vein of material and because every single character is pitch-perfect. Kaylee the plucky mechanic, River and Tam the devoted siblings on the run, Inara the alluring companion, Wash and Zoe the married crewmates and trusted fellow travelers…they’re all perfect. It’s believable. Like the original Star Wars trilogy, Firefly breathes in a lived-in world. It’s banged up and rusty and things are constantly breaking, kind of like your 10-year-old car. The Serenity crew all exhibit a sunny gallows humor that fits their world, with one exception — the hopeful preacher. In the mysterious character of Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), Firefly has a moral voice and soul. It’s one of the best roles the accomplished Glass (Barney Miller, The Streets of San Francisco, and numerous other shows and movies) ever played.
They fly in a plausible ‘verse: After depleting the earth, the United States and China merge (not too far-fetched, given how American media and sports leagues and the Democratic Party already kowtow and sell out to Beijing) and adopt some of our capitalism and a whole lot of China’s centralism. The merged supernation spreads across a terraformed galaxy, bulldozing all challengers. The new economy has produced weird but believable outcomes, such as the Blue Sun corporation that seems to own everything (it’s supposedly an imagined merger between Microsoft and McDonald’s), and the high social status is given “companions” versus, say, pastors and even ship’s captains. People converse in English but swear in Chinese. Despite and within all the technology a galactic-scale human civilization has at its fingertips, trust and loyalty still count. Life can be reduced to a few basics: Find a ship, find a crew, find a job, and keep flying. Lots of choices are pretty simple on the edge of galactic town: “If somebody tries to kill you, you try to kill them right back.”
As the leader, Nathan Fillion’s Capt. Mal Reynolds holds up well all these years later as a pre-Solo Han, the smuggler with a heart of gold and a lot of luck — some of which is actually good luck. But most of it isn’t. His moral and spiritual conversations with Shepherd are always interesting, never predictable on a first watch. In Firefly, Hollywood hadn’t quite decided to hate on people of faith or people who cling to liberty yet. The captain isn’t always right and doesn’t always know what’s around the corner. He’s street-smart but not infallible. He’s sometimes merciful, sometimes brutal. You’re not sure you can trust him until he proves you can. Then he says or does something that suggests you’d be wise to trust but verify. He’s constantly challenged by his cantankerous crew.
In Serenity at a critical decision point, during a heated argument, Mal turns to hard-man Jayne Cobb (played to perfection by Adam Baldwin) and shouts, “Do you want to run this ship?”
“Yes!” Cobb fires back, flustering the captain.
“Well…ya can’t!” is all Mal can manage in reply.
Nowadays, we have the government of California telling its residents they must wear a mask between bites when they go out to eat and they won’t be allowed to buy gas-powered cars in a few years. New York is snooping on Orthodox Jews to make sure they’re not gathering in large numbers to pray — while violent riots are allowed night after night whenever they spring up in any Democrat-run city. The NBA denounces America while it turns a blind eye to slavery enforced by its corporate partners in Beijing. This is all asinine and unconstitutional and wrong. The Alliance just keeps creeping in on us, spoiling for a fight in some Serenity Valley.
Because the network ruined its one shot at broadcast glory, Whedon and company wrapped up what they planned to take place over several seasons into the one film, Serenity. That film feels a little compressed compared to the series, but it’s consistent in character and message. Serenity also has a message that offers some grit in our time of plague: “You can’t stop the signal.”
Tech tyrants Facebook and Twitter tried stopping the NY Post signal this week. That blew up in their faces, as it should, and as Serenity predicted it would.
Firefly/Serenity is a rebellion against Big Hollywood, Big Government, and Big Everything. “You take my love, you take my land, you take me where I cannot stand,” it’s twangy theme song, which Whedon wrote, declares. “I don’t care, I’m still free, you can’t take the sky from me.”
If there’s an intentional theme to the Firefly ‘verse, it’s that no matter how powerful and corporate government gets, no matter how inhuman it behaves, no matter how righteous it may think it is, no matter how many woke or faux-scientific mandates it dreams up to impose — as long as there are humans who can think and believe, there will be a voice for freedom, somewhere. It may be driven all the way to the edge of the galaxy, but it’s there, always, this little spark glowing in the inky black sky.
Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble’s Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He’s a writer, producer, veteran, author, and Texan.