Original Story by: Neva Chonin – Critic at Large – San Francisco Chronicle
Submitted by: Mr. Sevens
When Fox canceled ‘Firefly,’ it ignited an Internet fan base whose burning desire for more led to ‘Serenity’
It’s a foggy Thursday night in late May, and the upper lobby of San Francisco’s Van Ness 1000 theater is teeming with a rowdy assortment of revolutionaries, renegades, and women in Wild West garb and Chinese pajamas squaring off against black-suited men wearing blue surgical gloves.
It could be the usual summer tourist throng, but it’s not. These are fans of a long-canceled television show called “Firefly,” and they’ve been waiting in line all afternoon to preview an unfinished cut of “Serenity,” the big- screen spin-off of their lost series. After the screening sold out, some fans bought scalped tickets for more than $100 on eBay; others camped out in the lobby and hoped for a miracle.
Joey Saade, 19, was among the first to score tickets (“I kept calling the theater”), and traveled from San Jose to see the movie with his brother and three blue-gloved friends. They share the front of the line with San Leandro native Arielle Kesweder, 23, and her own “Serenity” posse. Decked out in 19th century garb as “Firefly” character Kaylee (in one of Kaylee’s flouncier moments), Kesweder says she heard about the screening from an e-mail and “immediately maxed out” her credit card getting as many tickets as she could for her friends.
Some people might question these fans’ devotion to a series that ran a total of 13 episodes (of which only 11 aired). Some people have never been in love. Written and directed by TV auteur Joss Whedon (creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Angel”), “Firefly” was a polarizing phenomenon from its first episode in 2002. Its wildly inventive premise and pithy dialogue earned it critical praise, but good reviews couldn’t save it: Fox showed episodes out of sequence, frequently pre-empted the show and finally canned it mid-season.
Granted, the premise was a hard sell for commercial TV. “Firefly” is a space Western set 500 years in the future, in the aftermath of a civil war between rebels known as Independents (or Browncoats) and a tyrannical conglomerate called the Alliance. The Independents lose the war, and under Alliance control, corporations rule openly; Anglo and Asian influences merge into a eccentric polyglot culture; men in black (with blue hands) carry out sinister covert operations; and astonishingly ugly cannibals called Reavers plunder at will. On the outskirts of this universe, the crew of the Serenity (part of a class of ships called Firefly), led by a former Browncoat, survive by pulling off heists and outsmarting the authorities.
When “Firefly” was canceled, fans — dubbed Browncoats in honor of the doomed-but-noble Independents — campaigned to have it moved to another network. True to Browncoat tradition, they failed — but their efforts convinced Fox to release the show as a DVD set that included three unaired episodes and behind-the-scenes extras. The DVD quickly sold more than 200,000 copies. Impressed, Universal Pictures climbed onboard, enabling Whedon to make “Serenity” (due out Sept. 30), which picks up where the series left off.
“Serenity’s” existence is a testimonial to the tenacity of fans and the power of the Internet, where Browncoats have spent the past three years inspiring converts, drafting petitions and even kibitzing with the “Firefly” cast on bulletin boards. Whedon and Universal are now stoking enthusiasm with their own “Serenity” Web sites, asking Browncoat communities across the United States, Australia and Europe to spread the word as they count down to the movie’s release. Whedon knows “Serenity” will have to move beyond its “Firefly” base to succeed commercially, and he’s actively recruiting Browncoats as guerrilla publicists.
“It’s a viral thing, encouraging them to encourage other people to see it, ” he explains over the phone while stuck in a Los Angeles traffic jam, where he’s en route to an editing session. ” ‘Serenity’ doesn’t have Tom Cruise or ‘I can’t believe I’m in the body of a third-grader’ slapped over the title, or any of the other things marketing people latch onto. What it does have is our belief in the film.”
With the “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” franchises finally ending, hopes are high that homeless science-fiction buffs will find their way to the “Firefly” universe — nudged, perhaps, by some online fan-to-fan marketing. Whedon, at least, is cautiously optimistic about the future of his feisty Western in space. “The opinions of a thousand fans still won’t carry the weight of a thousand execs, but I’ve never seen a studio operate the way Universal has in regards to my little movie. They’ve been enthusiastic, intelligent — yes, I’m using the word ‘intelligent’ about a movie studio — and supportive every step of the way.”
Glenn Yeffeth, editor of the anthology “Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s ‘Firefly’ ” (BenBella Books; $17.95; 240 pages), thinks ‘Serenity’ has a good shot at becoming a crossover hit, even sans Tom Cruise. “No question ‘Firefly’ was quirky, combining science fiction with a Western,” he says. “But it’s really about the search for meaning in a meaningless universe, and it’s a notch above the very best writing of other television series out there.”
San Francisco Browncoats organizer Renee Balmert, 32, is happy to fight the good fight for her show, regardless of the outcome. “You either love Whedon or you don’t,” she says. “His series are hard to pin down, which is why they’re hard to promote. But Joss is great at gathering people around him who have the same vision. There’s a wonderful rapport between him and the fans, and between fans and the actors in the show.”
Whedon admits “there is a bit of a cult” around his work — and him. “I have exactly one reaction to that: Whoo-hoo! It puts a little pressure on me, but at the same time it makes me proud and excited. Every artist wants to reach people on a primal level. Part of that is a pathetic need, or maybe a less pathetic desire, to connect and talk about the important things in our lives while entertaining the s — out of everyone.
“Some fans are, shall I say, idiosyncratic,” he adds. “But those are the people I’m writing for; those are the people I’m writing about. By and large they’re extremely cheerful, amiable, witty bunch. They’re passionate and sometimes unhappy. I have the utmost respect for that. I write the work like a fan. So if a fan is crying about something I wrote, there’s a good chance I cried while I wrote it.”
When they’re not talking up the movie, the SF Browncoats will be organizing a “Firefly” raffle during the Comic-Con convention in San Diego next month, with proceeds benefiting the women’s support organization Equality Now, a favorite Whedon cause. Other summer distractions will help fill time until September: More guerrilla screenings are planned, and a three-part “Firefly” comic series arrives in July.
If “Serenity” flies at the box office, will there be more “Firefly” films, even a trilogy? “Hell, yes,” says Whedon. “Hell, yes, there will be more.” And if it crashes? Whedon’s stoic shrug is almost audible. “I’ve gotten a certain amount of closure that I didn’t have when the series was canceled. The movie delivers what I want to deliver the way I want to deliver it — with action, violence, humor and fun. I’ll feel we told the story we wanted to tell. ”
Like “Firefly’s” Independents, he will keep flying. “But in my secret, greasy heart,” he confesses, “I really do want to come back to this universe. I can’t help it. I’m a fan.”