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FireflyFans of canceled TV series ’Firefly’ help revive show into a feature film
By Winda Benedetti
Saturday 1 October 2005, by Webmaster
It has not a single big-name movie star to boost its cred. It has no simple premise or easy-to-grasp plot to hook people. It’s impossible to describe without the use of a few too many hyphenations.
"Serenity" - a space-western-adventure-comedy-drama - opens in theaters today. Based on the canceled TV show "Firefly," it’s a curious crossbreed of genres. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny and one helluva tear-jerker.
But most importantly, it’s an underdog of an epic that never should have made it to the big screen.
And it probably wouldn’t have, except that a whole passel of common folk got behind it hard-ass style and refused to give up. These people call themselves Browncoats, and one thing’s for sure - they put up a good fight.
"We’re definitely a little rebellious," says Linda Strout, a Seattle Browncoat who plans to see this little-movie-that-could two times tonight and once next weekend (this after having already seen it twice in sneak previews).
Her goal and the goal of countless Browncoats like her: send "Serenity’s" box-office numbers through the roof, one ticket at a time.
Browncoat is the nickname adopted by hard-core fans of the short-lived TV show "Firefly". They took the name from the rebellious band of space cowboys at the heart of the fictional world created by Joss Whedon - best known for his TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."
But Browncoats are not just any old fanboys and girls.
Not unlike the Trekkies of yore, the Browncoats have mobilized into a massive grass-roots force that not only helped revive their dead television show into a feature film, but is now pit-bull dedicated to the dual goals of making the movie a success and making it so that Whedon’s wild world of the future lives on and on and on.
Says Whedon of this growing groundswell of support: "Don’t think I don’t know how lucky I am."
But before we go galloping any further, what is it, exactly, that’s got all these folks so riled up?
For starters, imagine the Wild West dancing do-si-do with the Far East 500 years in the future. In this world, people get around by horse, high-speed train and spaceship. Gunslingers, geishas and cannibalistic crazymen roam the black of space, where there’s not a single alien to be found.
The "Firefly"/"Serenity" story takes place in a time when humans have colonized a distant galaxy, terraforming a whole mess of planets to suit their needs. The dictatorial Alliance (having crushed a rebellion by the Browncoats) has a firm rule over the central worlds but has trouble keeping the wild outer-rim planets under its thumb. Here, humans live much the same way they did during America’s rough-and-tumble frontier days - eking out a living, fighting for survival.
At the heart of the story is Capt. Mal Reynolds - a defeated-yet-defiant Browncoat played by Nathan Fillion - and the renegade crew aboard his rattletrap spaceship Serenity. There’s Zoe (Gina Torres), a battle-hardened soldier, her husband Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s affable pilot, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary dumb as dirt. A holy man, a courtesan and a tomboy mechanic along with an upper-crusty doctor and his telepathic sister round out what is a vibrant cast of characters.
And it’s the characters that seem to be the reason so many fans have fallen so hard for these stories.
"They’re characters you care about," says Sue Groshong, 32, a library technician and a Seattle Browncoat. "They’re very flawed. They’re very real."
"It’s about people and how they survive every day, which is what we do," says Stephanie Hippen, production manager at the Kirkland Performance Center and an active Browncoat. She recently organized a "Firefly" viewing marathon at the performance center. Afraid she wouldn’t sell even 70 tickets, she packed the house with more than 300 Browncoats.
"It really does speak to the human condition," says Tacoma Browncoat David Tackett, who showed up to the event dressed in full "Firefly" regalia and slinging a giant futuristic rifle. "Plus, there’s spaceships and guns!"
There’s also plenty of swashbuckling adventures, some downright compelling love stories and a whole lot of witty dialogue - a Whedon specialty.
Mal: If anyone gets nosy, just, you know shoot ’em.
Zoe: Shoot ’em?
"Part of the appeal of the characters is that, although they’re on the fringe, they’re not bad people," says Strout, who’s part of a Browncoat "crew" called the Out of the Black Bunch.
The same could be said for the real-world Browncoats.
Borrowing lingo from the show, Browncoats form bands of online and real-world friends they refer to as crews. They call their informal barbecues and get-togethers "shindigs" and they call the "Firefly"-related events they attend "jobs" (after the jobs - some legal, some not-so-legal - the crew made its living off of on the TV show). Some Browncoats like to attend these events dressed in show-inspired costumes.
"For the most part we’re average people with pretty ordinary jobs," says Tackett, a 42-year-old retail service technician. "We like science fiction. We like a good story."
"Firefly" first aired on Fox in the fall of 2002. It quickly earned a small but loyal fan base (enter the Browncoats), despite the fact the network showed the episodes sporadically and out of order. Fox then canceled the show after airing only 11 of the 14 episodes produced, crushing not only the fans but Whedon himself. gloves Zoom WINDA BENEDETTI Grady Gratt, 20, of Mercer Island dresses like a member of the evil Hands of Blue from the defunct TV show "Firefly."
"I fell in love with these characters and this universe and every single actor in that cast," Whedon says. "After the show was canceled, there were a lot of weak moments on my part where I’d go on the Internet and see if there were people out there that cared about the world and the characters as much as I did."
The answer was overwhelming: People not only cared, they cared enough to fight. "It really kept me going," Whedon says.
While Whedon went to work trying to find a new home for Mal and his crew, the Browncoats put up their collective dukes, taking out an ad in Variety calling for the show to be reinstated. When that didn’t work, they lobbied for the release of the show on DVD. A boxed set of all 14 episodes was released a year later and suddenly the Browncoats had the ammunition they needed.
"These people came out and said, ‘You want some noise? Well we’re here and we’re going to make it,’ " Whedon says.
The Browncoats snatched the DVDs off the shelves and then, like preachers with Bibles in hand, began proselytizing the word of "Firefly" to anyone who’d listen and, more importantly, to anyone who’d watch.
"I can’t even tell you how many people I’ve made watch it," Hippen says.
And, lo and behold, those who watched "Firefly" also fell in love with it. And soon DVDs were flying off the shelves and Browncoats were sprouting up all over the place.
"I always thought the biggest thing "Firefly" had going against it was that nobody had heard of it," Groshong says. "Once they hear about it, they’re really into it."
Strout is one of those who bought two DVD sets: one for herself, one to loan out. "I do feel like Browncoats have made a difference," she says. "I think if we hadn’t been so vocal about wanting the TV show and wanting the DVDs, the movie wouldn’t have been made."
DVD sales were so phenomenal (and Whedon’s storytelling so compelling) that Universal Pictures picked up the rights to make a motion picture out of "Firefly."
Since then, it’s been no small task for Whedon - who wrote and directed the film - to create a movie that will please fans and newcomers alike. "Ultimately, the thing I had to do to honor my fans was to forget that they existed," he says. "The most important thing was to make sure everybody could enjoy the movie."
If a preview screening earlier this week is any indication, he’s succeeded. Structured in a way that draws newcomers smoothly into the story, "Serenity" incorporates the most beloved aspects of the TV show while tossing in twists and turns to keep experienced fans guessing and gasping.
Packed with Whedon’s trademark humor, swaggering panache and so much screamin’ action that viewers will have to pluck their fingernails from the theater seats when it’s over, "Serenity" could be just the thing for moviegoers weary of this year’s stale blockbusters. With "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" sliding into history, fans hope "Serenity" might be the next big thing.
While "Serenity" may be in theaters, the fight is far from over. What the Browncoats really want is for "Firefly" to return to television. Barring that, they want sequels, sequels, sequels.
But for Universal to pitch its money at another movie, "Serenity" is going to have to do crackerjack at the box office.
You can bet the Browncoats have been doing their part to make sure that happens. In the months leading up to today’s release, they have been finding guerrilla-style ways to advertise the movie - from drawing the movie’s logo on sidewalks, to scrawling the film’s Web site on stacks of dollar bills, to posting homemade fliers, pins and bumper stickers wherever they could. They have, of course, infected the Internet with their campaign as well.
But more importantly, they’ve been buying tickets and making plans to see the movie, time and time again.
"We all know that the first couple of weekends are very critical if we want to get a sequel to the movie," Strout explains.
Whedon insists he didn’t intend for "Serenity’s" story line to play like a metaphor for the trials and tribulations that he and the Browncoats have faced. And yet, there it is on the big screen: Odds stacked against them, the underdog Serenity crew must fight the powers that be to get an important message out to the galaxy.
For those who don’t believe "Serenity" has a life beyond this first appearance on the big screen, Browncoats will be happy to point to the movie’s catch phrase: "You can’t stop the signal."
"It comes down to selfishness, for me," says Groshong. "It’s about having more stories that I can enjoy."