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Into The Hive Mind: The Fandom That Did The Impossible

Christine Bancroft |
February 6, 2013 | 12:53 a.m. PST

Columnist

"We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."

As suddenly as it came on the air, "Firefly" was gone.

Between Sept. 20 and Dec. 20, 2002, the FOX show, produced by Joss Whedon ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and Tim Minear ("Angel"), accrued a devoted fanbase, which, following the series' release on DVD, only expanded to the cult phenomenon it is today.

The show, once a prematurely cancelled series consisting of only 14 episodes of darkly funny, space Western glory, has now branched off to include a film, several comics, a series of five short promotional videos and a role-playing game.

But let us go aboard the good ship Serenity—this is one of the fandoms I call home.

Subject: "Firefly", "Serenity"

In late 2002, FOX began airing "Firefly".

In late 2002, FOX cancelled "Firefly".

In 2012, 10,000 fans line up outside Ballroom 20 at the San Diego Comic-Con for the 10th Anniversary reunion panel.

If it seems like the cast is perfect, it's because it is and if you disagree, you're wrong, and that's that. (Flickr/RavenU)
If it seems like the cast is perfect, it's because it is and if you disagree, you're wrong, and that's that. (Flickr/RavenU)
Although promoted as an action-comedy by FOX, I prefer to think of of the show as a cornucopia of dark-comedy-space-opera-spaghetti-western-action-drama goodness. It details the lives of the crew of the Firefly-class spaceship, "Serenity", lead by Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, currently on "Castle"), his sergeant Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres, currently on "Suits"), her husband and the ship's pilot "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk, "Suburgatory"), hired gun Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin, "Chuck"), ship mechanic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite, "The L.A."), Sean Maher and Summer Glau as fugitives Dr. Simon Tam and his moon-brain sister River, Ron Glass as Shepherd Derrial Book, a wandering pastor and Morena Baccarin (currently on "Homeland") as Inara Serra, a Companion (the equivalent of a courtesan in the 2500s).

Part of the immediate draw to the series was the characterization—the crew makes its living through smuggling and a collection of other generally frowned-upon activities. Characters are often portrayed as immoral or unsympathetic to immoral actions, killing or threatening to torture without hesitation, all with the overlay of wisecracks and banter that make an otherwise dark scenario considerably lighter.  Each character, in addition, has individual motives and flaws that make them human, and more sympathetic.

Before the start of the series, humans had to leave the "Earth-That-Was" to colonize a star system, using technology to make the land more hospitable (but resulting in arid terrain similar to that featured in classic Western films). Some time later, a civil war between the unifying governing force, "The Alliance", and the anti-unification Independents broke out, with the former achieving unification. Mal and Zoe were Independents in the Unification War, not unlike Confederates from the American Civil War, and now use Serenity as refuge and escape from the Alliance's policies.

The series features a blend between Western culture, complete with settlers, bandits, horses and cattle and plenty of gunfire, and pan-Asian culture, as evidenced by the use of Chinese phrases scattered throughout the series.

It's violent; it's funny; it's dark and it's awesome.

But it was cancelled, partly due to the fact that FOX aired the episodes out of order, leaving the pilot, "Serenity", a two-hour introduction to the world, crew and plot, was the last to air, on Dec. 20. FOX changed the airdates periodically, particularly for sports events, eventually landing it in the Friday Night Death Slot. As viewership waned, cancellation was decided, airing only 12 out of the 14 completed episodes, much to the disappointment of cast, crew and fans.

And yet, the fandom is still going strong. Much like their namesake, the Browncoats retain that determined independent streak that allows the fanbase to continue to grow in number with each year, leading to that 10,000 person line ten years later.

Fandom name: Browncoats, also called "flans", mostly by accident

The Independent soldiers, characterized by their sweeping brown longcoats, gave birth to the fandom name. Even during the show's run, there was a devoted fanbase of Browncoats dedicated to analyzing and discussing "Firefly" through forum activities. The forum, still active, is called "The Original Board" or "OB"; members attempted to save the show by raising money for an ad in "Variety" magazine and a postcard campaign encouraging UPN (now The CW) to pick up the show. Although the show was still axed, the fan activity encouraged the 2003 release of the series on DVD, including the two unaired episodes.

During an interview, star Nathan Fillion misspoke, saying "Firefly 'flans'" instead of "Firefly fans", which gave birth to a whole 'nother nickname. In his defense, saying "Firefly fans," five-times fast or otherwise, is fairly difficult.

The cross-section of fans has been diverse. Some were the prototypical "sci-fi" fan, who was encouraged to view because of the show's premise. Others were inspired to watch after viewing Whedon's "Buffy" and "Angel". Through word-of-mouth and heavy Internet presence, the show has only grown in fanbase. (I took up ranks with the Browncoats on the suggestion of my older sister and have never looked back.) In fairness, there is a bit of something for everyone—even my mom, otherwise known as she-who-consumes-soaps-by-the-dozen, asked if we could re-watch within a month.

(Mom, don't be mad that I mentioned you or your soap operas.)

If my mom can be a Browncoat, a flan—what have you—so can you.

Fandom activity: Conventions or "shindigs", cosplay, fan-made media, charitable organizations, fan activism, going to the International Space Station (you know, the usual stuff)

On Sept. 30, 2005, the feature-length film "Serenity" was released to the public, encouraged by the increasingly active fanbase. While the film was less successful than hoped, fans organized to buy copies of "Firefly" and "Serenity" DVDs on June 23, 2006 (nicknamed "'Serenity' Day") in order to encourage a sequel.

Browncoats have, in the past, been exceedingly organized and charitable. During the "Serenity" Day DVD campaign, "Serenity" was also screened for charity in 47 cities, calling the events "Can't Stop the Serenity", after the tagline "Can't stop the signal" from the movie. The fans donated the proceeds to Whedon's charity of choice, Equality Now, which focuses on female equality and empowerment worldwide. It has also donated to Fillion's charity Kids Need to Read, which he co-founded with author PJ Haarsma. Since 2006, the project has raised over $600,000.

A model of the good ship herself, "Serenity". She's a beauty. (PopCultureGeek)
A model of the good ship herself, "Serenity". She's a beauty. (PopCultureGeek)
Fan-made media is also commercially available, including a 2006 documentary called "Done the Impossible", a documentary featuring interviews from fans, cast and Whedon, and donating a part of the proceeds to Equality Now. In 2010, an unofficial, not-for-profit sequel was sold on DVD and Blu-Ray through the film's website; all proceeds (a total of more than $115,000) were distributed to five charities.

Conventions or "shindigs", after the title of an episode, are quite common, and may be centered around a release of creative fanwork, charity and/or "Firefly" and "Serenity" screenings.

As for cosplay, the costumes are largely based off American Civil War and World War II clothing, with some Asian influences to reflect the pan-Asian/Western dual culture in the 26th Century. A lot of breeches, braces, boots and bustles—not that I'm complaining. If a Civil War re-enactor happened to wander into a convention wearing a brown longcoat, he'd probably feel right at home.

The most famous cosplayer might just be Richard Castle, Nathan Fillion's character on the ABC show "Castle". During the 2000 Halloween special, Castle exits wearing a costume matching the outfit from "Firefly", with Castle's daughter remarking that he "wore [the costume] five years ago".

On that note, the season five episode "The Final Frontier" is basically "Firefly Reference-a-thon", which was very much appreciated.

Also, "Firefly" is on the International Space Station, because of lovely Browncoat/NASA Astronaut Steven Swanson. (I assume that "Browncoat" is listed as his occupation and his hobby happens to be spacewalking, but that's not verified). His mission was presumably to deliver the DVDs, with the ostensibly less-important repair and construction work he was also tasked with, resulting in four spacewalks.

The crew (or "good people to know"): Cast members, Tim Minear, Joss Whedon and a collection of well-known Browncoats

The crew of "Serenity" is listed above, but some recurring characters include Christina Hendricks ("Mad Men"), whose role I will not mention for fear of spoilers, Richard Brooks, who plays bounty hunter Jubal Early and has the honor of speaking the last lines of the show, and Mark Sheppard, who plays businessman-of-ill-repute Badger, but also is notable because Sheppard just keeps showing up in shows that will be covered by my fandom guides, including "Supernatural" and "Doctor Who".

Tim Minear worked with Whedon on "Angel" and "Dollhouse" and has most recently written several episodes for "American Horror Story".

Joss Whedon, director, writer and producer, also created "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", "Angel" and "Dollhouse", among others, and directed and wrote the ridiculously successful 2012 movie "The Avengers", which probably had FOX executives crying on the inside for a few weeks.

Some notable Browncoats, aside from Swanson, include writers from "Warehouse 13" and "Battlestar Galactica", makers of several video games (going by to the references they continuously insert), and "Doctor Who's" David Tennant, making the Tenth Doctor's brown longcoat all the more intriguing.

Some wise words (and phrases) to know:

Want to feel at home in the "Firefly" world? Throw grammar out into the black. Use slang, "ain't", "don't", malformed verbs and double negatives. When you're in the middle of the barren vacuum of space, grammatical institutions become much less important.

'Verse: shorthand for "the universe"
Shiny: slang in the "Firefly" 'verse for "cool"
Purple-belly: A derogatory term used to refer to Alliance members or soldiers, based off the purple armor of their uniforms.
Ruttin': Used as an expletive. Be creative with it.
Gorram: More family-friendly, network-okayed expletives for your convenience.
The black: The barren wasteland of space.
Reavers: Cannibalistic, sadistic space pirates who will use your mutilated bodies as hood ornaments for their spaceships. I say "pirates" in the not-fun way, and not to imply that they plunder for treasure because they quite literally have no objective other than to destroy and maim.
The Rim: Outlying frontier planets, usually far from Alliance influence.
Terraform: To make planets and moons into Earth-like habitats using technology; in the "Firefly" 'verse, this makes the planets basic, forbidding and arid unless the Alliance has further developed the planet.
Wave: communication via audio, video, text or holographic. The Google Wave was named as such because of "Firefly".

There are some Chinese phrases peppered throughout which can be pretty hilarious. A bilingual bonus, as these are translatable. My favorite is personally "stupid son of a drooling whore and a monkey", but to each his own, I suppose. Most of these are also incredibly inappropriate, so proceed with caution.

Dead in the water? Check out these sites: fireflyfans.net, browncoats.com, still-flying.net, the "Firefly" Wikia, and the Twitter accounts for Nathan Fillion, Jewel Staite, Tim Minear, Sean Maher, Adam Baldwin and Morena Baccarin.  

Some quick tidbits, including my favorite quotes:

Several notable TV characters have been "Firefly" fans, including Troy and Abed from "Community", who made a pact that if one died unexpectedly, the other would stage the death to look like a suicide caused by the show's cancellation in the hopes of prompting FOX executives to renew. Several characters on "The Big Bang Theory" are also fans; in 2002, they decided that Friday would be "Firefly" night until it was cancelled, thereby branding Rupert Murdoch as a traitor forevermore. 

"A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything." It's Jayne's hat, nothin' more to it. (Joits)
"A man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything." It's Jayne's hat, nothin' more to it. (Joits)
JAYNE'S HAT. 

"I am a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar": Just…just don't. I don't want to talk about it. The phrase actually is a potent reminder that Joss Whedon is a cruel, cruel man who plays with your heart and then shreds it in two by killing off characters you love with extreme prejudice. Rude.

"Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" If you play with T-Rex, he will probably befriend you and then eat you. (This is otherwise known as "Wash plays with dinosaur figurines when bored and alone".)

"I swear by my pretty floral bonnet, I will end you" is acceptable if someone is harassing you in any way. Ladies, take note. 

"I'll be in my bunk" is a phrase that should be used only when referring to the sexiest of sexy situations.

Two words: Captain Tightpants.

In the episode "Safe", Zac Efron played a younger version of Sean Maher's character, Simon Tam, in a flashback. 

"Firefly" and "Serenity" spawned six original tropes: Big Damn Heroes (you know the ones); The Firefly Effect (not watching something for fear of the inevitable heartbreak you'll endure when it gets cancelled); "I Call It Vera" refers to naming inanimate objects, particularly weapons; Train Job, for the classic Western trope that refers to any heist pulled on a train; "I'll Be In My Bunk" as above; and, "Earth-that-was", referring to the once-and-only Earth of days long past.

There is so much more to "Firefly" and the Browncoats that I can't even begin to cover. In many ways, it did more in 14 episodes than most shows do in eight seasons (although I might be a bit biased).

Next week, let's take on a challenge. We're tackling the "Homestuck" fandom. Until then, we'll keep flying. It's not much, but it's enough.

You can reach columnist Christine Bancroft here or on Twitter here. According to her friends, she is the "Wash" of her group, which is probably a fair point.




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