About 15 years had passed since I last spent time aboard the Serenity with Mal, Zoe, Wash, and the gang. But with plenty of free evenings during a global pandemic, I decided it was time to take another journey into the Verse and bring my adoring wife along for the ride. Oddly enough, she had never seen the show — even though her name is Jayne.
Like many of us, I didn’t watch Firefly when it was first on TV in 2002. Instead, I caught up with it on DVD a few months before creator Joss Whedon released the movie version, Serenity, in 2005. Instantly, I fell in love with the show and the film; the characters, the world, the language, all of it was so exciting. Somehow it was fun and fresh, but also familiar. In the years since, my memories of the show got diluted into a few tiny pieces, many of which were driven by the movie and the franchise’s very outgoing fans at Comic-Con.
Watching it back, several things immediately struck me. I forgot Jayne doesn’t get his now-iconic hat until 12 episodes in. I forgot that River’s past, such a huge part of the movie, is merely teased throughout the show. I forgot about the now-famous guest stars (Zac Efron! Christina Hendricks!) and that Whedon loved to let Mal call Inara a whore at any chance he could. Which, fast forward to 2021 and a world where Whedon has been accused of verbal abuse toward women and more, feels both less shocking than it should be, and more shocking than you remember.
The show takes a good four episodes to really get rolling but everything comes together in “Shindig,” the one where Mal goes to a dance and ends up in a duel with Inara’s client. From that episode on, world-building and action fall into the background and the people, as well as their relationships, become the drive. The high point is “Out of Gas,” the eighth episode of the series, which pushes everyone to their limits in an intense life or death situation, juxtaposed with flashbacks showing how everyone came together. It’s a dynamite piece of television and truly, Firefly at its best.
Though “Out of Gas” is the high point, basically every episode from four on is at least as good, if not better, than the one before it. Unfortunately though, it just…ends. What ended up being the series finale, “Objects in Space,” is a fine episode just like the ones before it but it’s very obvious Whedon and his team had planned things out with the hope there’d be many more episodes. The executives at Fox had other ideas though and the show ends without any sense of closure. It’s a huge gut punch, especially when the show was just hitting its stride.
Of course, thanks to the fans, Whedon did get to finish his story, albeit it in a more rushed way than he probably would’ve liked. And let me tell you, after binging Firefly, Serenity plays like the ultimate series finale in the history of television. From the first moments, it’s very clear Firefly/Serenity was meant for the canvas of a big screen. It just feels right, and the movie itself is wildly propulsive, exciting and revealing, tying up most of the big loose ends you were curious about during the run of the show. A few of the secondary characters get short-changed, or (RIP) killed, in the film, but considering Whedon basically had two hours to tell a good story, and wrap up an entire franchise, it’s an incredible piece of work.
What I realised after watching the movie though was most of my memories of the show itself had been replaced by ones from the movie. On the show, River is a mystery and a bit of an annoyance, save for one or two moments. In the movie, she’s not just the star, she’s an unstoppable force — he badass she was surely planned to be all along, which is how I remembered her. The Reavers, the main villains of the film, are only mentioned in the show a few times and seen once, which clashes with my strong memory of them. And that hat Jayne wears, the one you are guaranteed to see at any comic book convention, is only in the TV show for a few scenes, and even less in the movie. If it never became a “thing” in fandom, you probably wouldn’t even remember it.
So what does it all mean? My rewatch of Firefly and Serenity made me consider that the show struck such a chord not because of the show itself. The show and its stories are interesting but, because of the cancelation and resurrection, not quite as fully formed or explored as one would expect. No, the show’s legacy is all due to the characters. From top to bottom, the characters are so charismatic and dynamic that you simply want to spend time with them. Since they only exist in 14 episodes of television and one movie, you’ll gladly watch them do and say the same things over and over just to hang out with these amazing people. They almost become your friends. Their problems are your problems. Their pain, your pain. And, ultimately, their successes and joy are yours as well.
Because there’s only so much of this world in existence though (I didn’t read the comics for this piece), I was left wondering if the Serenity movie only works because it ostensibly has a 14 episode prequel series, and if Firefly only works because it has a 2 hour movie for a finale. Would either work as well without the other? Would the characters have shined as brightly? I honestly couldn’t tell you. I almost wish I’d shown my wife the movie first to get her reaction before we watched the show. But she’s a huge Alan Tudyk fan and, well, I didn’t want her to know what happened to Wash before she got to know him.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The movie does have the show, the show does have the movie and, together, they form an unlikely, rushed, slightly dated, but still more than worthwhile whole. Personally, I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever revisit the Firefly class ship, Serenity, again, but I’m glad I did this time. It helped me get my head around a piece of fandom that had faded for me. That fandom is back now, and while it may not be as strong as it was 15 years ago, it’s still a nice Verse to visit.