There was a lot of buzz on the Internet recently about rumors of a possible sequel to the 2005 film Serenity. The news even made it to the Catholic world: I blogged on it, as did Mark Shea and even Fr. John Zuhlsdorf. That a mere rumor could kick up such a stir — the studio has not even greenlit a new movie — is a testament to the fans’ devotion to Serenity and its short-lived TV series predecessor, Firefly, which only lasted half a season on Fox back in 2002. So why are viewers of the movie and TV series so obsessed?
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure — fandom likes a bit of mystery, after all. My first exposure to the phenomenon came when my wife bought me the DVD of Serenity for Christmas in 2005. She had no idea what she was getting herself into, and I promptly transformed into a full-fledged Browncoat (that’s what fans of Firefly and Serenity call ourselves). I fell in love with it the first time I watched it, and responded by rewatching it half a dozen times again over the next few days. From there, I picked up the Firefly DVD boxed set, containing every episode in the program’s short life.
And I loved all of it.
The plot is simple: 500 years in the future, Earth, overcrowded, has been abandoned in favor of a new solar system, with "dozens of planets and hundreds of moons" that have been terra-formed to sustain life. There are two basic civilizations: the inner planets of the Alliance — the center of technology, learning, and culture — and the semi-independent outer planets, which more resemble the Wild West. Alliance efforts to exert control over the independent planets led to a brutal civil war, which the Independents lost. Now all are governed by an authoritarian state.
Against this backdrop, Firefly and Serenity tell the story of a handful of rebels — Browncoats, they’re called (hence the fan moniker) — who served together in the war. Led by the enigmatic Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds, they’re smugglers living onboard a small Firefly-class cargo ship named Serenity, taking jobs as they come and trying to stay one step ahead of the Alliance.
Add to this mix an Alliance-trained physician, Simon Tam, and his sister, River. Simon has sprung his sister from a top-secret research facility where she’d been subjected to unspeakable experiments that drove her insane. Both are on the run when Mal takes them in.
But all of this is standard space-opera stuff. Where’s the charm?
Well, part of it is the combination of genres — science fiction and the old West. Mal and his crew ride horses and sell cattle — cattle that they’ve transported on their spaceship. There are bank heists and train robberies. Men wear bolo ties and ride hovercrafts. There are ordinary "whores" and the more highbrow prostitutes who belong to a futuristic fertility cult and are referred to as "companions."
Then there are the characters themselves. Their idiosyncratic speech includes Wild West slang and Chinese profanity — the two languages having merged at some point in the story’s past.
Mal is the most troubled. Having lost his faith in God during the war, he can be cynical and bitter. Yet he has a certain élan, deftly combining a strict code of honor with a deep sense of irony, as when he says, "The next time you decide to stab me in the back, have the guts to do it to my face," or, "My days of not taking you seriously are definitely coming to a middle."
Then there’s tough-guy Jayne Cobb, the crew’s muscle. He’s crude and vicious, yet proudly wears a ridiculous knit hat that his mother made for him. Doubtful of the preparations for rescuing Mal from a notorious gangster, he says, "I’m smelling a lot of ‘if’ coming off this plan." (Did I mention the idiosyncratic dialogue?)
And so it goes. You can’t help but fall in love.
Serenity and Firefly succeed by asking "What if?" in ways that avoid the predictable and the preachy. They are the antidote to the muddle that the Star Wars series became, and the syrupy-utopianism of Star Trek. But can a sequel to Serenity get made? When the Browncoats are this determined, not a power in the ‘verse can stop them.