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“Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don’t care, I’m still free
You can’t take the sky from me.
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me.
There’s no place I can be
Since I’ve found Serenity
And you can’t take the sky from me.”
Firefly Theme Song
I was first introduced to “Firefly” by one of my college roommates in the fall of 2004. She was trying (unsuccessfully) to convince me to watch Stargate (which I, in all my Trekker arrogance and ignorance, saw as too campy and comedic to be “legitimate science fiction”), and I guess she figured that Firefly would be a step in the right direction*. At first, I balked. A space western? I hated westerns, why would I want that genre muddying up my beloved science fiction?
Looking back, I laugh at my naivety. Outlaws in space? AWESOME. Who WOULDN’T want that? But I know, from personal experience, that it’s not always so easy to convince a skeptic. So here’s a handy guide to pass along to those afraid that there’s no depth, no truth, or no legitimacy in space westerns. Because if Firefly is only one thing, that’s legit.
Firefly aired on Fox in the fall of 2002. Fox didn’t like the pilot (it was too boring, apparently), so they aired the episodes entirely out of order. Not surprisingly, the general public was rather confused by the show and its complete lack of backstory or worldbuilding, and the ratings were less than stellar. The show was cancelled after only 14 episodes were made (the pilot being of double-length) and only 11 had been aired, much to the contemporary pain of the existing fans and to the future heartbreak of everyone who subsequently discovered the show. This is why Fox can’t have nice things.
There was tremendous support from fans, however, in one of the largest and most visible fan campaigns ever to actually succeed at effecting change. In 2005, the film “Serenity” was released, bringing a much-desired sense of closure to some of the questions asked during the show. The entire cast returned for the film, and has always openly portrayed themselves as a family, willing to do anything for each other and for the world that Firefly represents.
Firefly is set in the year 2517, in a different solar system. The only surviving cultures from “Earth That Was” were Western (primarily North American, but with various European influences) and Chinese. Instead of culture and class being based around country, they follow a thread of planets. Planets closest to the center have higher standards of living, but are also closely monitored by the reigning government: the Alliance. Planets on the outer rim operate in a much more Old West, might-is-right form of self-government. The show is set several years after a civil war saw the rise of the Alliance over the Independents (known as Browncoats).
Serenity is a Firefly-class spaceship making a living in the underbelly of the solar system. She’s really the hero of this story—she ties the rest of the characters together and gives them sometimes a means and sometimes a reason to keep going. I dare you not to love her by the end.
CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS
The captain of the Serenity is Malcom Reynolds (also known as Captain Tightpants, or Mal), played by Nathan Fillion.
“You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake. You’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” Episode 1, Serenity
Malcom Reynolds is the ultimate rebel with a cause. He’s Han Solo with a purpose, a former Browncoat sergeant who fought and lost against the Alliance at the Battle of Serenity Valley, a turning point for both the war and Mal’s personal journey. He’s got no respect for the law, but he’s got an incredibly well-developed and deeply-ingrained sense of morality. Mal feels incredible personal loyalty towards his crew members (and even his stowaways—more on that later), even though he’d never admit it.
Mal doesn’t shy away from violence to protect his own, but he’d usually prefer to be left alone. He hasn’t gotten over the Alliance’s victory over the Independence, however, and has been known to start fights with Alliance supporters just to make a point.
IF YOU LOVED: Han Solo, CPine’s Kirk
ZOE ALLEYNE WASHBURNE
Zoe, played by Gina Torres, served as a corporal under Mal during the war and serves as his second-in-command on Serenity. She’s married to Wash, in a very typical opposites-attract relationship. Zoe is strong, serious, and openly loyal to Mal, her husband, and the Serenity.
“Do you know what the definition of a hero is? Someone who gets other people killed. You can look it up later.” Serenity (the film)
In the most stereotypical sense, Zoe is the straight man. She never loses her cool or breaks her calm, playing hardened soldier against Mal’s recklessness, Wash’s humor, and Jayne’s shamelessness. But there is more to Zoe than former corporal, which comes out in her interactions with both Wash and Shepherd Book. Zoe is quietly passionate, choosing to express her passion in action rather than words. That characterization is not uncommon for male characters, but Gina Torres does an incredible job in showing that there is nothing inherently male about those traits.
IF YOU LOVED: Minerva McGonnagall, Teyla Emmagen
HOBAN “WASH” WASHBURNE
Wash, played by Alan Tudyk, is Serenity’s pilot and comic relief, bringing a unique combination of ridiculous and doomsday to every situation. On the surface, he’s the lovable goofball, but underneath that, Wash has a lot to prove and even more to offer.
“Oh my god! What could it be? We’re all doomed! Who’s flying this thing?! Oh right, that would be me. Back to work.” Episode 3, Bushwhacked
Wash doesn’t have the same tie to Mal or the Browncoats that Zoe does, initially joining the crew as just their crazy pilot. He and Zoe’s relationship grew through their time on the ship, and throughout the series, hints of Wash’s inner depth come through. He’s thoughtful, intelligent, brave, and occasionally just as prone to recklessness as Mal or Jayne.
IF YOU LOVED: Xander Harris, Stiles Stilinksi
Inara, played by Morena Baccarin, is a Companion, which are highly-trained and well-respected escorts. In a ‘verse that’s supposed to represent a future wherein only Western and Chinese cultures survive, the Companions are one of the few show structures that visually tie in a non-Western influence.
“I don’t suppose you’d find it up to the standards of your outings. More conversation and somewhat less petty theft and getting hit with pool cues.” Episode 4, Shindig
Inara is sassy, sexy, smart, and not afraid to stand up for herself—no matter who she’s standing against. She and Mal push and pull at each other, with everything from childish insults to deep declarations of emotion and truth. Inara, in a sense, represents the good left in the establishment: Companions are endorsed by the Alliance, which gives legitimacy to Serenity for hosting one, but Inara is well aware of the problems and evils that Mal fought so hard against. Inara and Shepherd Book also have an interesting and philosophical friendship that provides food for thought on many levels.
IF YOU LIKED: ScarJo’s Black Widow, Elizabeth Swan
Jayne, played by Adam Baldwin, is the jackbooted thug of the crew, the hired muscle who seems to be in it only for himself and the money he can earn. He’s uneducated, trigger happy, and often the butt of jokes by other characters, but he repeatedly steps up and shows more heart and loyalty than he would ever admit to.
“Far as I see it, you people been given the shortest end of the stick ever been offered a human soul in this crap-heel ‘verse. But you took that end, and you—well, you took it. And that’s—well, I guess that’s something.” Episode 7, Jaynestown
Jayne is Mal’s foil: as much as Mal stands for his cause (even when there’s little left to stand for), Jayne never attempts to stand for anything at all. He openly decries anything deeper than selfishness, even while his actions show a commitment to the ship, its inhabitants, and making the ‘verse a better place. He is crass and offensive and my very favorite character. His gun is named Vera, and his mother sends him hats.
IF YOU LIKED: Dean Winchester, Colonel John Casey
KAYWINNET LEE “KAYLEE” FRYE
Kaylee, played by Jewel Staite, is the ship’s engineer and resident expert in shiny things and optimism. She’s a genius that keeps the ship running on love and intuition, believing the best of Serenity just as she does everyone else. As Mal says, “I don’t believe there is a power in the verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful.”
“Six gerstlers crammed under every cooling drive so that you strain your primary atery function and you end up having to recycle secondary exhaust through a bypass system just so’s you don’t end up pumping it through the main atmofeed and asphyxiating the entire crew. Now that’s junk.” Episode 3, Bushwhacked
Kaylee, to a certain extent, represents what the crew is fighting for. She approaches everything with innocence and genuineness, but she’s highly perceptive when she wants to be. Kaylee often acts as the glue holding the crew together, both because she’s good at finding resolutions and because everyone is equally reluctant to disappoint her.
IF YOU LIKED: Disney Princesses, Jane Foster
Simon, played by Sean Maher, is a brilliant (and attractive; see photo) doctor, on the run from the Alliance with his sister. He’s loyal to a fault, but only to those he considers his own: at first, this is only River, but the rest of the crew slowly grow on him (some faster than others, *coughcoughKayleecough*).
“Agent McGinnis, I’m certain you’re working under a superior who’s keeping close tabs on this case. I’m certain of that because important people don’t do fieldwork. I’m also quite certain your superior wants me and my sister alive. Now, I’m not going to move from this spot until one of two things happens: You answer my very simple question, or you shoot me.” Episode 9, Ariel
Simon and Mal have a contentious relationship, based on initial differences (Simon seems to represent everything Mal hates; Mal represents everything Simon has been raised to hate). The longer Simon stays on the ship, however, the more it becomes clear that their distaste and distrust stems from similarities, not differences. As much as Inara shows that not everyone supported by the Alliance is evil, Simon shows that anyone, no matter how entrenched in Alliance-based society, can change. Simon is snarky (who isn’t in this show, really), sometimes aloof, but with obvious spots of vulnerability.
IF YOU LIKED: Harvey Specter, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock
River is crazy. Played by Summer Glau, she’s a genius, but her brain was tampered with by the Alliance until only about 10% of the things she says seem to make any sense. She’s also occasionally prone to bouts of violence, but so is half the crew, so after a while she fits right in.
“I don’t belong. Dangerous like you. Can’t be controlled, can’t be trusted. Everyone could just go on without me and not have to worry. People could be who they wanted to be, could be with the people they wanted. Live simple. No secrets.” Episode 14, Objects in Space
River is the most Shakespearean member of the crew. While only a small fraction of her comments seem relevant (or even coherent), she is the truth-sayer of Serenity. Much like Shakespeare’s insane characters, even the most absurd of River’s comments—when parsed at a deeper, fluidly intuitive level—contain an essence of truth that everyone would be better off if they noticed. She becomes everyone’s little sister, to be protected and shielded, even when she’s wielding knives and speaking gibberish.
IF YOU LIKED: Ophelia, Luna Lovegood
DERRIAL (SHEPHERD) BOOK
Shepherd Book, played by Ron Glass, is an interesting addition to the Serenity. He spent much of his recent past in a monasterial setting, but felt like he needed to get back out in the real world, so he bought a ticket to ride along with the crew.
“If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.” Episode 6, Our Mrs. Reynolds
Book begins fairly two-dimensional, a backdrop of ethical purity against which the capers and crimes of the rest of the ship play out. He doesn’t stay two-dimensional for long, however, quickly becoming conflicted by what he sees (and even what he himself participates in). Book’s own morals are less black-and-white than everyone originally assumed, and he finds his own place in the ‘verse through his conversations and cooperation with the crew.
IF YOU LIKED: Castiel, John Watson
*I did agree to watch Stargate, but not until the following semester, when we were no longer roommates. I quickly fell in love, and Stargate Atlantis was my first real fandom, McShep my first real OTP. I owe that roommate a lot and should probably send her cookies at some point.
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1. Favorite combination of five persons in a fandom.
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