Meet Firefly’s Browncoats, the sci-fi superfans who refused to let their franchise die
On the 15th anniversary of the sci-fi’s saga’s launch, we explore why the show is still so loved – and the campaign to bring it back on air
It’s not where or what you’d expect it to be, but there’s a house in Edinburgh with an interstellar portal. Step through the door and you're zoomed to what at first seems an alien home, with images of the same battered spaceship plastered over the walls. Across the shelves lie replicas of wild-west style weapons, and its wardrobes are rammed with over 60 t-shirts all referencing a mysterious cultural phenomenon from years gone by. And then there’s the owner’s prized possession of this galatic gateway: an airtight box of action figures hidden away to prevent sun damage.
“All in all, it’s a couple thousand pounds worth of stuff,” admits Graeme, owner of this shrine to his favourite sci-fi series, Joss Whedon's acclaimed Firefly. He hastily adds, “It may seem like an extraordinary amount, but it is over 15 years!”
Yet it is extraordinary. These boxes of memorabilia, the fandom, fond memories of the show – all of it – shouldn’t exist. The western-cum-sci-fi tale of Mal Reynolds and his crew aboard the Firefly-class ship Serenity should be an unrecognisable wreckage after its disastrous lift-off on Fox this day in 2002. No fandom should survive its show being broadcast out of sequence, the time slot changed week-to-week, the nonsense tagline “Out there? Oh, it’s out there!” and, finally, a cancellation with three episodes left to run.
But 15 years later, here Graeme is, with a home honouring the sweeping constellation of characters of the Serenity – from the chirpy mechanic Kaylee and celestial courtesan Inara, to the psychotic psychic River Tam and mysterious Kung Fu clergyman Shepherd Book. And, of course, there's the most heroic smuggler in the ‘verse, Captain Reynolds, best thought of as a Han Solo type – one that still shot Greedo first.
Through the years this small band of galactic misfits has gained a devoted following called the Browncoats, a group named after freedom fighters of The Independent Forces, who lost a war to the saga's evil Alliance. And among their ranks stand upcoming Lando Calrissian actor Donald Glover, The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson, who added the series to the International Space Station's movie library. He even posted the first Instagram photo from space wearing a Firefly t-shirt.
So, how did a failed Fox experiment come to – quite literally – soar around the globe? “I’d heard friends raving about it a year or two after it aired and ended up buying the boxset,” says Graeme. “And then it sat on my shelf for six months. It was only when I got ill one day I put on the first episode. Then the second. And then I watched the entire thing back-to-back. And I watched it all again straight afterwards. I knew I had to tell everyone about it.”
Graeme’s route into the Firefly ‘verse is a well-travelled path. In fact, it’s difficult to find a Firefly fan who witnessed the original broadcast, with even the most fanatic of Browncoats stumbling onto the series by word of mouth or chance. But nonetheless, the fandom rocketed, with thousands enlisting as Browncoats with the goal of recruiting more. Fans collected money for an ad in Variety magazine, organised a postcard-writing campaign calling for more episodes and even raised over $14,000 to purchase a Firefly DVD for sailors in every US Navy ship.
It’s from stunts like these that Universal saw an opportunity and offered Whedon a shot at continuing the Firefly story. The 119-minute feature film that followed in 2005, titled Serenity, represented perhaps the biggest triumph of any sci-fi fandom ever. The ‘Big Damn Movie’, as Browncoats call it, was founded on their dedication – and Whedon knew it.
"Failed TV shows don't get made into major motion pictures – unless the creator, the cast, and the fans believe beyond reason,” he told fans at an early screening. “It is, in an unprecedented sense, your movie.”
Although not a huge box office success, the critically-acclaimed Serenity gave the franchise further fuel to the Browncoat’s rotating VTOL engines, with legions of new Firefly fanatic followers stepping aboard the fandom.
“I instantly fell in love with that film,” says David, an Irish fan of the show who runs a 40k-strong Facebook fan page for Firefly. “I now watch the full series and movie in a marathon at least twice a month.”
David even makes a living out of Firefly, selling t-shirts (mostly to Graeme, by the sounds of it) featuring artwork based on the show. “It’s always on in the background when I’m working, just in case it sparks a new idea.”
And when he’s disembarked from his daily Firefly binge, the franchise is always present in his endless memorabilia and linguistic ticks. Like many Browncoats, David has adopted the words shiny (the 'verse’s term for ‘very good’) and gorram (the exact opposite of shiny). And then comes the quotations: “One of my favourites is ‘One of you is gonna fall and die and I'm not cleaning it up’,” he says. “I mainly use that on my kids”.
But however quotable the series, Firefly’s real pull comes from the Browncoats themselves, who are dedicated to their own fandom as much as the show itself. “We are a family and we look out for one another,” asserts David. “The physical show may be over but the fandom only continues to grow. We keep flyin' and we stay shiny.”
Back in Edinburgh, Graeme agrees: “Firefly feels like home to me. And I think it was like that for the actors. They all had their own trailers, but nobody ever went there – the cast sat in the lounge on Serenity. They became a family.
“And they bring so much happiness to people,” he continues, voice wavering slightly. “There's just such a warmth to it. The Serenity just looks like a place where you want to spend time. It makes you feel like you belong – The Browncoats are just like that.”
Despite its precarious beginnings, it’s easy to believe Browncoats flourished into such a tight-knit crew. Yes, Firefly was cut prematurely, but this rejection mirrors sci-fi itself: the genre is escapism that, however engaging to some, is often shunned by the mainstream. Yet Firefly has flipped the rules, with Fox's rejection of the franchise banding the fandom together, becoming the Browncoat’s source of strength. “You kind of feel like you’re the underdog, but everyone’s always backing you,” says Graeme.
There’s also another factor working in the fandom's favour: with only 17 hours of Serenity screentime to discuss, there’s too little source material to tear fans apart. There are no Star Trek-style arguments to who’s the best captain. No musical Holiday Special to deny ever existed. No tenuous theories attempting to explain 50 years of wibbly-wobbly plot threads. The canon is contained, with fans left to optimistically wonder what could have been.
Yet, this doesn’t mean Browncoats solely spend their time speculating potential plots in the pub (although that’s a great way to spend a Friday night, admits Graeme). Firefly inspires fans to spread their positivity beyond the show’s borders, prompting the fandom to make the ‘verse a better place for Browncoats and civilians alike.
For instance, Firefly has not only enriched Graeme’s life – he says he bonded with his girlfriend through discussions about the show – but fundraising for others is a core part of the Edinburgh Browncoats. Through the years, they’ve hosted several Firefly pub quizzes for charity and have hired out cinemas as part of the annual Can’t Stop the Serenity event, where each year Firefly fans raise money with screenings of their favourite film (it’s Serenity, if you didn’t guess).
Since 2006, Can’t Stop the Serenitys in 47 cities around the world have raised over $1.2m, with proceeds going to Whedon’s charity of choice, women’s human right group Equality Now. “Hundreds turn up in cosplay – men and women, old and young,” Graeme says with pride. “It’s super shiny!”
But the biggest campaign the Browncoats are committed to is the simplest: get more Firefly made. Several revival campaigns have rocketed into popularity, often unexpectedly. Foremost of these was the 2011 crusade that emerged after Mal Reynolds actor Nathan Fillion joked that if he won the lottery he’d buy the Firefly rights and film a new show for an online broadcast.
“I was incredibly surprised it was a success – it was started mostly as a laugh,” claims Jeremy Vyska, helmsman of the ‘Help Nathan buy Firefly’ Facebook page and its 100k followers. Although Vyska claims he originally just wanted to “increase awareness that the demand was still there”, his campaign gained a million dollars worth of pledges from fans in under a month.
But in true Firefly style, the movement was killed off before its peak. And it wasn’t down to Fox – in fact, Vyska claims Fox reached out to make sure he had no ill intentions (“I think was very kind of them to protect the fans”).
This time the revival halted at Joss Whedon himself. Through his sister-in-law Maurissa Tancharoen, the Whedon team shot down the project.
“It was disappointing to realize that we had all this momentum, the support, and the numbers to do an amazing thing,” says Vyska, before conceding, “but that those were not the missing pieces to make something happen.”
And although Fillion didn’t condemn it personally, Vyska is now riddled with guilt about the campaign. “He made a light-hearted joke and watched it explode into a movement all over the front pages. In his shoes, that would haunt me. It's hard, personally, to know that you've done something to hurt someone you admire.”
The regret has seen Vyska steer his Facebook following towards causes supported by Fillion, including Equality Now. “I can only hope our efforts to channel that energy towards charity, never profiting personally, is the most sincere apology I could find,” Vyska laments.
So, crowd-funding campaigns carry too much weight for both sides of the fandom. But is there a chance Serenity could soar across screens another way? Could the franchise experience a Star Wars-style comeback, returning to a ‘verse we love but with a new ensemble?
Perhaps. Yet however much they enjoy the chase, many Browncoats share the same fear: they could end up with a Phantom Menace, rather than Force Awakens. Sure, Firefly was never given time to blossom, but it didn’t have time to wither either.
And then there’s the question of actor Ron Glass, who died last year. Although his character, Shepherd Book, was (SPOILER ALERT) killed off in the Serenity movie, many Browncoats believe a Firefly revival couldn’t go ahead without him. “It would be so difficult to continue without Glass,” says David. “On the list of celebrities who have left this world, he is up there, for me, with Carrie Fisher and David Bowie. He is that important.”
Yet arguing if or how the Serenity could fly once more isn’t the Browncoat way. Instead of lamenting about the future, the fandom’s default positivity is geared towards looking back at that perfect story – one cut in its prime, yes, but a sci-fi classic that will stand the test of time. As David quotes from the show, "She's torn up plenty, but she'll fly true".