WHAT IS THIS?
This is the quick and dirty lowdown on the Emmy-winning science-fiction TV show Firefly and its movie sequel Serenity. If you want to know about the show's essentials without having to spend eight hours boning up, this is the place. If you have the eight hours, then just go to the Wiki Home Page. Since the goal here is to be brief you will sometimes see a link at the end of a selection with the acronym WYLTKM?, my homage to the comical and cynical phrase from Starship Troopers, "Would You Like To Know More?" Then you'll see a link to further info.
But this page is ultimately self-contained, so you can spend about fifteen minutes reading it through and you'll be pretty-well up-to-speed on all the basics of Firefly and the Serenity Movie.
BOIL IT DOWN TO ONE PARAGRAPH SO I CAN DECIDE IF I WANT TO KNOW ANY MORE AT ALL:
OK. Firefly was an Emmy-winning 2002 science-fiction TV show that only lasted 14 episodes, followed by a major motion picture sequel, Serenity. It is more "pure" sci-fi, much more realistic and gritty than Trek or Wars. It's adult, philosphical, edgy, violent, and sexual, with lots of cool science-fiction themes and special effects. There are no cute kids, except one in the movie, and he gets slaughtered. But the show is not dark like Battlestar Galactica and has life-as-value as its central theme. It's got a minor Western theme going on some planets (diminished severely in the Serenity Movie,) but also a frontierish, John Wayne-style sense of morality, including independence, free-thought, self-sufficiency, and right-to-live-freely. It's basically the Star Trek formula, but so highly advanced in terms of presentation (characterization, plot, sets, science, politics, effects, etc.) as to be a revolutionary rather than evolutionary advance.
WHAT DO PEOPLE MEAN BY "BDM?"
"Big Damn Movie" is a play on an expression from the episode "Safe" where one character cynically refers to the gang as "Big Damn Heroes (BDH's.)" This question is asked and answered constantly, and inspired this FAQ. The Big Damn Movie is Serenity, which hit theaters on September 30, 2005, DVD on December 20, 2005. WYLTKM? Buy the movie on DVD from Amazon(approve sites).
DO I NEED TO SEE THE SERIES FIRST TO DIG THE MOVIE? HOW DOES THE FILM COMPARE TO THE TV SHOW?
Certainly, the producers wouldn't require background because this would doom the Serenity Movie. It sure looks to most fans like the producers "done good" in satisfying both devoted fans and the public. If you're reading this (and I think you are!), you'll be ultra-prepped for the movie. That said, the DVD set of the TV series(approve sites) is 15+ (program) hours of spectacular adventure, and since many fans find the movie to be very much like a good long episode, the DVD's might come out ahead "by the pound," since the show has 15 hours of splendor, the Serenity Movie is "just" 119 minutes of pure joy. Your Atlasbugged? host humbly suggests: See the BDM and buy the DVD, OK? Repeat as needed. WYLTKM? Here's typical fan discussion(approve sites) of the issue.
WHAT'S FIREFLY'S HISTORY IN A NUTSHELL?
It was a prematurely-cancelled television series from 2002. Many fans deeply resent how the network, Fox, mishandled its marketing, scheduling, and overall presentation, thus leading to an untimely - but not final - demise. But no one knows the true reason for Firefly's demise since the show was also vastly ahead of its time, and this could have thrown viewers off.
Firefly's mastermind, Joss Whedon, was the creator of TV's Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which was so popular and successful it was almost literally the sole breadwinner of its network for a time. So Whedon got carte blanche when he decided to pursue what he really loved, which was a sci-fi show in the best tradition of the genre. Enter Firefly. Network executives, however, hated Whedon's not-so action-oriented two-hour pilot (named "Serenity," same as the BDM, which will likely cause confusion for 500 years) and demanded he make a second one, which ultimately aired first, called "The Train Job." This was followed by the above-noted series of poor marketing moves by Fox (some of which are urban legends, most not,) which may or may not have caused low ratings.
It would be severe understatement to say the series did not catch on. 15 hours were produced (14 eps), but only 12 hours (11 eps) aired before Fox unceremoniously pulled the plug. Episodes 11, 12, and 13 went unaired. Episode 14 aired, followed by the original two-hour pilot Fox had rejected. The DVD has every glorious hour, see below, and this Wiki has your Episode Guide. But the show was the best sci-fi in decades (if ever,) so fans fanatically snapped up the DVD's and evangelized the show to anyone that would listen.
Unlike those "other" sci-fi dramas you may have seen, things in the Firefly world are very familiar to anyone who has a job and a life; it's more realistic and vastly more adult-oriented than brand X. Based upon the good DVD sales (money talks, and one Universal exec was a Firefly fan), Universal Studios signed on to Whedon's persistent plea to continue the story, and the Serenity Movie was born.
WHAT'S THE SHOW ABOUT IN A NUTSHELL?
500 years hence, a new civil war, the Unification War, has been fought in a solar system far, far from Earth (but necessarily almost next-door on a stellar scale, see the science, below.) The rebels, called "Independents," vaguely resemble America's Confederacy, but without the stain of slavery, and they wear "Brown Coats" that fans like to emulate. Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds fought on the losing side.
The now-captain Reynolds commands his own space freighter, and this ship is one of a class of ships called "Firefly," which he's named "Serenity" in memory of the losing battle of Serenity Valley. Thus the names of the TV show and the movie, respectively.
After the disastrous battle which ends the Unification War at Serenity Valley, Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds kisses his religion goodbye and puts together enough money to buy his own ship, a freight-hauler, and by dint of ownership he is promoted to captain. He then hires a crew and tries to make payroll.
Although the Unification War was decisively won by the monolithic Alliance, Reynolds follows his dream to live free of the state he fought. If he can't beat them, Reynolds reasons, he'll just avoid them. But he'll still die before joining them, see the politics, below. To stay below the radar, Reynolds and crew frequent the "outer rim" of the solar system, where life is more primitive and often resembles the American West of Hollywood legend.
He assembles a crew of eight, half of whom begin as paying passengers. His pilot is Wash, 2nd (only to a cheater named "Mr. Universe") in his pilot-school class and a man who frequently questions the need for violence. But his wife is Mal's second, Zoe, who fought by Mal's side in the war and lives by the gun. Mal's mechanic/engineer is Kaylee, a woman of natural talent in her job (and innocent beauty the rest of the time.) And later comes a brutal mercenary, the man they call "Jayne."
The first paying passengers are a "shepherd" (26th century "pastor" of Christian tradition) named Book and a young, affluent doctor named Simon. Later, it appears that the doctor has smuggled aboard his young and gifted - but damaged - sister, River.
Finally, there is Inara, a glamorous sex-worker (a "Registered Companion") who rents Serenity's Firefly Shuttle, one of two, even as her customers rent out time with her. But despite how it sounds, her skills, knowledge, and prestige are prodigious. In fact, many places will not berth a ship that does not carry a Companion. A Companion is not only a combination Geisha, Escort, and ultra-class call-girl, but much more. The profession is both legal and highly-respected in the 'verse.
Thus begins the Firefly saga. It's about the crew's simple quest to make a decent living. But it's coupled with the captain's demand that they do so without selling out to the Alliance, a difficult hat-trick that forces them into all sorts of trouble.
WHAT'S THE MOVIE ABOUT, IN A NUTSHELL?
Too early for spoilers. "Spoilers" are particularly well-named WRT the Serenity Movie. The film was designed primarily for newbies, but this FAQ section will go halvsies.
If You Haven't Seen Firefly...
...It's fast-moving space-opera, grittier and more realistic than Trek, Wars, or most anything else in sci-fi, but inspiring as Trek, just in different ways. The characters are complex and dark, but they are still heroes, which keeps things interesting. If you like the sci-fi "genre" you will be particularly pleased. The story is about an embittered captain of a space freighter accidentally caught up in a political conspiracy pitting him against his overarching government and its deadly operative. Serenity looks like a first-rate standalone sci-fi tale to me, but I simply have no way of evaluating that for you honestly, I'm too involved. I'll only say that only a few good sci-fi movies are ever produced, so this has to count among them. If you like sci-fi, period, the Serenity Movie is mandatory viewing.
For Firefly Fans...
...Generally speaking, here's the lowdown: Our Big Damn Heroes concluded the TV series with River still ill from her Alliance mistreatment, and Inara had vowed to leave Serenity in episode 13 ("Heart Of Gold.") Book evidently left as well, though everyone is in the movie, just not on board Serenity. The film answers a whole lot of open questions, and is very satisfying in that regard. River's mistreatment and rescue is mostly only discussed in the show, but shown in the movie. Avoid spoilers if you've followed Firefly's story arc, however, because the film has at least three major events that significantly alter the show.
It is funny, exciting, smart, and a good story, well told. Firefly was truly fabulous in having virtually no bad episodes, and had the movie been an episode, it would have been in an upper-tier. WYLTKM? Here's a massive interview(approve sites) with Joss Whedon which contains only minor spoilers.
I'M A BUFFY/ANGEL FAN. WILL I LIKE FIREFLY?
Probably, but the differences are important. Buffy/Angel was pure fantasy. There are no vampires or devils in Firefly, never will be, and the show actually goes severely in the other direction, rejecting out-of-hand even the possibility of supernatural elements, including God. (Mind-reading is strongly suggested, but never fully established, and never treated as a non-physical or other-worldly phenomenon.) Firefly is crucially different from other shows in its attempt at realism - even the ethics and politics are linked to known-reality, as is the science. Unlike the Buffyverse, which maintained internal consistency, Firefly also maintained external consistency, i.e., coherence with the real world of both physics and - crucially - morality. It seems Whedon tried to build a world of the future with as few leaps of logic as possible, and as few leaps in science as politics. Example: In the world of Star Trek, food appears out of thin air, and is never an issue. In Firefly's Pilot episode, there is a gunfight over food that leaves a half-dozen men dead.
WHAT TYPE OF SCIENCE FICTION STORY IS FIREFLY/SERENITY?
Sci-fi fans often call it "hard" sci-fi (or "hard-er," this is debated. Whedon himself, however suggests Firefly is hard sci-fi.) This usually means the science will be fairly realistic and will be a fair extrapolation from today's science, just a bit more advanced. Exceptions do occur when they are simply unavoidable. For example, long-space-distance "phone calls" are realtime, which means they must go Faster Than Light, even within a solar system.
Way futuristic stuff that seems almost magical is clearly verboten. So, you don't see ships zipping around at 10 times Faster Than Light, molecules rearranged to create whatever, or "transporters" as in Stargate Whatever, and the like. On the other hand, there are scarce Laser Pistols, very advanced medicine, fast, cheap, easy sub-light travel, and most else permitted by today's science but perhaps not yet concretized in technology you can use. Serenity's mysterious engine is said to be fusion-based; that's perfect for Firefly because the science is old hat, but the technology is yet-to-come. Firefly does all it can to respect the science and holds reason as the sole means of knowledge.
There are oblique references to "Earth-that-was" and an implied backstory of environmental catastrophe or other calamity that impelled humanity to colonize other planetary systems, although Firefly never specifically references any other system but its own. There's more to the Firefly Universe, just not here in this brief FAQ.
ARE THERE ALIENS AND MONSTERS IN FIREFLY?
No! Whedon took a modest risk by positing a future with no alien life. The idea we're alone in the universe (for here and for now, at least) is a little bit anti-sci-fi, but it was a brilliant move in retrospect. Turns out that all those bumpy-headed aliens in Star Trek and elsewhere look pretty stupid once you step back a bit. What Whedon seems to have figured out is that unlike English-everywhere or instant communications, aliens were not a necessary ingredient. Finally, the depth in Firefly resides mostly in the ethics and politics. There's a time and a place for Bug Eyed Monsters, but it isn't Firefly.
WHAT KIND OF SPACESHIP IS SERENITY?
A so-called "Firefly-class" vehicle, the first introduction to this "new Enterprise" is jarring when an early episode ("The Train Job") reveals that it doesn't even sport a weapon, a shield, or any of the usual issue. The ship is a freighter, and its main characteristic of note is that it can run away...very fast. It hauls cargo, of course, and has a sick bay, or Med Bay, thank heaven, since we don't want it to be too unfamiliar. The ship is also importantly different from "brand X" ship in that it is designed for both atmospheric as well as space travel. It does the former in a really cool way by using a "VTOL" design, which here consists of a pair of thruster engines which can be angled in any direction from down, up, forward, and even backward. When in space, Serenity uses a different sort of drive which is little explained, but we know it's sub-light and very powerful, something to do with fusion energy, according to the Pilot episode. However, even when running away, there are numerous vulnerabilities for the Firefly-class ship, including a device that can "Land Lock" it by remote control, and other ships that have "Magnetic Grappler" devices to capture a Firefly even if it's outside of physical reach. If you need photon torpedoes, go brand yecchh. WYLTKM? See Firefly Transport, which has way more than you need to know, including diagrams. There's always Vera...
WHO IS THE CHARACTER VERA?
Jayne's mega-gun. Vera needs oxygen to operate, a big bone of contention among some purists because a normal gun would fire in vacuum. But the very reason guns have oxidizer built-in is that there is insufficient ambient oxygen available, and Vera presumably breathes heavy. She's Jayne's first love. She'd be mine, too, if I weren't already spoken for. Guns are philosophically crucial in a libertarian 'verse, as well as for their utility, and Vera's the biggest and baddest.
WHO ARE THE BAD GUYS IN FIREFLY/SERENITY?
Our Big Damn Heroes are caught between two evil forces, and one among their number is a bit less than moral himself.
The most prominent is the Alliance. This is the overarching and all-powerful government against which Sergeant Reynolds unsuccessfully fought in the civil war. They are "meddlesome" and Reynolds simply rejects their authority. With the war decisively lost, Reynolds must settle for flying below their radar if he wants to live, and life is Firefly's central message. Reynolds knows the Alliance is morally impotent and chronically incompetent, despite their sheer power, and these are the keys to his survival. As metaphor, the Alliance is eerily like present liberal democratic institutions, and its evil is simply a step up from what we now face. Also in the BDM, the Alliance is revealed to be a democracy, again confirming that the Alliance is intended as a crucial comment by Whedon on our present institutions.
At the other extreme are the "Reavers," who are essentially cannibalistic, sadistic, nihilistic madmen. The important thing to remember about the Reavers is perhaps stated by Second-in-Command of Serenity, Zoe: "If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing and if we're very very lucky, they'll do it in that order." To the inner safe planets under Alliance rule, Reavers consist mostly of mystery and bedtime stories that parents tell to their children to scare them. But along the outer rim, they are all-too-real. They are dealt with comprehensively in the BDM.
Four particular foes bear mention because each shows up twice in the show's short run of 14 episodes. The ubiquitous "Blue Sun Corporation" is mysteriously tied up with the Alliance and provides the face of River's tormentors in the form of a pair of blue-gloved, merciless assassins. Next is Badger, a little thug aspiring to higher airs who runs a small crime gang in the Pilot. Adelei Niska is a sociopathic maniac, also a crime boss, with whom Mal unwisely deals in "The Train Job," and who later tortures Mal to death...then revives Our Hero for more. Best known is Yo Saf Bridge, the character who becomes Mal's wife in "Our Mrs Reynolds" (using the name Saffron) and reappears in "Trash" (as Yolanda and Bridget, thus "Yo Saf Bridge," which many fans mis-heard as another Chinese expression.)
Finally, there is crewman Jayne. Unlike the above adversaries, he is not simply a fixed evil component. He evolves over the course of the show. His threat is moderated by sheer violence and domination by Reynolds. By episode 11 ("Trash,") the otherwise fearless mercenary is terrified of Reynolds.
WHAT'S THAT LANGUAGE, SOUND'S CHINESE, OR CUSSIN'?
It's both. As with most things Firefly, the language is an extrapolation from the present. Firefly assumes that the USA and China eventually became the two great world powers, then merged. As a result, everyone in the Firefly world speaks English and Chinese (Mandarin?) fluently. The TV show had a consultant on staff to be sure the translation and pronunciation were proper, a good idea since China is in fact a growing market; Gor help us all if they should fall in love with Firefly, we may find ourselves with a 24/7 Firefly-only TV network. But you don't need to know any of it because the scene context always makes the meaning clear. All of the Chinese Phrases are real and translated on this Wiki. Dong-ma?
There're also a few slang terms that fans happily adopt. "Shiny" is a term like "cool," and it means "good." Some slang is American West, such as when a lout shuts up, he does us all "a kindness." Or Mal may be "of a mind" to do something.
The Firefly world is also pretty raw, and it would be weird if there weren't some nasty language going on, and so there is. But many words are still feared and loathed by network audiences, so veiled substitutes were invented for Firefly, the most well-known being "Gorram" and "Rutting." The Cortex Lexicon is more comprehensive than is appropriate here.
It's odd that certain words were censored on a show that prominently featured a prostitute who swung both ways (in "War Stories" for you guys that just need to know, heh-heh.) A complex calculation, surely, but don't forget we're talking about Firefly, which failed, not Star Trek, which didn't. In fact, Firefly's demise could be attributed to many aspects that were far out ahead of the public sensibilities, which leads us to...
IS IT TRUE THAT YOU SHOULD NEVER DISCUSS RELIGION OR POLITICS?
May be. Firefly dealt with both in very explicit ways. Both were arguably at the heart of the entire show. And we don't have the show anymore.
[This part of this FAQ is considered controversial by some, even though I've been careful to document everything, see below. And other critics concur(approve sites).]
...In terms of religion, Captain Reynolds is an explicit atheist. If this were Seventh Heaven, you might see him regularly suffering for this fact, but a fair reading of Firefly's intent suggests Reynolds made the right choice, the rational hero. Looked at this way, the show was a success for having aired 11 episodes, instead of 3. Lets not even discuss the (uuhhh, bi-sexual) sex worker as both hero and as the most highly-respected and highest-status person on board, i.e., Inara.
I will note that some religious fans see it differently, and see Shepherd Book as the true spokesperson for the show's POV. The best evidence for their view is the fact that Reynolds becomes an atheist out of anger and betrayal when his troops are slaughtered then abandoned at the Battle of Serenity. Also, Whedon confirms that Book is the "message-bearer" in the BDM's unfortunate and misunderstood "...believe something..." dialogue, though this is not quite what religious fans want to hear, either. [Worse: both Whedon and even onscreen Book emphasize that Book's not talking about religion.] Fortunately, a clearer message is encapsulated in Mal's (and Kaylee's similar) comment, "I mean to live!" Life is the most central theme, among several others, throughout Firefly, not afterlife.
There is surely no question about the atheism. Mal tells The Shepherd to keep religion, proselytizing, and even out-loud prayers off the ship. Shepherd Book himself ultimately appears to go against his religion, utilizing massive deadly force in defense of himself and his own (which he refused to do in "Heart Of Gold.") And the Shepherd has a mysterious, possibly evil, past, and he too may have become what he now is in reaction. The BDM suggests it pains Book to even discuss his past. Book later seems to advocate faith devoid of content (in the BDM, see above.)
Finally, the creator of the series is unequivocal both about his own atheism and the atheism of the character Malcolm Reynolds. Whedon often says conflicting things about the show, and what a creator says is not necessarily canon, but there has been absolutely no equivocation about this. "...Mal is an atheist..." Whedon says. Nor any question that Mal is the hero. Find links to this information at the end solely because many fans find some of this too much to accept, even though it ought to be obvious that Mal is both atheist and hero. The indisputable atheism in Firefly is - no surprise - the thing that causes the most apoplexy among many fans. Some of Whedon's statements in this regard appear to be in his own voice, as commentary tracks on the DVD set. In print, Whedon tells us, "I'm a very hard-line, angry atheist."
...In terms of politics, it's even more explicit. Whedon has said without qualification that Reynolds is a libertarian, though it was obvious long before Whedon spoke. In fairness, Whedon has also stated that he, Whedon, was not a libertarian. Cohort Tim Minear, now at work adapting a Robert Heinlein story for the screen, is likely the real lib, and he's undoubtedly an Objectivist(approve sites) as well. An interesting question is whether Mal is, or is becoming, an Objectivist (the philosophy of novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand(approve sites), which gave birth to libertarianism.) WYLTKM? Here's the best online Objectivism site(approve sites) by far.
But no matter what, Mal adheres to libertarian principles, including non-aggression, and Objectivist morality, which demands self-reliance and independent thought. This too has infuriated a number of fans who love the show, but carry conventional politics and ethics. They take glee in pointing out that Mal and company are self-described "thieves," which, if true, would certainly be inconsistent with either libertarianism or Objectivism. But close examination of the show easily demonstrates that the "thieving" always occurs against various reprobates, e.g. mass murderers ("Trash") or government thugs ("Ariel") or the like. In "The Train Job," we actually see Mal returning the "stolen" goods - in the face of torture and death - when he discovers that they belong to deserving parties who don't even have perfect title. (Mal there says, "We're not thieves - but we are thieves.")
Again, it's probably a stroke of luck that average fans don't necessarily understand the politics, and the sexual libertarianism alone may have helped kill the show in the first instance. But in the end, even if folks don't understand the details, it's clear that Malcolm Reynolds is a powerful man of principle, an impossibly appealing package that undoubtedly turns Firefly's fans into fanatics. Many may see Mal as a handsome bad boy, even if he's the most moral character ever to appear on TV. If that's how they want to enjoy him, and it gets more shows made, well, let's live with it.
Finally, a tip of the hat to those who violently disagree with my libertarian and/or religious POV on the show and a stick in the eye to those who couldn't be civil about it. Beware core, intellectually dull and inbred group on <alt.tv.firefly> that may insult or implore you not to read this FAQ - the mentality of any such person(approve sites) ought to be obvious from their action. Your Bugged host recommends you read all you can. In the end, I used my POV early on to make predictions about later episodes and they were confirmed almost without exception, all the way through to the film, then through to follow-on research about Whedon's and Tim Minear 's explicit comments.
WHAT OTHER FIREFLY STUFF EXISTS? WHERE DO I BUY THEM?
The most important Firefly resource - by far - is the DVD set of the series(approve sites), which is incomparable. It contains the whole saga, but for the movie, and a first-rate collection of extras. Complete the saga - so far, we hope - by purchasing the movie on DVD(approve sites). There is a wonderful novelization(approve sites) based upon the movie's script which is trivially available at nearly all bookstores and online at Amazon. There is a three-part series of comic books(approve sites) that has been difficult to get hold of, probably because of low production and higher demand. The comic series apparently describes events between the last episode of the series and the opening events of the movie. There appears to be a role-play game, and "companion" book(approve sites). There are the soundtracks, which didn't have to be any good, but I think the BDM OST is terrific(approve sites). Others worship the TV OST(approve sites). Finally, there are some meta-resources discussing the finer points(approve sites) of Firefly, including the science, the morality, the politics, and more. For a failed TV show, the interest and investment should tip you off that something seismic occurred.
The future of Firefly is very uncertain as of this writing. The BDM opened to good reviews and was marketed, at minimum, reasonably well. It was the number 2 film for it's premiere, but that weekend was slow, and the $40 million film only grossed ten. So far, almost $100 million has been invested in Firefly (mostly by Fox and Universal,) and the prospects of recouping that, never mind making a big profit, are iffy at this point. At this writing, the gross stands around $35 million worldwide, but the film cost $40 million to produce and many milions more to market.
BEST OUTSIDE LINKS (and see Firefly Links):
The Serenity Movie official site(approve sites) is here.
I like this site too(approve sites) because it is rich with multimedia, but some 'nethounds have reported problems:
Mal is unequivocally a libertarian, see above and below, but so too is the show itself. You cannot understand the show fully without getting some basic lib under your belt. Most lib positions are summarized here(approve sites) in short essays.
A number of things in this FAQ have been challenged by various fans, some honestly, others simply disagree with anything you say. But the facts are the facts, so the following links, mostly interviews with the creator, Joss Whedon, are designed to silence the senseless objections, while arguable ones have been noted in the text.
[Tim Minear is clearly the main source of the liberty and Objectivist influence. His most-admired human is Ayn Rand, as he tells us here(approve sites). Joss Whedon seems instead to be mainly interested in Existentialism(approve sites), but aspects of the latter dovetail with the Objectivist stuff]
WELCOME TO FIREFLY/SERENITY!
I'll answer further questions by e-mail if you like, but probably better to post to <alt.tv.firefly> where your question will be seen by many other fans as well and probably answered. Just beware of the above-mentioned angry group.
If you found this FAQ helpful, don't hesitate to let me know at atlasbugged at gee-mail dot com. I will also accept corrections and additions, which are welcome, or just make them, that's what a Wiki is for! Please just remember that the point of this FAQ - short of accuracy - is brevity. Thanks for reading along.