How Transmedia Brought Firefly Back to Life
If you love space travel combined with the western joys of cowboys, then you would enjoy Firefly. Created by Joss Whedon, it is a television series following the story of Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the Firefly class ship called Serenity, and his crew as they go about their rather illegal trading and transporting business while also hiding from the Alliance, the governing body of this universe. There is action, romance, comedy, gunfights, space battles – everything you could ever want from a television series.
In late 2002, the series came in out of nowhere and took the country by storm. Despite being shown out of order, causing confusion with the storyline and backgrounds of the characters, it still became popular. It was interesting and new, high up on the list of well-written space western franchises. The characters were lovable and relatable, from the crotchety yet humorous Captain Mal to the young, messed-up-in-the-brainpan River, to the religious and peaceful yet strangely good with guns Shepherd Book. It was possible the fastest creation of a cult-like fandom in the history of fandoms, with the series spanning only eleven episodes aired so far. Fans created forums, calling themselves ‘browncoats’ after the rebel fighters in the series. They wrote fanfiction. They went crazy over these characters and the world they lived in, creating a fanverse before the first season had even finished. At the time, all that existed was the television series; soon enough, however, it would grow beyond even Whedon’s expectations for it.
Before anyone could really get a grasp on the series, it ended. The show only had fourteen episodes, and had shown only eleven episodes on TV. It was cancelled before it got a chance to shine. Fans were shocked. Where had their new favorite show gone? What about River and Simon’s flight from the Alliance, Inara and Mal’s constant romantic tension, Kaylee’s growing affection for Simon, Jayne’s one-liners and huge guns, Wash’s sarcastic comments and humor, Zoe’s sturdiness as Mal’s second-in-command? The reasons for the cancellation are listed as low ratings, but no other solid reasons for cancelling the show were offered up. It was an expensive show, of course – space battles, elaborate costumes, elaborate scenery, plus cast and crew – so perhaps the expenses outpriced what they gained from viewership. It was still early on in its season, however, when the cancellation occurred. Firefly had never been given a chance to shine. Opinions vary of course on whether or not it should have been cancelled, but for the most part the fans who grew to love the show and saw its potential for greatness were heated over its abrupt ending.
Fans were outraged. Rightly so, if you have seen the show and understand the love for it. They created a forum designed solely for bringing Firefly back to life, and it took off. They wrote letters. They met online and then met in real life, creating a fandom out of almost nothing. They went to cons and dressed up as characters in a show that no longer existed. They wrote songs about Joss Whedon, wrote fanfiction about their favorite characters. The Firefly fandom, almost impossibly, grew exponentially after it’s cancellation. If not for the ability for fans to tell this story over and over again across multiple forms of media – mostly via the internet and forums online – Firefly would have floated off into the abyss. Whedon, and the cast and crew of Firefly, adored the series, but without their fans it would not have grown as much as it did.
The fans campaigned for the show to be saved from cancellation. They raised money for an ad in Variety magazine, had a postcard writing campaign to UPN, donated money towards saving the show. Their efforts were not all for nothing- all of this work brought about the DVD release of the entire series in December 2003, including the three episodes that had never been aired. Nathan Fillion, the actor playing the lead role of Captain Mal, later expressed interested in reprising his role once again should Firefly return to television, setting even more fire to the campaign. They had caught the attention of the one of the starring cast members of the show – how could they not be energized by that? A fan group working primarily online, with little to no contact into Fox or the producers of Firefly, had done this, actually affected the state of this TV series’ existence. Nothing like this had ever happened before. Never had a group of fans been so distraught, so furious about the cancellation of a TV show. Their action, and their creation of unofficial transmedia for the franchise – via fanfiction, fan art, and role playing – kept this series alive.
Because of this campaigning, the network took notice, and decided to put forth the money to produce a movie based off the series. And so, in 2005, Serenity was born. Joss Whedon and the original cast threw themselves into the movie’s production, while fans worked hard to promote the movie. Their hope was to make this movie so famous and wonderful that it would produce a sequel. And another sequel. And another. A cancelled TV series being turned into a movie was unheard of as is – that movie then having sequels would have been setting a new record in the media industry. A documentary called Done the Impossible was released in 2006 looking at this journey, from first production of the series to the movie’s premiere. It contains interviews from fans of this cult series as well as from cast, crew, and even Joss Whedon himself. The documentary brought a fair amount of attention to the series as well. Typically, transmedia is created by the producers of the series, such as the advertisement of The Blair Witch Project or the various elements making up The Matrix series. In Firefly’s case, it was created by the fans and continued onward on a grander scale by the producers.
Unfortunately, it was not meant to be. At least, not in television. The series did not have a rampaging comeback with a new season, nor were there any movies after Serenity. Fans have, I believe, been able to come to peace with where Serenity left the story and characters of Firefly. And it was not the end. Not even close. Fanfiction soared after the movie was released, and the fanbase grew. Comics written by Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews were published exploring plotlines that Whedon had originally intended to go into with the series had it continued. Serenity: Those Left Behind, which debuted in 2005, tells what exactly happened between the last episode of the series, “Objects in Space,” and the movie. Serenity: Better Days, which came out in 2008, exists prior to Those Left Behind and the movie, but before the final episode of the series. A graphic novel exploring Shepherd Book’s past and life came out as well in 2010, a much wanted backstory from an interesting character. A novelization of the movie, titled Serenity and written by Keith R.A. DeCandido, was also published in 2005, telling not only the plot of the movie but going into parts not included in the film. Serenity: The Official Visual Companion came out in 2005 as well, offering a shooting script of the movie and interesting details and facts about the film and the Firefly universe. It goes into depth on how the government is set up, details that were never given time to be explored in the series. Even after the movie had ended, and the campaigning was done, these works were still being written and published. Driven by perhaps his fans’ loyalty as well as his own love for the series, Joss Whedon has worked hard to tell these previously unknown stories, finding an audience in both new and old fans alike. Invigorated by his fans’ loyalty, Whedon appeared regularly at cons to advertise merchandise and further pieces of the franchise.
All of this, every book, every comic, every piece of media adding to the franchise was brought about by fans of a series that, at the time, wasn’t even complete. Now, you can read all about the characters and their backgrounds online or in the companion books. You can buy T-shirts with quotations from the show on them. You can purchase posters of the cast, people who still attend conventions and host panels for fans. The fervor for this series which, technically, ended around eight years ago is still running high and strong. Despite having roles in other franchises, the cast members are known most notably for their parts in the Firefly series. It only aired eleven episodes, and now you can buy little model Serenity spaceships on thinkgeek.com. Despite being $100, people will still buy them. This series grew from almost nothing due to the love and loyalty of its relatively small fanbase, and now it has products selling for up to (and likely above) one hundred dollars, which typically only happens in a franchise advertised and produced long term by its creators.
The wiki webpage dedicated to the series contains all of this information and more, with details on each character and the politics running the background of the series. A reunion at Comic-Con, Browncoat Reunion, featuring members of the cast, including Joss Whedon and star Nathan Fillion, was filmed and later released on November 11, 2012 titled on the Science Channel. Fans have kept this universe alive, whether it be through role play or fanfiction or even just updating the wiki site. Even today, people cosplay as the characters at cons and the stars of the show do panels for their fans. It is a series that almost died but, due to the dedication of its fandom and the power of transmedia, has been able to stay alive since its cancellation.