The phrase “Browncoats Unite” will likely fill Firefly fans with either joy or trepidation. The passion and resourcefulness of the hardcore fans (who self-identify as “Browncoats”) have helped to sustain show’s life over the nine years and nine months since it was canceled. But like so many devoted fans who feel misunderstood, the Browncoats as a group often bring with them an obsession that borders on creepy. And so some — fans and other observers — have feared that Science Channel’s 10th Anniversary Firefly retrospective would spend a lot of its running time focusing on The Fandom.
Fortunately, that isn’t the case. The bulk of the special is a roundtable discussion among the Firefly cast members and writers who attended the show’s 10th Anniversary panel at Comic-Con 2012. It’s a lively conversation that’s nicely balanced between oral history and behind the scenes anecdotes. The show is rounded out with talking head segments from the cast members that weren’t at the reunion (aside from Ron Glass, who’s mysteriously absent), and a chunk at the end devoted to highlights from the actual Comic-Con panel.
The participants are seated around a large, rough, wooden table, and lit solely by a pair of four-light bulb lanterns on the table. The effect is a bit dark and even odd at first, but it also suits the low-fi aesthetic of the Firefly universe. The talking head interviews with Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, and Gina Torres are framed in a similarly low-key manner, with the actors speaking against a simple black background.
This look also establishes an earnest-seeming, welcoming ambience, enhanced by the opening voiceover describing the premise of Firefly as well as the circumstances of its cancellation. It’s a good overview for those audience members who might not know the backstory while also respectfully reminding fans of what they already know. And while it can be a bit dramatic (“A renegade crew changed the ‘verse forever!”), it’s also mercifully brief.
The discussion gets started with a question from moderator Jeff Jensen to Nathan Fillion about when he first felt like a captain on the set. Fillion says that it was on the very first day, when he walked onto the ship in costume, and the director of photography shouted out, “Captain on deck!” and the crew kind of straightened up. That was the moment for him. Jensen gets a similar answer from Adam Baldwin about his experience being Jayne. Baldwin says that he decided to play the character as over-the-top gruff as he could, just to see how far he could take it. Some of the crewmembers were a bit skeptical of performance, but apparently Joss Whedon loved it.
Even as we’re reassured that the set was a place for invention and its own sort of hopeful adventure, we’re also reminded by writer and executive producer Tim Minear that the show’s dire ratings situation affected the episodes during production. The episode “Out of Gas” featured the crew of the Serenity in desperate straits while simultaneously flashing back to how the crew was first assembled. But behind the scenes, the show was tanking in the ratings and the dark, dark mood of the episode reflected cast’s own sense of dread. Minear also mentions that the funeral scene in “The Message” was shot after the show had been officially canceled, adding that the music in the scene was written as sort of a requiem for the show itself.
Such anecdotes make for a fascinating conversation that will be engaging for fans of Firefly, mixing background that many fans have already heard and also fresh information. Fillion, Alan Tudyk, and Minear all share very interesting episode ideas, with Minear’s taking the cake. His involves Reavers, Inara, and Inara’s mysterious needle, and it’s super-disturbing. Minear attributes the idea to Whedon, saying that it was one of the concepts that Whedon used to sell him on the show. As for Whedon himself, he isn’t present during the main conversation, but he does show up at the end during the Comic-Con portion of the special.
These highlights from Comic-Con provide an actual climax for the program. While Browncoats Unite isn’t able to replicate the feeling of giddy excitement that permeated the room on that morning, it makes a good attempt. There are a lot of shots of the dozens of people who attended the panel wearing their signature Jayne hats, and plenty of coverage of the audience laughing and applauding for the cast members.
Whedon takes center stage in this final portion, asserting that Firefly never went away because of the constant, growing, vocal fanbase. He also fields questions from the audience, the final one of which causes him to break down in tears. As he begins to describe how the first season finale would have differed from the Serenity movie, he pauses to say, “For some reason that’s the question that’s gonna make me cry?” When the audience responds with a heartfelt standing ovation, Whedon eventually finishes his answer and goes on to say a warm, emotional thank you to all of the fans of the show for keeping it alive over the past decade. It’s clear that Firefly, even after Whedon’s massive success with The Avengers, is still a project that is very special to him.
His and his cast’s commitment helped to make the finish of the Firefly Reunion panel one of the most emotional moments I have witnessed in a decade of attending Comic-Con. Firefly: Browncoats Unite does the right thing in using that whole moment, uncut, as its big finish. And even though it doesn’t completely translate to television, it at least gives a good sense of what the cast, creators, and crowd were feeling as the Comic-Con panel drew to a close.