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The Browncoats Rise Again

The best sci-fi TV series you've never seen has gone from cancellation to the big screen. Will a never-tried marketing strategy work for "Serenity"?

12:00 AM, Jun 24, 2005 • By M.E. RUSSELL
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There could be another hidden benefit of the September release: By the fall, some key competitors will be lying in their cinematic tombs. As Ain' put it recently, "Most of the major geek franchises are rolling flaming across their finish lines. Star Trek just lolled off the air. Star Wars is migrating to TV. The Wachowskis reduced the Matrix audience to--what?--the Venn-diagram intersection of philosophy undergrads, S&M aficionados, wuxia geeks, and wankers in denial? And the rights to The Hobbit are currently being pried apart by the jackals of finance."

"As Joss has always said, it's about world domination," Buchanan laughs. "You gotta pick your shot. We're like: 'Lucas? Done.'"

NONE OF WHICH MATTERS to the Browncoats who started standing in line 5:00 p.m. for the 10:00 p.m. screening. Publisher's Weekly dubbed this sort of gathering a "Nerd Prom," but the Serenity queue feels more like a Nerd High-School Reunion. The overwhelming suggestion is that this is where Star Wars fans go when they grow up. It's an older crowd, courtly and even genteel, many of them killing time in line with their PDAs. They make and sell their own bootleg merchandise with Universal's tacit, look-the-other-way approval. They use words like "menfolk."

So pleasant are the Browncoats that at the screening Sarah McKinlay--a woman wearing a floor-length dress and a vest inscribed with quotes from various Whedon shows--gives handwritten thank-you cards to the studio publicist and theater personnel. Handwritten thank-you cards. The studio flack, acclimated to the more, shall we say, adolescent behavior of other sci-fi fans, looked as though he might cry.

I later learn that Rick Bilyeu--a local courier and quite possibly the biggest Firefly fan in the whole wide world--stopped by the theater earlier in his white delivery van, which is plastered with two magnetic Serenity signs. (I made Rick, age 51, the star of a comic I drew for the Oregonian about the May 5 screening.)

Rick skipped the May 26 screening, telling me he wanted to "give another Browncoat a chance." Instead, he dropped by to show off his memorabilia collection, which includes a chunk of the Firefly set, a replica of Malcolm Reynolds' pistol, and a Firefly press kit re-assembled through multiple auctions.

Another member of the Serenity audience is Ted Hurliman, who works for the Northwest Film Center, which puts on the Portland International Film Festival. "I think there's something significantly wrong with Star Wars--not with the story, but with what it's done to the pop culture at large," Hurliman says. "Everyone I talk to who's loved [Revenge of the Sith] has said, 'Sure, the acting is bad. Sure, the whole Darth Vader screaming "NOOO!" was bad. But there were three good things.' So basically now, to make a good movie, you can have bad acting, you can have terrible sets--as long as you get one or two good things in there."

"Then I went, 'Wait. There's this new thing that's about to happen,'" he says. "I mean, Firefly didn't even have aliens. It had people making a living."

As Hurliman is talking, a fellow in an awkwardly made knit cap--a nod to a tuke worn by Jayne, one of the Firefly characters--takes the stage. He starts leading the auditorium in a halting sing-along of a folk ditty heard in an episode of the show:

He robbed from the rich and he gave to the poor!
Stood up to the Man and he gave him what for!
Our love for him now ain't hard to explain!
The Hero of Canton--the man they call Jayne!

Hurliman smiles as more and more fans join in on the song, mumbling like parishioners who can't find their hymnal page. As I wander around the auditorium, Browncoats--some of them suspecting I'm a studio flunky--walk up and offer me messages to pass along to Hollywood executives:

"All of us here are delighted that Universal had the wherewithal to move forward with this project."

"We're gonna take [Firefly] from the very bottom all the way to the very top."

"Fox made the most monumental mistake in its history by not taking advantage of this franchise."

That last one is debatable. Fox still controls Firefly's TV-broadcast rights--for which the Sci-Fi Channel just paid $450,000--and an enormous chunk of Serenity's success rests on Universal moving as many Fox DVDs as it can between now and September 30.

You see, even if Serenity bombs, Fox will have reaped some very tidy aftermarket revenue for a show they aired only 11 times. Without even lifting a finger.

SO HOW'S THE MOVIE? Well, despite a title that makes it sound like a Buddhist art film (and a logo that looks like a sign for a boutique candle store), Serenity is a harrowing, slightly dented Firefly series finale.

The film more or less wraps up the TV show's story arc about the psychic sister, River Tam--a crazy girl rescued by her brother Simon from a lab where government spooks poked needles in her brain. The crew is pursued by an eerily calm, sword-carrying assassin (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Vast conspiracies are uncovered. Captain Reynolds takes a number of Harrison Ford-style beatings. There's a joke about "Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Adam Baldwin turns in a hilarious, star-making performance as Jayne, a man so tough and stupid he cracks wise with a spear through his leg. The story is grim and quippy and should make sense, more or less, to non-fans.

But if the preview-screening audiences are any indication, anyone who has seen Firefly or cares about its characters will be knocked on his or her fanny by the final third, during which Whedon basically directs the movie like it's his last--heaping world-changing, Kobayashi Maru levels of abuse on his characters. It's a nervy, almost sadistic way to reward the long-suffering Browncoats--who were literally gasping and crying during the screening--but it also immediately removes the sense of fluffy-pillow safety that episodic television provides.

This strong cup of coffee is mitigated by the fact that, on a structural level, Serenity is also a self-referential valentine to its fans. By film's end, Reynolds and his crew are circumventing vast bureaucracies to broadcast a long-lost message, aided by a dork named "Mr. Universe" who basically surfs the Web from his own hidden planet. The metaphor for Firefly's own struggle--and its possible salvation, thanks to fans surfing the Web from their basements and office cubicles--is too blatant to be accidental. (The film's current tag line is the equally unsubtle "You Can't Stop the Signal.")

This love-letter quality--combined with the laughs, scares, and human moments missing from another notable science-fiction franchise--is probably enough to paper over the film's problems, some of which may be addressed in the editing room over the next few months anyway. A few characters get short shrift. Mr. Universe is deeply silly. A couple of post-traumatic emotional beats could be handled better. And our heroes fight cannibals driven mad at the edge of space who seem just a little too crazy to aim straight, much less pilot spaceships.

At any rate, it's a pretty bold, take-no-prisoners story to be throwing in front of your fans four months early. Whedon's got brass. As he says toward the end of his opening message: "If this movie matters to you, let somebody know. Let everybody know. Make yourselves heard.

"If you don't like the movie, this is a time for quiet, silent contemplation."

M.E. Russell is a writer and cartoonist in Portland, Oregon.