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Despite running only 14 episodes, Joss Whedon’s space Western Firefly inspired a loyal, passionate following from the start, and even ten years later, fans calling themselves Browncoats meet at major conventions across the country. New York Comic Con offered an especially large gathering, as stars Nathan Fillion, Sean Maher, and Jewel Staite took the stage for a 10th-anniversary panel, which also served to promote the upcoming Browncoats Unite special airing on Nov. 11 the Science Channel. While the mood was largely nostalgic, Fillion did raise fans’ hopes about a possible future about the Serenity — in the form of a Firefly animated series.
Debuting in September 2002, Firefly was set roughly 500 years in the future and starred Fillion as Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a man who fought on the losing side of an interstellar rebellion. Now, he leads a band of smugglers and rogues aboard his Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. When the show was cancelled, Whedon sought to reignite the franchise with the film Serenity, which continued the story, though reworked some continuity details. Dark Horse has published several comics under the “Serenity” banner, most recently a Free Comic Book Day issue written by Zack Whedon, the Firefly creator’s brother and co-writer of Doctor Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog.
Kyle Anderson of Entertainment Weekly moderated the NYCC panel, which initially included only Sean Maher, who played Simon Tam, and Jewel Staite, who played Kaylee Frye, on stage. Fillion was allegedly busy filming Castle and spoke with the panel via cell phone, though the visible panelists didn’t put on much of a poker face.
Before Fillion entered through the audience, though, he asked via a staticy cell connection who was on the panel.
“Your favorite,” Staite replied.
“Your two favorites,” Maher added. Fillion whispered, “Sean, is Jewel there?” At this point, Fillion and Staite said “hi” to each other several times before Staite asked, “Why are you so creepy on the phone? Shortly after this exchange, Staite and Maher raise glasses of wine in toast to a “happy 10 years.” But a screech over the microphone as Fillion protested “I really wish I could be there” signaled that Captain Mal was indeed on hand for the celebration. Fans stood up, then stood on their seats, as Fillion’s voice directed them to look to the back of the theatre,”all the way at the back, to the right,” and erupted into applause when Fillion finally entered and ascended the stage. His first act on stage is to take a glass of wine and raise it.
“I think the real news is that Nathan Fillion can teleport,” Anderson joked.
“With a little help from the Science Channel,” Fillion added.
Anderson asked the assembled panelists, “What was it like to come back to this show? It was only 14 episodes, you were probably employed for less than a year…” The audience laughed as Fillion, Maher and Staite mugged at the awkwardness of the phrasing. Fillion, especially, would continue to rib Anderson every time he brought up the cancellation, which was a lot. But to the question itself, Fillion responded, “It’s one thing when it’s just us, sitting in someone’s living room, saying, ‘It was good, right?’ It’s another thing ten years later, to come to New York, and see you guys all gathered around. I feel very, very validated.”
“I think we all knew right away that it was a special experience, a special group,” Staite said. “We knew we were the underdog, from day one, but I don’t think I’ve laughed so much on a job. It was great fun.”
“I hated it,” Maher said, deadpan. Then, in a pinched, tiny voice, “I loved it. So much!”
“Sean, did you love your vests?” Staite prompted.
“They were my favorite part!”
In a clip from the Browncoats Unite special, Fillion spoke of “Firefly’s” cancellation and having to finish shooting episodes nevertheless. “I thought, this is going to be the worst. Going back to work, knowing we’d been cancelled,” he said. “But it was the exact opposite.” The cast and crew had bonded, he said, and were able to enjoy their final scenes together. But prior to this, Fillion had confidence in the series’ future. “I kept telling everybody this is a great show, this is a great show, we’re not going to get canceled. Alan, buddy, bank on it.” Alan Tudyk, who played Serenity pilot Wash, and others at the table laughed at the anecdote.
Returning to the subject with the panelists on stage, Staite recalled that Whedon was “pissed” when he learned Firefly had been cancelled. “He was shaken, that was the weirdest part. He’s a very confident person and he was visibly shaken.”
All of the panelists had high praise for Whedon, who went on to create “Dollhouse” and of course gained more mainstream acclaim directing Marvel’s The Avengers. “I’m better after Joss,” Fillion said. “I’m better at what I do. I’m better at being me. I’m a better me.”
“He lets you trust your instinct,” Staite said. “You can do what you do at the best of your ability.”
Maher added, “He’s exceptional at guiding you when he needs to and then getting out of the way.”
“When you do something wrong, he can tell you without making you feel stupid,” Fillion said.
“Except when he says, let’s do it again, this time without sucking,” Staite joked.
Looking back further, to when he joined the cast, Maher said there was no pilot script when he first met Whedon, so he asked “a million questions” about the show. “I got to hear the world from his mouth,” Maher recalled. “I called my agent and said, I don’t care about the script, I want to work with this man.”
Whedon wanted Staite for Kaylee, the actress said, but Staite wanted to read for the part of Simon’s sister, River Tam. “He said nope, he was adamant,” Staite recalled. But at the reading, she saw Whedon in amongst the other producers and studio reps giving her nods of encouragement. “I felt like he was in my corner.”
When Staite accepted the role of Kaylee, it came with a catch. “Oh, yeah — and you have to gain twenty pounds for the role. And you have three weeks to do it,” she said. “I was like, ‘I am hun~gry.'”
The other actors said they remembered meeting Staite as she stuffed doughnuts into her mouth from the catering service. “I ate everything,” she said.
Fillion’s story of joining the Serenity differed from other members of his crew as the actor was working for Fox and was being “farmed out” to various shows. “I was forced on Joss Whedon,” he said. “I think he was sick of all these people being forced on him.”
Anderson played a clip of a tense exchange between Mal Reynolds and Simon Tam from early in Firefly‘s run, in which Mal tells Simon, “If I ever kill you, you will be awake, you will be facing me and you will be armed.” From the stage, Fillion inserted “Sean” after each one of his lines.
Returning once more to the subject of the show’s cancellation, Fillion said he went on the Firefly message boards after the announcement had written, “It may happen that you’ll see me on the street and want to come up to me and ask me about why the show was canceled and all that. But it will be too soon and it will still kind of hurt, so rather than doing that, just nod and tip your hat and say, ‘Captain,'” he said. “It’s years later, and I’ll still run into people who say, ‘Captain.'”
But is the world of Firefly and Serenity truly put to rest? During the audience question and answer session, Fillion said, “If we’re dreaming, tell me what you think about this: Firefly: The Animated Series.” After the panel, Maher also told the New York Post, “I know somebody who is actually trying to get that done, who has approached Joss about it. He used to work with Guillermo del Toro.”
It seems you can’t take the sky from Browncoats …
“Browncoats Unite,” the Firefly reunion special, airs Nov. 11 on the Science Channel.