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Its premise as a Western in space (with an authoritarian government that resembles that of America post civil war) combined with its placement on a network that has mainly dealt with comedy, action, and reality shows, not alternate universes, put it in peril from the start. And sure enough, the network aired less than a dozen episodes (out of order, at that) before shooting down the series. Another show canceled, another battle lost. But if the story always ended at the end of a lost battle, there would be no Firefly in the first place. The main characters of the show are the scrappy remnants of the resistance and the eccentric companions they meet in their life of crime. So who better to take up Firefly’s cause than the ultimate underdogs, those who, having lost the battle, continue to chart their own course – Firefly fans. Fans started organizing while the show was still on the air, at least partially under the direction and guidance of veteran fan campaigner Allyson Beatrice. Once Fox canceled the show and produced a DVD box set of all the existing episodes, however, the fanbase grew and grew. And these fans were not giving up - as their movement snowballed, they named themselves "Browncoats" after the resistance movement in Firefly. Joss Whedon, the creator of Firefly, himself said of the show`s fans, "In Hollywood, people like that are called unrealistic, quixotic, obsessive. In my world, they're called 'Browncoats.'" Instead of independence, however, these real world Browncoats (at least theoretically) wanted reunion - they wanted Firefly back on the air. What they got, though, was something possibly stronger - their own continuation and expansion of the Firefly story outside the limitations of broadcast television. In many ways, Firefly just did not fit broadcast TV's model - it did not cast a particularly broad net, and its very premise positioned it as antagonistic towards large bureaucracies such as network television. The textual Browncoats were all about breaking off and building your own world, and in many ways that is is exactly what fans did, even when their stated goals were reconciliation and unification. But the Firefly crew never completely escapes the control of the Alliance government, and fan involvement with Firefly can never divorce itself from the mass media control. Yet the mass media relationship to fans in the case of Firefly is not necessarily that of villain and victim. The fan mobilization around Firefly suggests both the potential of media convergence as a site for expanding fan pleasure and involvement, and the potential for new marketing forms of mass media that thrive off fan productions. Fan responses to television are not unusual. In fact, most contemporary shows have some sort of fan following, especially those that invite fantasizing by their science-fiction or fantasy genre. Fan productions rarely end with a TV series, as devoted fans continue to imagine the lives and loves of their favorite characters. Fan videos, websites, and conferences abound. Whether you're looking for music videos that stress your favorite fan fiction pairing (slash or het) or clips of a favorite moment, YouTube is a haven for fan produced works in tribute to a beloved show (at least until mega-media corporations like Viacom intervene). But how many TV fans can claim a full-length documentary DVD both by and about their love for a show? Firefly fans certainly can. Fans of Firefly, Joss Whedon's fantasy of outlaws in space, have just the thing - Done the Impossible, a record of just how much Firefly fans were willing to do for their show, and in many ways the story of how the fans kept the show going when the networks refused to. In many ways, it is only fitting that Done the Impossible exists in the kind of old media production that inspired fans to assemble in the first place, as their movement not only fed off the narrative universe Firefly began, but expanded that universe across traditional boundaries of medium. Textual expansion and fan involvement can be especially common in shows that already
encourage viewers to think beyond their own universe. Brown University graduate student Julie Russo has discussed the relationship of fans to cult TV in her essay on Battlestar Galactica, noting that fantasy and sci-fi programs "promise fans that, if our devotion is strong enough, it can penetrate the dimensional barrier of the TV screen, allowing us to reach (sci-fi fashion) through the glass and bring our reality into contact with a parallel universe...it is only by inspiring our passion across this gap that it [TV] succeeds economically, spawns the serials, franchises and spinoffs that are its forms of self-perpetuation." In Firefly's case, fan devotion appeared to do just this, enacting the themes of the show so clearly that the boundaries between show and reality merged into one fight for justice, one name, "Browncoats". Traditional television formats alone would have trouble making good on the promise of textual expansion and interaction. Only through the simultaneous convergence of various media outlets was the convergence between fan action and show possible for Firefly. In the Firefly saga, TV meets the internet meets the big screen, with the narrative universe appearing to spread seemlessly across mediums and seep into and out of "real life". Even in the brief interval that Firefly first aired on Fox, fans gathered on the internet. Allyson Beatrice discusses the beginnings of Firefly fandom in her memoir on fan culture, saying, Firefly was a new show with a new fandom, completely green to ways of internet communities. They were just discovering that there was such a thing as internet fandom, that Trekkies didn't own all the stock in television obsession. " Beatrice makes the intriguing suggestion that Firefly fans were not culled from another fan base, but were driven to connect on the internet because of Firefly alone, that something in Firefly`s narrative pushed them towards online fandom. From very early in the show`s history, then, the internet played a pivotal role in the way viewers interacted with the show. In an attempt to save the fast falling show from cancellation, Beatrice mobilized the fanbase through the internet, getting them to move their interest into the physical realm by focusing on the production of the show. Beatrice writes, "We appealed to the fanbase, asking them to...send the network and advertisers postcards with their demographic info listed on them. We told them to be their own Nielsen boxes...In two weeks, eight-thousand postcards poured into the network's mailing room in our effort to write our own tale...and try to save our show.” Beatrice's use the trope of writing a "tale" to "save our show" suggests that already, Firefly fans were viewing their crusade in terms of storytelling, aligning themselves with the very producers they were trying to influence. At the same time, fans were also aligning themselves with the show's narrative. Fans fundraised to run an ad in the Daily Variety that read, "You keep flying; we'll keep watching," converging Firefly the show with the Firefly model ship, setting the stage for fans to equal the fictional crew. Joss Whedon, the show's original creator, also played into this model of the fan story connecting to the narrative of the show by saying at a premiere for the Firefly movie, "I have a little story I want to tell you. It's about a TV show called Firefly." Whedon went on to tell about how Firefly went from canceled TV show, to fan cause, to film. This chronology, placed in the context of a "story" incorporates the fan action into the narrative arc of the Firefly world, sandwiching fan action between the failed show and the triumphant film. In fact, fans were so immersed in the narrative of the show and its parallels to the blossoming fight to save Firefly that Beatrice was hard pressed to convince some fans of the distinctions between the textual world and the production world. Beatrice writes that when rumor had it UPN was considering picking up Firefly, "Fans wanted to send apples to the network after an episode of Firefly aired in which apples were containers for tiny bombs which would blow one's head off at first bite. Another suggested sending millions of blue latex gloves, as worn by the creepy villains on Firefly." While Beatrice reads these suggestions as desperate ploys by fans less familiar with TV production culture than herself, fans' desire to copy the narrative of the show can instead be seen as production of a new textual space outside the original sphere of the show. Even as fans campaigned for the
networks to take action to continue the show, they were themselves continuing the show in a way the networks could not, expanding it for their own pleasure. But fan pleasure is a hot commodity to media producers and advertisers, and when a movie was made based on Firefly, the marketing of it immediately turned to the fan driven universe, using fan action to sell the film and related products like DVDs, while simultaneously reincorporating this fan world within a money-making structure. Whether or not fans are responsible for Serenity, Firefly's movie, getting made in the first place is somewhat up for debate. Joss Whedon attributes the movie's existence to fans, saying at a sneak preview version of the film, "This movie should not exist. Failed TV shows don't get made into major motion pictures--unless the creator, the cast, and the fans believe beyond reason...It is, in an unprecedented sense, your movie." This claim, that fan action and interest caused Universal Studios to fund Serenity, is backed even more officially by producers of the movie in the DVD for Serenity, which includes the Daily Variety ad that fans originally ran to keep Firefly on the air. Attributing the creation of Serenity to fan action serves to validate the interplay and flexibility between the fan built narrative and the textual space of Firefly and Serenity. The Weekly Standard reporter who recorded Whedon's remarks at the preview goes on to note the ways in which Serenity itself textually refers back to the fan action, almost in a reversal of previous events, where fans had taken on the narrative of the show, the movie now took on the narrative of the fans. The article, titled "The Browncoats Rise Again", reads, "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.")" Both the creators and the marketers of the film, then, go out of their way to emphasize fan involvement and to legitimize the narrative of the fans as Browncoats, incorporating the expanded narrative into the official textual universe. Interestingly, Allyson Beatrice, one of the original campaigners for the show, argues that the cause and effect link being made between fan action and film creation is not very accurate. She argues, "it's a lovely David and Goliath myth, one that ignores the facts...Neither fandom, nor our campaign to save Firefly, had anything to do with Serenity getting greenlighted." She comes up against the Done the Impossible folks, whose very title clearly argues otherwise. Yet Beatrice and the people behind Done the Impossible share more than just their commitment to fandom - both are also forces that have a very different idea of who should be profiting off fan work than those making money from Serenity. Beatrice writes, "if the studio is choosing to use the campaign we built to save the show as the backbone to its marketing, shouldn't we get a cut of the profits?" Done the Impossible, on the other hand, are donating proceeds from the sale of the video to "Joss Whedon's favorite charity, Equality Now," and Browncoats have repeatedly held screenings of Serenity to benefit the charity and get the word out about the movie. Presumably, the executives at Universal Studios do not share the fans' concepts of where profits should end up, and for a company with a marketing campaign based on fan involvement, the studio has not always given fans everything they desire. When fans created products based on Serenity and started selling them at Cafe Press, the studio sent out a cease and desist letter. One very opinionated blogger described the response this way: "The Browncoat world...is an uproar over this. It’s the worst of capitalism. It’s copyright run amuck. It’s the fans, who did so much work for Serenity, getting shit on by the suits." While that particular source was supportive of Universals' decision and derisive towards fans, the event did illustrate that while Joss Whedon and other creative members of
Serenity's production team may be on board with fan involvement in the Serenity universe, that support from network executives relies on whether or not it can be turned into a profit. Ultimately, though, even when the studio is working in its own interest, fans can benefit and gain pleasure, in much the same way as the studios can benefit from fan production. Over the summer of 2005, while fans waited for Serenity to be released, a video that seemed to contain Summer Glau, one of the show's stars, appeared on the internet from an unknown source. Over the next few weeks, more video clips appeared on various fan sites and other sources, and it was eventually revealed that the clips were part of a viral marketing campaign for Serenity (see the Session 416 website for the full story). All the clips have now been compiled by fans and placed on YouTube. Yet even though these videos were produced by the official studio, their appearance on the internet, in the very fan sites that had harbored the Browncoat's mobilization, served to further blur the boundaries between the narrative of fan action and the Firefly world. The studio relied on fans interest, knowledge, and investment in the story for the viral videos to work as a marketing campaign, and they utilized fan sites to advertise. In many ways, the fans had claimed for a long time to be doing the studio's work for them as far as advertising, and now the studio responded by doing the fans work for them, contributing to narrative expansion of the show. Firefly was a special TV show, and the fan response to it was extraordinary, but in many ways both the fan response and the marketing campaign that later made use of it reflect the future of media convergence. Fans expand a textual universe, and studios reincorporate it for profit - this may be the way of things to come. Firefly fans may keep wanting their show back on the air, and they may or may not get it. But as the Done the Impossible website states, "the words Firefly and Browncoat have come to symbolize a sense of community, family, and believing that the impossible can be accomplished. These concepts are at the very heart of Firefly and of its fans." And it seems unlikely that this could have been accomplished if the show remained trapped only in its traditional TV format. The Firefly universe now exists on TV, on the internet, on film, on paper (a comic based on the series was also released in 2005), and in the fan movement, now continuing the spiraling multi-media cycle with its representation in documentary format. Fans, producers, and studios may continue to exchange control of this narrative and others like it still to come, but media convergence will increasingly open up new possibilities for all groups involved, often further blurring the lines between where a story stops and the "real world" begins.
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