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Browncoats: The Rivers and Bridges Brigade

on Wed, 03/20/2013 - 00:00

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The Joss Whedon television series Firefly should have been forgotten years ago.

A futuristic space drama set in a world that felt like the Old West, the show had a rocky start before it even premiered on September 20, 2002. Executives from the FOX network initially forced Whedon to write a new first episode after rejecting the already-filmed pilot, for instance, and subsequent installments were aired out of order. The show was given the Friday night “death slot” as well, and then interrupted by FOX’s coverage of the Major League Baseball playoffs. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that Firefly failed to gain any audience traction and was cancelled a mere three months later after only filming a total of fifteen episodes.

For most television series, that would be the end of the story, but Joss Whedon refused to give up on Firefly. Believing that there were more adventures for Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his ragtag group of space scavengers to embark on, he eventually convinced Universal Pictures to greenlight a major motion picture continuation of the Firefly storyline called Serenity. The fans themselves refused to give up as well, organizing their own campaign to keep the flame of hope alive under the banner of “Browncoats,” a name taken from the independent freedom fighters who waged a war against the controlling Alliance government within the Firefly mythology.

Serenity was subsequently released in September 2005. Similar to its small-screen counterpart, however, the film failed to become a box office sensation. Yet over ten years after Firefly was cancelled, the Browncoat fanbase remains as strong as ever, and both the series and motion picture are anything but forgotten.

“I think the fact that the show was cancelled before its time has a lot to do with it,” Chris Tobias, a member of the Pittsburgh Browncoats, explains in regards to the continued popularity of Firefly. “People rally for an underdog and, like the Browncoats in the series, the fans of the show can relate to the idea that just because something was a losing cause doesn't make it the wrong one. Also, it’s hard to deny that the show and the movie were some of the best-written sci-fi ever captured on film. The characters are likable and realistic in their motivations and desires, and the dialogue is crisp, memorable and often humorous. The acting and directing are excellent as well. No matter how many times you see Firefly and Serenity, they never feel old to you.”

Tobias is one of the diving forces within the Rivers and Bridges Brigade, as the Pittsburgh chapter of Browncoats is called, and has been instrumental in organizing the fanclub’s annual Can't Stop the Serenity event. Each summer, Browncoats around the world celebrate Firefly by screening Serenity in their respective cities in an effort to raise money for women’s rights advocacy group Equality Now, a charity especially dear to Joss Whedon.

The idea originated in Portland, Oregon, but 47 cities in five countries participated during the first Can’t Stop the Serenity in 2006. Pittsburgh was amongst them, with the event being organized by local Browncoats Cate Steven-Davis and Kiersten Ball. Ball later relocated to another city but Steven-Davis continued to spearhead the yearly Can’t Stop the Serenity screenings for a number of additional installments before stepping aside for a new generation of Browncoats.

One of those Browncoats was Michele Vos. “I started watching the show, having been turned on to it through geek friends,” she explains. “I was immediately hooked. I loved the characters and distinctiveness of the show’s concepts. When I learned there was a locally based fan group, I knew I had to be involved. I was in a Star Wars fan group at the time that did similar things—social outings, charity work, and general discussion. Some of the members also love gaming and began playing the Firefly/Serenity RPG, which we’ve kept going on a regular basis for years.”

While Michele Vos discovered Firefly during its short run on FOX, fellow Browncoat Chris Tobias’ initiation didn’t occur until a few years later. “Yes, I’m one of those Browncoats who didn’t discover Firefly until I saw the movie Serenity, but once I did, I was hooked,” he says. “When the Science Channel started airing the series weekly again, my excitement over seeing Firefly on the air stirred my desire to become a more active Browncoat. I searched online and came upon the PA Browncoats site, and it was there that I discovered the local brigade. I made contact soon after, and signed on.”

Despite the fact that Chris Tobias and Michele Vos followed different paths in their journey to become Browncoats, they both agree that the characters of Firefly are a major reason that the show remains so popular. “The characters in the show/movie all have their own unique stories and backgrounds that brought them together,” Vos adds, mirroring Tobias’ previously mentioned comments. “They’re very believable and relatable characters who are faced with issues and situations big and small while trying to make it in the ’Verse. They rely on what they have and each other to pull through and keep flyin’.”

Although the Rivers and Bridges Brigade’s primary focus has been their annual Can’t Stop the Serenity fundraiser, both Chris Tobias and Michele Vos have organized additional events designed to bring the fans together on a more regular basis as well.

One such gathering occurred in January 2013 when the local Browncoats teamed up with the USS Inferno, a Pittsburgh Star Trek fanclub, for a friendly game of ten-pin. Tobias, meanwhile, is also the co-founder of Take Back the Sky, a joint endeavor between the Rivers and Bridges Brigade and their Philadelphia counterparts, the Delaware Valley Brigade, that hopes to convince Elon Musk and SpaceX to name the next manned US spacecraft Serenity, after the ship used by Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew in Firefly.

“Sharing fandom has brought so many people together for good causes, and in many cases, lifelong friendships have originated from it,” Michele Vos remarks in regards to such efforts. “Sci-fi fandom is a unique culture, and we geeks have to stick together.”

And thanks to the Rivers and Bridges Brigade, Pittsburgh fans of Joss Whedon’s Firefly have a way to do just that, even if the show itself was cancelled years ago after producing only a very small handful of episodes.

Anthony Letizia

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