The first time I watched “Serenity,” the pilot episode of Firefly, I didn’t get it. A space western where people flip-flopped between English and Chinese at rapid fire speeds, where a crew of thieves spent time smuggling things from planets that looked exactly like Earth? It made no sense. It didn’t make sense until after I finished Buffy, Angel, and Dollhouse a year later. Whedon properties are always dressed to the nines — a supernatural world, a vampire protagonist, a company that can insert whole personalities into your mind — but at their core, they’re always about something. At first, I couldn’t see past Firefly‘s complicated backdrop — it was space, but there were histories that went over my head. But strip away the decorations, and Firefly is about the simplest thing of all — finding a place to belong.
It’s why I keep coming back to the show, and why I’m sure other people keep returning as well, even fifteen years later. Serenity’s crew of misfits, led by Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), are all people looking for something, even if they’re not sure what it is they’re looking for. The most telling of this is Book (played by the late Ron Glass), a preacher who happens upon the ship Serenity by happenstance. He’s not looking for anywhere specific to go, a point made by Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship’s mechanic, when she talks Book into being a guest on Serenity. “How come you don’t care where you’re going?” Kaylee asks him. “Because how you get there is the worthier part,” Book answers. Later, Book questions his place on the ship, after chaos and murder all happens in the pilot episode, and Inara (Morena Baccarin) pointedly tells him that maybe he’s where he’s supposed to be.
Simon (Sean Maher) and River Tam (Summer Glau) find their place with the crew, even if they start off as outcasts among the outcasts. But it’s Captain Mal Reynolds that embodies the whole of Firefly. A man at the end of his rope after being on the losing side of a war he strongly believed in, Mal’s motto, expressed frequently during the opening monologue of the “previously on” segments, is to keep flying. He may have lost his faith, but his convictions still stand. His loyalty to his crew and his belief in doing the right thing (in a big picture sense — he is a thief and a smuggler, after all) is unfathomable. Mal and the show itself have a distinct underdog feel to them, but it’s their unwavering fight against authority, against the odds, that give Firefly a universal feel to it, a collective anthem to rise against oppressors in the face of uncertainty. Though Firefly’s moment on air was fleeting at just fourteen episodes and a movie in 2005, it’s everlasting presence in the minds of pop culture nerds and television enthusiasts make it clear — you can’t take the sky from them.