It was a tearful reunion at Comic-Con International as the cast and crew of Firefly appeared together for a special panel celebrating the 10th anniversary of the beloved, but short-lived, science fiction series.
"I had a very long and boring intro that argues the importance of Firefly,” said moderator Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly, “but I think you know it and we're running a little late, so let's get along with the thrilling heroics. He then immediately introduced, to continuous applause, creator Joss Whedon, showrunner Tim Minear, writer Jose Molina and stars Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Sean Maher and Adam Baldwin.
Jensen asked the panel what it meant to them to be in a room filled with fans a decade after the show’s cancellation.
"It means I'm running on fumes," Whedon replied. "I haven't come up with anything new, so I'm just hoping people will still watch this."
Although he began with a joke, Whedon quickly transitioned into sincerity. "What else could it possibly mean, except that we always knew from the very beginning that everything we were doing, we were doing for the right reasons, in the right way, with the right people,” he said. “That we were making something that was more than the sum of its parts. That we had the best cast that I'll ever work with. We also had Alan [Tudyk]."
"If I can get through this without crying, it will look a lot cooler," Fillion said. "Firefly was a first for me. No one would give me a chance to be anything other than the No. 5 guy, the lead girl's ex, the dude that doesn't come in until later but then leaves pretty early. … Joss Whedon was the guy who gave me the best character I ever played."
Whedon again told the story about how the idea for Firefly developed, what he hoped to accomplish.
"At this point I think it's so much in the vernacular that it seems old-fashioned, but I just wanted to make something that felt real, like a piece of history,” he said. “I wanted to buck the system that all science fiction is lit with purple lights and big green heads. I wanted to tell an American-immigrant story, a Western story, but I need spaceships or I get cranky."
Moving on to Minear, Jensen asked if he ever thought Firefly would become the hit it did.
"Oh, I never think anything Joss is going to do on TV is going to be a hit show," he joked.
Busy with Angel at the time, Minear didn't even think that he would be a part of Firefly during its early stages.
"It was never part of the plan for me to work on the show,” he said. “I was working on Angel and my best friend came down to the set at Paramount and let me play with his spaceship. Joss Whedon, the coolest guy in Geekland, said, 'Come be on my spaceship,' and it means as much to me now as it did then -- which is kind of a lot."
Of course, there was another side to Minear's move from Angel to Firefly, which Whedon said “involves betraying David Greenwalt, which is always funny. It's because I promised him that I would never take Tim Minear off of Angel, and a very good friend, and a very wise woman, Marti Noxon, said, 'Joss, you need Tim on Firefly or you will never leave that set and your other shows will die.'"
For Molina, the sci-fi and Western elements of Firefly combined to create a unique writing experience. "It was kind of like being a pig in … fecal matter," he said, altering his colorful description for the younger people in the audience. "I had been an assistant on Buffy and Angel, so I always felt like I was kid on the outside looking in saying, 'Please let me let me play with the pretty toys,' and then Firefly came along after I'd gotten my first gig. I didn't even have to interview because I knew Joss and I knew Tim, so I was invited to the sandbox."
Jensen asked Maher, who played Simon, whether it was weird to inhabit a universe that blends Western and Chinese cultures in a sci-fi setting.
"Was it weird or awesome?" Maher replied. "It was awesome. I think that's what I love about it."
Maher recalled his first day on the show, when Whedon told him about Simon and the world he lives in. "So I got to hear it all come out of this man's mouth, which was pretty extraordinary," he said. "I never once thought of it as science fiction. I don't know who coined the phrase 'post-apocalyptic Western,' but that's always how I spoke about the show."
Glau was asked how she prepared to play the role of the enigmatic and disturbed River Tam. "Remembering myself at 17, she said, “which was like two years before, so that was it."
Fillion was asked what it was like creating that bond of among all of the cast and crew. "I can't help but think I should have been paying more attention to the question," he quipped.
Fortunately, Tudyk was there to save his former co-star.
"What Nathan means to say is that right in the beginning, when we first started shooting the series, Nathan came up to all the actors and he goes, 'All right, we're learning everybody's names. It's a contest. His name's Jim, his name's Alan, His name's Tom. His name's Brian. All right, I'm winning.' And then took off. So it became a game of learning everybody's name," Tudyk recalled. "A lot of times actors and crew get separated, you know, it just happens. You kind of go in your little camps and that really brought everybody together."
Both on screen and off, Fillion was credited with bringing the crew together, prompting the question of why Whedon thought he'd make such a perfect captain for Serenity.
"You know, you have to make compromises at some point," Whedon joked. "There was never a moment from the time we met where I did not think you were the captain. Anybody who knows the history of what went after the show, up to and including a party at your house three weeks ago, knows that Nathan is the captain. He is there to make sure that everybody is having the best time and doing their best work."
And just as Captain Reynolds was fiercely protective of his crew, Whedon said Fillion was protective of his fellow cast members.
"We had a visiting actor who was very disrespectful to some of the females in the cast, and he got a taste of what Nathan's like when somebody threatens his loved ones,” Whedon said. “Just a little piece, and you don't want that. He gets very Canadian."
Although the reunion featured most of the cast, those that didn't make it to San Diego didn’t go without mention.
"Jewel [Staite] makes me cry and Gina [Torres] is the most bad-ass woman I've ever seen," Whedon said. "The people who are not here, my heart is breaking that they're not here. Not just to experience this but because I miss them so much."
The story of Firefly is inseparable from the story of its fans, and the panelists credited the immense support that pushed the resurrection of the show after its abrupt cancellation.
"I think Joss understood that you never gave up, and so he never did either,” Baldwin said. “One of the most heartwarming and wonderful times of my entire life was watching that show be resurrected as a major motion picture. We couldn't have done it without you guys."
"I sometimes look back and think of the movie as one of the finest nervous breakdowns a man could possibly have," Whedon said. "I was inconsolable and it changed me, and it changed the way I worked, and it changed the way I operate because there was no way, there was no reality, where I did not get these people back together. I had never been that before."
Of course, no discussion of Firefly’s fans would be complete without mentioning the popularity of the “Jayne hat” that’s become a symbol of the show’s devoted following. Baldwin brought out his own red and orange hat and told the story of how he decided to take a prop and turn it into an ongoing sensation.
"One of the women who worked in the office knitted a couple of these,” he recalled. “I made a conscious choice and talked with Tim because this was the last episode we shot. I said, 'Tim, can I wear this pretty much through the whole episode?' and he was like, 'Eh, I don't know. Maybe that's a little over,' and I said, 'I'm doing it. Joss isn't here. I'm doing it.’ So then I was able to use it to take it off at the end to honor Tracy's parents. … Jayne was a man of few words. but he had a lot of props and stuff so I worked real hard with the prop guy, and this hat just fit perfectly."
To open the Q&A, Baldwin offered up the replica hat (the original was sold for charity) to the first person to answer the trivia question, "On which planet did Tracy wish to be buried?"
Even in a world of smart phones and free Wi-Fi it took a few guesses before the correct answer was found.
The first question was about the cast’s craziest fan story, prompting Fillion to recall, “I watched one time when a woman walked up to you, Joss, and made to speak, and broke down into tears.”
"I kicked her," Whedon deadpanned.
"Do you remember the time when we were off the air for 10 years, and then thousands of people showed up to see us anyway?" Minear asked.
Another fan brought up Inara and the storylines from her past that were alluded to in the show but never fully explored, wondering whether they’d ever find their way into comic-book form.
"Dark Horse, which has been doing the Firefly and Serenity books, they are their biggest-selling books of all time," Whedon said. "So we're going to be continuing with that. Zack [Whedon] and I just spent some time figuring out how to do some stories actually moving forward in the future."
The next question centered on the cast's favorite piece of fan art was. For Whedon, it’s something that came from Tudyk’s sister. "My sister is an artist, and when we were cancelled I asked her to make a painting of Joss protecting a firefly in a jar from some evil Fox executives," Tudyk explained.
"It's a beautiful painting. It has me in it!" Whedon said. "This is the exact story of what happened. It's so beautifully rendered and it's so dark and it's great."
Fillion also mentioned artist Jason Palmer’s work on the Firefly characters. "I like that when he draws my face it looks just like me, but better looking," he said.
With so many of the cast members appearing in various animated roles, the next fan asked about the chances of Firefly returning as an animated series.
"You know, I get it, but for some reason I would be more interested in doing it as a radio show," Whedon said.
That prompted Fillion and Tudyk to improvise a short scene, mostly in-character, that involved Captain Reynolds waking up Wash and then flirting with Zoe. At that point Maher joined in, suggesting they had a fever.
"And the only cure is more Firefly," Fillion said.
The next fan observed that, for Asian-American fans, Firefly served as a mirror, as it merged two different cultures, and asked Whedon whether similar Asian-American casting would take place in future projects.
"It's not a mission statement, in terms of who I'm casting for a particular thing," Whedon said. "It was a mission statement with the show to say cultures inevitably blend, even if it happens through conquest and violence. Even if one country invades another, eventually they incorporate it. I like the utopian idea that eventually the two greatest superpowers on Earth had sort of melded instead of just being pissy with each other."
In a room filled with thousands of screaming fans for a show 10 years gone, the next questioner asked whether the cast ever wondered where that level of support was while Firefly was on the air.
"I love it when people apologize to me,” Whedon said. “They're, 'I'm sorry, I didn't see the show until it was on DVD.’ I was like, 'So you didn't see show until I got paid for it and you had to buy it from me?’ That was never a question. The 27 people that saw it when it aired loved it."
"When Firefly died I thought it was the worst thing that could possibly happen," Fillion said. "What I realized now, 10 years later, looking out over this room, is that the worst thing that could have happened was if it stayed dead."
"Can everybody just tweet that I said that?" Whedon chimed in.
The next fan, one of the lucky few who were visited by Whedon the previous night while they camped out in front of the convention center, asked if there was anything the cast had camped out for.
"Camping," Whedon said.
"I did camping once. but I called my mom to come pick me up in the middle of the night," Molina said. "I never stayed overnight. I was scared."
"The longest I camped might have been Baby Jane or some other great gay classic," Minear offered.
With time for only for one more question from the audience, the panel laid on the pressure for it to be a good one. The last fan asked Whedon how the finale would have been different from the movie had he known he would only have one season to tell his story.
"It would have been littler," he replied. "A lot of the Reavers would have been off-screen. … Not many people realize that when Firefly was being made, it had a smaller budget than both Buffy and Angel. It was the cheapest show we were making, which to me, when I watch it, is extraordinary. But, apart from that, I think that obviously a couple things would have been different. Even if they had canceled the show and I absolutely knew that was the end of the show, I don't think I would have killed anybody."
This revelation prompted cheers from the crowd and Tudyk.
"A film is a different animal and has different needs," Whedon explained. "I think we would have delved more heavily into the Blue Sun conspiracy aspect of it, which we had to drop for the movie, which I was sorry about. And we would have learned about Book and about Inara, and for some reason that's the question that's going to make me cry, so you know what, that was a good last question."
The panel concluded with one last question from Jensen, who asked Whedon what the fans meant to him after all their support for the series.
For the first time of the panel, the wordsmith found himself without anything to say. He held back tears as the audience gave him a minute-long standing ovation.
"Only an idiot would actually try to follow that with a sentence," Whedon said after regaining his composure. "When you come out of a great movie, I'm assuming this happens to other people to, you feel like you're in that world. … You come out of these certain things and suddenly the world has become that. When you are telling a story, you are trying to connect to people in a particular way. It's not just what you want to say, it's about inviting them into a world. And the way in which you guys have inhabited this world, this universe, have made you part of it -- part of the story. You are living in Firefly. When I see you guys, I don't think the show's off the air. I don't think there's a show. I think that's what the world is like. I think there's spaceships. I think there's horses. I think it's going on in all of us. The story is alive."