Before midnight Thursday night Firefly fans were already lined up for Ballroom 20 at the San Diego Convention Center. I say Firefly fans not because I interviewed them all, but because it was well known why most of them were waiting in line, despite the fact that the panels in the same room included the cast of the TV series Community, Korra, Bones, and Arrow. I would wager I was the only person there in line to see the pilot for the new fall TV series Arrow, among maybe 7,000 people by the time the doors opened, who stood in line for the day of panels in the big hall. I’m a lifelong Green Arrow fan, and I could hardly profess being the #1 Green Arrow fan around and miss the Arrow panel. But if you’re a sci-fi fan of one franchise you’re a sci-fi fan of all, and I’d received advance press releases about the Firefly reunion and thought it sounded like a big deal so I was really curious about it. I also am a fan of Adam Baldwin from his My Bodyguard days through Chuck as well as actor Alan Tudyk.
Because it was my first year with Comic-Con press credentials I flew out anyway with friends (sadly without my spousal unit who stayed behind) and met up with my old friend and borg.com writer Jason McClain. Everyone turned in early Thursday night by my standards. The bus stop at Petco Field had changed which led me to walk by the front of the convention center and about 200 uber-fans already camped out and many fast asleep around 12:30 a.m. Friday. After a few weeks of 100 degree temperatures in the Midwest it occurred to me how nice the cool sea breeze felt. I like to sleep on a firm mattress–the harder the better. Hmm… how bad is sleeping on cement anyway? I initially had no intention of visiting any panels this year but figured I’d just hang out in the exhibit hall for the weekend. Why not see what this camping out at the Con thing is all about? I headed to my hotel and on the bus met folks on their way back to the center for the Firefly panel. Nowhere close to feeling like winding down for the night I took a shower, changed into my Friday clothes, grabbed some extra shirts and headed back on the bus toward downtown at about 1 a.m.
One to two hundred more people were in line and I caught up with the people from St. Louis I met on the bus. I nestled in with my backpack as a pillow under a palm tree on some nice lawn turf. Not so bad! New friends Cody and Sam even offered me their hotel pillows. The night life was surprisingly peaceful, a true Zen moment. Back in the line everyone was still bustling but gradually teetering on the edge of sleep. Conversations about where neighbors in line were from and what they did and what they like. Who they were, what they were doing, where they were going. Why they liked The Walking Dead. Why they didn’t like The Walking Dead. The low murmur of card playing and conversation lulled by the hour until a kid started running down the line at 3 a.m. shouting “Joss Whedon just stopped by the front of the line!”
No one really believed it, but likewise, if Whedon really was there no one wanted to miss seeing him. People got up one by one to walk toward the front of the line. A trusting crowd, people left their things behind–the only time you could get away with this in any city on Earth. Expecting at best to see Whedon with a series of “handlers,” instead there he was talking one by one with folks in the line. Soon everyone mobbed around him, and what you’d think would be one-off photos with a few fans, he soon was taking photos with anyone who asked, meanwhile autographing copies of Firefly DVDs and Comic-Con badges for those who had nothing else to get signed. Sensitive to the sleepers, he said he didn’t think he should wake them up. I (and others) thought they’d feel pretty lousy later finding out they missed seeing him and we walked ahead waking people up. He leaned in on several people who awakened with looks of not knowing where they were or who this guy was who was talking to them. It was quite funny to see. We were all really caught offguard.
At best when celebrities show up to meet “the people on the street” they shake a few hands, have their publicity moment, the camera lights dim and they jump in their car in drive away. Like when U.S. Presidents who stop their cavalcade to shake a few hands. In this case, Whedon did something I’d never seen or heard of before. He went through the entire line and acknowledged everyone, which took at least a half an hour. And there was no camera crew there. In fact I have seen no major press coverage of his visit at all. I and a crew from a Southern California magazine were probably the only thing close to press around. The energy was palpable. Exciting doesn’t come close. This guy just directed The Avengers, the new top selling movie of all time and the best reviewed superhero flick in decades. He created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the best vampire franchise ever with a phenomenal fan base in its own right. But for his past shows he hadn’t done this before. Firefly, his own concocted western story set in outer space, clearly holds a special place for Whedon.
You can tell from the quiet and nervous crowd laughter that folks were pretty surprised. Check out this video by one of my 5,000 new friends that I didn’t get to meet, who just happened take footage of me getting a photo taken with Whedon that I stumbled across on YouTube (THANKS, whoever you are!):
And I may look a little presumptious stepping in for a photo but trust me, we all took turns rotating in for a photo or autograph. That’s what he was there for. No one asked him typical celebrity questions. It was all pretty quiet and everyone half asleep. I did hear someone shout out “How about doing a Wonder Woman movie next time?”
The constellations aligned just right for this day, and after Whedon went on to his hotel no one could get back to sleep. We heard he made this stop to our line on his way back to his hotel after a late ending party. Not thinking I’d need any technology on this outing I worked with the gang from the SoCal magazine to get photos uploaded and online. See my 3:30 a.m. photos posted here. (Thanks for letting me use your laptop, guys!).
And so we waited and talked. For nine more hours. And it never got boring. I didn’t even bring a book to read. You may have read before about visitors to Comic-Con. One hundred and fifty thousand like-minded, self-professed geeks and nerds (and all proud of it), you will find no better community anywhere. Folks watched out for each other. The convention security staff opened the doors for restroom and water fountain visits. You can’t imagine a more peaceful assemblage of thousands of people with a common cause–not only having fun for fun’s sake, but believing in being part of something bigger. I connected with a few great guys from near my hometown in Iowa who sat next to me in the ballroom. The community aspect came through in what Whedon would talk about during the panel. ”When you’re telling a story, you are trying to connect to people in a particular way. It’s not just about 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 is off the air. I don’t think there’s a show. I think that’s what the world is like.”
Later at the Con I connected with long-time Star Trek chronicler Larry Nemecek (author of books on Star Trek: The Next Generation and the First Contact film) and he thought Firefly’s fan base reminded him of the fan base that kept the original Star Trek series on the air. And that is all that these fans want–for the series to return–just like those Star Trek fans that ended up being successful back in the 1960s. Clearly from the series cast, they want the same thing. If any modern fan base could make it happen I wouldn’t be surprised if it were these guys, many sporting Adam Baldwin/Jayne’s motherly-knitted orange hat, these fans define the fanatic.
Originally billed as a reunion of the whole cast, a few didn’t make it, but it didn’t affect the mood of the crowd. The panel featured Nathan Fillion (Mal), Adam Baldwin (Jayne), Summer Glau (River), Alan Tudyk (Wash), Sean Maher (Simon), writer Jose Molina, writer/director Tim Minear and creator Joss Whedon.
When Baldwin walked on stage, it was like Elvis or Michael Jackson or the Beatles arrived. It was a roar like no other and he strode across the stage with a great smile and his arms raised, soaking it all in. He later pulled out an orange knitted cap, replica to the one he wore on the series as the character Jayne, a hat that he later gave to a girl in the crowd. Clearly a now-defining prop for Baldwin and Firefly fans, he acknowledged what such a prop could do for an actor. “This hat is a goldmine. It’s like a birthday cake in a wasteland,” he said. He mentioned he auctioned off the real hat for thousands of dollars for a charity, which received applauds from the crowd.
Meeting Whedon earlier in the day made the ballroom event that much more energized. Many in the crowd said Whedon “was one of us.” By the end of the panel, nary a dry eye was in the house. Whatever this Firefly energy and this 10th anniversary reunion was about, no one, including the cast and creator Whedon, wanted this to end. The first to start getting choked up was series star Nathan Fillion when the cast described why he, the actor, was the right captain for the production. He said Mal was “the best character I ever played” and “If I can get through this without crying, it’ll look a lot cooler.” Whedon added “There was never a moment from the time we met when he wasn’t the captain.”
The Q&A was energetic and funny. A fan asked for each of the panelists to describe their craziest fan story. Writer/director Tim Minnear responded, “That time we were off the air for 10 years and thousands of fans showed up like it was yesterday.”
“Everything we were doing was for the right reasons, with the right people, that we were making something that was more than the sum of its parts. That I had the best cast I will ever work with.” He added in deadpan, “We also had Alan,” referring to actor Alan Tudyk, known for playing hilarious characters like Wat in the movie A Knight’s Tale.
One member of the audience asked if an animated version was possible. The answer was in the negative but Fillion suggested he’d like to do a radio version and started to make special effects sounds with his hands, and he and Tudyk performed an ad libbed, brilliantly funny scene.
“The 27 people that saw it when it aired loved it,” Whedon said of the series, referring to his fans comprised in large part of people who were much younger when the series first aired and have only seen the series on DVD.
One bit started by actor Simon Maher replayed an old Christopher Walken Saturday Night Live bit, to cheers from the crowd:
Maher: I think you might have a fever.
Fillion: The only cure is more Firefly.
Fans who missed the convention would have liked what was probably the best question of the night: “What if there would have been a Season 2 instead of the movie?” Whedon answered: “It would’ve been littler. Most of the Reavers would’ve been off-screen [dramatizing large actions scenes off-camera with his arms]. I don’t think I would have killed anybody.” At that point Alan Tudyk’s arms shot up in triumph, causing laughs. (Tudyk’s character was ultimately killed off in the film). Whedon continued: “I think we would’ve delved more into the Blue Sun conspiracy, which we had to drop. And we would’ve learned about Book and about Inara. For some reason, that’s the question that’s going to make me cry.”
Whedon said he felt bad that the missing actresses from the cast were unable to attend the reunion panel. Only actress Summer Glau was on the night’s panel, and she seemed to be holding back a lot of emotion.
Comic-Con is over for another year. I ended up going about 44 hours without sleep. All worth it. Time to think about getting tickets for next year. Costumes to create. Finding a hotel again. What panels the show organizers can come up with to top this one. I think I’ll ask my mom to knit me an orange hat.
To understand why a series like Firefly has such a loyal following, and what fan loyalty is all about, you need only look to Joss Whedon and his visit to a bunch of people on a sidewalk outside a convention center in San Diego in July.