“Can’t Stop the Signal” – ‘Firefly’ Actresses Discuss Beloved Cult Series’ Staying Power

Firefly Summer Glau and Jewel Staite
Summer Glau, Jewel Staite, and moderator Lindi Smith at the Wizard World Chicago panel called “One Season and a Movie: A Conversation with Firefly’s Summer Glau & Jewel Staite.” (Photo Courtesy of Wizard World)

Even though it only lasted 14 episodes – three of which were unaired – it was the passionate outcry of fans that saved Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon’s science-fiction/Western mash-up, when it was cancelled by FOX in 2002. It was that same passionate outcry of fans – self-styled Browncoats – that led to the series being released on DVD in 2003 (allowing them to watch the series in its proper chronological order, the way it was meant to be watched as FOX aired the second episode first and the pilot episode last during Firefly’s original run).

It doesn’t stop there.

As a result of the fans’ relentless efforts, Universal Studios released Serenity, a big-screen continuation of the Firefly saga, in 2005 which reunited Whedon with original cast members Nathan Fillion (Capt. Malcolm Reynolds), Gina Torres (Zoe Washburne), Alan Tudyk (Hoban “Wash” Washburne), Morena Baccarin (Inara Serra), Adam Baldwin (Jayne Cobb), Jewel Staite (Kaylee Frye), Sean Maher (Dr. Simon Tam), Summer Glau (River Tam), and the late Ron Glass (Shepherd Derrial Book). It also introduced Chiwetel Ejiofor’s nameless villain known only as the Operative.

While it underperformed at the box office, the film received critical acclaim and won several awards, including the Hugo Award for best Dramatic Presentation and the Nebula Award for Best Script. It would later amass quite a following on DVD and Blu-ray.

Many would think it would stop there, but it still doesn’t stop there.

Dark Horse Comics, under Whedon’s supervision, has released comics continuing the adventures of the Serenity crew. Fans have done their own fan-films, including Browncoats: Redemption and The ‘Verse.

Over the weekend at the Wizard World Chicago panel called “One Season and a Movie: A Conversation with Firefly’s Summer Glau & Jewel Staite,” the two actresses spoke about the franchise’s enduring popularity as this year marks its 15th anniversary.

“Even today we were talking about it,” said Glau. “We can’t believe it.”

Summer Glau and Jewel Staite sat on a couch, bantering with one another as they addressed a crowd of hundreds who roared with laughter and applause throughout the 45-minute panel. “It’s been a loooong time. It’s funny because people are starting to pass the show on to their kids – it’s just so great,” said Staite, eliciting applause. “And, of course, my child will watch it as well. I think that’s why – it’s moving from generation to generation now.” Her voice becomes gravelly: “And the Browncoats won’t let it die!” Speaking normally, “Which is great. That’s awesome. We love you guys.”

“What made the show so special is how you cared about those characters individually, and the way they interacted with each other was such a big part of why people loved it so much,” offered Glau.

Staite nodded. “Absolutely. I agree.”

The floor opened to Q&A from the audience. The most obvious one was: If there were more seasons, where would you have liked to see your characters go?

“I love this question because (fans) want it to live on. I’d want Simon and Kaylee to have babies, obviously,” Staite said, laughing.

Glau perked up at that. “I was doing a convention with Sean a while back. He got this question and he said the same thing.”

“He did?”

“And River can babysit,” Glau deadpanned.

The audience’s laughter swept the auditorium.

“No,” Staite said flatly, shaking her head. “No. Terrible idea.” Turning to Glau, she grinned big. “I loved that he said the same thing – that’s just the cutest!”

When asked if Firefly would’ve fared better had it been on another network, both Staite and Glau stated that they really couldn’t say. “I do think this: If the show started now, if it had a chance to come to fruition now with all these networks and platforms coming up with their own content, I think it’d have a much better chance,” explained Staite. “Y’know, that was back in the day when things in the industry were different then. There was five major juggernaut networks – that was it. And now, everybody’s doing something: Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and all that. I think if it had a home on something like that, it probably would’ve gotten a fair shot. Also, I have relatively passionate feelings about the Nielsen ratings system being totally antiquated bullshit!”

With that, the applause and cheers from the audience echoed off the walls, lasting close to a minute before Staite continued.

“It’s ridiculous. They gotta let it go,” she said. “Even back then, I’m not sure if it was a totally accurate way of seeing how many people were watching a show. Once we got cancelled, we were blown away that we got invited to a convention first of all. We’re like, ‘Really? Us? Wow!’ When we got there, there were tons of people there, so someone was watching. Like I said, passionate feelings.”

Both actresses have a soft spot for the episode “Out of Gas,” which is Staite’s favorite. “Gas” was the origin story of how Mal acquired the starship Serenity and assembled his motley crew. It differed from the other episodes as it took place in the present, the recent past, and the distant past.

“I love that one,” said Staite. “Makes me cry a little bit.”

“I think the story really bonded us together. At least, that’s how it felt for me. I felt like while we were shooting it, I just have some good memories of it. We did some powerful scenes together. That story, in particular, is very symbolic of our experience making it through together. Yeah, it’s very sentimental,” recalled Glau.

Glau’s favorite episode is “Objects in Space,” the final episode of the series. In it, bounty hunter Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) sneaks aboard Serenity and takes out the crew one by one as he attempts to capture River and collect the bounty on her. However, River outsmarts Early in the end, saves the entire crew and the ship, and dispatches Early. In the end, Mal confirms that she’s one of the crew, while Early tumbles helplessly through space.

“To me, ‘Objects’ is my favorite because it represents that dream of becoming an actress in what felt like overnight to me. Being on set was a dream. It was the only episode where I worked every day. I was such a supporting member (of the cast). I didn’t always have a lot to do in every episode. I didn’t want to go home. I had this tiny little apartment in the Valley. I didn’t have anything else to do; I just wanted to be there. Joss directed, which was so much fun, so that one’s particularly special to me as well,” said Glau.

Staite fielded the question if the cumbersome, ruffled, colorful dress Kaylee wore in “Shindig” was comfortable to wear.

“No, it was not,” she answered matter-of-factly. “It’s like wearing a birthday cake. For the first 10 minutes, it’s fun, then you have to pee – ‘Oh no. I can’t pee in this dress. Or sit down. Or do anything.’ There’s a scene where we get back to the ship and Badger’s (Mark Sheppard) taken over. You’ll notice I start off in a dress, then it cuts and when it comes back, I’m in my regular overalls. That’s because I talked Joss into letting me change. He’s like, ‘That doesn’t make any sense, though, for the story. Why would Badger let you take off and go change and come back?’ I was like, ‘I don’t care.’”

Staite added, tongue-in-cheek to much laughter: “So I used my feminine wiles on (Joss) and got to change (clothes).” She pumped her eyebrows. “There’s a little tidbit for you. Take that one home.”

As the panel went on, they shared their memories of working with Glass, who died Nov. 25, 2016 at the age of 71.

“You know what’s funny is we didn’t work together as a cast for very long. It was 5 months maybe… it was short. And the movie was 3-4 months. Because people like our show, we got to do so many conventions all over the world and we got to travel and hang out with each other in different cities – those are the bonding moments I remember and love. I’ve been to many conventions with Ron. He kills me – he’s one of the funniest people (with a) dry sense of humor. Dry. I miss that more than anything,” Staite fondly recalled. “Being together socially and being in these crazy cities all over the place and explore them together and have dinner and catch up and have fun. That feels like a hole now. It’s a weird thing when you sign the cast pictures, I’m beside Ron in some of them. I’m so used to leaving room for him to sign when I don’t see his signature on there and it dawns on me every time.”

Added Glau: “It doesn’t feel real yet because it was such a surprise. He had an addictive laugh. If he laughed, you would catch it. He had just the most delicious giggle. I could go on and on all day talking about him.”

Staite also spoke about being on set with the cast and crew, especially since everyone knew Firefly was an endangered series.

“It was fun. It was a fun job – it was a really too-good-to-be-true-job, to be honest,” she said. “But we all were genuinely having a good time, especially when we realized we were the underdog of the network and really starting to relish what we had and not take it for granted because the feeling was that it could be yanked out from under us at any given day. We were all kinda waiting for cancellation, which is a sucky feeling… but in a way, it kicked the fun up a notch. It was like, ‘Who cares? Let’s have a good time. Let’s enjoy this while we have this.’ When we did the movie, it was this amazing sense of justification. It was also so relaxed, we could have the same amount of fun but this time we weren’t afraid of losing our jobs. We knew what the beginning, the middle, and the end was, so we could just relax. That was really just the most fun.”