Once upon a time, there was a show called Firefly. It had fan-favorite Joss Whedon at the helm and a distinct view of the future, a western-flavored future that wasn’t about the people in the shiny organized space ships. Instead, it focused on the people on the edge, misfits and outcasts.
It was plagued from nearly the beginning by interference from executives, and was canceled in less than a season.
But the fans were not done with the world of Firefly, nor were those involved in its creation.
Done the Impossible is a documentary that tells the story of the Firefly/Serenity-verse, through the lens of fans of the ‘verse. The documentary is not for the unitiated, instead, it is itself a work of fandom, a gift from a team of Firefly fans (Browncoats) to the community. With narrations from fans, cast & crew, Done the Impossible talks about the show, the time between Firefly and Serenity, and then the arrival of the film.
In years past, I’d thought that a combined ethnographic/cultural studies analysis of Browncoats would make a good book-lenth project. I still do, as Done the Impossible has not already done that work. I’m not very involved with Firefly fandom myself — I watched the series the first time around and told my friends, then sent my DVD set to make its way throughout my friends groups. But I did not partake in much if any of the intense and highly active grassroots campaigning and guerilla marketing that is discussed in the film. In this case, I would have the positionality of being one of ‘the Browncoats’ without being as much of an insider as with other groups.
Firefly fandom is intriguing in that we can look at it and confidently say that it was the fans’ efforts which led to the creation of Serenity. Creator Joss Whedon repeated a line from the series at the first of the Serenity early screenings:
“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.”
The line is the source of the documentary’s title, and has become a rallying cry for Browncoats, a reminder of the power of guerilla marketing and grassroots fan activity.
There have been ‘Save my favorite show’ campaigns before, but while the Browncoats’ efforts didn’t bring back the show on TV, since its cancellation, Firefly has had two comic series, a tabletop role-playing game line, a major motion picture, and continues to have a strong and active fan-base. Browncoats continue to host ‘shindigs’ and other events, sharing their passion of a show that like its namesake, shone brightly, went dim, and then shone again just as briefly.
Don’t look to Done the Impossible for an introduction to Firefly, or even as an ethnographic work explicating fandom in general. It is a specialized work done from within a fan community for that fan community. If you’re already one of the flock, then pull out your Browncoat, pour some Mudder’s Milk, and join in the geek-fest.
Another, post-review note, about positionality: There are many ways to be a fan within a community, different degrees of engagement. To use Firefly as an example — there are people who watched Firefly and liked it. There are people who consider themselves fans, but don’t necessarily identify with the Browncoat movement. Then there are any number of different levels and types of involvement within the Browncoats, from fan-fiction to convention organizing to costuming to fan art to role-playing games to podcasting to guerilla marketing and more. These people are all members of the fan community to different degrees. There are a lot of ways to be a fan, within one fandom and across many fandoms. This becomes readily evident at any general convention, where fans move between groups to share their passion for shows, games, films, comics, and more.
For a fan-scholar, you’re never going to be as into everything as the people you interview/work with. I may be able to speak most of the dialects of geek (video gamer, comics geek, anime otaku, role-player), but in any given situation, I can’t assume I know more about a fandom than anyone I’m talking to. They get to exercise mastery of knowledge as a result of their involvement, and in turn, I exercise my status as a scholar and serve to represent fans to members of another community, that of the scholars (who may or may not be fans). Scholarship in fan studies has always been in an interesting state, given that there are well-established and vibrant fan scholars who may not have the same academic credentials but do similar work.
Questions of power, authority, agency and positionality are never far from any ethnographic study, even moreso in fan studies and media studies. Scholars are accountable to the public and should always be aware of their cultural power — even though we are a part of the panopticon like everyone else.