The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained

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The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

Fox canceled “Firefly” almost two decades ago, and nerds everywhere — including us — are still upset about it.

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Maybe it’s time to admit we’ve punished Fox enough for only airing 11 episodes of Joss Whedon’s essential sci-fi epic in the wrong order, in its notorious 9 p.m. Friday timeslot of doom, before pulling the plug. Things worked out okay for “Firefly,” as the cast pretty much all prospered tremendously, and we got a movie out of the deal in the form of 2005’s “Serenity.”

Plus, since there’s no way to know if “Firefly” would maintain its quality over the course of multiple seasons, perhaps the premature cancellation wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened to the show’s legacy? 

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Ultimately, all the emphasis on the business aspect of “Firefly” tends to distract from its vision of humanity’s future and many indelible characters. Let’s forget about ratings and box office totals for a little bit and hash out the timeline of the “Firefly” ‘Verse.  With all due respect to “Firefly” comics, we’re only including the television series and the movie in this post.

The central planets form the Alliance

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
Universal Pictures/YouTube

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You’d be forgiven for assuming our story starts with Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) purchasing a Firefly-class transport vessel and christening it “Serenity.” As far as the television series and its theatrical sequel are concerned, the big picture begins a little earlier than that.

In events we can place roughly 500 years ahead of 2002, the environment of Earth-That-Was (Or, as we call it today, “Earth”) becomes unsustainable, and mankind takes to the cosmos to find a new solar system to inhabit. A brief history lesson depicted in “Serenity” explains this new portion of the universe (or “The ‘Verse,” as the cool kids call it) contains “dozens of planets, hundreds of moons,” that became terraformed and inhabitable to humans over the course of many years.  

Fiction influenced by climate change tends to focus on rising sea levels, weather disasters, famine, and various other resulting global catastrophes. Meanwhile, at least “Firefly” lets us imagine our descendants forced into a rough and tumble Han Solo-type existence that’s certainly a crappy way to live, but very entertaining to watch.

The Unification War wreaks havoc across the 'Verse

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
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According to a smidgin of backstory revealed at the onset of “Serenity,” the planets at the center of the new solar system formed the Alliance — a system of governance overseen by an interplanetary parliament. A schoolteacher (Tamara Taylor) reciting the official narrative calls the Alliance a “beacon of civilization,” and in contrast to the “savage,” unenlightened outer worlds. 

Of course, this is meant to scan as a one-sided version of history told by the winners. A young River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wryn) pushes back against her teacher, noting that the Alliance “meddles” with freedom of action and thought, and some folks — particularly the “Browncoats” who fought to remain independent from Alliance control — don’t appreciate this meddling.  

More specific details regarding the Unification War can be found in “Firefly” comics series, which we highly recommend for anyone who’s holding their breath for a second season on Disney+. 

The Alliance triumphs; Mal buys a ship

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television/YouTube

The series “Firefly” opens with the closing minutes of the Battle of Serenity Valley on planet Hera in 2511. Surviving Browncoats Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds, Corporal Zoë Alleyne (Gina Torres), and a handful of others struggle to hold their ground against an Alliance onslaught. Despite the best efforts of Mal and his cohorts, their commanding officers recognize the overwhelming futility of the situation and order them to surrender. Mal and Zoë are captured and transferred to a P.O.W. camp. The war ends soon after.  

Later, Mal purchases a Firefly-class space frigate, declares it “Serenity.” He hopes to forge a free-wheeling life amongst a like-minded small crew aiming “take jobs as they come,” and “never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again.” 

Upon seeing Serenity for herself, a thoroughly unimpressed Zoë is surprised Mal deliberately paid money for such a disappointing vessel. By doing this, Zoë inadvertently places Serenity in the tradition of superficially unimpressive vehicles owned by famous space pirates, which begins with Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon. 

Serenity finds its crew

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
Universal Pictures

Most of the rest of the Serenity crew and its habitual passengers assemble in flashbacks depicted in Episode 8, “Out of Gas.” The memories Mal re-experiences while temporarily dying from a gunshot wound on an equally-temporarily abandoned ship don’t appear with dates attached. However, we can surmise they occur at various points within the six-year period between the Battle of Serenity Valley and Episode 1. 

Since a spaceship isn’t of much use without a pilot or a functioning engine, Mal starts by hiring ace Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk) and mechanic Bester (Dax Griffin). The latter is eventually replaced by Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) upon her demonstration of far superior engine maintenance and repair knowledge. 

Oddly enough, Kaylee did not board the Serenity with hopes or expectations of employment; she merely intended to have sex with Bester and leave. Space life sure is funny sometimes!   

Speaking of sex, Mal rents Serenity’s shuttle/detachable apartment out to very expensive sex worker Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). After that, Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) attempts to rob Mal and Zoë, then joins their crew when Mal offers him a higher rate and better living quarters than his current gang.

Zoë and Wash get married

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

Due to its abbreviated original run, there are a ton of unmade “Firefly” episodes permanently locked in its writers’ imaginations. Maybe we’ll see them when science masters interdimensional travel, and we can watch TV from the parallel universe where “Firefly” aired for eight seasons. Who can say? 

In the meantime, we see Zoë and Wash meet in one of the “Out of Gas” flashbacks. Zoë initially finds Wash — whose face contains a mustache not seen on any present-day version of Wash’s face — repulsive for a reason she can’t quite put her finger on. 

We know Wash eventually solves the problem by shaving off his horrible mustache, and Zoë realizes it was just about the only thing about Wash she disliked. They’re a mostly-happily married couple by the time of the pilot episode. 

We may never find out exactly why Wash shaved his mustache, how Zoë reacted to Wash’s newly hairless face, or how long the sexual tension built up until they finally gave in to their mutual attraction, fell in love, and got married. On the other hand, we certainly get the gist of all that stuff happening. Maybe, in this instance, the gist is enough?

River and Simon escape from Alliance military scientists

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

In the temporal vicinity of 2514, genius child River Tam (Summer Glau) receives an invitation to attend a mysterious Alliance government-sponsored academy for extraordinarily gifted youngsters. Massively bored with the educational opportunities available to a child prodigy from a wealthy family — her brother Simon (Sean Maher) notes that as smart as he is, River is much, much smarter — River accepts. 

Several months later, she sends Simon a letter containing the coded message, “They’re hurting us. Get me out.”  Within a few years, Simon manages to break River — the apparent victim of brutal mind-altering experiments — out of a secret facility, cryogenically freeze her, and bring her to the port planet of Persephone. 

Oddly, when he tells the Serenity crew and fellow passengers this story, he neglects to tell them he personally facilitated River’s escape, claiming that he paid some people to manage it for him. Perhaps he wants to give the impression that he can still afford to buy his own mercenaries.

Simon sneaks River onto Serenity

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television/YouTube

When “Firefly” starts, the year is 2517, and Serenity lands at the Eavesdown Docks on Persephone to drop off some metaphorically nuclear freshly pilfered cargo and pick up a few passengers. For the purposes of creating a veneer of legitimacy and pulling in a few extra bucks, there’s nothing shinier than a few passengers.   

These new additions include Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), whose mysterious origins, sadly, are never explored in any live-action “Firefly” content. There’s also undercover Alliance agent Lawrence Dobson (Carlos Jacott) and young doctor Simon. Unbeknownst to all save Simon, the ostensibly bourgeoisie intellectual physician boards the ship with his genius torture victim sister cryogenically frozen in his oversized luggage. 

One thing leads to another, and Mal is forced to put a violent end to agent Lawrence. Simon, however, winds up officially brought on as Serenity’s doctor. So begins the intergalactic journey of the Tam siblings and their unlikely friendship with Captain Mal.  

Adventure and moral ambiguity abound

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

Most thoughtful folks, from time to time, wonder if they’re a good person who occasionally does bad things or a bad person who occasionally does good things. The gang aboard Serenity spends plenty of time hashing out the oft-complex nuances of rightness and wrongness, and we see plenty of that sort of thing in the first three episodes of “Firefly.”  

In “The Train Job,” the crew weighs the ethical pros and cons of stealing medicine from needy innocent people. In “Bushwhacked,” they must determine the circumstances under which they feel comfortable aiding agents of the despised Alliance. In “Shindig,” Mal must decide whether it’s acceptable to kill another man in a duel after you win by cheating, even if you really don’t like the man and very much feel like killing him. 

Ultimately, Mal decides it is not acceptable to kill another man while he’s on his back and defenseless, but it is okay to cut him repeatedly in a non-life-threatening fashion. 

Mal and Saffron get married

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

Partly due to revelations regarding Joss Whedon’s personal behavior, partly because of the extra scrutiny every pop-cultural touchstone is subjected to over time, the “Buffy” creator’s major creative endeavors have undergone their share of critical reevaluations in recent years. “Firefly” is no exception. 

There are certainly problematic components to Inara’s whole deal, and the allusions to the pro-slavery Confederate army of the American Civil War seem deeply misguided and unnecessary. But what about Mal’s kind-of wife, Saffron, played by a pre-“Mad Men” Christina Hendricks? 

In “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” Saffron marries an oblivious Mal in a folksy wedding ceremony he has no idea he’s participating in. Later, she betrays Mal and the rest of the crew — who are, except for Jayne, all super nice to her before the betrayal — to homicidal scavengers. So, isn’t Saffron a cautionary tale against trusting women? Isn’t there a misogynistic subtext to “Our Mrs. Reynolds?” 

Maybe? We’re not sure. What we do know is Saffron easily manipulates the living daylights out of Mal and the rest of the suckers from Serenity — and boy is it ever satisfying to see those smug, constantly quipping jerks knocked down a few pegs in Episode 6. Saffron might be evil, but she’s also totally awesome. Sometimes, maybe being cool is more important than being good.

Serenity encounters danger and badly informed hero worship

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

Mal is almost killed in “Our Mrs. Reynolds,” and River narrowly avoids burning alive stake in “Safe.” However, nobody aboard Serenity interrogates their own dishonesty and moral failings until they reach Canton — a moon-based community where quirks of the local economy inspired the citizens to self-apply the nickname, “mudders.”  

Years prior, Jayne attempted to rob the local magistrate, but accidentally dropped the shiny yield of goods onto poverty-stricken mudders during his escape. Assuming he helped them deliberately — in a manner similar to the legend of Robin Hood — the mudders consider Jayne a folk hero; a defender of the common man who stands against abusers of power. 

The Serenity crew finds this very amusing, because they know Jayne does not care about helping the common man at all. Jayne is a scumbag, and the mudders have constructed their legend around one inadvertent and uncharacteristically decent act. 

“Jaynestown” shows us how communities can create legends and the problems that arise when the human beings associated with those legends wind up on pedestals. It makes you wonder if, let’s say, we shouldn’t have been so shocked when a middle-aged millionaire white guy who worked in Hollywood his whole life did not turn out to be the paragon of gentle progressive nerd virtue his publicist claimed he was in 1998. A recent Vulture profile draws a direct parallel between “Jaynestown” and the rise and fall of Joss Whedon’s reputation.

Despite their differences, denizens of Serenity stand together

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

As is the case on Joss Whedon endeavors like “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer,” “Angel,” and “The Avengers,” all the high-concept sci-fi/fantasy on “Firefly” ultimately takes a backseat to the ensemble of instantly distinct and enduring characters.  

In “Out of Gas,” Mal very literally demonstrates a sense of responsibility to go down with the ship and save his crew if circumstances ever call for him to do so. In “Ariel,” Jayne learns that betraying your friends to shadowy authoritarians creates major problems, even if you expect to make a lot of money by doing so. Then the complicated relationship between Mal, Zoë, and Wash — who sometimes resents Mal’s authority over his wife — undergoes a thorough interrogation in “War Stories.” 

By contrast, the last few episodes of “Firefly” give the impression that Season 2 might’ve focused a tad more on the exterior world. “The Message” sees one of Mal and Zoë’s fellow ex-soldiers from the Independent Planets tapping them for a favor. De factor series finale “Objects In Space” entails River and Simon escaping a particularly charismatic bounty hunter. In both instances, figures from the larger ‘Verse come knocking to cause trouble for the Serenity crew.   

River switches to Buffy mode in Serenity

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

After Fox canceled “Firefly,” skyrocketing DVD sales convinced Universal Pictures that there might be money in a “Firefly” movie franchise. Hence, the studio tapped Joss Whedon and the “Firefly” cast for the 2005 film “Serenity.” 

Had “Serenity” been a box office leviathan and turned Nathan Fillion into an A-list movie star, we’d probably be talking about the 10th film in the “Serenity” series. Here in the real world, “Serenity” exists and expands significantly on the Tam siblings’ backstory. While River is hardly known for her hand-to-hand combat prowess in “Firefly,” in “Serenity,” we learn the Alliance programmed her to respond to specific coded subliminal messages with an explosive, violent rampage. Joss Whedon likes this idea so much he ripped himself off and used it again in “Dollhouse.” 

The Alliance also installs some capacity for telepathy in River’s noggin. This is a very bad idea on the Alliance’s part, as River uses her telepathy to read the minds of government officials and learn the Alliance’s nasty secrets, which is the real reason they’ve been chasing her all this time. 

Mal and his crew learn the truth about the Reavers

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
Universal Pictures/YouTube

The frenzied, cannibalistic Reavers provide a looming menace throughout “Firefly.” We don’t see them all that often, but the ever-present threat of being ripped apart and repeatedly sexually violated by a roaming pack of space zombies never quite seems to leave the characters’ minds. 

Officially, the Alliance denies that Reavers exist, essentially writing them off as a cosmic legend. But in “Serenity,” the crew travels to the decimated outer rim planet Miranda and stumble across a recording left by Dr. Caron, an Alliance scientist played by Sarah Paulson. 

In her final act before falling to the Reavers, Dr. Caron reveals that the Alliance accidentally created the Reavers on Miranda when a population pacification experiment went unfathomably wrong. The Serenity gang takes it upon themselves to broadcast Dr. Caron’s message to the rest of the ‘Verse.   

The Alliance’s spotless reputation doesn’t survive “Serenity,” but sadly, neither do Wash and Book. The onetime official Serenity preacher dies from wounds suffered during a fight with Alliance soldiers, and Wash is impaled on a Reaver harpoon.

Simon and Kaylee finally hook up

The Entire Firefly Timeline Explained
20th Television

They’re pretty much Sam and Diane, or Pam and Jim, or Mulder and Scully, except in space.

Throughout “Firefly,” Kaylee subtly and not-so-subtly expresses romantic aspirations for Simon. The brutally handsome yet socially awkward doctor plays down the mutual attraction, mostly because he worries a relationship might distract him from caring for his mentally unstable little sister. 

Towards the conclusion of “Serenity,” when it looks like everybody’s definitely going to be devoured by Reavers, Simon admits that he’ll regret dying without spending any romantically oriented time with Kaylee. Luckily, River soon rescues both of them by single-handedly slaughtering an entire Reaver hoard in what’s arguably the coolest scene in the “Firefly” franchise.

“Serenity” ends with the Alliance severely rattled, River taking over Wash’s job, and Simon and Kaylee happily no longer playing down or hiding their mutual attraction. 

Whether or not we’ll ever see more live-action “Firefly” remains to be seen, but at least for now, the story of Serenity has a shiny ending. Well, shiny for Kaylee and Simon — not so much for Zoë or Wash. Let’s call it an almost shiny ending!

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