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Firefly | I Needed My Father, but Serenity Helped Me Find My Dad

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Cult classics are the backbone of every science fiction nerd and movie fan’s catalog. A world with no Troll 2 or Repo: The Genetic Opera would be a world without geeks and horror fans and irony-soaked kids and just a touch grayer. My cult classic, the one that dominates over all the b movies and canceled-too-soon genre masterpieces I’ve seen, is Firefly; not because of anything about the show, per se. Don’t misunderstand: Firefly is a masterstroke of genre-bending and story, with a fascinating cast of characters led by the complicated cowboy Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). However the allure of the crew of Serenity doesn’t come from their outlaw adventures through space, outwitting and outrunning the Alliance at every turn, nor the incredible, unique characterization; it comes, for me, from my dad; the successor to my biological father and ultimately the man who taught me how to be an adult. 

I lived a childhood with two heterosexual dads and they orbited me like the sun and the moon; as one came into my sky and lit up the horizon, the other had begun his descent behind distant buildings and trees. As a teenager, all budding identity, endless frustration, and rebellion against anything and everything, I had a hard time figuring out which celestial body to hone in on and the instability of my father situation was yet another factor that felt like it was sucking the life out of me.

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Needs on the Wind

My biological father was a mean man who withheld himself for sport, it seemed, and my dad – my step-dad turned father figure – came in to fill a role that was opening and growing emptier. He did this despite my active campaign against him. I used to badger him about his job – insisting that he lost it despite being constantly and firmly employed as a teacher – and his alcohol consumption – I already had one father in the throes of drug addiction and I was on constant guard for the signs of any kind of dependency around me – and my attitude – I was a know-it-all teenager who was smart but thought I was infinitely smarter than everyone else.  

My dad is a film and television buff, the kind of person who would be called a historian if he had the master’s degree, and one of his areas of expertise is the many worlds, multiverses, and voids of science fiction. He grew up as a film lover, studied it in college even, and would patrol Netflix looking for another example of vivid science fiction, intense action, classic horror, or any chimera of those three. I still wait for the day he takes the elements of what he’s seen and taken in and creates his own Walking Dead or Stargate or crafts a Day of the Dead set in deep space.

It was on one of these Netflix scrolls that he found Firefly, and recommended Firefly to me among many other entries into the canon of “great science fiction”. However, Firefly stands unique among his recommendations. Firefly, unlike Star Trek and Star Wars, sits as a sort of neglected step-child to what is considered Big Science Fiction. With neither the longevity nor high ratings of a Star Trek nor the mainstream beatification or many spin-offs of Star Wars, Firefly sits alone as a strange, genre-bending, strong-woman-stuffed little season and movie that would have a small commercial scope and a critical consensus that focused more on the “how could that possibly work” combination of spaghetti western, science fiction, and space odyssey than on the character development, acting, and writing that could only be described as one thing for TV in 2002: revelatory.

My dad put it perfectly: it was simply ahead of its time. 

My dad brought me Firefly during a period of my teenage years that would be considered tumultuous if one was being modest; the kind of childhood a therapist might politely describe as “rocky.” I think we both knew my biological father was slipping away from me, my dad, and me, and he took up the father mantle as best he could, connecting with what he knew: TV and movies, and Firefly hit me like a transport ship falling from the sky. I was hooked immediately, going as far as to wade into some of the spin-off comics between rewatches of the series and its companion movie, Serenity. My dad and I would sit together and go over the themes of the show, diving into the guts of the story like Kaylee (Jewel Staite) dug into the guts of Serenity’s engine; looking for loose pieces that didn’t cooperate with the rest of the gears, pieces that all around didn’t work -which were few and far between – and other pieces that did work and left us absolutely fascinated.

Mal Reyolds (Nathan Fillion) in action in ‘Heart of Gold’ – S1, Ep12. | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

I would argue with my dad all the time that Firefly was not a Western show – the arrogant kid I was – and he would explain to me over and over that I was wrong and that Firefly was very much so a Western. I guess I just glossed over the episode that took place in a brothel (‘Heart of Gold – S1, Ep12) where our ragtag space cowboys helped save a group of sex workers under attack; one of the classic Western cliches. Funny enough, we rarely actually watched it together. Instead, we would study it on our own and come back to one another with fresh notes on what we picked up on our umpteenth watch-through like a book club of two. Sometimes we would drop references to the show at the dinner table or out with the family; a little moment of one-on-one connection out in the open on beaches and boardwalks, campsites, and mountain ranges.

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Big Damn Healing

One-on-one connection is what I needed, too, despite my constant fighting against it. As a teenager, I believed that independence meant no emotional attachment and I pushed away anyone who attempted to enter my life. A new father figure was precisely something I wanted to repel and rebel against. My biological father was teaching me all the wrong lessons with gaslighting, abandonment, and the kind of behavior one would more so associate with a middle school bully than a father, yet it also felt like he was only mine. I was his favorite and always had been. It was my ear he whispered curses about my mom and dad into, not my brother or sister.  

It was this reason I found it so insulting that my dad would try to insert himself into my biological father’s open role, despite both my dad and my mom assuring me that that was not what was happening, but with my biological father – the saint he was in my young eyes, the bastard he was in his actions – talking in my ear I still believed it. Didn’t he know I had a father? Didn’t he know that all these soapy shows and movies were just little blips and signals? As a teenager, I was inheriting my biological father’s paranoia and it was pointed squarely at my parents. So my dad pushed forward with his barbecues and his camping and his recommendations; his in-jokes about shows that, up until Firefly, I refused to watch, and I kept pushing him back. Firefly didn’t break the dynamic, not yet, but it did form some cracks. We had found a common language in the dissection of Firefly: its hokey Western lingo and space-opera levels of stakes and consequences helped to pull my dad into my world and me into his. 

Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), Mal, and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) in gunslinger mode, ‘The Train Job’ – S1, Ep2. | 20th Century Fox, 2002.

When I sat my dad down to talk about Firefly again after years of moving on to other movies and TV series, after we pulled apart Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, and the entire Star Wars series; he was as slow to remember as I was to share myself as a teenager. He brought that up, too; how hard it was to reach young me and how I insisted on keeping myself from him. He joked about all the recommended TV that had, up until then, been ignored and how hurt he had been that I kept blowing off his well-intentioned TV and movie picks. He said he felt frustrated because he was trying to speak a certain language with me that I refused to engage with. I, as an adult, have to admire his persistence: no matter the aggressive disinterest I showed, he kept trying. 

Sitting and talking about the show in the dining room, in preparation for this essay, he stated the obvious: he just wanted to connect to me. He tailored his recommendations to me like a human Netflix; you watched this so consider this, keeping track of my changing media interests as I grew up. You like Buffy the Vampire Slayer; here’s something else by Joss Whedon featuring strong, off-kilter women with weapons and messianic contexts and handsome, brooding men with dark backstories and golden hearts. Even now he’s impressed I remembered the show; it was one of dozens, maybe hundreds, he brought to me and I had so easily cast off and ignored the others, but Firefly was not your average show nor Serenity your run of the mill movie. There was something about the gray morality – what my dad called “Terrible people doing terrible things to do good” – that pulled me into it and when Mal casually kicked a space thug into the ship’s turbine by accident and shrugged it off with a joke, I knew I would be deeply invested. Then the mystery of River Tam (Summer Galu) unraveled itself and the Reavers appeared and mutilated and ate everything in their path. The lover of a unique woman character and the lover of grisly horror monsters met inside me and I was pulled along with the crew through the reaches of Alliance-ruled space.


My dad remembered the moment he realized the impact Firefly had on me, and it was such an innocuous moment, so small I had missed it entirely then and now. He had asked me to look something up on my computer – what it was is lost in both our memories – and he saw that my desktop background was a picture of the ship Serenity with the Firefly logo trailing in front of it in the iconic starlight yellow serif. I had found the image through an image search. He also saw me type in a very long password to unlock my computer and, sitting across from me at the dining room table reflecting on that moment, he knew that whatever I had typed was a Firefly reference. It was; my childhood computer password was transportshipfireflyclass, a very basic reference to the show – I could have used rivertam my favorite character or heartofgold after my dad’s favorite episode – but the fact that I could remember a password so long given my ADD was pretty astonishing. He was, after all, surprised I remembered the show at all after over a decade.

What Firefly did for me was not so much a full restructuring of my family, replacing one patriarch for another, but instead, Firefly acted as a lubricant for a shift in my family. It’s still hard to admit that there was a father-shaped hole that continuously opened like the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, pouring demons and general bad mojo into my young adult world, but I can say that that part of my life has been filled and then some; my dad gave me more love, care, and good TV than my I could even imagine. So I’m thankful for Firefly, I’m thankful for the men Mal kicked into the engine with a snarky joke, I’m thankful for the many tough sex workers that Mal and the gang helped protect, I’m thankful for those who resisted against the Alliance, I’m even thankful for the Reavers and their horrifying lust for flesh in the many forms it took because I’m thankful for my dad. 

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Christopher Rios is a writer based in New Jersey, USA. Their work has appeared in Crooked Arrow Press and they have forthcoming work in Rebellious Magazine. In addition to writing, Christopher enjoys tending their plants, tending their cats, and reading stories both fantastical and horrifying.

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