Big Damn Hero is a familiar trip back to Joss Whedon’s Firefly universe

By Andrew Liptak

Photo by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

In December 2002, Fox gave the ax to a little-known science fiction show from Joss Whedon called Firefly. The series gained a cult status when it hit DVD the following year, and its story continued in the 2005 film Serenity and a handful of comic books — but a planned massively multiplayer game based on the series never materialized, and Firefly has been weirdly left out of the recent surge of rebooted TV shows. Now, for fans who have been missing the franchise, there’s a new glimmer of hope — or at least an opportunity to revisit the ‘Verse, with James Lovegrove and Nancy Holder’s new novel Big Damn Hero.

Big Damn Hero is the first of three novels being published by Titan Books in the coming months, under the guidance of Whedon, who serves as a “consulting editor.” Like Firefly, the book follows the crew of the spaceship Serenity, led by Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a veteran of a failed rebellion against the authoritarian Alliance government. The result is a new bona fide adventure in the story — one that could be an extended episode from the series, but which also fleshes out the characters and world just a bit more.

Image: Titan Books

Big Damn Hero is set in the midst of the original Firefly series, at some point after the late-season episode “The Message.” As the book begins, the ship lands on a planet called Persephone to transport a cargo of explosives on behalf of local crime lord Badger, a recurring character in the show. But while they’re on the ground, the captain is kidnapped by a group of former independence war veterans — or Browncoats — who claim he’s a traitor and prepare to execute him. (As it turns out, their leader’s motivations are more complicated, stemming from an event in Mal’s past.) The Firefly’s second mate Zoë Washburne is left with a choice: abandon her captain and deliver their volatile cargo, or rescue Mal.

Ultimately, Zoë opts for the former — but leaves one of their passengers, the enigmatic pastor Shepherd Book, behind to investigate. The cargo drop has its own set of complications, and eventually, the crew is forced to turn back and track Mal down.

All of the familiar elements from the show are present in this story. The Serenity is falling apart, and it’s being chased by agents of the Alliance, who are trying to recapture fugitive siblings River and Simon Tam. Shepherd Book knows more about the criminal underworld than a preacher should, the mercenary Jayne Cobb is trigger-happy, and the crew’s constant bad luck lands them further and further into debt with criminals. The entire novel feels like it could be a lost episode from the show, albeit a slightly extended one.

Tie-in novels often have to play with a delicate balance. They have to be entirely faithful to the source material to ensure that continuity is preserved, characters make sense, and the result is recognizable enough for fans to latch onto. But they shouldn’t be a step-by-step retread of said source material. The best examples, like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy in the Star Wars franchise or Karen Traviss’ Halo novels, build on the original story in a meaningful way.

Big Damn Hero falls more on the faithful side, but it does take the time to insert some backstory about Mal’s time as a young man on the planet Shadow, and his experiences during the war. We learn that he’s still haunted by battlefield trauma, and that his relationships might be a bit more out of whack than they seemed in the show.

Firefly is a particularly special story for me — I caught on to it with the DVD release, and while I don’t think that the story or characters have aged particularly well, it’s a world that’s ripe for a new look. With Disney’s purchase of 20th Century Fox, it feels like a reboot is almost inevitable at some point, and a whole bunch of Firefly tie-in books have hit shelves recently, from an encyclopedia, to an in-universe handbook for Firefly spaceship, to a new line of comics.

The next two novels are already planned out: one will feature Jayne as the main character as the crew heads out to a desert moon, and the other will chronicle their exploits as they discover a generation ship. They seem like test balloons to see what appetite there is for more stories in this particular world. That remains to be seen, but if Big Damn Hero is any indication, there are plenty of cozy adventures for fans to return to in the ‘Verse.