Ever since the news broke a few weeks ago that Castle season 5 would include a convention episode with an emphasis on star Nathan Fillion’s cancelled sci-fi series Firefly—directed by Jonathan “Commander Riker” Frakes, no less—fans have eagerly been looking forward to “The Final Frontier.” The most intriguing element of the episode was that the producers were looking to cast someone to basically play Nathan Fillion, if he had succumbed to depression and alcohol abuse and faded into obscurity after his show got cancelled. How meta!
I’m sad to report that “The Final Frontier” fell short of my expectations of a total Firefly lovefest. The in-jokes weren’t as delightful as in years past, and many of the plot points resembled the kinds of murder-at-cons episodes we’ve seen from similar procedurals like Bones or one of the CSI offshoots. It was a valiant effort from the producers, but lacked the nuance and respect that Firefly fans deserve.
In this episode, NYPD Detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic) and mystery writer/consultant Rick Castle (Fillion) are at Supernovacon when a dead body is uncovered in one of the booths. The corpse is discovered at the Nebula 9 Fan Experience, an interactive game where geeks can relive their beloved cult show alongside “Captain Max Renard,” a.k.a. geek legend Gabriel Winters (Ed Quinn).
Castle and Beckett discover that the victim, Annabelle Collins, was a diehard Nebula 9 fan who grew up watching the show and later bought the rights for dirt cheap. She and her high school buddies Audrey and Davis shot a series of webisodes and were hoping to bring the series back as a movie. So obviously whoever killed her didn’t agree with her vision for the show’s revival.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by past Firefly references on Castle, but I was dismayed to see that any nods toward the show were subtle. If anything, Nebula 9 is a closer parody of Star Trek, with the skintight uniforms, laser guns, and even the bridge of the ship. Considering how many Trek spoofs are already out there—and bearing in mind that Galaxy Quest was one of the best—it seemed a lazy choice.
However, the Castle writers treat us to two back-to-back Firefly jokes early in the first act. While Castle and Beckett navigate the convention floor, he lays out the history of the show: “They got cancelled over a decade ago. After twelve episodes, which was twelve episodes too many.” And of course, being a best-selling author, he derides Nebula 9 for being too cheesy. “I like good sci-fi,” he defends himself. “Star Trek, Battlestar, that Joss Whedon show.”
We were treated to some other geeky moments over the course of the episode:
- Jonathan Frakes directed it!
- Castle has a life-size Boba Fett in his bathroom
- Castle’s Shatner impression (plus Shatner’s song “Ideal Woman” at the end of the episode)
- When Castle accidentally shoots the laser gun, he utters the phrase, “Zap, said the lady!” Fillion is known for trying to coin similar catchphrases over Twitter.
- Trying to soothe Castle over his fear that he’ll mutate into a superhero, Beckett suggests that he be Dr. Manhattan, because “the blue skin will bring out your eyes.”
Castle and Beckett’s investigation takes them all over the con, from a scene where they question various nerds in-character, to Castle confronting his teenage daughter with her risque cosplay, to the warehouse where a superfan (Armin Shimerman, Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Principal Snyder from Buffy!) has created the replica laser that became the murder weapon.
I applaud the Castle folks for trying to tap into the fan experience in plotting this episode, but the idea that a twenty-something would be able to scoop up the rights to a cancelled sci-fi show is preposterous. I know because the Firefly fandom lobbied to do that a few years ago, and decided that only a Kickstarter campaign or celebrity backer would make this idea feasible. Call me a nitpicking nerd, but this glossing over of logic took me out of the episode.
Inevitably, Castle and Beckett are led back to the replica Nebula 9 ship where they have to determine who killed Annabelle: The best friend who secretly loved her, the drug-addled Captain Max, or her “con hookup” who she dumped?
Ultimately we get our Fillion analog, but it’s not Gabriel Winters. Ironically, that honor goes to Gabriel’s Nebula 9 co-star Stephanie Frye, who played Beckett’s childhood hero Lieutenant Chloe. (Though the fact that she shares a surname with a certain mechanic should’ve been a tip-off.) Let’s not forget that the episode’s original aim was to show an alternate path for Fillion, and here it is.
“Do you know how long I have worked to get away from Lt. Chloe?” Stephanie demands when they discover that she’s the killer. “From the stench of this show? The fan experience was bad enough, but she was gonna sell the rights and it was gonna start all over again: The movies, the Lt. Chloe bobble-heads! Do you know how long I worked to make something of myself, to become a real actress?”
In another universe, Fillion could have distanced himself from the Firefly brand once he became a mainstream star. But instead he proudly wears his Mal Reynolds costume and drops other in-jokes on his ABC procedural dramedy. He still honors the fans who made him what he is today. There’s the meta commentary we were looking for.
Still, at its heart Castle is a show for geeks, and it came through with a couple of memorable quotes:
Castle: “This is a genius place to commit murder. You don your costume, do the deed, then melt into the crowds.”
Gabriel Winters, after he knocks out Stephanie Frye: “I’ve been waiting ten years to do that, bitch. Nobody takes over my ship.”
Beckett: “Right. It was a stupid show. It was cheesy and melodramatic... I completely understand why you hated it. But Castle, I also understand why people loved it, why Annabelle loved it. It was about leaving home for the first time, about searching for your identity and making a difference... So don’t make fun, OK?”
For mainstream TV to utter these words? That shows how far we’ve come since Firefly went off the air in 2002.
Photos: Ron Tom/ABC
Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.