The Operative: You willing to die for that belief?
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I am. ‘Course, that ain’t exactly Plan A.
Noel Murray: Fox aired its last episode of Firefly in 2002 (leaving behind a few leftover episodes that eventually ran on cable), and after that it took three years for the adventures of Mal and the crew of Serenity to resume, in a two-hour, $40 million movie released by Universal in September of 2005. By the time Serenity hit the big screen, Firefly fans had lobbied multiple networks to pick the show back up, and had launched grassroots campaigns to support the movie, in hopes of kickstarting a franchise. In the meantime, Joss Whedon had wrapped up his other TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, and had yet to create Dollhouse or Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, let alone to write and direct what would turn out to be the third-highest-grossing movie of all time, The Avengers. It’s fair to say that in 2005, Serenity was all that Whedon really had cooking, and the best hope to revive Firefly as a going concern, either as a TV show or as a series of feature films.
Of course, it didn’t work out. Though in retrospect, how could it have?
Don’t get me wrong; I think Serenity is a very good movie, if not as good as the best Firefly episodes. But am I alone in thinking that at times it feels a little… odd? It looks different than the show, for one, with moodier lighting and fancier effects (though Whedon cleverly mocks the clichéd “look at our awesome spaceship” shot by moving inside to show Mal and Wash in panic mode, readying for a crash); and it doesn’t sound right either, given the preponderance of ADR required to render Whedon’s dialogue clear and comprehensible on location. Plus, the plot is choppy, lurching from place to place as it attempts to unravel the secret of The Reavers, while simultaneously telling a story about Mal and company fighting to keep River out of the clutches of an Alliance “Operative” (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor). And the focus on River means that some other crewmembers get shortchanged. There’s very little of Book or Inara, both of whom begin the film in other places and only enter the picture later (and very briefly in Book’s case, before he’s killed by The Operative’s team). Even now, years later, watching Serenity for what is my third time, I’m not entirely sure what Whedon’s trying to do. Is this movie meant to be a wrap-up for some of the TV series’ dangling plot threads, a standalone adventure for newcomers, or an attempt to use the Firefly mythology to explore something deeper about human nature?
The answer, of course, is all three; and even though I have some reservations about Serenity as a Firefly fan, I do admire it greatly as a movie fan, and as a genre fan. Even given that Whedon had the advantage of 14 hours of television to develop Serenity’s backstory, this is still an impressive piece of cinematic universe-building, introducing all that newcomers need to know in quick snippets of dialogue and behavior, and not too many over-explanatory speeches. I wish more science-fiction movies were as fleet, or as fully imagined. (Or as witty.)
I’m also impressed still by how well Whedon ups the action from the show. There are three genuinely white-knuckle sequences in Serenity: The first when a heist is interrupted by a Reaver invasion, and the crew has to speed through the streets and desert to get back to the ship ahead of certain death (and worse); the second when Wash is “a leaf on the wind” and pilots Serenity through an armada of Alliance ships, with Reavers on his tail, only to get impaled just when we think the action is over; and the third when the cornered crew fights off Reavers while Mal attempts to overcome The Operative, to broadcast a recording that’s damaging to The Alliance. The latter sequence gets bonus points for featuring one of River’s big ass-kicking scenes; and while Serenity might be too River-heavy on the whole, I did appreciate that Whedon finally got the chance to put Summer Glau’s dance training to proper use, via some balletic martial-arts action.
I have more to say about the plot and themes of Serenity, and whether or not the character deaths and the secret origin of The Reavers are a cheap shortcut to deeper meaning or deft illustrations of what the movie’s about. (Spoiler alert: Again, I think they’re both.) But I’m itching to hear what you have to say, Donna. Was Serenity a satisfying conclusion to our months of watching Firefly together? I heard you sniffling over there in your easy chair; did the movie work on you intellectually as well as emotionally? What about cinematically? If you had gone to see Serenity in theaters back in 2005, without ever having seen the show, do you think you would’ve dug it?
Donna Bowman: “Sniffling in my easy chair”? Watch it, Murphy; you’re getting my tough-as-nails critic outfit all mussed. I was determined not to be moved, but that gorram Whedon disarmed me by delaying the grieving for Wash until long after his impaling. The more time I spent with Zoe in battle mode, pushing aside emotion to get the job done, setting up her troops and trying to keep faith in Mal’s crazy solo mission to broadcast the truth about Miranda, the deeper my feeling for her feelings became. And then when the monuments were unveiled, Wash given only the courtesy of a slightly more lingering look than the other dead folks we only met a couple of hours earlier, I was helpless.
Like you, I was distracted early on by the movie lighting and effects, but it passed very quickly. In fact, I think I turned the corner from “Is this the Firefly I love?” to “Oh, yes it is” when Mal accompanies Simon to the sickbay for a quick injection. We get a little look at a waiting area we’ve never seen, and it’s almost like a tour of the bigger and more extensive set that Whedon couldn’t resist giving us but knows he shouldn’t linger on. It’s a bit of geeky pride without a hint of showiness, and I was utterly charmed.
That left me free to concentrate on the wealth of thematic resonance that Whedon packs into this movie. I’ll mention just two big ones that I’d hear your thoughts about. First: Who’s in the lifeboat and who’s not. Before River takes off with the gang on the payroll heist, Simon instructs her: “It’s okay to leave them to die.” Then Mal pries a desperate refugee off their hoverwagon-thingee, condemning him to be devoured by The Reavers on their tail; when Zoe wonders if it’s part of his Browncoat code to leave a man behind, he draws a sharp contrast between that military life and their current mission: “We’ve got a job, we’ve gotta make good,” and presumably anybody who hinders that is disposable. That includes River, who once again (just as in “Objects In Space”) is the subject of discussion about whether she’s a risk that ought to be jettisoned. But much to Jayne’s dismay (“Didn’t we have an intricate plan on how they was gonna be not here anymore?” he grumbles), Mal doesn’t kick River off the ship to save the core group. Later Mal humorously riffs on his new ethic of personal survival, ordering Zoe: “You take my ship and you come and rescue me” if things go south when he walks into Inara’s trap. (“What, and risk my ship?” Zoe shoots back.) Sacrifice isn’t an ideal Whedon is sold on, whether it’s sacrifice of the self for a cause (the way The Operative, as a true believer, is prepared to act) or sacrifice of others for the self. Mal aims to misbehave, meaning risking himself and everyone for a cause, but he also aims to live.
And second: Ambivalence about believing in something bigger than yourself. One of the central tensions of Firefly lay in Mal and Zoe’s transformation from idealistic freedom fighters to petty thieves and smugglers, skirting the law under a thin pretext of taking a principled stand against it. The Operative tries to de-romanticize Mal’s outlaw charm for Inara: “He isn’t a plucky hero; the Alliance isn’t an evil empire.” And Mal is forced to articulate parts of his cobbled-together code throughout Serenity, as when he tells River that he’s staked the crew’s lives on “the theory that you’re a person, actual and whole,” not just a weapon. But Miranda (the failed pacification project’s name taken from Prospero’s wide-eyed daughter in The Tempest) gives Mal a cause beyond the preservation of his crew and even the response to folks he can put names and faces to. When he makes the claim that the entire aggregate population of the ’verse deserves to know how the Alliance’s good intentions in taking away human freedom led to the menace of The Reavers, he’s taken a huge step back into the mainstream of the moral debate. Nothing ad hoc about that stance, but Whedon also doesn’t want us to glorify the disappearance of the human being underneath the transcendent Cause. After all, this oppositional truth-telling destroyed the simple faith of The Operative. “There is nothing left to see,” he tells Mal; he gave himself to something he believed in, and now that the belief is shattered, he doesn’t simply get to recoup his principal and pick up where he left off.
One possible route to maximize freedom, although I realize it’s not the most philosophically rich one, is evaluating actions on the basis of whether they lead to more or fewer choices in the future. I’ll send it back to you, Noel, with a final comment on the implied contrast between “the black” and “the sky.” One is lonely nothingness that drives people mad. One is a place where you can make your own choices, outside the reach and crush of civilization’s definitions. Seems to me that there’s no clear boundary line between the two—that what you see when you look up depends on whether you long for security or autonomy. And of course, whether you have a home you can take along. Godspeed, Serenity; I wish for you endless sky.
NM: One of the biggest fan complaints about that difference between the black and the sky though is that the origin of The Reavers kind of messes with it. Once upon a time, we were told these monsters went mad from drifting; now we know that The Alliance created them accidentally, during a terraforming experiment that involved pacifying the populace chemically. That plot point is significant to what the movie is about, in that it establishes that The Alliance is no kind of institution for freedom-loving types, but it does undercut the previous suggestion that Mal and his crew could become Reavers themselves if they stray too far from civilization. I don’t have a major problem with this change in the Firefly mythology, but I did prefer it the old way. Ah well.
Anyway, in regard to the big “lifeboat” scene, I think you’re right, Donna, to note that Serenity is as much about “Malness” as it is about what sets apart man from Reaver, or civilized from uncivilized. I mean, the movie’s clearly about humanity as a whole, too. The episode opens with young River saying that The Alliance—in theory representative of the best part of ourselves—is “meddlesome,” to which she’s told by her teacher that The Alliance doesn’t tell people what to think, “only how.” And that perspective pervades the movie. The Operative doesn’t kill River’s doctor; he just paralyzes the man with a nerve-pinch and puts his sword beneath the doc’s falling body. Even Mal tells Kaylee at one point that Serenity doesn’t crash, and that “if she crashes, you crashed her.” There’s a general abdication of responsibility throughout; everything is somebody else’s fault, even if conditions are such that only one outcome is possible.
Maybe that’s why when Book tells Mal that abandoning River wouldn’t be his way, Mal balks, saying, “I have a way?” There’s a lot of talk in Serenity about who Mal really is. Simon describes Mal’s “guiding star” as being “what’s of use.” And while bargaining with a couple of underworld types, Mal’s described thusly: “You run when you oughta fight, fight when you oughta deal… It makes a business person twitchy.” Even when people aren’t talking about Mal, they’re talking about Mal. During the big heist, Zoe tells a bystander that the definition of a hero is “someone who gets other people killed,” which pre-echoes Jayne’s pointed question to Mal later about his rebel days: “How many men in your platoon came out of there alive?” The truth is that Mal is kind of hard to pin down, which in some ways is his strength. He’s aggressively unaffiliated. If he has to make Serenity look like a Reaver ship—to “make our home an abomination,” as Zoe puts it—so he can maneuver them past The Reavers to Miranda, then he will. He even evades The Operative’s little paralysis/fall-on-sword ploy because he lacks the necessary nerve-cluster. That pretty much sums up Captain Malcolm Reynolds.
And it pretty much sums up the whole Firefly franchise, that a clever little plot surprise like Mal’s shot-up nerves can double as a character-definer. With this show—and its movie—it’s easy to find connections and reverberations that may not even have been intended, just because the universe and its inhabitants have been so well-constructed. Is the way that Serenity eludes The Operative by launching separate homing beacons symbolic of Mal’s scatteredness? Probably not, but it’s still nifty. Does it matter that it’s seven separate beacons, and that that later Mal claims to be a fan of all seven deadly sins (especially “wrath”)? Absolutely not, but it’s a cool coincidence nonetheless. Does Whedon subtly prepare the audience for Wash’s impalement by littering the previous 90 minutes with little surprises—from the reveal that the opening “school” scene is taking place in River’s head, to an unexpected Reaver attack after the crew had assumed they’d eluded their pursuers? Perhaps not consciously, but it is part of Whedon’s overall storytelling philosophy, to let audiences know that anything can happen at any time, and that no one is safe.
Are the deaths in Serenity earned? Well, Wash’s is certainly among the most memorable deaths in the Whedon canon, and among the most painful to fans. Book’s death is more of a throwaway, sadly, though it’s meant to emphasize that Mal’s choices have consequences, contrary to his sometimes-too-devil-may-care attitude. Maybe Whedon wouldn’t have killed two major characters if this story were part of the regular series instead of a major motion picture; and maybe it’s a cheap way to lend gravity to Firefly’s big-screen adventure. But it works. It marks Serenity as a story that matters. It boosts the movie’s rewards, too: like River stepping in as Mal’s new pilot, and Kaylee deciding that she wants to fight off The Reavers and stay alive because it means she’ll finally get to canoodle with Simon. (“You mean to say… sex?”) These highs are higher, because of the story’s lows.
Like many Firefly fans (and creators and castmembers, for that matter), I still hold out hope that Serenity is not the end of these characters’ adventures on some kind of a screen. It’s just such a sturdy vehicle, this Firefly, capable of fulfilling Whedon’s genre fantasies while still allowing him to meditate on the meaning of ideas like “freedom” and “responsibility.” Damn it, we need franchises like this, full of clever concepts and likeable folks. To keep us entertained. To keep us on our toes. To take us out of the world.
- So Serenity takes place eight months after Firefly? That seems too short. (On the other hand, to quote Wash: “Do we care? Are we caring about that?”)
- You never want to hear this from your pilot: “We may experience some slight turbulence and then… explode.”
- Jayne puts his foot down regarding The Reavers: “I won’t get et.”
- When Inara calls Mal and asks for her help, he knows right away that it’s a trap. (“Did you see us fight?” he asks Kaylee, and when she says no, he snaps, “Trap.”)
- Zoe accepts Wash’s death in part because she assumes they’re all doomed to be Reaver food. “Do you really think any of us are gonna get through this?” she murmurs. (“Well, I might,” Jayne growls.)
- What do we think of futuristic super-hacker Mr. Universe? It’s always a treat to see David Krumholtz, and interesting to see Whedon write an early version of a type a lot like Dollhouse’s Topher. But the character also seems more 2005 than 26th century (or old-timey). Still, Mr. Universe’s slogan “can’t stop the signal” fits Whedon’s recurring theme of the democratization of power, and could stand as a rallying cry to Firefly fans to boot; and after The Operative kills him, the scene where his sexbot spews Mr. Universe’s last words is effectively creepy. (“Guy killed me Mal… how weird is that?”)
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: Marital aids still exist. (Kaylee: “Goin’ on a year now I ain’t had nothin’ twixt my nethers weren’t run on batteries”)
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: Asked how much ammo they have to fight off The Reavers, Jayne says, “We got three full mags and my swingin’ cod. That’s all.”
- Noel here: Thanks to you all for joining us on this trip through one of my all-time favorite shows, and for making Donna feel so welcome here. I’ve now been writing about Joss Whedon shows for TV Club Classic for… what? Three years now? I honestly can’t remember because it’s never been a chore, thanks largely to you Whedon fans, who’ve consistently added to my understanding and knowledge. I’ll be back to “old Whedon” once more, next year, when I cover a Dollhouse episode for my “A Very Special Episode” column. But I won’t be able to tip my cap to you all there, so I’m doing it here. [Tips cap; wipes away single perfect tear; obsessively hits refresh on comments.]