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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Firefly: “Serenity”

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Noel Murray: We begin with an ending. And why wouldn’t we? Because in Joss Whedon’s universe, nearly everyone has a past to reckon with. There are months/years/centuries/millennia of history behind every choice, every crisis. Often, Whedon’s characters are haunted by the moments long-gone: from back when they were carefree, or alternately, when they had more of a purpose. So what better way for Firefly to start than in the heat of battle—The Battle Of Serenity Valley, as it happens, in 2511, when “the browncoats” were overcome by Alliance forces and Sgt. Mal Reynolds and Cpl. Zoe Alleyne found themselves on the losing side on The Unification War, left without a cause.

But let’s back up a bit, because it’s not my intention to bum everybody out before we really get started on this project. That wouldn’t really be in keeping with the spirit of Firefly, which—in comparison to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse anyway—is practically a romp. Don’t get me wrong: Firefly is a Whedon show, so there’ll be angst a-plenty, and personality conflicts, and eventually death. And that’s not even taking into account crazy River Tam, and all of her issues—which are barely touched on in the show’s original double-length pilot, “Serenity.” But as we go through these episodes in the weeks to come, let’s never lose sight of what Firefly essentially is: a space western, about wisecracking thieves who zip around a distant star-system in a rocketship. Which means that while Firefly is undoubtedly deep—and while we intend to plumb those depths here—the show is also super-fun. As much as I enjoyed writing about Buffy and Angel over the last four years, I’ve really been looking forward to getting to Firefly. This is like my dessert.

I’ll be sharing this dessert with my wife, Donna Bowman, who’s never seen Firefly before. Me, I watched the show for the first time on Sci-Fi Channel in the summer of 2005, as a way of preparing for the film Serenity, which opened that fall. Firefly was my first Whedon experience, and an ideal one, I’d say. Even now, I know there are some people out there who love Firefly but aren’t especially keen on much else from the Buffyverse, and I can understand why that would be. Firefly brings together almost all of Whedon’s strengths, with very few of the weaknesses.

We’ll talk more about that in future reviews, and I’ll look forward to hearing what you all have to say, and to hear from Donna, who’s watched almost every episode of Buffy and Angel with me but hasn’t had the chance to pontificate about Whedon the way I have. I’m also looking forward just to watching the show again. I’ve seen every episode (plus the movie) only once, and I’ve been anxious to take a second pass through Firefly’s airspace, ever since I bought the series on Blu-ray a few years back.

I’ve been living with HD for so long that I can’t remember how Firefly looked and sounded when I watched it on non-HD Sci-Fi seven years ago. But I can vouch for the Blu-ray presentation, which has struck me as stunning so far, especially in the Serenity Valley prologue. It’s no “Blackwater,” mind you, but for a TV episode with a limited budget—depicting a battle largely fought in darkness—“Serenity” does an exceptional job of establishing how Mal and Zoe’s troops were outgunned, and does so with just with a few simple shots and effects. The brief glimpse of the Alliance ships descending, followed by the image of one of Mal’s best men getting shot and killed in slow-motion in the back of the frame, conveys a sense of loss and hopelessness in just under ten seconds. It tells us a lot about who Mal and Zoe are, such that when we catch up with them six years later—now commanding a small, speedy ship called Serenity, and committing crimes—we should be able to grasp exactly what’s made them so hard-bitten.

The opening battle isn’t the only moment when Firefly’s style impresses. Whedon—who wrote and directed “Serenity”—employs an unusually loose and docu-realistic mise-en-scene, with a lot of sudden zooms and pans, plus the occasional handheld shot, with the special effects usually seen more in passing than as the focal point of the frame. And in the exterior space scenes, Whedon emphasizes the quiet drift, contrasting that with the mayhem our heroes frequently encounter on the ground or inside their own ship.


“Serenity” has the thankless task of introducing the audience to a cast of characters and their exotic habitats, which it does effectively, if not always smoothly. We’re left to fend for ourselves a little when it comes to the odd language of the future: a mix of cowpoke lingo and Chinese, with familiar-yet-different slang words like “gorram” (instead of “goddamn”) and “shiny” (instead of “cool”). That part works fairly well, I think. Our first encounters with the crew of the Serenity and their passengers, however, relies on Whedon distilling these characters to their essences, which makes them seem less complex than they will eventually turn out to be. That’s okay though. That’s the nature of the pilot episode.

In addition to our captain, Mal (played by Nathan Fillion), and his second-in-command, Zoe (Gina Torres), Serenity houses Zoe’s husband, Hoban Washburne (Alan Tudyk), an ace pilot with a sardonic sense of humor and a childlike sense of play; the ship’s mechanic, Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), a loving spirit with an intuitive knack for repair; the mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a straight-talking brute who craves action and loot; and high-class prostitute Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), who rents one of Serenity’s shuttles and uses it to entertain clients with her highly spiritual form of “companionship.” Early in “Serenity,” when Mal learns that their latest heist may not provide them with enough money for fuel—and when he realizes that the Alliance is on their tail—he decides to take on more passengers, for cover and for cash. On the planet Persephone, they pick up the aloof, shifty-looking Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), who brings with him a mysterious crate that we later learn contains his insane, brilliant, super-powered sister River (Summer Glau). They also add a priest, Derrial Book (Ron Glass), and a doofus, Lawrence Dobson (Carlos Jacott).


Anyone who pays attention to the opening credits should be able to figure out who the odd one out is here. Dobson is actually undercover, sent by the Alliance to retrieve River, whom Simon busted out of an elite “academy,” where she’d been subjected to sensitive government experiments. After a cliffhanger end to the first half of “Serenity”—in which Dobson shoots Kaylee—the second half deals with Dobson trying to pressure Mal into giving up Simon and River, while Simon threatens to let Kaylee die unless Mal gets him and his sister to safety. Then there’s the matter of Serenity’s stolen cargo, which Mal wants to offload with an old enemy, Patience, who once shot Mal “a bit.”

There’s more to be said, about the Reavers, and the showdown with Patience on the dusty moon known as Whitefall, but now I’d like to pass the mic to Donna, and to start with a couple of questions. The first half of “Serenity” cleverly sets us up to believe that Simon is a villain, then twists a little to suggest that maybe Book is the bad guy instead, before revealing that it’s Dobson after all. Anyone who’s spent any time watching Whedon shows would’ve expected that kind of switcheroo. But Donna, having watched a lot of Buffy and Angel with me, and knowing that Whedon has no qualms about killing off characters, were you worried at all for Kaylee, or did you suspect she’d be okay? And based solely on this first episode and your past experiences with Whedon shows, was Firefly what you expected?


Donna Bowman: Worried for Kaylee? I was almost sure that her death would be the precipitating incident of the series, or the season, or the first long season arc, anyway. Mind, I got suspicious when her “death” scene—hand dropping out of Mal’s, head lolling to the side—was played so quickly. But I can forgive the fakeout for the way it resolves, with Kaylee piping up happily from the sickbay next time we visit. Classic Whedon, to let us know that we're not going to be piling angst on top of angst here.

I don’t think you can know what to expect from Firefly even if you’re given the complete rundown of series elements ahead of time. “Space western” is a genre with a long pedigree, going back through Star Trek to John Carter of Mars. But who could expect Whedon to literalize it so liberally, yet so sincerely, with the horses, suspenders, chinoiserie, and frontier boom towns? I fell in love instantly with the show’s sense of style. Especially Zoe’s fitted leather vest (yowza!) and the shearling cover on Wash’s pilot's chair. The touches that make a show with sci-fi or fantasy elements feel authentic don't have to be expensive special effects. They just have to be thoroughly thought through.


Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars,” and I’ve always thought of that phrase as a touchstone for what makes television drama that can stand the test of time. You need an endless supply of stories to tell, and there are two ways you can get it: by setting your characters down in a place where stories come to them (police station, hospital, law firm) or by sending them out to the frontier where anything can happen. That’s the connection between science fiction and the western—people heading out to “the final frontier,” to coin a phrase. And so I got goose bumps watching the world of Persephone stroll by Serenity's open hatch, because it’s that oldest of story-generating devices: the crossroads. Combine it with the frontier, and you have everything you need to kickstart a million stories. Everybody’s there in bewildering diversity, from whores to missionaries, from the law to the outlaw, and everyone’s looking to redefine themselves. (“I'm a businessman, roots in the community,” as gangster Badger puts it while declining to follow through on a deal with Mal.)

The moment when it became clear that the “western” part of “space western” isn't just a metaphor—that Whedon intends to indulge fully both halves of the descriptor—comes in the showdown with Patience in a Whitefall canyon. Has Jayne taken Dobson’s deal to betray Mal? And when it turns out he hasn’t, the question is why? Jayne says it's because the money wasn’t good enough, implying that on some “interesting” day in the future, it will be. He’s the hired gun whose loyalty is always an open question: another western staple with the potential to ratchet up the anxiety level in any conflict.


And that leads me to the last element I found fascinating in “Serenity,” and that I can’t wait to see play out over the course of the series: love triangles. Maybe I should more accurately say “love polygons,” since there are so many sides and vertices. Wash and Zoe dote on each other, but Mal and Zoe are an essential leadership team. Mal clearly has feelings for Inara, who keeps him at arm's length by invoking her occupation; Inara has a special bond with Kaylee that might be romantic, but Kaylee is swooning over Simon from the second he comes on board. Anybody else who crosses this ship’s path, be they friend, foe, or paying customer, has the potential to stress and disrupt those relationships.

I don’t have the slightest idea what’s going to happen, but already I can see an infinite number of paths emerging from this pilot episode. That’s what all TV pilots try to do, but how many times have you seen one that seems to chart a single, depressingly familiar course, leaving audiences only to hope for some good times along the way? The sense of possibility here doesn’t arise solely from the promise of adventure, but just as much from the ways any given adventure might upset the fragile, marginal living that these characters are eking out. That gives Firefly more than potential. It gives the show weight, from the very start.


Noel: Yeah, I certainly don’t mean to discount that weight when I call Firefly “super-fun.” Even in this opening two-parter, Whedon and company are sowing seeds for some of the series’ heavier themes. When we first meet Mal, he’s delivering an inspirational speech for the troops, saying, “We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty,” before kissing the cross around his neck. When we see him again six years later, he answers Book’s request, “Mind if I say grace?” by snapping, “Only if you say it out loud.”

Donna: Mal as a character is just a terrific riff on the hazards of charisma, and having Fillion play him with such pulpy gusto is a constant delight. The charismatic leader tends to bluster his way through situations he can’t control; for example, when he’s making the case to approach Patience to buy their cargo, he has to dismiss their previous disagreement that ended with him being shot as “a legitimate conflict of interest.” Most of all, he has to infect his crew with hope when there’s something to be done (like in the pre-credits battle speech you quote), and with denial when there’s nothing to be done (like when he asserts that the Alliance “just won't” find the secret compartment in the cargo hold).


Noel: And Book too isn’t entirely what he seems. He initially appears repelled by the presence of that harlot Inara on the ship, but he also shows himself to be more worldly (and handy in a fight) than he initially lets on, and when Inara braces herself for a lecture on morality at one point, Book jokes that he actually had a couple ready, with “sin and hellfire… one has lepers.” Then there’s Kaylee’s unconditional love for everybody, which might well be worrisome down the line; and Wash’s clearly longstanding frustration with how his wife acquiesces to Mal. There are quite a few pots a-simmering already. (I won’t tell you which of the potential “love polygons” you’re right about, though I will say that you’ve missed a big one. But that’s not a lapse; it’s not that obvious yet.)

“Serenity” also establishes early that the dialogue in Firefly is going to be more Whedon-like than highfalutin’ or flatly pulpy, the way it is in other sci-fi shows. There are so many memorable lines in this episode: Simon telling Wash not to worry about him and Wash shrugging, “Zoe’s out on a deal, I always worry; it’s not out of my way;” and Zoe telling Simon that if the hellacious, cannibalistic nomads known as The Reavers capture them, “They’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing; and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”


Fillion is especially adroit with the Whedon-speak, as when Mal tells Zoe that if any of their passengers gets too nosy she should “just shoot ‘em… politely.” But Mal’s lightness of tone doesn’t preclude him or his crew from killin’. This episode sees the crew of Serenity humiliated by the petty crime boss, Badger (played by Mark Sheppard), and terrified by the The Reaver ship that flies by Serenity at one point but declines to seize it. That makes it all the more surprising when Patience and her posse attempt to swindle Mal and Zoe on Whitefall, only to have one gunmen get shot through the hat (and the head inside of it) by the lurking Jayne, after which Mal shoots Patience’s horse while she’s trying to hide behind the animal. Then Mal returns to Serenity and abruptly shoots Dobson, dumping the fed’s body overboard as our heroes flee the suddenly returning Reavers. These people aren’t cowards; and they’re not 100% “moral” either.

But we’ve got many weeks ahead to talk about all that, and to explore further the major theme that “Serenity” introduces: that what makes Mal and his crew “special” is that they’re losers. Not in the modern L-sign-on-the-forehead sense, but in a literal sense. Mal and Zoe lost the war, so they’re irrelevant—off the radar. That, plus their small, swift ship, gives them the freedom to maneuver in ways that the Alliance and the Reavers can’t. That may be changing, though. “You can’t take the sky from me” is how the show’s theme song goes. But more and more people are heading out to the frontier that Serenity calls home. As Mal notes, “It’s gettin’ awful crowded in my sky.”


Stray observations:

  • As was the case with the Buffy and Angel comment sections, I’d appreciate it if you could clearly mark spoilers for upcoming episodes. As noted above, I’ve seen the show before, but Donna hasn’t, and I’m betting there might be some newcomers watching along with us.
  • Is there a better character introduction in this series than Wash with his toy dinosaurs? Let’s say it together, shall we? “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”
  • Mal pays a backhanded compliment to Badger’s “very fine hat,” and later he’ll make note of the “nice hat” of the Patience henchman that Jayne shoots. Mal also sarcastically says to Kaylee at one point that, “I’d like to be king of all Londinum and wear a shiny hat.” Very hat-aware, our captain.
  • Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s: fresh produce is a precious commodity, but science has developed thick protein bars that can feed a family for a month, and people still quote The Beatles. So… could be worse.
  • From the Jayne Cobb “You don’t pay me to talk pretty” department: When Badger calls a situation “fluid,” Jayne snaps, “Only fluid I see here is the puddle of piss refusin’ to pay us our wage,” and later when Mal tells the anxious-to-torture Jayne that all they mean to do is to scare Dobson, Jayne smirks, “Pain is scary.”
  • Two strange but delightful scenes in “Serenity:” first the jump cut to the crew cruelly laughing their asses off after Mal lies and tells Simon that Kaylee is dead; the second Kaylee trying to direct Jayne to help with a repair, saying, “Look where I’m pointing.” There’s just something very human—and un-space-opera-like—about both these moments.
  • Next week: “The Train Job,” which was actually the first episode that Fox aired, after the network asked Whedon to make a new pilot. We’ll definitely have to talk a little about that.