The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts September 30, 2005
Wanton Distraction

The Serenity Cheat Sheet

So all your friends are talking about going out this weekend to see that sweet-looking sci-fi flick Serenity and you’re coming along. There’s only one problem: you have no clue why everyone else is so excited. Sure, the trailer you saw looked all right and you value the opinions of your friends, but other than that, you remain largely ignorant. You know you are only seconds away from being exposed as a fraud!

Fear not, for this week’s installment of Wanton Distraction will give you all the info you need to know to keep on posing until you can actually get your hands on the primary sources.

The Origins of Serenity

Serenity is an adaptation of the short-lived sci-fi Western (you read that correctly) television show Firefly, the third series created by Joss Whedon after his cult-hits Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. If you think it is odd that a short-lived TV show could spawn a movie, it has actually happened before. Another little-known space drama by the name of Star Trek, which lasted only three seasons, somehow managed to spawn ten theatrical films and four television series.

Unfortunately, Firefly never got close to getting three seasons, as FOX aired the expensive hour-long show on Friday nights, which is pretty much a death sentence for any show trying to reach the coveted 18- to 49-year-old demographic. FOX also did not air the episodes in chronological order, making it even harder for people to follow the story. Despite attempts from fans to save the show, FOX cancelled it after 11 episodes (with three episodes unaired) and other networks refused to pick it up.

But the magic in all of Whedon’s shows creates a cult fan base. Perhaps because of its short-lived status (in addition to the show’s quality, of course), Firefly has the most enthusiastic fans. When FOX released the complete series on DVD in December 2003, it became one of the best-selling TV shows on DVD. These remarkable sales prompted Universal to pick up a spec script by Joss Whedon and give him his first opportunity to direct material for the big screen (his previous directorial work was for television).

Less than two years later, we’re about to take the skies once again.

The Story So Far...

The show takes place about 500 years in the future, following Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion, who played Caleb in the final season of Buffy) and his crew aboard the ship Serenity, a Firefly-class space vessel. Serenity is named after the Battle of Serenity Valley, where Mal and his co-captain Zoe (Gina Torres, who played Jasmine in season four of Angel) fought for the Independents (or Browncoats as they were called due to their uniforms) against the imperialistic Alliance and, well...lost. So Mal and Zoe took up a life of crime in a Robin Hood-like existence of stealing from the Alliance and selling the goods to the forgotten colonists of the Outer-Rim.

However, a life of crime involving a spaceship requires a little help, so they got themselves a crew. They find a pilot, eventually: Zoe’s husband, Wash (Dodgeball’s Alan Tudyk), dull-witted mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin, who played Marcus Hamilton in season five of Angel), the ship’s adorable mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite); Inara (Monica Baccarin), a beautiful “ambassador”/companion (a job that can roughly be equated to that of a geisha) who rides with Serenity as a passenger; Book (Ron Glass), a religious man who obviously was not always a man of God, and the brother and sister fugitives, Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) and his brilliant yet tortured (literally) sister, River (Summer Glau), the latter of whom is the driving force in the film.

Space Cowboys

Joss Whedon crafted a unique vision with Firefly. It was a show set in space without any aliens. Although it is set in the future, many of the settings resemble the Wild West, although the core planets under Alliance have far better living conditions through technology. America and China became the last two superpowers on “Earth-that-was” and left their mark on the new planets, as both American letters and Chinese characters appear in the background and, while everyone speaks in English, they curse in Chinese. There’s also a group known as the Blue Sun Corporation (who resemble the Men in Black, but with blue hands), which is using the Alliance to capture River. And out near the Outer-Rim there are stories of Reavers, a monstrous band of raiders who make the Big Bads of Buffy and Angel seem cuddly by comparison.

On first glance, it all seems a little ridiculous, but is it? It may not be a popular view, but it is a valid thesis that we are alone in the universe. We know that third world countries may have some of our technology but do not necessarily live in modern surroundings. China is rapidly catching up with America in terms of technological power and military strength. The Reavers will make their first on-screen appearance in Serenity, but the notion of less-than-noble savages is not beyond comprehension. Does Whedon’s universe really break the suspension of disbelief? Well, I guess it is a little unbelievable that a corporation would use the government for its own nefarious goals.“We are just too pretty for God to let us die.”

So you know the background, you know the characters, you know the world, but despite the intriguing premise, you don’t know why people care so much about this show. While I highly recommend you watch even the first few episodes (I’m in the minority of people who love them; most people don’t really fall in love with the show until episode four, “Shindig,” and if you only have time for one episode, I highly recommend “Our Mrs. Reynolds.”), it is not mandatory before seeing the film. You don’t even have to read the recently released three-part comic that serves as a preface to the film. Experiencing the comic and the series will probably make it more enjoyable, since the characters become more and more lovable as time goes on, but Whedon has made a film accessible even for non-fans. Going to the film unprepared just means Whedon does not like you as much and neither do I.

I don’t think Firefly is Whedon’s best show (it never really got the chance to get there), but it is easily my favorite. He has put together such a great cast that if any one of the characters were to die, you would mourn the loss. While Mal and Han Solo share similarities, I think the comparison would work better if Han Solo had visible emotional scars after being tortured by Darth Vader. Although I usually like the supporting character more than the lead, Mal is definitely my favorite character on the show. Not only does he get all the best lines (although Jayne and Wash get a bunch of great ones as well), but he is a dishonorable hero. He will not shoot an unarmed man in the back, but has no second thoughts about shooting an armed man in the front.

While she is not my favorite character, River is still important in the film. First of all, River was not always crazy. She used to be brilliant, adorable and perhaps even psychic. The Alliance tricked her and her family into admitting her into a “special” school, which was actually a science program trying to utilize River for some unknown purpose. What is known, however, is that while her brother Simon gave up his successful career as a trauma surgeon to rescue her, she left the institute with no impulse control or ability to filter her feelings due to the scientists cutting into her brain to discover the source of her extraordinary abilities. Simon tries his best to find a blend of medications to keep her psychotic episodes under control, but it is clear she will never again be the carefree girl who enjoyed dancing and helping her big brother with his organic chemistry homework.

These characters, along with the rest of the cast, do not exist simply as “good guys” or “bad guys.” While many dramatic television series bristle at the thought of character maturity, Whedon always embraces it. As a result, his characters remain memorable. These are far from perfect people. They screw up, and their mistakes do not go unpunished. There are no easy lessons, if there is even a lesson at all.

But Whedon always manages to balance the pain with his brilliant writing and direction. The setting, the music, the unique cinematography, the little details (i.e. having no sound in space) and of course, the endlessly quotable dialogue, make the world of Firefly one worth visiting, even with its technical taboos (i.e. zooms and lens flares).

So paraphrase me, deceive your friends and then watch the series before you get called a goram poser and are left wondering what “goram” means.


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