Porpoise, Dormouse, and I just re-watched Joss Whedon’s Serenity on DVD—which is fitting, because we all saw it together in the theater. At that time, I hadn’t yet started The Ottery, I hadn’t yet watched any episodes of “Firefly” (the TV series of which Serenity is a continuation)—in short, my life was sadly lacking.
I’ll always be thankful to “Firefly” and Serenity for allowing me to offer proof that I don’t automatically dislike all sci-fi involving spaceships, just spaceship sci-fi with “Star” in the title. The key, of course, is not actually the title, but the fact that “Firefly” and Serenity are well-written. Now, that said, I know that creator Joss Whedon drew a lot of his inspiration from Star Wars. Bully for him. However, his writing style, his characters, and his world-creation appeal to me much more.
In case you’re not a “Browncoat” (inside term referring to “Firefly”/Serenity fans), both are set in our world in the future, a future in which the U.S. and China, as the two greatest superpowers, have united to form the Alliance. Thus, there are Chinese cultural influences peppered throughout the series and movie—our characters usually swear in Chinese. Also, the Earth “got used up,” and so humans spread out to populate other planets. The Alliance extends its influence over the central planets, which see themselves as the sole representatives of civilization. Planets on the fringes, however, rebelled. The rebels, known as “Browncoats,” fought their quixotic last at the Battle of Serenity Valley.
Skip a few years. Browncoat Malcolm Reynolds, one of the few survivors of the Battle of Serenity Valley, now runs his own spaceship—aptly named “Serenity”—with a crew that assists him in his outlaw life. They conduct their heists mainly on the fringe planets, where life resembles that of the Old American West, only with better technology and Chinese swear words. One of my favorite details: Serenity’s crew refers to their small land hovercraft as “the mule.”
Occasionally Mal and the crew take on passengers, the most notable of whom is River Tam, who, at the time she is brought on board by her brother Simon, seems to be merely a mentally troubled teenage girl. However, she gradually reveals more of her true nature in the TV series, including the fact that she can read people’s minds, and in Serenity, we learn that, due to Alliance experiments upon her, she is a fearsome human weapon, and that she knows a big secret.
From the Serenity trailers, I originally thought that the Alliance Operative was pursuing River because of her ability to kick, punch, and incapacitate people while looking extremely graceful (actress Summer Glau, who plays River, is a ballet dancer by training). But early on in the film, we discover that the Operative is after her because of the secret she knows, a secret that could potentially undo the Alliance.
Through the events of Serenity, the ship’s crew learns this secret. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that it involves the theme of trying to eradicate human sin. It’s definitely an interesting theme for me, and it seems to be one that moviemakers think has wider resonance, because you may have noticed that it’s also a theme in the recent Batman Begins. In fact, I saw Serenity and Batman Begins at about the same time, and the thematic similarity of the two were a major part of what made me consider starting The Ottery.
Both Serenity and Batman Begins send the clear message that any attempt to make humanity sinless will fail—and, in many cases, it will even backfire. I wonder whether this is an idea particularly appealing to Gen-Xers and subsequent generations who, having seen the Baby Boomers’ idealism dissipate in broken relationships, have no such illusions about human perfectibility.
If you watch the deleted scenes from Serenity (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll see that Whedon, though he’s not exactly religious himself, allows the movie to introduce another perspective on sin. Shepherd Book, a preacher who had at one point been a passenger on Serenity, recites the following prayer:
Lord, I am walking your way.
Let me in, for my feet are sore,
my clothes are ragged.
Look in my eyes, Lord, and my sins
will play out on them as on a screen.
Read them all. Forgive what you can,
and send me on my path.
I will walk on, until you bid me rest.
Kind of a high-tech cowboy King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer. I’m sad that Joss deleted it. His commentary track for this scene says that he originally swore he would never cut it, but that he eventually came to see that it interfered with the film’s momentum. Momentum, shmomentum. Give me theme development! (And of course, since it’s me, it doesn’t hurt that this theme development is in the form of a prayer.)
I also liked this scene because Shepherd Book is officially my hero. In the “Firefly” episode “War Stories,” he saves the day by shooting the villain’s legs. Zoe asks him, “Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killing?” “Quite specific,” Book answers. “It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.”
Tee hee! Not exactly my ideal pacifist position, but a lot funnier (and more appropriate to a space-Western).
Anyway, I wish there had been more Shepherd Book in Serenity. In fact, as much as I liked the movie—and I did like it, in spite of being very, very scared of the Reavers—my biggest problem with it was its change in tone from the series. The subject matter does demand a darker tone, but, still, I feel jarred by the discontinuity. Maybe it’s mostly because Whedon had planned to continue the story arc in TV series form, where things could have developed more gradually. As any anguished Browncoat will tell you, though, Fox cancelled “Firefly” in 2003, after 14 episodes. Whedon considers it a miracle Browncoat revolution that this little, ragged, but beloved, show was revived and allowed to continue on the big screen. Watching Serenity, though, I miss the humor of the small screen. There’s still a lot of witty banter and brilliant dialogue, of course, but not as much as in the “Firefly” episodes.
Guns and weapons failed against the Alliance, and I have my doubts that exposing and broadcasting their secrets will defeat them, either. But laughter? Maybe that could bring them to their kneecaps.
13 comments August 8th, 2006