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Firefly & Serenity

Joss Whedon's wildly successful failure

2006.12.11 — Entertainment | Movies | Movie Analysis | by Andrew Cole

Nathan Filian as Mal Reynolds

Captain Malcolm Reynolds of the Firefly-class freighter Serenity would shoot Greedo first [source]

For audio commentaries of the Firefly series, see the commentary page.

I've been very busy lately, immersing myself in Joss Whedon's world of Firefly. Joss Whedon is the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off, Angel. He also co-wrote Toy Story and Alien: Resurrection, which is a bit of a head-shaker. Whedon's other big TV series was 2002's Firefly, a sci-fi western about a crew of smugglers and their scrapes with the law in space and on planets where the colonists dress like pioneers from the Old West. When Fox panicked and pulled the series after just half a season, Whedon worked overtime to resuscitate it and eventually succeeded in making it a movie in 2005—a remarkably good movie called Serenity.

The show is based around a Firefly-class small freight spaceship called the Serenity, with a tiny crew that takes on a few mysterious passengers. This is not Star Trek or Alien—there are no aliens, for one thing, and Serenity is not a military vessel exploring the outer reaches or a corporate tug with a gigantic ore refinery in tow.

Instead, it plays more like the continuing adventures of the Millennium Falcon, which I mean as a compliment. There are a lot more seedy bars, gangsters, and bounty hunters in Firefly and Serenity than there were in all of the vast Star Trek canon, and no planetary envoys, no holodecks, and no stinking Prime Directive. But Whedon was also clearly inspired by the industrial look and subdued tone of Alien.

[Mal Reynolds] is now a sharp-tongued, gun-slinging smuggler who, I imagine, could make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Nathan Fillian is Captain Malcolm Reynolds, a veteran of a war that feels a lot like a combination of the American Civil War and Star Wars. He was a rebel, of course (sorry, an "Independent"), and the jack-booted Empire (I mean "Alliance") crushed his spirit when they won the Battle of Serenity Valley. He is now a sharp-tongued, gun-slinging smuggler who, I imagine, could make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

Mal's first mate and army buddy is the lovely and taciturn Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), who, together with the mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), makes up the Chewbacca to Mal's Han Solo. Mal's crew also includes wise-cracking pilot Hoban "Wash" Washburne (Alan Tudyk), who married Zoe (offscreen) after joining the crew; and a spritely mechanic named Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) who keeps the outdated freighter flying. They don't have direct counterparts in the Star Wars universe, but plucky, blonde, crack-pilot Wash is easy to picture as Luke Skywalker if Luke had foregone Jedi training. Kaylee is much more in the spirit of Brett and Parker, the foul-mouthed engineers of the Nostromo, in Alien—but about a thousand times prettier.

River... is the main subject of the movie Serenity. She carries secrets that other films have tried to do, but few have done well. Serenity does it very well.

Serenity's passengers—with them from stem to stern in the series—are a priest called Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a high-class hooker with a heart of gold named Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), and an ex-Alliance trauma surgeon (Sean Maher) and his teenage sister, whose genius brain was addled by the Alliance for unknown reasons. The sister, River Tam (Summer Glau), is the main subject of the movie Serenity. She carries the sort of corporate/government conspiracy secrets that other films have tried to do, but few have done well. Serenity does it very well.

That's a lot of characters for a TV show, and it would have provided a lot of flexibility as the seasons passed to explore each one. Foreshortened as the series is, Shepherd Book hardly gets more than a few wise aphorisms and mysterious un-priest-like revelations by the end and is virtually thrown away in the movie. Of course, so was Obi-Wan Kenobi. In both cases, their captain considered them a friend despite their "hokey religion."

[Mal] calls [Inara] "whore;" she calls calls him "petty thief," because "your highnessness" and "scruffy-looking nerf-herder" were taken.

Inara Serra is Mal's romantic entanglement, but one that remains unresolved even in the movie. Inara has Princess Leia's attitude and Queen Amidala's fashion sense—with "high-status politician" swapped with "high-class call-girl," which, let's face it, is not much different. She dresses in bangles and brocade and consorts with Alliance officials, much to Mal's consternation. He calls her "whore;" she calls calls him "petty thief," because "your highnessness" and "scruffy-looking nerf-herder" were taken.

There are big differences between Firefly and Star Wars, of course. Not only are there no aliens; there are not even any robots to speak of in Firefly. The stiff-necked Doctor Simon Tam and his babbling baby sister are surprisingly close to C-3P0 and R2-D2, but Simon is more like Ash (also a robot) from Alien: a not-quite-regular member of the crew who harbors secrets within secrets.

Colonists ride horses because they haven't built roads, but why do the women wear petticoats and bonnets? Was space colonized by the Amish?

Judging by Whedon's commentaries on the DVDs, Fox execs were most put off by Firefly's combination of space opera and the Wild West. Star Wars is sometimes called a "space western," but no one meant it literally. In Firefly, planet colonists ride horses because they haven't built roads, but why do the women wear petticoats and bonnets? Was space colonized by the Amish? Whedon stretches the "frontier" analogy too far in these instances and stumbles into silliness, but they are thankfully few and far between..

My comparison to Star Wars notwithstanding, there are elements of Star Trek and Alien in the show. The Serenity travels from planet to planet, sampling the culture, and sometimes has to fight dangers from within on the ship. That ship looks a lot more like Nostromo than Enterprise or Millennium Falcon, altho it shares the Falcon's nooks and niches and entry bay door. The interior is dark and industrial, a tangle of pipes and control panels. Like Nostromo, it's a working ship, not suited to warfare on any level, with a central crew mess where chatty meals are had.

The main difference is simple. In Firefly, ...virtually every character has an interesting and dynamic relationship with every other.

As much as it stands on the shoulders of these giants, however, the main difference is simple. In Firefly, the characters have real emotional lives, with complicated relationships that each have their own arc (and the acting skill to go with it). Mal and Inara, Zoe and Wash, Simon and Kaylee, Simon and his sister, Mal and Book, Jayne and everybody else... the list goes on. Virtually every character has an interesting and dynamic relationship with every other. That element is very weak in Star Wars, Alien, and even Star Trek. It's obviously an element that Whedon worked out on his own from Buffy and Angel. And that's what makes Firefly special and Serenity so satisfying.

Burdened by the fact that the movie was tied to a TV series hardly anyone got a chance to see, the movie Serenity hit box offices with a thud and struggled to make the break-even point on its modest $30 million budget, so a sequel is pretty much out of the question. Fans did their damnedest to bring the series back and then to support the movie (there are over 2,500 reviews for Serenity on Amazon; The Incredibles has only 500), but however vocal they may have been, there just weren't enough of them.

Summer Glau as River Tam

Firefly had creative direction that sometimes made scenes sparkle all by themselves. Here, Summer Glau shows off her ballerina training. [source]

Of course, the series and movie didn't have the benefit of big name stars (even wonderful Barney Miller veteran Ron Glass was probably unknown to the target audience), and both were weighed down by odd and un-adventurous names.

Hey, Joss, why not Space Cowboys or Space Truckers? Wait— those are both taken. I've got it! Star Smugglers.

But I would have imagined that Joss Whedon's name and a few promos during Buffy and Angel would have lined up a sizeable audience by the time Fox started screwing up the series... which was immediately.

Network executives decided that the excellent two-hour pilot Whedon made was too dark, but they didn't just have Whedon reshoot a few scenes to lighten the tone. Instead, Whedon and co-executive producer Tim Minear scrambled to write a one-hour episode—"The Train Job"—with a cheerier tone. Fox held back the original pilot until the end of the show's run, and even then didn't run three very good episodes that had been produced. It was a catastrophe of network management.

But, luckily, we can correct the network executives' mistakes by buying the box set of the Firefly series—14 hour-long episodes, with some nice extras—and the Serenity movie. And we can take heart: Joss Whedon is a talented guy and the actors he cast are talented actors. We can expect more from them in the future—just not more Serenity.

 

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