22. Serenity (2005)

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass, Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Krumholtz, Sarah Paulson

In the autumn of 2002, a crime was committed by the Fox Television Network. These people had a potentially successful and long-running sci-fi series on their hands, and they botched the deal in every way possible. First, they promoted “Firefly” as a sci-fi comedy. The series had comedic elements, but that was merely one aspect of it. Second, they aired the episodes out of sequence. The pilot was aired last, and only after the show was already cancelled. Strike three was giving priority to Major League Baseball. When Fox aired baseball games in the timeslot otherwise belonging to “Firefly,” the show would sometimes go several weeks without a new episode, and viewers weren’t told when it would be back. Joss Whedon, whose two vampire TV shows ran for seven seasons and five seasons, respectively, saw perhaps his most creative project to date sink after just 11 episodes. Three more episodes remained unseen until the DVD release. But it was on home video where “Firefly” found its cult following. A demand from the fanbase for more was heard loud and clear. Thanks to a deal with Universal Studios, “Serenity” was born.

“Serenity” tells of the Alliance, a federation of worlds colonized by humans who left Earth due to overcrowding. The year is 2517, and all the worlds in Alliance territory are bilingual (English and Chinese). As with any society where those in power tell their citizens how to think and how to feel, there is resistance. The Independents (or “Browncoats” as they are more commonly referred) lost the war that ensued, but the battle was far from over. In the pilot to “Firefly,” the crew of the Serenity, led by Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), happened across a brother and sister, Simon and River Tam (Sean Maher and Summer Glau), who were on the run from the Alliance because of some dark secret inside River’s mind. Now the plot moves to finding out what that secret is, and why the Alliance is so afraid of it.

The witty banter between the members of the crew is one of the main things that made the TV show so popular with its fans, especially from the greedy and opportunistic yet dimwitted Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin). That sense of humor, provided by writer/director Joss Whedon, is just as present here, even as the movie’s plot takes its darkest turn. It is also the main thing that got the TV show into trouble when the attempt was made by Fox to market it. When it came time for the movie three years later, Universal made the same mistake of focusing on the funny bits in the theatrical trailer. In reality, the movie has much deeper messages. First, “Can’t stop the signal,” the movie’s tagline, is a bit of a jab at Fox. Second is the angle of expressing the dangers of a government attempting to control the behavior of its population and that, in establishing this kind of order, all that is brought about is more chaos.

“Firefly” and “Serenity” were influenced by many different sources in science fiction. Among them, cases can be made for “Star Wars” (the young girl with information that can lead to the downfall of an evil regime & the love/hate relationship between Mal & Inara is like that of Han Solo & Princess Leia), “Blade Runner” (from which the world of Beaumont takes its visual cues), and most especially the BBC TV series “Blake’s 7” (which ran for four series from 1978 to 1981), of which the parallels are too many to count.

“Serenity” is not the first instance of a movie being made out of a cancelled TV series. In the early 1970’s, “Star Trek” found a following through reruns which it never experienced during its original three-season run from 1966 to 1969. The result of this worldwide attention would eventually amount to four other TV series and twelve movies (and counting). “Police Squad!” lasted a grand total of six episodes in 1982, yet became so popular that actor Leslie Nielsen was able to reprise his role of the bumbling detective Frank Drebin in three “Naked Gun” motion pictures. However, like “Firefly,” the movie “Serenity” did not attract a wide enough audience when it mattered most, failing to break even on its box office intake.

If one thing is for certain about the legacy of “Firefly”/”Serenity,” it is that the actors had as good a time making it as the fans do in watching it. Just watch any of the blooper reels and you’ll get a good sense of this. It can also be inferred by the numerous “Firefly” reunions the cast holds. They always seem to make the time to thank their fans, no matter what other projects they have lined up. Virtually all of the actors have been keeping busy in the years since. Nathan Fillion has played the role of mystery novelist Richard Castle on ABC’s detective series “Castle” for going on six seasons now. Morena Baccarin has had villainous roles in both “Stargate SG-1” and ABC’s short-lived reboot of “V.” Adam Baldwin had an important supporting role in NBC’s “Chuck” for the duration of its multi-season run. Alan Tudyk has had so many supporting roles in movies over the last eight years that it’s almost impossible for anyone not to have seen at least one of them.

I personally would have liked at least one more “Firefly” big screen adventure, if for no other reason than to see a return from one of Malcolm Reynolds’ nemeses from the show, such as Adelei Niska, the criminal kingpin with a penchant for torturing those who try to back out of a contract, or Saffron (Christina Hendricks of AMC’s “Mad Men”), the con artist/thief who tricked Mal into thinking he’d married her while intoxicated. As time marches on, the likelihood of this continues to diminish, but for those of us who consider ourselves passionate fans, the “signal” will never die.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    The review gives an excellent analysis of how Fox’s handling of the series “Firefly” was botched rom the onset. Only the most astute, patient and dedicated fans managed to pick up on its brilliance. I have always been puzzled as to why the movie was ever made if Universal and Fox couldn’t be bothered to spend the time and money to promote it properly. I’d be hard pressed to find any science fiction series that entertained me more than this one did with just 13 episodes and a pilot. Each character was lovingly and expertly brought to life by Joss Whedon and the exceptionally gifted cast.

    At least the movie brought to a conclusion two of the major and worst conflicts that our heroes faced. The first of these was the nightmarish, relentless and amoral “Reavers” whose destructive path was represented only by the grisly aftermath we witnessed in the series. No one ever lived to tell the tale of the Reavers. All was just rumor until Mal and the gang are forced to outwit them in mortal combat or be exterminated like all the Reavers’ previous victims. The second series plot thread to be more or less concluded was the government scientists’ violation of the most sacred terrotory of all, the human mind.

    Throughout the series, River battled the mental tortures of the damned thanks to the scientists’ discovery of her superior intellectual abilities and then “fiddling about” with her brain chemistry without any regard for her long range sanity. In “Serenity,” she is finally allowed to stand tall and strong, surprising absolutely everyone with just what she could do to deliver a really satisfying comeuppance for all the villains, whether the monstrous flesh and soul eating Reavers or the government scientists. Yes, I was and I am a big fan of Firefly because it is extremely rare to find such high quality writing and acting in a series in any genre.

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