What if Han Solo’s roguish edge hadn’t been dulled halfway through the original Star Wars trilogy? What if he had walked the line between smuggler and hero instead of just crossing it at some point?
What if Star Trek’s “Wagon Train” to the stars had been less of a secular utopian fantasy of human progress and more like the real old West in the wake of the Civil War? What if the story were told, not from the point of view of the triumphant Federation, or Union, or Alliance, but the disgruntled eyes of the defeated Confederacy, or Independents?
What if, instead of a who’s who of alien civilizations variously representing particular aspects of human nature, a sci-fi adventure merely allowed the personalities and behavior of its human characters to be as complicated and varied as that of real people in the real world, from preachers to prostitutes?
And what if this world were being imagined by a storyteller with the wit, creativity, provocativeness, and flair for characterization and dialogue that made “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” a cult phenomenon for seven years — if also some of the weaknesses that made “Buffy” morally problematic?
The answer, of course, is that the show would be canceled after eleven episodes, although it would not be Joss Whedon’s fault. Fortunately, in this DVD era, even a canceled show can continue to find an audience, and if it becomes popular enough it may even spill over onto the big screen.
Like lots of people, I didn’t catch “Firefly” in its one-season run three years ago, but I recently caught up with it on DVD, and Whedon’s characteristically quirky blend of frontier rough-and-tumble and sci-fi space opera (“Buck Rogers meets Roy Rogers” in the clever turn of phrase of USCCB critic David DiCerto), despite certain drawbacks, is entertaining and frequently enthralling, and leaves the viewer intrigued to know where the series would have gone had it been given the chance.
For long-suffering “Firefly” fans, Serenity is at last a precious opportunity to find out what happens next, not to mention to learn the answers to nagging questions left hanging by the series’ abrupt demise — a journey that is at once thrilling, rewarding, heartbreaking, and wistful. For non-fans, Serenity is a delirious excursion into a world whose setting, characters and relationships are richer and more elaborate than any one-shot movie is likely to be.
Whedon has a tricky balancing act, crafting a film that’s satisfying for fans without being off-putting to newcomers, and for the most part he delivers. Newbies may not always understand what’s going on, but that was true of the series as well; you’ll get it if you stick with it.
Serenity is the name of the “Firefly-class” starship captained by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a jaded, opportunistic captain whose hard-nosed exterior belies an idealistic past (think Han Solo crossed with Rick from Casablanca).
It’s typical of Whedon’s cliché-busting sensibilities that although Mal, like many Western heroes, is sweet on a woman named Inara (Morena Baccarin) who in some ways fits the “whore with a heart of gold” type, in this world a woman like Inara is no tart or chorus girl, but a cultivated “Companion” or high-class courtesan. It’s likewise typical that Whedon would balance Inara with a devout cleric such as Book (Ron Glass), a “Shepherd” of unspecified Christian affiliation, who disapproves of Inara’s line of work but treats her personally with dignity.
Then there’s the passionate, tempestuous marriage of Mal’s second in command and surviving war buddy Zoë (Gina Torres) and his pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk). A black female soldier and ranking officer, an interracial romance — nothing unusual there, but how often do you even run into major characters on a TV drama of this sort who happen to be married to one another?
Even more remarkably, how many dramas focus on adult siblings, such as fugitives Simon (Sean Maher), a brilliant doctor, and his sister River (Summer Glau), a troubled young woman with awesome abilities and a deeply shadowed past at the hands of sinister Alliance scientists?
Who haven’t I mentioned? Oh yes, Kaylee (Jewel Stait), the corn-fed country girl and crack mechanic who carries a torch for Simon, and Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the cheerfully sociopathic mercenary who generally gets the best lines.
Needless to say, Serenity can’t possibly do justice to all of “Firefly”’s characters and situations, and it doesn’t try. Alas, the film opens with both Inara and Book having gone their individual ways, no longer on the ship (Book in particular has a painfully brief part to play, emphasis on painful).
Also on the verge of departing are the fugitive siblings Simon and River — but in their case it’s because they are central, not tangential, to the film’s story. An effective opening sequence establishes Simon’s dedication to his sister, for whom he has sacrificed everything and severed all ties to his old life in order to rescue her from an Alliance research facility.
On their trail is a mysterious, formidable government operative (unflappable Chiwetel Ejiofor) whose blend of Roddenberry-like humanist utopianism and amoral ruthlessness is a sort of commentary on the essential messiness of the human condition. The Operative believes in the perfectability of man, in the possibility of a “world without sin” — and, like all sorts of utopians before him, he will unhesitatingly commit any atrocity in order to pave the way for this idyllic future.
The Operative is a true believer; Mal, who stands against him, is a skeptic. But Shepherd Book, in a key exchange, tells Mal that only belief will enable him to prevail in the battle ahead. As usual, Mal doesn’t want to hear any sermons; but Book counters, in an intriguing line, “Why is it that whenever I talk about belief, you assume I’m talking about God?”
Although Book himself believes in God (in fact, in Jesus, though the film doesn’t go there), he is an evangelist not so much of religious faith as belief in or commitment to something higher than oneself. It’s because Mal doesn’t believe in anything, Book tells him, that he is lost and ineffective. By contrast, the Operative has the power of belief on his side. In order to prevail, Mal must find something to believe in.
It’s an intriguing commentary, though it’s a shame that the shepherd’s beliefs aren’t allowed to interact with the Operative’s flawed vision of the perfectability of man and a “world without sin.” Whedon, in an interview posted on my friend and colleague Jeffrey Overstreet’s website, commented on the “the deadly notion of perfection” represented by the Operative, and on “our messy, repulsive humanity” as the only thing that can save us from it. There may be something to this. Yet presumably Book too believes that men can become perfect, not by nature but by grace, and that a “world without sin” is indeed a coming reality. Whedon apparently doesn’t regard Book’s beliefs as “deadly,” but he doesn’t explore the contrast between Book and the Operative either.
Perhaps inevitably, Whedon’s witty sci-fi space opera has been favorably contrasted with the now-complete trilogy of Star Wars prequels climaxing in this year’s Revenge of the Sith — in part, I suppose, because Whedon’s trademark banter provides the greatest possible contrast to Lucas’s clunky dialogue.
The comparison, though, seems superficial to me. Beyond the sci-fi trappings, Serenity and Star Wars have less in common than, say, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Star Wars. Star Wars, like “Buffy,” is storytelling in a mythic good-versus-evil mode, a story of the war of good and evil. Buffy and Luke Skywalker are heroes in the archetypal sense, with Giles and Ben Kenobi (and later Yoda) as their mentors, pitted against archetypal embodiments of evil.
Serenity is nothing like this. There’s no mythic iconography here; “Star Trek,” not Star Wars, is the obvious point of comparison and contrast. For the moment, the Trek universe has collapsed under the weight of two tired series and two unspectacular films. The world of Serenity and “Firefly” is utterly different, fresh and vigorous. The prospect of a Serenity sequel strikes me as far more hopeful and promising than that of another Trek film.
There are drawbacks to Whedon’s world. His “messy humanity” may be a refreshingly honest point of contrast to Roddenberry’s humanistic optimism, but Whedon lacks the moral basis for an adequate critique of his characters’ shortcomings, and sometimes he can celebrate or even indulge in them. At the same time, it’s gratifying that, like Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski, Whedon makes room in his future world for Christian belief and morality, and in an appealing and respectfully treated form.
Morally speaking, Serenity is neither the best nor the worst of the “Firefly” ’verse. Though the film is too busy, tragically, to give Shepherd Book his due, it also has no time for the voyeuristic sexuality that tends to crop up in Whedon’s work (though there is one graphically crude if quaintly phrased remark, and a celebratory implied sexual encounter).
Serenity tells an exciting, well-crafted story, and tells it well. In a genre that tends at best to produce slick, generic popcorn entertainment (cf. War of the Worlds, The Island, I, Robot, etc.), Whedon has crafted a gratifyingly rich, textured entertainment, a film of rare creative individuality, vision, and integrity. Even if you aren’t one of the “Firefly” faithful, Serenity will give you some insight into why other people are.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.