To Serenity…and beyond!

by Tiên Le
Caution: This article contains spoilers from the entire aired 12-hour Firefly story arc.
Updated 9/17/03

Flash: Yay!!! I was right!  The Academy of Arts and Sciences agreed with me and awarded Firefly the Emmy for Special Effects!!!  Congratulations to everyone involved in the special effects department for a very, very well deserved acknowledgment of your talent and skill.  Bravo.

I grew up watching Westerns on television and at the movies, so I would have been delighted if Firefly had merely been a space Western.  I feel very fortunate that this program is that and much, much more. The rich and vibrant Firefly universe surprised me with its cultural and economic diversity.  People have access to a fascinating mix of technologies from the basics of the Wild West, to the most advanced machinery and tools and modes of travel that humans could achieve.

Firefly is no ordinary Science Fiction drama.  The Firefly creator’s vision of a human future 500 years hence very closely mirrors the image I conjure up when I take into account human nature.  There is no utopia where poverty, disease, war and greed no longer plague our species.  The plight of women has changed, but not seriously improved.  No universal language emerges.  Christianity survives, and I have to take it on faith that the Muslim religion survived as well, although the only evidence I’ve seen was a glimpse of a woman in a burkha on the train (The Train Job).  Little grey ‘men’ with huge eyes are nowhere to be found, nor are other strange and more advanced aliens.  Thankfully, there are no insectoid races or rampaging robots, and the only monsters are human (Reavers…two by two, hands of blue). Other than technological advances that allow for terraforming and space travel, the human race seems to have learned little if anything about ecology or waste if the junkyard on Ariel is any indication.  I was pleased to see the writers give a nod to the universal truth that no space ship should leave home without duct tape.

Firefly puts the science back in science fiction.  All space-faring vehicles appear to travel at sub-light speeds.  If there are directed energy weapons (Bushwhacked) in use they haven’t been overbearingly obvious.  Medical technology has advanced at a believable rate and diagnostic equipment doesn’t stretch the imagination beyond reason.  I admit to being confused about the arrangement of these planets and moons and in what proximity they are in.  Are they all in one solar system?  References are made to rings and belts…are these like asteroid belts filled with moon-sized asteroids that have been made habitable?  At any rate, Firefly isn’t about Space…it just happens to take place in Space.  Three cheers for the sound department for having the courage to subscribe to the theory that sound waves requires atmosphere to travel.  The scenes that take place in the ‘void’ of space are blissfully silent, which makes for some fairly interesting viewing.  I particularly enjoyed seeing, but not hearing Jayne fire his gun Vera through the spacesuit helmet into space at the ‘net’ to keep Serenity from being captured in it (Our Mrs. Reynolds).

It’s a tribute to the consistently excellent writing that each individual episode of Firefly could stand alone and capture the imagination and devotion of its admittedly small audience in spite of FOX’s questionable decisions to make the series fly without the safety net of the two-hour pilot.  To complicate matters further, the episodes themselves were aired out of order: 1-2-5-6-7-3-4-8-9-11, then the pilot.  Perhaps to atone for the shabby treatment of this series, FOX extended the run of the series well past what they should have, given the very poor ratings, and for this I’m extremely grateful. They could have cancelled it after 2 episodes like they did to girls club and completely robbed us of the spectacular story-telling and characters.  It’s a bit like the first episode (The Train Job) where Mal and his gang of thieves robbed the train, then when they realized what a mistake they’d made by depriving the town of much needed medical supplies, they returned the goods.

The best work the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will probably never see, much less consider is found all in one show.  The acting is flawless.  I’ve rarely seen such strong, consistent and believable acting from a cast with so much natural ability and chemistry anywhere.  Ever.  Could anyone ever ask for better writing?  The stories are gripping and tight and the dialogue is scrumptious and original.  The directing and editing are seamless.  I especially appreciate the stop-action shots used to convey Jubal Early’s emotions (Objects in Space).  The music score for all the episodes was so cleverly executed that it very nearly is a minor character in the plot.  I watch my fair share of science fiction, so I think I’m in a position to recognize outstanding special effects when I see them. [SPECIAL UPDATE: Firefly received an Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects For A Series (Episode: Serenity). Congratulations and way to go Academy of Television Arts and Sciences!] The pilot Serenity already won the inaugural award for Best Visual Effects in a Television Series from The Visual Effects Society.]   I couldn’t help but think that the chase scene (Pilot) between the Reaver’s vessel and Serenity was done ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek, perhaps poking a little fun at Hollywood.  Rather than shooting the scene as a sort of standard CGI omniscient camera angle, this chase scene was made to look like a real Hollywood film crew was filming it…with the jiggling camera and spotty focusing.  It was a though another space craft were in the air with them struggling to keep up with the action and capturing it in real time.  Brilliant!  I never stop being amazed by the camera work in such closely confined spaces that continue to make me feel more like I’m on the ship rather than simply observing the action through the camera’s eye.  Serenity is a ship I’d actually want to be on.  Unlike sterile military and exploration vessels, Serenity has a great deal of character and hominess that appeal to me. The art and set departments paid such attention to detail in such things as Inara’s over-the-top décor to the plastic dinosaurs on the Conn.  The wardrobe and costume departments have outdone themselves entirely.  Take a close look, Academy voters, at the scenes from Eavesdown Docks and the party in Persephone and that nifty red leather getup that was created for the bounty hunter Early. Best Actor in a Guest Appearance: Richard Brooks.  His disturbingly precise depiction of Jubal Early was without peer.

I’m in love with these characters.  All of them.  They fascinate me, make me think, laugh and cry.  I fear for their safety and admire their spirit of adventure, inventiveness and toughness.  Unlike with Star Trek where all they can hope to do is rehash old starship plots, Firefly has so much rich potential for story-telling with these characters and within the context of this universe.  The writers could go on for season after season producing quality television if only someone would have the vision to let them exploit the concept and this exceptional cast.  Although, I worry how long Mal and Jayne’s bodies are going to hold out if they keep getting shot.

Malcolm Reynolds.  He’s a real captain’s captain, isn’t he?  I look for that in a space opera.  He’s a warrior, decisive, a man of action and courage; he cares about his crew and is wise to the ways of a criminal mind.  He can be ruthless when he has to and has his own well-defined morality.  His lust for freedom is reminiscent of a cowboy on the open range longing to stay as far away from civilization as he can.   I was pleased to see that Joss Whedon doesn’t take the whole man-of-mystery thing too seriously.  In the Pilot episode, after a conversation between the Companion Inara and Shepherd Book on the topic of The Mystery of Mal, he cut to a close-up of Mal buttoning his fly after taking a leak.  He may be a mystery, but he still has to pee.  It’s a great set-up to have introduced a man of God into the mix to interact with someone who has completely lost his faith in God.  So far it appears that Mal is having a more profound effect on the Preacher, bringing out more of the ‘undesirable’ qualities in Book than the good shepherd planned for.

Zoe.  What a relief it is to see a female First Officer/Mate on a space ship.  Granted, it’s not a military vessel, but the responsibilities are the same—primarily to see that the Captain’s orders are carried out. Perhaps occasionally get in the Captain’s face in private to serve as voice of reason, although Inara seems to be the one who is more effective in that role.  Still, the position of First Officer, as I understand it, has unswerving loyalty as a prerequisite, and that is a quality Zoe possesses in abundance, much to Wash’s (her husband) dismay.  She is oblivious to how this aspect of her job is in conflict with her role as a wife as defined by her husband.  To her what the Captain says goes.  She may not agree with it, but the last thing she’d do is challenge it in front of the crew.  A perfect example of her fulfilling her duty and Wash not understanding came during the pilot episode when Mal threatened to toss the doctor and his sister off the ship before they reached the moon Whitefall if Kaylee didn’t survive her surgery to remove the bullet in her gut.  When the other members of the crew objected, Zoe remained steadfastly, if uncomfortably, behind Mal’s decision.  Even when Wash gestured in her direction to back him up, she didn’t waiver.  I admire her for that.  She’s courageous and keeps a level head in battle.  Her interaction with Niska (the crime boss) in War Stories was chilling.  Her ability to cope with being handed the severed ear without flinching was the truest mark of exactly who this woman is.  With all that toughness, she manages to be emotionally available and have a distinct sense of humor.

Wash.  A post-adolescent, cocky pilot who takes life less-than-seriously at times, but who has a heart and isn’t afraid to show it.   Wash has no illusions about his manhood and is unashamed of the fact that he has no military experience or that he’s living the life of a criminal.  He genuinely and passionately loves his wife Zoe and will even stand up to Mal where she is concerned.  His lack of respect for authority has a charm about it.  He has no qualms about openly displaying his contempt for Jayne (the mercenary) and the chain of command.  He doesn’t seem to like the necessity for a ship to even have a Captain, and he’s somewhat passive-aggressive toward Mal.  Ultimately, he is afraid of Mal and what Mal is capable of.  He feels powerless to influence Mal, or Zoe with regard to Mal.  He hasn’t grasped, and no one has taken the time to explain to him exactly why Zoe’s allegiance to Mal takes precedence over her allegiance to him.  Because he didn’t fight in the war, he hasn’t (until War Stories) been in a position where his life was dependent upon the deep bond of trust soldiers establish on the battlefield.  He hasn’t or isn’t willing to acknowledge the fact that when Mal and Zoe go out on a ‘mission’ they rely on the complete trust in one another that each has the life of the other in their hands.  It should be interesting to see if his attitude changes toward Mal and Zoe and their relationship now that he’s had a real taste of a firefight to save Mal’s life.

Kaylee.  Kaylee is perhaps the most unexpected character in this mix.  Terminally cheerful, slightly juvenile, sexually precocious and all-around endearing…this girl is simply fun to watch and listen to.  She brings an element of purity and generosity of spirit that seems to stabilize the crew and even put the disreputable Jayne off guard.  She could teach the Shepherd a thing or two about being non-judgmental.   Her love affair with the ship Serenity has an elegant charm about it that makes the ship itself seem more real and like a part of the cast.  The simple things in life make her happy: people, strawberries, ruffles, engines, yet she’s not simplistic. I can’t help but think that she must have grown up in a criminal lifestyle to be so at ease and experienced with the lifestyle.  Her naïveté about the legal jeopardy she’s in is enchanting.  She doesn’t seem to be in the least bit concerned about the possibility of spending the rest of her young life in prison for crimes she’s participated in.   If I’d known from the pilot that she had been shot before, then I wouldn’t have been as confused and surprised by her apparent cowardice during the siege of Nishka’s space station in War Stories.  This is a woman who now knows what being shot feels like and is utterly unwilling, and possibly incapable of inflicting that kind of pain on another person, no matter what the reason.  It simply isn’t within her to fire a weapon at someone, admirable as it was for her to attempt to take up arms.  I feel sorry for her that she has to live with her shortcoming, even though Mal has exonerated her for it.

Jayne.  What a piece of work he is.  Mercenary by trade, he is easily the most self-absorbed individual on the ship.  Sometime source of comic relief, this man can pretty much be taken at face value except that he is smarter than he normally lets on.  The other characters try to make him out as being power-hungry, but I don’t see it.  I think he’s just a greedy, hedonistic opportunist with his own short-sighted sense of justice and morality.  The one time he tried to bark orders to get the crew to take off and deliver the goods without Mal or Zoe was motivated by greed, not a thirst for power.  He isn’t a leader, and deep down he knows that.  His fear/hate relationship with Mal is more akin to a father/son relationship.  Jayne seems to crave externally imposed discipline and acts up regularly like a delinquent child to test Mal’s resolve to keep him (and the others) in line.   When Jayne gives as an explanation for why he didn’t turn on Mal that the money wasn’t good enough (pilot), he was lying.  He analyzed the situation they were in and realized he didn’t have a clear way out of it.  If he shot Mal on Whitefall, then Patience and her gang would have shot Zoe.  And then Jayne would have had to return to the ship with no money, and have to manufacture a reason why the deal went bad.  He would have essentially been stranded on Whitefall without Wash’s or Kaylee’s cooperation until and unless the Federal officer honored their deal.  It wasn’t until they were on Ariel that he saw a way to collect the reward money for turning in Simon and River without jeopardizing the crew or stranding himself on some forsaken moon.  Of course, lest I give him too much credit for thinking things through, his greed prevented him from realizing that there was no real way for a criminal like him to ever collect that money on his own.  His attitude toward women is predictably chauvinistic—offering to trade his best weapon for Saffron (Our Mrs. Reynolds), and making off-color remarks about the female members of the crew—but he doesn’t hesitate to take orders from Zoe, he’s highly protective of Kaylee, and I’d be completely shocked if the writers ever showed him forcing a woman to be with him.

Inara.  Impossibly beautiful and feminine, she’s the real conscience of the crew.  An independent business woman, she gives hope for the future of what the oldest profession could potentially become if humanity ever grasped the need for such women in society and stepped aside to let them prosper.  I welcome the fresh and original concept that a rogue ship like Serenity benefits from the respectability that can only come from enlisting an esteemed member of the Companion trade.  Inara is a worthy foil for Mal and thankfully the writers don’t beat the viewer over the head with their sexual tension.  It’s there, but in a subtle fashion that intrigues rather than detracts.  In lieu of catching her without make-up and in sweats and bunny slippers however, I’d settle for the writers letting her get her hands a little dirty.  She tends to be off the ship when things get hairy.  I realize that it’s difficult to fully service all the characters in every episode, but there’s room for growth there.  Perhaps in one of the three unaired episodes I’ll get to see something of the truly tough side of this woman, if it exists.  Although, you have to admire a woman who knows how to handle a sword.

Simon.  The most impressive aspect of his character is his profound devotion to his sister.  Nowhere was this more eloquently portrayed than in the episode ‘Safe’ when he looked adoringly at his sister tied to a stake and ready to be burned for witchcraft and then climbed up on the platform and calmly said, “Light it.”  I get the sense that Simon would do anything to be with her and keep her safe.  Most likely that will, at some point, include killing someone.  In the beginning he was ill-equipped emotionally to cope with what he would be confronted with when he embarked on his journey, Simon is learning quickly what he’s made of and what is required of him to survive and protect her.  He’s becoming a good deal more than the sheltered rich doctor.  Clearly his experience in the emergency room prepared him for the rigors of patching up his somewhat reckless crewmates when they’re shot or injured.  Even still, they seem to routinely forget that he’s a doctor, while never forgetting that he’s a pretty rich boy.  He withstands the ridicule and even Kaylee’s self-serving efforts to convince him that being proper in the outer reaches of the system isn’t necessary.  He has his own sense of dignity and sees the value in maintaining it, whether or not certain members of the crew are made uncomfortable by it.

River.  From River’s opening scream in Serenity to her unsettling laugh in Objects in Space, this is the individual with the widest range of emotions available to her to explore.  In the absence of social barriers that would inhibit or modify her behavior, she is emotionally accessible around the clock.  When all is well on the ship and left unsupervised, she finds ways to create problems for the crew (determining that Shepherd Book’s Bible was ‘broken’; slashing Jayne’s chest with a butcher knife).  Yet when she’s required to engage in social situations, or when the crew is in one form of danger or another, she mysteriously seems to possess an alert sense of what to do and when (suddenly having a British accent in Shindig; using mathematics to target and kill three men in War Stories).  Whatever the Academy did to her brain, they didn’t lock her out of her ability to care about other people or have fun—she may be a Savant, but she isn’t Autistic.  Fortunately she doesn’t suffer from all the symptoms of schizophrenia.  Her brother diagnosed her as having the paranoid form of the disease; it would be impossible to tell since ‘they’ really are out to get her.  In addition to her engineered psychic abilities, she seems to possess some ‘pretender’ attributes as well.  We’re left to wonder why the government wanted this combination of skills in a girl who can’t function on her own.  I find River an all-around delight and a great addition to this crew of independent spirits.

Book.  Ah…the Good Shepherd…or his he?  Of all the mysteries on Firefly, this is the one I most want solved.  On the one hand he seems like a humble man of God out on a walkabout.  On the other he seems like a judgmental man of Violence with far too much acquaintance with criminal behavior and weapons.  And then there’s that pesky ident card of his that makes Alliance lackeys hop to when presented with it.  It’s fun to let my imagination fill in the blanks about this intriguing man.  I watch closely for behaviors, attitudes and comments from him that fall in line with the prevailing belief system for how a preacher should behave.  He’s a perfect gentleman around women; he holds life in high esteem; he’s a philosopher if not terribly original in his philosophy, and he ‘acts’ the part fairly well.  The turn-around in his attitude toward Inara was a little too quickly done and his comments about possibly choosing the wrong ship raise flags for me.  Maybe I need to dial down my bullsh*t detector and give him the benefit of the doubt.  I’m glad the writers are taking their time dolling out fragments of information about the Shepherd’s true purpose.   I’m also glad that this man has the courage to stick it out with his shipmates given that he could have gotten off for good at the Bathgate Abbey and moved on to another leg of his journey on a far safer ship.  I do wonder how he knows Niska’s first name, how to shoot so well, what a Net is and how he came by his calm in a firefight and hand-to-hand combat skills.  I’m almost afraid to ask what he means when he tells Jayne that he’s “more-or-less intact” when referring to his male anatomy.  I can’t help but think about the Clint Eastwood character in the Western Pale Rider when I think about Book.  A preacher trying to make amends for a violent and deadly past by adhering to the Word of God, or a liberal translation thereof.

I am completely unable to choose a favorite episode.  I love every single one of them so passionately for various reasons.  Rarely…and I mean rarely does every episode in a program’s season stand up to multiple and repeated viewings the way Firefly episodes do.

Best music: a tie between the haunting alto-sax in Objects in Space and the score for the shoot-out at Niska’s skyplex (War Stories).

Best acting sequence: the torture scene in War Stories.

Best story-telling: the non-linear Out of Gas.

Best editing: Out of Gas.

Best make-up: No make-up.  When was the last time you saw three of the principle actresses in a show wearing no make-up at all?  Very bold and greatly appreciated.

Scariest moment: Jubal Early threatening to rape Kaylee.

Funniest moment: there are so many, but I’m going to go with River’s reaction to Shepherd Book’s hair.

Most dangerous character: Badger.  He's been on Serenity and gotten a good long look at Simon and River, plus he reads the bulletins on the Cortex.  How long before he gets greedy and decides to cash in?

Life Lessons for Captain Reynolds: Invest in Serenity by getting that new compression coil Kaylee asked for, and upgrade your sensors so they can extend beyond their current reach.  Develop some working relationships with people on those border moons where nobody wants to see you dead or captured.

Thank you to 20th Century Fox Broadcasting, Mutant Enemy, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear, the cast and crew and writers, all the people in post-production and anybody who was even remotely responsible for bringing these twelve hours of television at its best to the screen.  I can only hope and pray there are many, many more hours to come.

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