First, some background, helpfully provided by an offscreen narrator as Serenity opens (Whedon employs a diegetic reversal to get the exposition across in record time). The Firefly/Serenity storyline takes place in the 25th-century, several centuries after the Earth has been abandoned due to environmental degradation and exhausted resources. Another solar system has been terra-formed for human habitation, with the inner ring of planets ruled by the authoritarian, fascistic Alliance. Technological benefits are available to those who willingly submit to Alliance rule. The outer ring of planets have few technological comforts, but promise more freedom. A bloody civil war between the Alliance and an independence movement left the rebels defeated. Interplanetary travel is complicated, however, by the existence of the Reavers, a cannibalistic tribe of former humans who hunt and eat their prey raw. The Reavers are dangerous, due to their large numbers and their (inexplicable, improbable) access to well-armed spaceships. The Reavers are apparently the result of an unknown space phenomenon that renders men homicidally insane.
Enter Captain Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former rebel turned mercenary. He owns and operates a cargo-transport ship, the “Serenity” of the title. Mal's crew includes Zoë (Gina Torres), Mal's second-in-command, Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot and Zoë's husband, Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a hot-heated, amoral type with a fetish for explosives and guns, and Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the ship's mechanic. The Serenity is also home to several other characters, including Inara (Morena Baccarin), a Companion, a 25th-century courtesan, Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a surgeon who functions as the ship's de facto medic, Simon's sister, River (Summer Glau), a semi-mute telepath with untapped mental and physical powers, and Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher (Book, a series regular, appears here in only two scenes, both off ship).
River proves to be more than Mal bargained for. An Alliance assassin, identified only as the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has been tasked to find and terminate River. Motivated by an unerring belief in his mission and in the Alliance, the Operative poses a serious threat to the Serenity and its crew. He's ruthless and, as one character calls him, a “true believer,” willing to use force and violence to obtain information, punish the weak (and “sinful”), all in order to get closer to his object. Unknown to River, she holds sensitive information that poses a threat to the Alliance's leaders. The storyline centers on River discovering the extent of her physical powers, uncovering the secret hidden inside her mind, and Mal's inner journey from mercenary (with a code, of course) to sympathetic, self-sacrificing hero. Mal's journey isn't, however, without strife, both from his crew (some object to his leadership or specific decisions), with the Operative, Alliance troops, and the Reavers. Given the action-oriented storyline, it should come as no surprise that all the plot elements are resolved in a massive space battle and some one-on-one contact between Mal, his crew, and their opponents.
If Serenity has any flaws, they're minor and easily forgivable. Although Whedon attempted to create a self-enclosed storyline, the number of characters and their backstories couldn't all fit into a two-hour film. Even then, the one or two (potentially shocking) character reversals are bound to have some impact on viewers new to the Firefly universe (one, in particular, will instantly remind viewers of what made Whedon's television work so compelling to watch). At times, Serenity feels overlong, especially during several scenes where the characters debate their next course of action. In addition, the major plot revelation (what River knows and its potential impact on the Alliance) is slightly disappointing, and unlikely to have the effect Whedon expects it will have on viewers. Last, Whedon gives one character an underwritten 180-degree reversal, when, given the character’s psychological motivation and rigid, uncompromising belief system, the opposite reaction would have been far more likely.
Still, for a television-to-screen adaptation/continuation/sequel, Serenity delivers Whedon's trademark wit, humor, pathos, unexpected plot turns, compelling villains, well directed action sequences (both on the ground and in outer space), and ultimately reaffirms Whedon's singular talent as a storyteller. Whether Whedon returns to episodic television (as many of his fans hope), or continues to write and direct feature films (as is more likely), his body of work up to know has given and will continue to entertain viewers, even as more serious fans (and yes, academics) dig deeper, looking for and finding the best part of themselves in his characters and their rich, varied story arcs (as well as the social and cultural commentary hidden in plain sight). As others have probably already noted, Whedon may just be the Charles Dickens of our age (with all that implies). To which a Whedon fan is likely to reply, “More please.”
© Mel Valentin, 30th September, 2005
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