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Still Shiny: An Appreciation of Serenity

In a better world, Firefly, Joss Whedon’s best television show, would have continued past the first season. Hell, it would have at least had a full first season. But in the world we were given, it was canceled before it really had a chance to begin. We got (eventually) 14 episodes, and fans of the show were left helplessly longing for more.

So when Serenity was released in 2005, almost three years after the show finished airing, it was both the fulfillment of that longing and the vessel of hope that we would be given more of the story.

Full disclosure, I am a proud Browncoat and rate Firefly as one of my favorite television series of all time, despite its limited run. So I went into Serenity already fully in love with the world, the concept, and the characters. However, what Joss Whedon managed to do with Serenity is reintroduce the characters to (what should have been a much) wider audience and give those of us already fans some resolution on plot threads introduced in the series.

I’m not going to review the plot of the movie. If you haven’t seen it—rectify that. Go on. I’ll wait. It’s on Netflix streaming. It’s on DVD. It’s on Blu-Ray, it’s on the web. Go now, watch, for here there be spoilers.

Rewatching the movie recently, I was impressed at how Whedon handles the opening of the movie. Within the first five minutes he manages to recap River and Simon’s important backstory and sets up the villain and the main plot for the film.

Then we’re onto an opening tracking shot on the Serenity, following Captain Malcolm Reynolds, and establishing everything we need to know about the crew—what their basic personalities are, how they relate to one another, which are the main conflicts. Plus it acquaints us with the ship and the close quarters in which the crew lives.

It’s a delicate balance that Whedon strikes, trying to catch new audience members up to speed while giving us seasoned Browncoats the characters that we want to see. And it never feels belabored. Whedon eases (or re-eases) us into the world of Firefly while also moving the plot forward.

Whedon is great at villains, of course, and Serenity has a few. In addition to the Reavers, who are more of a brutal, violent force, we’re given the Operative, played brilliantly by Chewitel Ejiofor. A man dedicated to service who follows orders without question. A man who wants to change the world for the better so much that he’s willing to compromise those ideals to get there. The Operative is the kind of villain I wish we saw more in movies—intelligent, capable, and perhaps most importantly, relatable. His ultimate goal is order; it just comes at the expense of choice. Contrasting him with Mal, the champion of personal freedom, I think is one of the strengths of the film.

The Operative’s arc is also compelling. Rather than the expected finish at the end—his death at Mal’s hands—he instead faces the death of his beliefs. The opening of his eyes to the hypocrisy of what he serves. In the end, Mal and the Operative part as fellow soldiers, not bitter enemies. And they’ve both grown from the experience. Though Mal still does promise to kill the Operative should they ever meet again.

Then, of course, there’s the death in the film, another thing that Whedon is good for. Serenity gives us two notable deaths, the first being Shepherd Book who gets far too little screen time in the movie. Book was always the spiritual heart of the Serenity crew so his death, while Mal and company are already being pursued, raises the stakes considerably.

The other death is Wash. Poor, wonderful Wash, who successfully pilots Serenity down through a chaotic clash between Alliance and Reaver forces and, in his moment of triumph, is killed by a Reaver harpoon. It’s classic Whedon, the unexpected death that happens for no significant reason. And he picks perhaps the one member of the crew who deserves it least, the one who isn’t a soldier, the one who provides the humor and lightheartedness, and, so very often, common sense. It is a horribly cruel moment, and yet it makes sense. For all of this, there is a cost. And it gives the message that no one is safe.

That message came across so well that when I was in the theater, when the Reavers attack the crew, I expected half or more of them to die. If Wash could die, then any of them could. I wondered if Whedon was trimming down the cast to help increase the chance of future movies. Uncertainty in movies, especially when it comes to survival, is another thing all too infrequent these days.

And I didn’t even mention all the great character moments in the film. For example, when the Operative faces Mal at Inara’s place and admits to being unarmed, without a moment’s hesitation Mal draws his gun and fires (unfortunately, the Operative is wearing armor). It’s a great moment and illustrates his character so well. There’s River upset, after surviving the Reaver attack, that she swallowed a bug. There’s Mal and Inara, Jayne being Jayne, Simon and Kaylee finally getting together, River going all Slayer on the Reavers, the Serenity dragging the Reaver fleet behind them, and so many more.

In a better world, audiences would have flocked to see Serenity giving it a much larger box office and leading to a series of movies. Alas, we only got one film. But what a hell of a film. We got more of the characters that we loved and some resolution to plot threads and loose ends from Firefly. While it may have failed at being the first of an ongoing series of movies, Serenity succeeds at being a great movie, and that is, certainly, nothing to be ashamed of.

Rajan Khanna is, in addition to being a loyal Browncoat, a writer and narrator and a lover of westerns of all persuasions. And while the cynic in him says that we’ve seen the last of the Firefly universe, at least in film and TV, part of him will always hold out hope.


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