Firefly And Serenity: A Review
The Theme Song For Firefly
The Wild West In Space
A Short Summary Of The Firefly Backstory
A Short Lived Phenomenon
Back at the turn of this century, Joss Whedon, the man best known for creating the highly successful Buffy and Angel series came up with another spectacular idea. His vision was to try to create a western style series but set in space. Of course it was an idea that had been tried before in Star Wars, most notably in the Cantina scene in the first film. I have to say that it was executed rather well, and to this day remains one of the most iconic moments in all of the Star Wars films; it’s also one of the most controversial, largely down to a famous shootout between everyone’s favourite rogue and a bug eyed alien.
Firefly was unfortunately short lived; it ran for just fourteen episodes before its unceremonious cancellation by the Fox network. It was cancelled due to poor ratings, but the show never really got a chance to generate an audience, due to the fact that for some bizarre reason, the Fox network decided to broadcast the episodes completely out of order. For example, the pilot episode named ‘Serenity’ was actually broadcast last and the fourteenth and final episode wasn’t broadcast at all. It’s no wonder that nobody watched it, as the messed up schedule deprived the audience of chance to watch the characters grow and develop.
Okay, so now on to what the show was basically about. We’re five hundred years into the future, humankind has long since left the used up Earth and has colonised an entire new solar system. Rather surprisingly for a sci-fi show, there are no aliens or droids whatsoever, each of the dozens of planets and hundreds of moons are simply inhabited by humans and whatever forms of life they managed to transport from their original home-world. Incidentally, each one of the planets in the Firefly universe was terraformed to ensure that they were suitable for life forms that evolved on Earth.
This is a future where the two most powerful nations on Earth- the US and China have formed an alliance and undergone a remarkable cultural and social convergence. This is reflected in the way some of the characters dress, how they eat, but particularly the way they speak. While they mostly speak English, they often slip into Chinese, particularly when cursing to themselves or insulting others. This is a rather clever ploy by Whedon, as it allows his characters to use some quite extreme expletives without it having to be bleeped out.
The Alliance colonised the best terraformed planets, known as core worlds, transforming them into enlightened, technological beacons of civilisations. The outer planets on the other hand, were simply settled by those wishing to start a new life on the frontier- an eerie parallel with the old American West. A few years before the series was set, the Alliance decided to try and unite all of the planets under one rule, however, many people living on the outer planets weren’t too thrilled at the thought of living under the jackboot of an empire. Consequently, a bitter civil war erupted between the Alliance and a rebellious movement known as the Independence or ‘Browncoats’ to give them their nickname. Ultimately the Alliance’s superior technological capabilities proved decisive and the Independence’s quest to remain independent failed.
The Crew Of Serenity
A Tribute To Inara
A Tribute To Jayne
A Tribute To Kaylee
I shall now profile the nine main characters of the show; all of these are counted as crew members on Serenity.
Malcolm Reynolds: Malcolm or Mal as he’s often known is the captain and owner of Serenity. Prior to this, he served as a sergeant in the Independence during the war against the Alliane. He served with particular distinction at the Battle of Serenity Valley. On first glance, Mal appears to be cold hearted and bereft of humanity. But upon closer inspection, Mal reveals himself to be a skilled leader, cunning, noble and fiercely loyal to his crew. Mal has a particular disdain for governments and any other ruling institutions, valuing freedom and independence above comfort and security.
Zoe Washburne: Zoe is Mal’s first mate and an old comrade from the war. She is married to the ship’s pilot, Wash, who describes her as the ‘warrior woman’. She is a skilled fighter, and has a remarkable ability to remain calm even in the tensest of situations. She displays almost total loyalty to Mal, with her marriage to Wash being the only thing she ever did that was against his wishes.
Hoban Washburne: ‘Wash’ is Serenity’s pilot and is madly in love with his aforementioned wife. He harbours a largely hidden resentment of Mal due to his war buddy bond with Zoe. Apparently he became a pilot just to see the stars, as his home world was badly polluted. Wash serves as the comic relief on the ship, often making amusing wisecracks and gently teasing his fellow crewmates, no matter how good or bad the situation is.
Inara Serra: Inara is a Companion, the equivalent of a high class prostitute or courtesan who rents one of two small shuttles from Mal. She has a very high social standing, and is very well educated. Her presence on the ship gives the crew a certain respectability that they wouldn’t have otherwise. She’s well mannered, civil, dignified and highly compassionate. There’s strong sexual tension between her and Mal, but both are reluctant to act on their feelings, preferring to keep their relationship strictly professional.
Jayne Cobb: Jayne is the ship’s muscle, he’s always useful in a fight, but has a strong sense of self preservation and tends to shy away from helping others. He’s the kind of guy who’s only in it for the money. But, over the course of the series he does display a more sensitive side, for example showing genuine concern when a fellow crew member was hurt during a gun fight. He also shows remorse over some of the more regrettable acts he committed during the series.
Kaylee Frye: Kaylee is the ship’s mechanic and a pillar of optimism and good cheer. She’s an extremely skilled mechanic and seems to display a remarkable intuition for any kind of mechanical equipment. She’s sweet, charming, chirpy and enthusiastic, in many ways she’s almost like a child who needs protection from the big wide world. She quickly develops a crush on Simon Tam.
Simon Tam: Simon was previously a doctor on an affluent Alliance world, before his decision to rescue River from the hands of government scientists forced him to become a fugitive. He initially resents being forced to live on Serenity, but eventually grows to respect Mal and the rest of the crew. He also develops feelings for Kaylee and his bumbling attempts to seduce her are a recurring subplot in the series. As well as being the ship’s doctor, his life revolves around caring for his sister.
River Tam: River is Simon’s sister. She’s highly intelligent, perceptive and intuitive. As a child she was a prodigy, but experimentation on her brain by Alliance scientists have left her mentally unstable. She suffers from delusional paranoia, often suffering flashbacks of her time with the scientists. Her often erratic behaviour is a constant source of fear and tension among the crew, especially Jayne.
Shepherd Book: Book is a Shepherd, roughly equivalent to a pastor. Despite being a devout Christian, he displays a high amount of knowledge about the Alliance, crime and violence, leading to the likes of Mal attempting to question him about his past. Book is the voice of reason on the crew, and serves as a moral compass for Mal, offering him guidance whenever his conscious deserts him. Rather unusually he enjoys a friendship with mercenary Jayne, with whom he is often seen working out with in the cargo bay.
A Trailer For Firefly
Don't Mess With Mal
Mal And Zoe Save The Day...Just!
Laying Down The Law
It's Just An Object
The Serenity Crew At Their Comic Best
More Funny Moments From Firefly
I shall now give a brief summary of the fourteen episodes in the order they were supposed to be broadcast. I’m keeping it brief, as I don’t want to incur the risk of revealing any important spoilers:
1. Serenity: This is the pilot episode, and this is where we meet arguably the main character, Malcolm Reynolds, a Browncoat veteran and captain of a ship known as Serenity. Incidentally the model of the ship is known as a Firefly. He and his crew describe themselves as freelance traders, but in fact they are smugglers. In this episode they are rather short of funds, and need to resort to picking up passengers for extra cash. However, the passengers are not quite they seem. Along the way they experience close encounters with criminals and savage humans known as Reavers. I’ll explain more about them later.
2. The Train Job: The crew of Serenity make contact with a sinister crime lord who gives them the rather risky job of stealing goods off a moving train, from right under the nose of Alliance soldiers. They manage to steal the goods, only to find that they are essential medical supplies. As a consequence Mal and his crew are faced with a terrible moral dilemma.
3. Bushwhacked: After stumbling across a stricken spaceship, Serenity and its crew are hauled in by a local alliance patrol cruiser. Simon Tam and his sister River, two of the crew members are on the run from the Alliance and thus have to hide to avoid falling into Alliance custody. However, the presence of the Alliance is the least of Mal and his crew’s worries. It turns out that the stricken spaceship was attacked by the savage Reavers. Moreover, the only survivor soon starts displaying very alarming behaviour.
4. Shindig: Inara Serra (technically not a crew member, instead she rents one of Serenity’s two shuttles from Mal) attends a formal party with a client. Unbeknownst to her though, Mal is there too, trying to set up a smuggling job. Inevitably Mal and Inara meet up, making Inara’s client jealous. The client provokes Mal into hitting him, effectively forcing him into a swordfight. While the client, Atherton Wing is an expert swordsman, Mal has only one night to learn how to put up a decent fight.
5. Safe: Mal is faced with another terrible dilemma as a smuggling transaction goes slightly awry, resulting in one crew member getting mortally injured and two more getting kidnapped. Simon and his sister, the two who are kidnapped find a home of sorts tending the sick in a local village. However, River’s rather odd behaviour and perceptive nature put both of their lives in great jeopardy.
6. Our Mrs Reynolds: After Mal saves a small town from the threat of local bandits, he’s given a rather unusual reward, a new wife. Played by Christina Hendricks, this young woman called Saffron is rather naïve and submissive. The crew are understandably amused at their captain’s discomfort and the ship’s preacher Shepherd Book takes the opportunity to lecture him on morality and honour. However, there is far more to Saffron than initially meets the eye.
7. Jaynestown: The crew encounter a rather amusing surprise when they land at a settlement on a small moon. However, for burly crew member Jayne Cobb, the surprise is far from amusing. Several years before, he was on the same moon and ran into a little bit of trouble. In the time that’s passed, he’s become a local folk hero. Mal decides to use his crew mate’s fame to complete a smuggling job under the noses of the authorities. However, some unresolved business involving Jayne threatens to jeopardise the entire job.
8. Out of Gas: After Serenity’s compression coil suffers irreparable damage, the crew are left without precious life support, including heat and oxygen. They have but a few hours to survive. This episode features a series of flashbacks which reveals how Mal acquired the ship, how Jayne was recruited, how Kaylee got her job as the ship’s mechanic, how Wash became the ship’s pilot and the first meeting between Mal and Inara.
9. Ariel: As usual, the crew of Serenity are hard up for cash. This time though, they take on a job from none other than Simon. It sounds simple on paper; help him to get River into the diagnostic ward in a hospital on a core planet called Ariel, in exchange Simon shows the crew the best way to loot the hospital’s vast medical supplies. However, River’s pursuers are close at hand, and they receive an unexpected helping hand from somebody close to River.
10. War Stories: First mate Zoe incurs the anger of her pilot husband Wash. From his point of view she enjoys a better relationship with Mal than him. Leading Wash to put his foot down and insist that his wife stay behind while he accompanies Mal on a delivery. Unfortunately, they run afoul of notorious crime lord, Atalai Niska, who seizes the opportunity to exact revenge for Mal’s failure to complete an earlier job.
11. Trash: Christina Hendricks returns as Saffron to present an opportunity to steal a priceless artefact from a wealthy landowner. Unfortunately for Mal and his crew, she forgets to mention exactly how she came to know that the landowner was in possession of the artefact, and also how she managed to gain access to security codes needed to break into the landowner’s home.
12. The Message: An old comrade of Mal and Zoe returns in a rather dramatic way. Meanwhile a cold hearted Alliance police officer trails Serenity in search of some rather unusual stolen goods.
13. Heart of Gold: An old friend of Inara’s who runs a brothel on a harsh, out of the way world contacts Serenity asking for help from a vile moneyed individual who has impregnated one of the girls to try and produce an heir, and now aims to steal the baby for his own.
14. Objects in Space: Serenity comes under attack from a bounty hunter on the trail of River. River, through her powers of perceptions feels resented and unloved by the other crew members and takes a rather interesting approach to escaping the clutches of the bounty hunter.
They Aim To Misbehave
The Return Of Firefly
More On Serenity
- Chinese by Story - Firefly-Serenity Chinese Pinyinary
An interesting website that reveals exactly what the characters are saying when they speak Chinese. Be prepared some of the phrases are quite shocking.
- Serenity on DVD & Blu-ray | Trailers, bonus features, cast photos & more | Universal Studios
The official Serenity website.
Serenity: The Movie
Three years after its cancellation, Joss Whedon produced a film version of the show called ‘Serenity.’ He was able to do so because of the overwhelmingly positive feedback the show had received after DVD sales. Fox were unwilling to resurrect the series, so Whedon approached Universal with a proposal to turn it into a film.
The main difference between the series and the film is that the film has a clearly defined main character in River Tam. The film takes up the story of the crew attempting to avoid the clutches of the Alliance. Although this time they are more determined than ever to apprehend River, sending out a government commissioned assassin known as The Operative to complete the job. The film has an overall darker tone than the series and many of the characters aren’t quite as lighthearted as they were in the series.
As well as keeping River safe from the Alliance, the film is all about uncovering the root of River’s mental trauma, leading them to revealing a rather disturbing revelation about the savage Reavers featured in the series. For me, the Reavers are one of the most fascinating aspects of both the series and the films. As I mentioned before they are humans who have become savage. How this came to be, was never revealed in the series, indeed we never see a Reaver in the series. Mal and Book speculate in one of the episodes as to their origins, theorising that they were just men who reached the edge of the galaxy and became insane. Their savagery seems to know no bounds, as Zoe once explained eloquently: ‘If they take the ship, they’ll rape to us death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing, and if we are very, very lucky they’ll do it in that order.’ In the film though, their true origins are revealed. I won’t go into detail as to what it is, but all I’ll say is that it’s more to do with science than psychology, making it all the more disturbing.
One of the main themes of Serenity is sacrifice. In one scene, Zoe explains what the definition of a hero is as someone ‘who gets other people killed.’ The crew do succeed in achieving their goals, but not without grave sacrifices, including the loss of two central characters. Whedon has killed off main characters in his other series, and I personally feel that he was right to kill off main characters in Serenity to demonstrate to the audience just how far the crew are prepared to go in order to accomplish their goals. It also helps to ensure that the audience become emotionally involved in the quest.
For me, the Firefly/Serenity franchise is the best piece of sci-fi ever produced, as it offers a realistic vision of the future. The problem with many sci-fi shows is that they portray humans as ‘more advanced’ psychologically than us. Firefly though, gives us characters that everybody can relate to, because they are quite simply human. Despite being five hundred years into the future, the people are the same both physically and mentally, they all have the same thoughts, fears, problems and triumphs.
For me, this is how our future will look when or if we ever desert Earth to colonise another solar system. Some planets will become beacons of affluent civilisation where culture and language will be at its most sophisticated. But as any sociology student knows, equality within civilisation is impossible to achieve and thus even in a new solar system; some people will have to resort to living on less than desirable worlds with limited resources. As a result, culture will simplify, possibly reverting back to something like the American Wild West. The only real criticism I’ve heard directed at Firefly is the notion of cowboys in space, but for me, it’s not an entirely unfeasible possibility. History, as they say, often repeats itself.