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Firefly/Serenity January 8, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Movies, TV.
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I’m going to insert the Sensawundameter rating up front, because I don’t know if I can really discuss Firefly and Serenity without spoilers. I’ll write from the general to the specific, though, so you can stop when it gets to be TMI for you.

Sensawundameter: WandWandWandWandWand

If you have the opportunity, I’d recommend watching this series in the order of production… first the Firefly DVD set, and then Serenity. On the other hand, if Serenity is still playing in your local theater, grab the chance to see it on the big screen. Joss Whedon wrote the movie knowing that many wouldn’t have seen the TV series, so he tries to introduce each character and the universe (aka “the ‘verse”) accordingly. But you’ll get the full impact only if you see the whole shebang in order.

I’ve often wondered why visiting aliens in movies and TV shows almost always choose English to communicate with Earthlings (except when they make us learn their language, as in Close Encounters). After all, if they did enough of an analysis of our planet to choose one of our languages to learn, might they not conclude that they should learn Chinese? Could be a fun twist. But no, we have to be all provincial.

That’s one of the things that gives the Firefly ‘verse such texture. It’s 500 years in the future and Earth has been abandoned… but it wasn’t just Americans who left and populated the colonies, as an ordinary TV show might make it appear. Whedon’s future history includes China having become enough of a superpower that the United States made an alliance with it (before or after leaving Earth isn’t clear). The result is that the principal characters, though they appear to have been descended from Americans, all know and routinely use a smattering of Chinese. A lot of signage and labeling is in Chinese… enough to make you wonder which culture is really ascendant.

You also see hints of other Earth cultures as they can be fit in, whether visually, or in cultural traditions that come into play in some of the plots. Including the occupation of one of the characters, a variation on a geisha—apparently one of the most highly respected occupations in the ‘verse. It’s these kind of perceptual shifts that activate the Sensawundameter… but they wouldn’t if they were gratuitous. It’s that each bit helps build a coherent image in our minds of this future culture.

The ensemble cast allows us to see this culture from different angles… people who approve of the Alliance and have benefited from it, people who fought it and got slapped down, people who have just been muddling along as best they can. It’s a more four-dimensional look than much TV SF—neither utopia nor dystopia. It feels real, but it also seems vivid and romantic.

We’ve come to the part where I really think I can’t avoid a bit of spoiler, so stop reading now. You’ve been warned.

The arc story that starts in the Firefly pilot and carries through to propel the plot of Serenity is the warp drive that causes this series to transcend its space opera appearance. I mean, of course, the X-File that is River Tam. Throughout the TV series, Whedon employs dramatic irony to allow the viewer to know that she’s a nexus of conspiracy and danger, when the characters think she’s just a crazy girl. For instance, her “hands of blue” chant sounds like nonsense to the crew, but the viewer gets to see that there really are agents with hands of blue… they’re after her… and later, the tension is ramped up even more when we (but not the crew) find out just how ruthless the blue hand agents are.

The viewer gets glimpses of conspiracies and secrets that are larger and more sinister than Mal Reynolds ever dreamed he was fighting back in the days of the ill-fated resistance against the Alliance. Questions pile on questions; the answer to one question raises five more. Each hint, each clue makes it seem more and more likely Our Heroes have stumbled into a web that could turn the ‘verse upside down—and they have no idea. It only becomes clearer that although the Alliance isn’t a wholly evil Galactic Empire, Mal was right to fight for independence—there is rottenness at its core.

The last TV episode, “Objects in Space,” temporarily turns River and Serenity into an archetype of science fiction, the god-ship. That episode gets a 5 on the Sensawundameter. In the last few episodes, and continuing into the movie, it grows more and more apparent that River has become some kind of transcendent being herself, and like the gods of some mythologies, as likely to destroy the heroes as save them. We don’t know until the turning point of the movie.

In the end, Serenity brings out themes of truth and what it means to be human, and thus transcends its action/adventure genre to approach the sublime potential of science fiction.