July 9, 2010

Why You Need to Watch “Firefly” and “Serenity”

Filed under: Ann the Columnist:Essays — Ann @ 10:10 am

Well, not all of you. If your bookshelves are chunked full of science fiction novels; if you know who Joss Whedon is; if you were hooked on “Buffy;” if you’ve ever been thought “weird” and deemed it a compliment; if you love(d) westerns and/or Roddenberry; if you’ve ever gotten chills (or cried) upon encountering a perfectly-written line of dialog….you may be the target audient. But, truly, the last criterion is the most important: I didn’t read a science fiction book until age 35, yet I’m a rabid devotee of the cancelled TV series Firefly and its follow-up film, Serenity.

Descriptives of series and film include intelligent, clever, quirky, witty, creative, unusual, interesting, challenging, exciting — and did I mention intelligent? Joss Whedon is a writer/director who does not talk down to his audience. He even gives us some new vocabulary (“shiny” for “cool,” “okay, “fine”) and Chinese profanity, and trusts that we will intuit the meaning contextually. He also incorporates themes of belief, love, honor, loyalty, and all those other high-falutin’ but essential values in a unique way that almost plays as afterthought, until you realize they’re the messages we’ve been delivered all along.

Bear with me while I provide the necessary background, courtesy of Wikipedia:

“…is set in the year 2517…and follows the adventures of the renegade crew of Serenity, a ‘Firefly-class’ spaceship. The ensemble cast portrays the nine characters who live on Serenity. The show explores the lives of people who fought on the losing side of a civil war who now make a living on the outskirts of the society, as part of the pioneer culture that exists on the fringes of their star system [and] two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form [one] government…the Alliance.”

But in 2002, Firefly was cancelled after only 11 of 14 episodes were aired. Whedon then wrote a script for a 2005 film-sequel, Serenity. He credits the loyal fan base for getting the movie made.

“…Earth’s resources have been depleted and humanity has moved to another star system. The inner planets are controlled by the totalitarian Alliance while a frontier justice holds sway farther out. A young girl questions the Alliance’s practices. She is River, a psychic who is being mentally and physically conditioned by the Alliance. She is rescued by her brother, Simon. An Alliance agent, the Operative, is assigned to track down River before she can reveal government secrets. River and Simon become passengers on the Firefly-class transport ship Serenity…”

So, why do you need to see this?

First, the characters:

Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), scruffily handsome and brooding. There’s a “Casablanca” Rick-ness to Mal: he doesn’t believe in anything except himself. Or does he? He’s an agitated maverick and we sense a deep longing. His speech is Old West slang with a soupcon of colorful Chinese. He’s a jerk; is he also a hero?

Zoe (Gina Torres), Mal’s second-in-command. Fierce, loyal, no-nonsense, tough and toned and ten types of strong. Hotly in love with her husband:

Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot. He’s the comic relief and he’s amazingly good at it.

Inara (Morena Baccarin), a “Companion,” which is the courtesan of the future. She is our hooker with the heart of gold, yet to describe her in those terms is to degrade something lovely: she raises prostitution to the level of art; she walks, talks, and lives quiet elegance. She makes women want to be her friend; she makes men just want.

Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the tough guy. Strong, sneering, snotty, untrustworthy, armed and dangerous — the guy you want with you on a dangerous mission — but keep him in your sights just the same. Dumb as donuts.

Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Firefly’s adorable, beguiling, sweet-souled mechanic. She lovingly tends to her ship and longs to lovingly tend to one of its passengers.

Simon (Sean Maher), a passenger. A brilliant doctor. He has one purpose: to save his genius-telepathic sister from the Alliance, who seek her because she knows the Terrible Secret which, if got out, could destroy Alliance credibility and severely undermine its power. Finding out what this Secret is drives much of the plot of the Serenity film.

River (Summer Glau), the sister. When you watch Serenity for the fourth time — and you just might — spend a lot of time watching how she moves. Graceful and smooth, she’s a ballet and, we discover, a potentially lethal one.

Shepherd Book: “Shepherd” is a title, a minister. Wikipedia says “Book represents Mal’s guide, conscience, and lost spirituality, while his hidden backstory was to have been gradually revealed, had the series continued.” You see, he, too, has secrets, which lend him an aura of mystery which enhances his pious wisdom. Played to holy perfection by Ron Glass (Sgt. Harris in “Barney Miller”).

Oh yes, and there are Bad Guys. Really, truly, horrifying Bad Guys called Reavers whose methods and madness will shock you. Whedon is no fool; he doesn’t show the Reavers doing what we are told they are capable of; with Hitchcockian wisdom, he gives us just a glimpse and lets our wicked imaginations do the rest. Then there’s The Operative, icy and malevolent (played by the inimitable Chiwetel Ejiofor, currently co-starring in Angelina Jolie’s “Salt”). The Alliance sends him after River and because we know he’s driven and unstoppable — a compassionless madman with a mission — we fear for her.

My husband Neal and I Netflixed Firefly because we’d told a bunch of friends we’d just finished watching all seven seasons of “Deep Space Nine,” loved the show, and were hankering for some more well-written, exciting, mind-messing entertainment. Everyone told us: Watch all 14 episodes of Firefly, then rent the movie Serenity. And we did. And now you must, too.

If you do, and if you watch and listen carefully, you will be richly rewarded. Both move at a fast pace; trust the writers and the director to take you where you need to go. Know that you aren’t just investing time in entertainment; you are becoming part of a world which you will never forget. I envy you your first encounter with it. Netflix awaits.


  1. Well put (as usual, I say). BUT: did you mention that the DVD sets of both “Firefly” and “Serenity” have been traveling aboard the International Space Station for the past three years? The site is http://www.breakingatmo.com/status/ (my review is at http://metaphorager.net/into-the-black/). Shiny!

    Comment by Neal Ross Attinson — July 9, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  2. YAY! Thanks Ann! I completely agree with you on your assessment of Firefly and Serenity. There is a bitter-sweetness to the show, because it is so damn good that it should never have been canceled. We should have at least seven seasons to re-watch several times. I love the characters and the story. One of the charms of the show is that the set (the Firefly “boat” as Mal calls it) is a strong character in itself. One of my kids points out that what makes it so great is that unlike most SF shows where the ship and the uniforms are all new, organized, martial, clean and conventional in a sense–the Firefly is real, homey, a bit dirty, breaking down a lot, and in general far more believable. And there are no uniforms. Thanks for reviewing one of my favorite series of all time!



    Comment by Maerian — July 9, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

  3. [...] For another view from our couch, see Ann’s excellent http://sacredwilderness.net/2010/07/why-you-need-to-watch-firefly-and-serenity/. . . . . . . . . . [...]

    Pingback by From Persephone to Canaveral | Metaphorager.Net — July 9, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  4. Shiny review, Ann! If you bring one soul into the Firefly fold, your work will have been worth it.

    nice resource here if you ever get a chance to go to a convention:

    Comment by Alana — July 9, 2010 @ 3:12 pm

  5. Did I never comment on this lovely ode? It’s a treasure. xo

    Comment by Alana — March 9, 2014 @ 12:40 pm

  6. Thank you! I was highly inspired to write it. Such a great show!

    Comment by Ann — March 27, 2014 @ 5:35 am

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