Welcome back to TV Timewarp, in which we spend Wednesdays revisiting each episode of a late, beloved series. We started out with Joss Whedon’s short-lived space western Firefly, which aired on Fox in 2002-2003, and below we're following that up with a discussion of its theatrical sequel, Serenity. You can read along with the entire series here.
But first! We're excited to announce our plans for TV Timewarp 2.0. We're going to take a month off, and starting Wednesday, July 18, Meredith, Brian Collins and Sam Strange are going to cover David Lynch's seminal masterpiece Twin Peaks! Join us?
The first time I saw Serenity was special. The Alamo had an advance screening of the film out in the middle of a beautiful Hill Country field, with Summer Glau (River) and Jewel Staite (Kaylee) in attendance and sitting right next to me. I was surrounded by friends - including Erin! - and I was so excited to see the dear old Serenity crew again that when their beautiful faces appeared on the silver screen, I felt my heart rising. I loved the movie; I thought it was wonderful.
In retrospect, as much as I hate to say it...it isn’t.
Okay, sure, the movie looks a little shoddy today, but that’s okay. The special effects are still chintzy, but part of that is because they were filmed in 2005. And the effects are at least creatively shoddy (as compared to the show, which always felt visually monotonous). And I don’t mind creative shabbiness. The action scenes are much better than those of the show, although still not great. River’s fight with the Reavers at the end is terrific; the flight chase scene with the Reaver ship at the beginning sucks. But overall, I am satisfied with the technical and visual aspects of Serenity considering its budget. (Well, I just looked up the budget and it was $40 million, which is considerably more than I originally thought, so maybe I’m not that satisfied with the look after all.)
But although the show had bargain bin effects, it also had a narrative elegance that I feel like the movie is entirely missing. The story of Serenity just doesn’t work for me, not in the least. Of course the dialogue is all great - it’s Joss, after all - but the heart of Firefly wasn’t the snappy banter. It was more.
This should have been a small story, contained within the characters we’ve already grown to love. We should have learned more about why Inara left Sihnon and what Shepherd Book’s ties to the Alliance were. We should have learned more about Mal and Zoe’s time in the war, and seen more of Wash and Zoe’s relationship, Mal and Inara’s relationship, even Kaylee and Simon’s relationship. We should have spent more time with the characters we already care about, instead of trying to swallow this vast universe conspiracy that has nothing to do with the show we loved.
I don’t care about Miranda. I don’t care about Sarah Paulson and David Krumholtz. - Correction! I love those actors, but I don’t care about the characters. Mr. Universe is nothing but a walking plot mechanism. Sarah Paulson is nothing but a holographed exposition-gram. The Operative is nothing but a less interesting Jubal Early.
For this, we get maybe five minutes of Shepherd Book? Ron Glass has always been my favorite actor of the bunch and Book is my favorite character. He’s attacked off-screen, we get a raspy death rattle of a sermon and then he’s gone. Wash is my second favorite character, and he has one of the weakest death scenes of any character I’ve ever loved. Wash gets no glory and no real goodbye. We don’t get to see anyone, not even his wife, truly react to his death, because he dies in the middle of a huge action sequence. He does some great flying, sure, but then he’s randomly impaled and everyone just has to run off and leave him there. The death of arguably the most popular character of the ensemble should be significant - it should be what this movie is about. But too much time, effort and money is spent on unwieldy Alliance battles for us to spend a second looking over our shoulders at poor Wash. Not to mention that we get maybe fifteen minutes of Inara doing a whole hell of a lot of nothing. Kaylee gets a few horny lines and some tears. Jayne delivers a few punchlines.
And Simon lives? Simon?! He’s more insufferable than ever in this film, to say nothing of the fact that Sean Maher’s sideburn inconsistency from scene to scene drove me batty. I’m okay with spending a lot of time on River in the movie; I’m resigned to it. And Summer Glau is much better here; we finally understand why she was the focus of so many episodes. I like seeing River kick ass in that beautifully balletic way of hers. But I don’t give a damn about Simon Tam, and he is a huge focus of the film, more than any of the above characters.
The only beloved character given their proper due in Serenity is Mal. He gets all the best lines, a couple of rousing speeches and several heroic choices. And that’s as it should be - Mal’s the heart of Serenity the ship, and Nathan Fillion’s the heart of Serenity the film. But I only wish his rousing rhetoric and heroic sacrifices were in the service of something that matters. Who cares if the Alliance accidentally created Reavers and killed a bunch of colonists by introducing a new antidepressant? (Very subtle message there too, Joss.) Well, I care in that it means they're the worst, but we already knew the Alliance was the worst. And those in the core planets have already proven that they don’t care that the Alliance is evil, as long as they have their shiny buffet tables and ruffly gowns. Those in The Rim will probably never even hear about it, and it wouldn’t ease their embattled lives even if they did. The reveal of this information, despite all of the people who died for it, means nothing. It means that River and Simon and the Serenity crew are (probably) free of Alliance interference, but on the larger scale, it means very little else. The stakes just aren’t there.
Also, the Reavers are still more frightening in description than in actuality. These guys simply don’t scare me. I can’t buy them as pure evil; they just look like dirty douchebags. And another thing that bugs me - if Simon’s always had this safe word that makes River pass out, why didn’t he use it any of the other times she almost killed someone on Firefly? When she slashed Jayne or pointed a gun at Mal?
I know these are a lot of complaints, and I don’t like hating on a labor of love like this. But mostly it comes from a place of disappointment rather than anger. I hadn’t seen Serenity in a long time, and it just didn’t hold up for me. I love the small stories of Firefly. I love the character dynamics and relationships and back stories. I love the performances by great actors like Ron Glass and Alan Tudyk. I love the people.
What has never worked for me about Firefly is the mythology, which is why the episodes that are all about the Alliance or Reavers always fell flat. Serenity should have been about those nine people that we have grown to love (or tolerate, in the case of Simon), and it isn’t. It’s not about those characters at all. And that is a huge mistake.
Oh, man, Meredith, just like every time we get into an all-day email conversation about how whiny the Dashwood sisters can be, reading your words just made me pump my fist and say “Hell yes!” Because I totally agree!
I, too, remember that magical night out in the hills of Central Texas. Jewel Staite was so charming and Canadian! Summer Glau was so tiny! And watching this movie, this movie I had looked forward to for years, on a big screen, under a huge sky - well, it just felt magical to me. (And, if I remember correctly, later that night I introduced everyone to Veronica Mars. Honestly, I am the best person for getting your hopes up with things which will ultimately turn out terribly!) And I was just thinking about my deep and abiding love for Serenity and realizing that the reason I love it so much has nothing to do with the film, and everything to do with the experience.
The last time I saw this film, it was with my dad. And it was just us! And after we went to dinner and talked about it and he said he enjoyed hanging out with just me. (Which, gentle readers, Meredith herself can tell you is the emotional equivalent of my dad handing me a check for 10 million dollars.) And I think I carried those warm feelings with me, from that experience and the one that we shared, and inscribed them on this movie.
But actually, the first time I saw the film, it hadn’t yet been finished. Joss Whedon released a copy that wasn’t yet color-balanced; the sound effects hadn’t been added. There were screenings in a few locations around America (maybe in England as well?) and Austin was one such location. I drove up, joined an entire theatre of devoted Firefly fans, and spent a very late night cheering the film and mourning the deaths of Wash and Book and feeling a resurgence of the Whedon-based community. At the time I thought it was bold and original of Joss Whedon to release an unfinished film, accompanied by its stars, to a (to be fair, limited) market. He was really bringing his vision to the people, you know? But now I just think it’s unbearably egotistical and self-serving; a way for him to cash in on a devoted minority while flinging them scraps from the bucket.
The thing is, Serenity’s not really a great film. It’s not even a good film. And that’s mostly because it doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be. Is it supposed to be a standard chase film? A psychological thriller? A film about espionage and political corruption and The Man keeping us down? There are certainly films which can be all of those things, but Serenity isn’t one of them. Whedon may have thought he was blending all of those concepts into an action film slick enough for the common man but smart enough for the thinking fan, but he widely missed the mark.
As an example of this, let’s talk about the Reavers a bit more. Oh, the Reavers. Now, I may have been the only one of the three of us truly interested in the backstory of the Reavers during the actual run of the show, so you can imagine how disappointing the Big Reveal is to me. It was... an accident. An accident 'cause some people didn’t respond well to the Alliance’s version of Soma. And so it made them mean and then they flew around and raped and ate a bunch of people. And we learn all about it in a shitty hologram of Sarah Paulson, before she too was raped and eaten. And that’s it? That’s the big secret? That’s the memory that River picked out of somebody’s brain and that’s why the Alliance wanted her back? 'Cause it turned out they accidentally created Reavers? Big fucking deal! I mean, these people are presented to be the biggest of the Big Bads - the movie can’t even ascribe them a little malice aforethought? We’ve spent thirteen episodes watching our heroes evade, surrender to or be double-crossed by The Alliance, and it all turns out to be, essentially, because of a pharmaceutical side effect. Jesus Christ. Fucking slap one of those disclaimers on the side of a magazine ad for your happy drug and let’s move on, people! “Warning: May cause you to eat your neighbor’s face. If you find yourself sewing a person’s skin to wear as a suit, please contact your doctor immediately.”
My disappointment over the shoddy Reavers origin story may have been alleviated if the rest of the film were stellar, but it’s mostly lifeless. The absence of Book (and, lesser, Inara) is palpable; Wash’s death scene is criminally undercut by the subsequent final action scenes and the film’s attempts to make Simon into a badass action star are just laughable.
So what have I learned from settling down to watch Serenity on Netflix Streaming, with no one but my fat cat for company? The same lesson that always rings true when it comes to Whedon’s work - ultimately, it’s about the people. The ones in your life or the ones on the screen - the connection that you make with them as you watch the story unfold. Because everything else just doesn’t measure up.
Whew, I’m glad I won’t be the sole voice of negativity here. I gave the film an 8 out of 10 review on initial release, but I was waaaay too kind to it. The biggest problem that Serenity has is an utter lack of narrative drive. The central ‘mystery’ is incidental to our characters in almost every way, and only comes into focus after about 45 minutes has been spent bumping around. Instead of a story where the characters are moving forward and doing things, Serenity is a story where the characters are adrift on the tides of the plot.
And those characters, as you guys mention, are not serviced well. Book is shuffled off. Wash gets nothing to do until his death - which only serves to create a false sense of ‘anyone can die!’ in the final battle. Jayne has a handful of good lines. Juggling a big cast is one of Joss Whedon’s strengths - something he would excel at in The Avengers - so it’s strange to see him unable to do it here.
The reason why Serenity doesn’t quite work is that the movie serves one function only - to clear out planned storylines for the TV series. Serenity doesn’t feel like the transition of a TV show to a movie franchise, it feels like the finale of the TV show, crammed into one hour and fifty minutes. As a result it rushes through a conspiracy tale that holds no weight or meaning, it kills off characters recklessly and it makes almost no concessions for newcomers. Well, perhaps the staggering three prologues serve as concessions to newcomers.
It’s the lack of narrative drive that’s most surprising to me. I don’t understand why Whedon structures the film this way, with River mouthing a secret word at an almost random time. It would have been better for Simon to help her discover this secret, for one of the crew to have a connection to Miranda, for the Miranda situation to somehow connect to Mal and Zoe’s war experience. Anything at all - instead there’s a random girl who randomly read someone’s mind and then randomly hooked up with these characters. As a TV show that’s fine, but for a movie I need a plot where the characters are more involved and invested in the narrative.
As for the Operative - Meredith, I wildly disagree. Not only is he better than Jubal Early, he’s introduced in the way Early should have been. Early was a talker, a character whose menace came from his refusal to shut up. The Operative shows up and kills a bunch of people in a cool way, establishing his bona fides as an ass-kicker.
Erin, I don’t mind the origin of the Reavers; it feels incorrect in terms of continuity - the planet Miranda has been dead for only a few years, judging by the decay of the people there - but it’s interesting. I would have liked to have seen it teased out over the course of a season, to become something with weight and meaning. I’m fanwanking here, but what if it turned out Reaverism was communicable? That certainly makes more sense than the ‘This guy started cutting his face because he saw such evil he went nuts’ in that one Reaver-centric episode of Firefly. And what if one of our heroes got Reaveritis? Wouldn’t that give the crew of the Serenity more of a personal investment in getting to Miranda and figuring out the secret?
Serenity is frustrating because it is simply put together poorly. The story sags when it should sing and the characters have no agency until the third act (and since the film isn’t thematically about their having no agency, that doesn’t work). The plot is held together by cheap convenience - this film has THREE instances of people delivering exposition in their last dying breaths! Paring the story down, making it a battle of the wits between Mal and the Operative, with Mal’s friends and contacts caught in the middle, would have worked. I agree with Meredith that Simon should have died; his death would have been a moving sacrifice for River and would have allowed that character to finally emerge into her own fullness. No longer the crazy kid sister, she would have to stand up and be complete after Simon gives up his life for her. Wash’s death is weird, and carries no thematic resonance beyond “Things you like end too soon,” which betrays a certain bitterness on Whedon’s part (by the way, Wash’s death reads to me like Whedon flat out realizing this was his one and only movie for these characters. He’s shutting it down).
The pity is that Firefly was getting better when it was canceled; a more structured, less ambitious Serenity might have allowed that universe to continue. Now it’s dead.
Sorry, readers, to offer a unanimous affront to a movie you might love. I think it’s interesting that all three of us had a similar experience with Serenity - we liked or even loved it the first time we saw it, and found it disappointing this time around. While some of that may be due to the wisdom and distance of the ensuing years, I think it’s probably because we watched the film directly after the television series this time. And contrasted with the focused, honest, character-driven narrative of Firefly, Serenity just carries no weight.
So you guys speak up in the comments - did anyone watch the movie for the first time this week? Has anyone’s opinion changed since the movie first premiered? Does anyone still think of it as a great film and disagree with all of our complaints? We want to hear what you think!
And don't forget to tune back in next month for TV Timewarp 2.0: Twin Peaks! After all, that gum you like is going to come back in style.