Weak as a firefly, yet finding serenity

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This blog entry was originally written as an introduction to the television series  Firefly and the feature film Serenity for my students in my Film and Television 12 course.  I decided it would make an interesting and valuable contribution to my website, so I post it here with some minor additions.

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se•ren•i•ty (səˈrɛn ɪ ti)noun

1.     <!–[endif]–>(common usage) The state or quality of being serene; tranquility; inner peace.

2.     (fiction) The name of a Firefly-class transport spaceship in Joss Whedon’s 2002 science-fiction television series Firefly.

3.     <!–[endif]–>(fiction) The title of a 2005 science-fiction film directed by Joss Whedon, based on his 2002 television series Firefly.

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In December 2002 the Fox network cancelled Joss Whedon’s ground breaking science-fiction series Firefly after a mere eleven episodes (three more would eventually be released on DVD).  The show was cancelled for the same reason that any show is cancelled–not enough people were watching–but the reasons for such a quality program not attracting more viewers are complex and not worth dwelling on here.  Suffice it to say that as time has passed it has become increasingly apparent that Firefly‘s cancellation was premature, to say the least.  In a 2013 interview with TIME magazine Joss Whedon said bluntly of the cancellation, “It hurts like a wound every single day.”

As an experiment in genre, Firefly was a remarkable achievement.  In broad terms it was a space opera, a subgenre of science-fiction involving large-scale adventure in outer space: laser guns, bizarre aliens, gigantic spaceships, exotic galaxies far from our own.  Perhaps the quintessential space opera is George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars. 

Yet Lucas’s groundbreaking movie was hardly the first space opera portrayed on screen.  Star Wars was, essentially, a pastiche of two much older properties that had their origins in the 1930s pulp era: Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, each of which had enjoyed long runs as comic strips, radio dramas and, later, serial films.  Star Wars, of course, was also a response to Gene Rodenberry’s landmark television series Star Trek which ran from 1966-1969.  Unlike Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, Star Trek attempted space opera with a layer of scientific plausibility and social commentary while remaining firmly rooted in the heroic conventions of those earlier films.

I mention these iconic space operas not because Firefly tried to emulate them but rather because of how it tried to subvert them.  For although Firefly was unabashedly a space opera, it was also very deliberately an atypical example of the subgenre.  Joss Whedon described the show’s protagonists as the kind of people that Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise would ignore as too insignificant to bother with.  Unlike most space opera, Firefly was about decidedly non-heroic characters who simply weren’t strong enough (or motivated enough) to battle the forces of evil.  Instead, they tried to eke out a living as smugglers, transporting contraband between the various moons and planets of Firefly‘s unnamed distant star system in the 26th century, hoping not to be noticed by the militaristic Alliance which patrolled the system with massive war ships resembling floating cities.

The television series was named for the small cargo ship piloted by the protagonists, a Firefly-class transport named “Serenity.”  Its captain was the show’s central character, Malcolm Reynolds, portrayed with durable charisma by actor Nathan Fillion.

Firefly may seem an odd name for the series, yet Whedon was using deliberate symbolism to evoke the sense of insignificance and helplessness that define Malcolm Reynolds and his crew.  Fundamentally, the heroes of this show are utterly powerless.  Their ship, Serenity, doesn’t even have weaponry of any form–all it can do in the face of danger is run.

Firefly was not only a space opera; it was also a western.  Or more accurately, a western set in the far future in outer space.  While all space operas are, essentially, westerns in theme and tone, Firefly actually tried to look like a western.  Consider the costume design in the picture of the main cast below:

Firefly utilized many standard western tropes, right down to horses and stage coaches travelling across dusty rural landscapes.  Yet perhaps the most subversive element of Firefly was its greatest strength: unlike traditional space operas, Firefly was rich in characterization.  It was, at its heart, a character drama.  Its premature cancellation, however, left its nine fascinating characters in the middle of their arcs, without any sense of their arrival at a meaningful place of development.  Viewers were left wondering not what would happen to the characters so much as who they would become.

It was at least a small amount of consolation that Universal Studios in 2003 agreed to finance a film.  Titled Serenity, the film would attempt a difficult task: to tell an engaging story for audience members not familiar with Firefly, but at the same time to bring closure to the television series for its dedicated fans.  The film’s disappointing box office performance suggests that it failed at its first task, yet viewers of the show–and most film critics–agreed that it was an astounding success at its second.  And while there are a few minor inconsistencies between the television series and the film, the film is overall a superb denouement to the fourteen episodes of Firefly.

Without question Serenity is the most intelligent space opera ever filmed, although considering that genre’s propensity for form over substance that may sound like damning with faint praise.  But I don’t intend it that way.  Here is a movie dealing with important ideas about social engineering, personal autonomy, the nature of altruism, and the implications of dedication to an ideal.
Some critics of the television series felt that the film’s attempt to meld space opera with the traditional western was awkward and not always believable (it isn’t hard to imagine frontier worlds having poverty and a low tech level; it’s harder to see why the settlers would all dress as if they were living in nineteenth century Kansas). Perhaps to help the film appeal to a wider audience, the western tropes are somewhat downplayed in the film.  There is not a horse or wagon to be seen, and I only counted one cowboy hat in the entire two hour running time.  Yet the film stays true to the television series’ emphasis on frontier worlds on the outskirts of civilization.  It’s just that in the film’s aesthetic these worlds are more analogous to Tatooine than Tombstone.
The film’s greatest triumph is probably summed up in the words of Malcolm Reynolds: “No more running.”  Without revealing plot details, suffice it to say that in the film Serenity the crew of the tiny cargo ship have finally decided to stop running and fight back, but in a way that befits their limited power–there is no Star Wars-scale final battle (well, there sort of is, but it’s not quite like the battles you see in other space operas).  The character arcs that began in Firefly are concluded here (some in a more satisfactory manner than others), yet the film’s central emotional engagement is still with Malcolm Reynolds, even more than in the television series.  And by the end of the film he has not only stopped running, but he has finally found contentment, the inner joy that comes from doing what is right, rather than what is safe.  Essentially he moves from pragmatism to altruism.  If he cannot bring peace to the galaxy, he can at least find peace inside himself.  This, I suspect, is Serenity‘s greatest lesson and the reason for the film’s title.  At the start of the television series, Malcolm and his crew are powerless as fireflies.  By the end of the film, they have finally found serenity.
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