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Serenity: My Defense of the Film’s Initial Choices (Part 1)

Some viewers have complained that director Joss Whedon changed the characters’s behavior in the film vs. the TV series. I believe they are mistaken

I watched the movie Serenity (2005) long before I ever watched the series, and I fell in love it. Some people have complained that, because Joss Whedon couldn’t decide between writing the film for the fans of the preceding TV series Firefly or for a new audience, the movie was hard to follow. This was not my experience, although I didn’t know the backstory and thus didn’t understand the significance of some of the events of the film. But these events help explain why the movie Serenity never got its long-desired sequel.

The movie opens with Simon rescuing his sister River from the lab where she was held captive. This event had actually been recorded by the security archives and the recording is being played by the movie’s villain, The Operative. (I had originally thought that the bounty hunter from Episode 14 would reappear but apparently not.)

The Operative is a government agent who works for the Alliance. Not much is known about this character; he is described as a believer but what he believes in is never specified. All we know is that he has been sent by the Alliance to find River Tam because it turns out that I was very wrong about her psychic powers.

During her operation at the lab, her ability to read minds has been enhanced and she has picked up a variety of government secrets. One such secret threatens to destroy the Alliance’s reputation. It is so terrible that it caused River to become unstable while undergoing these various surgeries.

The reason I missed this the first several times I watched the movie is because so much emphasis is placed on her skills at combat. On top of eliminating her brain’s ability to filter information — which was established in the series — the surgeries have also made her a sleeper cell, something reminiscent of the MK Ultra experiments performed by the CIA.

If she receives a certain subliminal signal, her inner capabilities will be unleashed, and she can overpower almost anyone. But it’s important to note that her physical prowess is not the reason the Alliance wants her back; rather, it is secrets contained within her brain — although, she does not consciously remember them.

The next scene opens with Mal and the crew of the Serenity. Much has changed since the last episode of the series. The Shepherd and Inara, the Ambassador, are no longer with them. And since Mal discovered River’s talents in Episode 14, he has decided to use her mindreading capabilities to see if she can pick some useful intel on their next mission. Simon is not happy about this and he and Mal get into an argument. But because Mal is the captain, he gets his way and River is taken along on the mission.

The mission goes smoothly until the notorious Reavers show up — which River detects because of her psychic connection to them, a detail that is elaborated on later in the film. The crew escapes the Reavers, and Simon then confronts Mal for endangering his sister. This fight causes Simon to decide to leave the Serenity, so the crew flies to the nearest planet to drop off the doctor and his sister.

However, as Mal and the others are discussing their next mission with a group of local criminals on this planet, River wanders into the bar. It turns out that the Alliance is playing a significant subliminal signal on the televisions inside. She mutters the word “Miranda” and begins beating up everyone in the bar. River and Mal are about to start shooting at each other when Simon runs in and screams a series of words which instantly puts River to sleep. Seeing as how the situation has escalated, Mal takes River back to the Serenity, and demands to know how Simon can just shut her down like that. Simon explains that he was told the words to use in such a scenario by the contacts he developed while trying to rescue River. But doesn’t know how his contacts came across the information nor why these particular words are necessary.

Before moving on with the rest of the plot, I want to take a moment to defend some of the film’s choices up to this point. There has been a number of complaints launched against Whedon for seemingly changing the nature of his characters during the film. After watching the series and the movie back-to-back, I don’t believe this is the case. For one thing, the escalation of stakes helps explain why the characters act in such an irritable and aggressive manner. It’s important to remember that during the series, River was an unknown quantity and every decision she made — even when she was volatile — was something they didn’t understand. No one realized that she was a “reader” or proficient with weaponry until the last episode of the series.

Also, the tension between Simon and Mal had been steadily building. It wasn’t outright, but the two almost never saw eye to eye and Mal frequently berated Simon. It stands to reason that Simon would eventually have had enough of this. Mal putting his sister in harm’s way was the final straw. So, it makes sense for his character to stand up for himself and his sister.

The reason the tension and the fight seem so odd to many viewers is that these events happen within the first few scenes of the film. While the escalation in emotional tension makes sense within the context of the preceding TV series, someone who hasn’t seen it in a while could find the change in temperaments jarring. I was not bothered by these scenes when I first watched the movie because I’d had no prior experience with Firefly and just took these initial events to be the result of the character’s regular dynamic. But a fan of the series could find the change alarming. Because the stakes had not yet escalated within the film, it could be interpreted as Whedon changing the fundamental personalities of the characters. But again, I don’t think that is the case. We’ll continue with the film’s story in Part 2.

Here are my reflections on Episodes 1 through 14 of the Firefly TV series, thoughts as to why the series was canceled, and my review — and defense — of the spinoff film Serenity:

Firefly: Can science fiction reimagined as the Wild West work? I strongly recommend the original 2002–2003 series for its careful development of the culture that grows up around world-building (terraforming). Firefly is an impressive blend of the future and the past and, if Disney+ carries through with its threat of a remake, be sure to see the original.

Firefly Episode 2: When Captain Mal gets a pang of conscience… In the 2002 series, he decides to return stolen goods when he learns of the plight of those from whom they are stolen — with fearsome consequences. The mystery deepens around the mind manipulation that new crew member River has suffered but we get at least one clue.

Firefly Episode 3: Should some people be left to die? After the space crew rescues the survivor of a pirate attack, Captain Mal faces off against The Shepherd on whether God can save even that man. Mal knows something of what happens to victims of Reaver attacks and he is soon grimly proven right about the ways they change.

Firefly Episode 4: Mal ends up in a swordfight amid outer planets. It all starts when ship’s engineer Kaylee decides she wants to dress like a Southern belle… The blend of space adventure and Western shows signs of strain in this episode but it advances the relationship between Mal and the Ambassador.

spaceships battle

Firefly Episode 5, Part 1: Brawls that don’t make sense, Part 1. In this episode, after the cattle are unloaded, characters act in an uncharacteristic way in order to create a plot crisis. The problem with characters acting out of role in order to drive the story is that the story begins to feel incoherent; the crisis doesn’t quite feel real.

Firefly Episode 5:, Part 2 So River is now a witch? Simon and River are captured because a town on the planet lacks a doctor. But things take an occult turn… As I noted when looking at the first part, the characters’ behavior seems to defy their history but it does create plenty of action.

Firefly Episode 6: We Meet a Stagecoach — and a Vixen! Gary Varner: In this enjoyable episode, there is only one plot hole and it isn’t really significant. After foiling a crime, Mal finds himself wed to a local woman due to town custom. Usually, these plotlines are easy to guess… but this episode fooled me!

Firefly Episode 7: Jayne can’t live with himself as a hero Jayne Cobb, otherwise dumb muscle, once helped many people — inadvertently — and is stuck with deadly consequences when the truth emerges. In this well-thought-out episode, the Firefly series examines the burden of being a bogus hero to those who desperately need something to believe in.

Firefly Episode 8: The ship breaks down in space. What next? Mal, expecting to suffocate alone on the ship while the other crew members escape, relives the life that brought him there. While the flashbacks were strong and well-acted, too many plot developments seem implausible. For example, why didn’t the ship have spare parts?

Firefly Episode 9: A medical heist — the best episode so far Simon, with access to medical equipment, diagnoses his erratic sister’s neurological issues — after she has unaccountably stabbed Jayne.
Jayne plots a dire revenge against the crew, leaving Captain Mal with a very difficult decision.

Firefly Episode 10: Jealousy divides the Firefly crew in space. And yet jealousy plays a key role in saving Mal and Wash from a villain’s sadistic torture. Episode 10 is much stronger for building on Episode 9 and introducing danger scenarios that follow logically from earlier plot developments.

Firefly Episode 11: The Vixen! She’s back! Firefly TV heats up So why is Captain Mal sitting naked in a desert? We get to hear the story leading up to that. Saffron is now hitched to Mal’s pal; so imagine the poor sap’s shock when Saffron and Mal draw guns on one another.

Science fiction illustration of a battle cruiser spaceship travelling faster than the speed of light in hyperspace, 3d digitally rendered illustration

Firefly 12: The Amazing Mail Order Human Body The episode, while still interesting, returned to a pattern of puzzling plot developments Kaylee falls in love with an organ harvester? But doesn’t that mean Dr. Simon has just dodged a bullet? More to come.

Firefly Episode 12, Part 2: Kaylee falls for a recently undead man Further thoughts on the strange developments regarding the organ harvester. Before he grabbed Kaylee, I’ll admit, I was on the organ smuggler’s side…

Firefly Episode 13: If you are stuck at home in a rainstorm… Otherwise, you may just want to skip this one. But let me explain why. I can’t say for sure what they were thinking, but I will say this was the closest I’ve been to being outright offended by an episode of really anything.

Firefly Episode 14: Ending on a high note River proves to be a telepath but highly unstable, as she mistakes a gun for a stick and Mal must get it away from her. But in the midst of the uproar, a bounty hunter boards the Serenity, unnoticed…

Firefly: What worked, what didn’t… and WHY was it cancelled? When all is said and done, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch. It was the victim of poor scheduling, out-of-order episodes and a confused marketing plan that sold it as a comedy — it’s an adventure with comic moments.

Serenity: My defense of the film’s initial choices (Part 1 of a three-part review) Some viewers have complained that director Joss Whedon changed the characters’s behavior in the film vs. the TV series. I believe they are mistaken. I fell in love with the film before seeing the preceding Firefly TV series. Possibly, failure to make that backstory clear enough cost the film a sequel.

Serenity Review Part 2: Great scenes dogged by bad plot choices. We meet fresh villains and finally learn River’s secret: She knows the origin of the malevolent Reavers and it is not neat or pretty. I believe that one of creator Joss Whedon’s critical story decisions probably killed the 2005 film’s chances of a sequel, despite continuing interest.

Serenity Review Part 3: Final thoughts on the movie and TV series. Despite some lapses that made me wonder if the same crew was doing the writing, they are on a par with Star Wars and Star Trek. Were the TV series cancelation and no film sequel a mercy in a way? The film ended things on a high note. Not all TV series or films with sequels are so lucky.

Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Serenity: My Defense of the Film’s Initial Choices (Part 1)