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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

Last time, I began my (now) three-part review of the film Serenity (2005) with a defense of creator and director Joss Whedon’s character development choices. I have issues with some of his plot choices, however, so let me pick up where the first review left off.

In order to get more information on River, Wash suggests speaking with a galactic hacker known as Mr. Universe.

Mr. Universe tells them that the Alliance had indeed used a subliminal signal to activate River’s programming. He also points out that River mentions the word “ Miranda”. At the same time, Simon checks on River and, as he speaks with her, she tells him that “Miranda” is a memory, but it isn’t hers.

In light of these events, the Firefly crew decides to hide for a while. They go to a desert planet where the Shepherd is helping a small town. Mal asks the Shepherd about their situation, and the Shepherd explains that, because the Alliance wants River Tam back so badly, they will send an Operative.

I want to take a moment here to point out a small but poignant plot hole in the movie. In the series, Mal and the Shepherd were always at odds and most of their arguments seemed to center around matters of faith. However, some time has passed. Now it seems as though Mal has begun looking to the Shepherd for guidance. This is feasible but for one problem. Earlier in the film, Mal points out that Simon and River have been on his ship for eight months. So, now we come to understand that the series, the events of the movie, and the time gap needed to change the nature of Mal and the Shepherd’s relationship all happened within less than a year. This is not impossible, just unlikely. It’s not a big deal, but it does provide a hint that Joss Whedon was having some trouble reconciling the movie’s script with the series. The Shepherd also drops hints regarding his past. This becomes a problem as we’ll see later.

In the next scene, the Operative appears again. He goes to see the ambassador Inara on her home planet and sets a trap for Mal. When Inara calls Mal, he quickly realizes it’s a trap, but goes to spring the trap anyway because he fears for Inara. When he arrives at Inara’s home, he and the Operative fight. But thanks to some last-minute trickery from Inara, she and Mal manage to escape.

After this, River finally remembers the meaning of the word “Miranda.” She tells the crew that the word is actually the name of a planet. They debate going to the planet but decide against it because there is a fleet of Reavers between Miranda and their current location. Instead, they return to the Shepherd’s town. But when they arrive, they find the town destroyed. The Shepherd dies in Mal’s arms.

The Shepherd’s death introduced a real story problem. Having familiar characters die is not a bad thing in and of itself. But both the series and the movie hinting frequently at the Shepherd’s dark past, a past we will now never see. Dropped plot points like that almost always annoy an audience — and a plot point that has frequently been alluded to is going to stick out like a sore thumb. Admittedly, it meant little to me when I first watched the movie. But remember, unlike many fans, I hadn’t seen the Firefly series yet. So I can understand why Firefly fans would be disappointed by the Shepherd’s death. But this was by no means the worst moment in the film. Read on.

It turns out the Alliance has been going through all the crew’s contacts and murdering them. Here, would’ve been a great moment to recap different points in the series, showing the various villains and allies they’d met along the way. but the movie failed to do this, only showing the characters we’d seen earlier in the film, save for Mr. Universe.

Desperate, Mal decides to cover his beloved ship with the bodies of his friends in the town to disguise the Serenity as a Reaver Ship. He plans to visit Miranda in the hopes of finding something he can use to get the Alliance off his back. Everyone is reluctant to take part but in the end, they acquiesce, and the Serenity is covered in red paint and corpses.

They fly through the fleet of Reaver ships, land on Miranda, and discover the Alliance’s terrible secret. It turns out the Alliance had been trying to create a utopia. They used a chemical called G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate, or Pax for short, to make the human population more docile. According to a transmission left behind by one of the planet’s inhabitants, the Pax worked too well. The people laid down and died, literally. All except for a small percentage of the population who grew volatile, and eventually, became the notorious Reavers.

River’s psychic connection to the Reavers comes from the memories of one of the doctors who must’ve been on the planet at that time. That was the secret River captured in her mind during the surgeries. And it is what the Alliance wants to remain hidden. So the crew decide to tell the whole galaxy, using Mr. Universe to relay the departed inhabitant’s transmission.

That brings us to my favorite scene in the movie. The Alliance has already tracked down Mr. Universe and is waiting for the crew with a gigantic fleet. But Mal and the others assume that something like this is the case. So just as they are about to pass through the fleet of Reaver ships for the second time, they fire at one of them — and the entire monstrous fleet chases after them. When they arrive at Mr. Universe’s planet to confront the Alliance, the Operative and his army are taken by surprise, and a space fight begins.

Here is both the best and the worst part of the entire film. It begins with Wash, the pilot’s famous line, “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.”

He weaves through the space battle with grace. But as they are exiting the battle, one of the Reaver ships is right behind them. It strikes the Serenity with an EMP, and the ship begins to fall through the air like a stone. But just as they are about to crash, Wash is able to start the ship’s engine, and he glides the ship onto a runway, grinding to a stop in the hangar.

Wash then looks at Mal and Zoë and says, “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how—” Then he’s impaled by a random spike and the cries of thousands of infuriated fans rang out, never to be silenced. This moment probably killed any chance the film had of a sequel.

Again, when I first watched the film, I didn’t understand the import of Wash’s death. Now that I’ve seen the Firefly series, I get it. Wash was essential to the crew’s dynamic. If Mal is the conscience and Kaylee is the heart, Wash would be the funny bone. Does that sound somewhat demeaning? When one stops to consider that the crew is filled with veterans of a failed army, fugitives, and a thug, someone who can de-escalate the arguments and provide a little humor for the audience is essential.

One can’t have a Firefly crew without a Wash. The story would morph into a brooding, mopey, melodramatic space opera where the tone is always dour. Wash offset the show’s harsher moments. He countered Mal’s anger, he gave Zoe a little reprieve from her tense job as Mal’s second, and he provided humor for the audience, a way to release tension when crew’s arguments grew too heated. There is only one moment to kill a character who serves as the comic relief in a movie or a series, and that is at the very end. Such a death escalates the stakes, as Wash’s death certainly does. But once it takes place there can be no “after” because trying to replace a Wash is a little like trying to replace someone’s grandma. Any attempt to substitute such a beloved character would be disingenuous and insulting to the fans. So, the moment Joss Whedon pulled this lever, he condemned Serenity to be a stand-alone film.

It should also be noted that killing Wash opened an unresolved story arc for Zoe. She has just lost her husband so now the viewer will want to know how, if ever, she’s going to find peace. Joss tried to address this question with a line delivered by Mal, which drew a parallel between Zoe and the ship. But for such a catastrophic event in the character’s life, one line is not going to do it.

The worst aspect of this decision is that the only reason both the Shepherd and Wash were killed in the movie is that the producers couldn’t commit to a multi-film contract. That is ironic because these deaths destroyed the basis for such a contract. Surely, there was a way to write these characters out in such a way that they could ride off into the sunset before the next film but, for whatever reason, Joss chose not to do so.

I’ve heard multiple explanations for Serenity’s commercial failure. While the reasons offered may have been contributing factors, it’s important to note that Universal Studios gave this movie far more pre-screenings than usual. And the people who showed up for these pre-screenings were fans. The excitement for this movie was off the charts in the beginning, hence the increase in screenings. But if these initial fans left the theaters dejected because one of their favorite characters has died, they were not going to recommend the film to others. And guess who they’re going to complain to… other fans! Because this movie depended on fans spreading the word to others (gorilla marketing), the last thing one would want to do is anger them.

In short, while killing the Shepherd was annoying, killing Wash was detrimental because it changed the fundamental dynamics of the crew. Fans would have no idea what to expect going forward and therefore, they’d have little reason to care. It was a mistake, a big one, but people unfamiliar with the series probably wouldn’t realize that. They’d just wonder why in the world the writers chose to give this character such a spectacular moment only to kill him two seconds later. Such a choice deflates the elation created by the previous scene and Wash’s death happens so fast, the viewer has no time to process it. There’s no time to grieve or reflect on what has just happened.

Next time, as I finish reviewing the film, I’ll offer some final thoughts on Firefly’s and Serenity’s story as a whole.

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 Review Part 2: Great Scenes Dogged by Bad Plot Choices