Joss Whedon 101: Serenity

Kristin M. Barton

Although Joss Whedon's Sci-Fi Western Firefly was cancelled after the completion of only 14 episodes, DVD sales and fan support was so exceptionally high that Universal Studios acquired the rights to make a film sequel, Serenity.

On September 30, 2005, Joss Whedon made his feature-film directorial debut with Serenity (2005), the much anticipated follow-up to his cancelled Fox TV series Firefly (2002). Despite a number of positive reviews and a groundswell of fan support, Fox pulled the plug on Firefly after airing only 10 of the original 14 episodes produced. Cast, crew, and fans alike were devastated that a show so beloved could be taken so quickly away from them, and Joss Whedon, the show’s creator and producer, vowed to find it a new home. With the help of Universal executive Mary Parent, Firefly was re-launched three years later as the film Serenity.

Serenity follows the story that Whedon had initially mapped out for Season 2 of the show, but was never able to air because of Fox’s decision to cancel it before its time. Although the storyline was obviously condensed to fit a two-hour film, Whedon’s vision of how the story would unfold remained intact.

Taking place approximately six months after the events of Firefly, Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and his crew are still flying and still making their way by finding jobs that keep them on the fringe of civilized society. The differences between the show and the film are few, but one that fans are quick to notice is the absence of two crew members who are no longer on board Serenity: Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) has left to carry on a life preaching to those that need it, while Inara (Morena Baccarin) has left to become an instructor at a companion training house, something she had hinted at doing in the unaired episode “Heart of Gold".

But unbeknownst to the crew, forces are at work to track down and capture the young and seemingly innocuous River Tam (Summer Glau). An Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor), one of the Alliance’s most lethal assets, has been tasked with finding River and bringing her in. It’s from the Operative that the audience learns River’s importance to the Alliance and what she was put through at their hands. As had been strongly suggested during the show, River is psychic (or in Malcolm Reynold’s words, “A Seer”), and as such has been experimented on by the Alliance in an effort to turn her into a living weapon. But the Alliance fears she may have learned a dangerous secret, one that could bring the Alliance to its knees. But before the Alliance is able to do anything about it, River’s brother, Simon (Sean Maher), orchestrates her escape from an Alliance facility, which shortly leads them to their inevitable convergence with Serenity’s crew.

The film also brings back from the series one of the most frightening and gruesome villains Whedon has created thus far: Reavers. Savages on the edge of space, Reavers serve as ghost stories for some and nightmares for those who encounter them. Zombie-like in both appearance and demeanor, Reavers sail across the ‘verse in scavenged ships looking for victims to, as Zoe (Gina Torres) describes it in the pilot episode of Firefly, “rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”

With these elements in place, the film tells the story of the crew’s attempt to prevent the Alliance from capturing Simon and River, while also uncovering the secret that makes River so valuable. Determined to learn the truth, the crew navigates through the heart of Reaver territory to find Miranda, a planet whose past contains an unspeakable evil perpetrated by the Alliance, an evil that the Alliance has gone to great lengths to keep hidden. Armed with these new revelations and with the intent to end this conflict once and for all, Mal and his crew navigate their way through a maze of Alliance and Reaver ships with catastrophic results, including the destruction of Serenity herself. In desperate straits and with little choice, the crew mounts a last stand against a horde of attacking Reavers in order to buy time for Mal to have a final, bloody showdown with the Operative and reveal to the entire ‘verse Miranda’s secret.

But for all the inspired adversaries Whedon included to antagonize the crew, this film (even more so than the preceding series) is the story of River Tam. It is ultimately through River’s story that we understand how her fate and the fate of the crew are tied to what she knows, and precisely how far the Alliance is willing to go to stop her. ...

Dear reader:

Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole -- until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.

Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.

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