PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

A Postcolonial Provocation: 'Serenity'

Leanne McRae

Joss Whedon's Firefly and its film sequel Serenity achieved acclaim for their generic hybridity, a sci-fi western offering a dystopian vision of the future. Here Serenity is positioned as a postcolonial text.

“As far as Firefly is concerned, that will always be unfinished business. Serenity was a Band-Aid on a sucking flesh wound. I think every day about the scenes that I’ll never get to shoot and how badass they were. It’s nice to know that people still care about Firefly but it’s actual grief that I feel. It’s not something you get over, it’s just something you learn to live with.”

-- Joss Whedon, SFX World of Whedon, 2011

Joss Whedon evocatively conveys the mourning he still experiences when his short-lived series Firefly was cancelled by network executives in 2003. The demise of this program created a special moment in popular culture when something unexpected emerged from the crisis. What was created activated a transformative dialogue between the postcolonial and the popular that generated space for questioning and representing processes of power that normally remain unseen. Serenity operates in unclear spaces of meaning as it was conceived as a brokered attempt to extend the life of a severely curtailed plot envisioned for Firefly.

Through the series, Whedon would have been able to map out the complexities of characters and plot trajectories to provide challenging televisual terrain for a new generation of TV fans post-Buffy and -Angel. Instead, Whedon had to make do with the temporal compressions of cinematic viewing to do justice both to the narrative and to the characters who provided the paradoxes and paradigms of story motivation. As a result, Serenity was composed of half-truths and conflicted contexts where the spaces for unconventional and unruly meanings were able to emerge from the diegesis. These meanings offer insight into the political trajectories of colonization and the creation of Empire that are difficult to control.

Serenity is a hybrid film straddling the ambiguous worlds of viewerships that were incorporated and invested in the film. For the fans of Firefly, their viewership held different requirements than individuals unfamiliar with the text. In order to gather up a wholly unfamiliar audience of cinema viewers with little knowledge of the Firefly universe and its key actors, Whedon had to provide a filmic structure to reveal the characters’ motivation and reasoning. As a result, Serenity is an odd film that sits uncomfortably in terrain in between Firefly fans and newer audiences with competing and contrasting story needs. The postcolonial potential of the plot provided tremulous terrain through which this matrix of meaning could be knitted together in a playful and perverse representation of a future universe where power asserts itself and is re-encoded and reinscribed by individuals and communities from within and on the border of this system.

Insecurities in the relationships between the textual versions of the Whedonesque universes of Firefly and Serenity is revealed in plotting inconsistencies that would be known to fans of Firefly, but not necessarily identified by viewers with no knowledge of the series. For example, Serenity is structured as a continuation of the Firefly narrative, but never fully embodies a temporal continuity with the series.

Important time markers include dialogue indicating Simon and River Tam’s tenure on Serenity as eight months, and that Inara -- the captain’s love interest who is a “companion” (a high-class prostitute not unlike a geisha) -- has left the ship and now resides as an instructor at a companion training house. In the last two episodes of Firefly Inara decides to leave Serenity and it is clear that the plot of the film identifies with this narrative development in the series. Shepherd Book has also -- between the end of the television series and the start of the film -- elected to leave the ship and now lives on the planet of Haven. However, in the series Simon Tam and the crew of Serenity only become fully aware of River’s true abilities in the final few episodes. In the film it is revealed that Simon had this knowledge all along. If this was the case, the series is very ambiguous on this point. In “Safe” (1.5) for example, Simon states that his sister is highly intuitive as if he suspects there may be something more to her ability to discern what people are thinking and feeling, but it is never made clear to the viewers that he knows with full consciousness that she is psychic.

These uneven moments of continuity and discontinuity with the Firefly series make Serenity a hybrid text moving between worlds and readerships in a complex dance of the familiar and unfamiliar...

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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.