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...

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

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