Summer Classes – The Final: Firefly and “Serenity”

The last thing you want to do over the summer is catchup on things you’ve put off but sometimes, you need a couple of extra hours. So this summer, we’re debuting a new feature “Summer Classes,” where I explore my massive pop culture blind spots and write about my trip experiencing them. Here, we finish “Firefly” and check out the feature film finale, “Serenity.”

The fans were wrong. FOX was right. Even as a fan of the show, we don’t need more episodes of “Firefly.”

We need a sequel to “Serenity.”

I guess I should probably justify this. After running through the entire series in about 10 days, I was a little underwhelmed by the series’ final few episodes. “Heart of Gold” was the kind of episode that technically worked but isn’t anything overly memorable. It explores the relationship between Inara and Mal in a way that is both trite and overemotional and it goes back to the tradition of Mal just being a goofy killer. “Objects in Space” is a considerably better episode and one that shows a little of what Whedon clearly wanted to explore in the future of the show.

Serenity,” on the other hand, is a whole different piece of work. It manages to have all the style, scope and characterization that Whedon struggled to give his characters in the show and masterfully colors the crew with shades of morality and wonderful care. Even the show’s trademark style, a fusion of anime, spaghetti westerns and space opera, is handled considerably better and helps to create a more full and complete vision of the universe. Its certainly among the better, more complete sci-fi action films.

Its enough to make one wish it could be a standalone film and its obvious that Whedon made some concessions to try to pull in new viewers. The opening is a twisting and well done introduction to the universe and the war between the Alliance and the Independents, all while showing how River and Simon escaped from the Academy. The opening, with its dream, that twists into a torture session, that becomes the escape, that becomes a security footage being studied by The Operative is a fantastic way to set up the Universe’s backstory as well as make it engaging and exciting.

Its even clear that Whedon is hitting the tone that he wanted to in the show. Mal is a brutal, take no prisoners leader. He’s determined to believe that he would do anything to survive and save his crew but he’s proven again and again by The Operative, that he’s still a man, maybe not a man that’s willing to cruelly take a life. That being said, he’s never appeared scarier and more unhinged. He kicks a fleeing kid off of the hover craft, shoots the unarmed Operative in the chest and draws a brutal line in the sand as he attempts to bring the Serenity to Miranda. Whedon draws his star character as the Han Solo who shot first, a brutal and unforgiving guy who thinks he’s got all the answers.

Despite a plot that focuses mostly on River, Mal does remain the star, which lets Whedon ape “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” as hard as possible. The Operative is constantly a few steps ahead of the captain, using Inara as bait, killing the fast talking robot fetishist, Mr. Universe, and engaging Mal in a series of deadly fights. He’s a great, engaging villain, one that believes what he’s doing is for the greater good, despite the fact that he doesn’t have all the facts.

As I stated in the earlier reviews, my biggest problem with “Firefly” was always Whedon’s refusal to make many of the characters little more than archetypes. He still hasn’t done much better. Shepherd is still little more than a preacher with a past and Inara might as well be the epitome of the hooker with a heart of gold archetype but under the constraints of a film that has so much to say in two hours, its not a big problem and its one you almost have to expect. I don’t have a problem with Whedon refusing to giver deep, rich and compelling back stories to characters when he’s got a would-be blockbuster to make.

Instead of just ignoring archetypes and quick and dirty characterization, Whedon embraces it in “Serenity.” Kaylee, the smitten ship’s engineer who spent 14 episodes swooning over Simon, is brought to a character defined by that relationship. The fleeting glances, the smiles and the final embrace, give a great romantic arc to both of the characters and its one that could only be done this satisfyingly in a feature film.

Not everything is perfect, with the film really not being able to stand alone without the show, the reveal of River’s secrets being not particularly satisfying and an ending that is dangerously close to a zombie film. The emotional payoff, the characterization and the style are all great but by no means is it a perfect film.

Overall, I was satisfied, just satisfied with this excursion into the Joss Whedon oeuvre. “Firefly” was definitely a show that was messed with by FOX but by no means was it a perfect show that was destroyed. It was an intriguing and promising first season that was cut off before it was able to grow into something interesting. “Serenity” definitively proves that Whedon would have been able to make something of the show but it took a big budget and time restrictions in order to refine that idea down to something that was artistically accomplished as well as crowd pleasing.

Next Class: I explore one of my biggest pop culture blind spots by listening to The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.”

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