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The Firefly ‘Verse: Three Beginnings

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Joss Whedon’s sci-fi western franchise may be unique in the world of television and film in that the storyline has not one, not two, but three disparate beginnings. Of course, the film is expected to have a different beginning from the series, but the series is interesting in and of itself due to the initial pilot being shown last rather than first — and the show ended up with a different starting moment altogether. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

Taking all of that into consideration, it’s a wonder the characters aboard the Serenity managed to fly anywhere at all, much less into the hearts and minds of thousands of fans who rallied for a continuance of their stories.

By now, anyone who has followed the story of the film is familiar with the history of the show. Fox aired Firefly out of order, continually bumped episodes in favor of sports games, and aired the two hour pilot (one of the best episodes in the short-lived series, alas) last, as a farewell to the then-cancelled show. I myself, now a devoted fan, caught about five minutes of the show when it aired and changed the channel. I remember there being almost no press around the series, and unless you were a devoted fan of Whedon from his work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (a fandom that came later for me as well), it was unlikely that you would give up an hour a week to get to know the crew of Serenity.

But some people did. Some of them were Buffy fans, some simply liked what they saw, and others came later, forced to watch by friends and family members. It wasn’t until the little show that could was released on video that the world realized what a hot property Fox had let go. And now here we are, three years later, with a film in the theatres, the prospect of massive DVD sales on the horizon, and the question of where the crew will fly next.

That question is dominating the minds of many. Will there be another series? More films? I think only time will tell. Since we don’t know where the story will end, let’s take some time to go back and look at the beginnings — all three of them.

The film Serenity opens with the Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) watching a video of Simon Tam (Sean Maher) rescuing his sister, River (Summer Glau), from the Alliance doctors who were experimenting on her. This differs somewhat from the story told in the pilot episode, in which Simon said he paid for River’s rescue. A rebel group, familiar with the experiments that were being conducted on hapless students, smuggled her out in a cryogenic sleep. Since that is how we first see River (when she emerges from the box), it seems somewhat at odds with the rescue we view in the film. However, these are small details, changed slightly to create more excitement in the film…and after all, in the pilot, we have only Simon’s word to go on, and he might have been lying.

However, the Simon Tam we see in the film is more forceful and sure of himself than the Simon we have come to know in the show. Likely, these changes were made to put Simon more at odds with the Captain, Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), and to set up quick characterization for those who had not seen the series. Such changes are old hat when it comes to adapting a series, or even a book, for the big screen. It seems far more likely that the history of River’s rescue was changed from the original storyline, along with the changes to Simon’s character. Considering that in the film, he rescued his sister himself rather than expending his fortune to pay others to do so, it would not have been in keeping with that new characterization for him to be the less confident Simon we see in the series.

The “Train Job” episode was the first to air on television, and it presented Whedon and his writing partner Tim Minear a new challenge — introducing the characters all over again, and throwing the viewers right into the action, all in less than an hour. A difficult task, to say the least, and one that is examined in depth on the episode’s commentary on the DVD (which I recommend to anyone looking for a little more insight into the making of the show). We see snippets of the story, quick images that establish the characters (Kaylee working on something on the bridge, with grease on her face, establishing her as the mechanic… River waking up after nightmares of the Alliance experiments, Simon comforting her, as ever the protective big brother). As a beginning, it doesn’t work nearly as well as either the film, which faced a similar challenge, or the pilot, which does a wonderful job of laying out the characters.

And indeed, it is difficult to establish these characters — and this, I feel, is the only area in which the film was lacking. For those who hadn’t seen the series, it is impossible to understand that Kaylee (Jewel Staite), tied to Serenity as she is, with her joyous spirit, is the heart and soul of the ship. New viewers will never understand the layers of the characters — yes, even Jayne (Adam Baldwin), the muscle, has layers. Or the depth of the relationship between Inara (Morena Baccarin) and Mal. The film offers hints, but truth be told, these characters take some getting used to, and the film thrusts us right into the action — as any good film should — but hardly addresses many of the supporting characters.

Which is a shame, as the writing and characterization is where Whedon really shines. In Firefly, he did what he does best — threw a lot of very different characters together, gave them rich histories and backstories, and demonstrated how they became a fiercely loyal family. In Serenity, much as in “The Train Job,” we only see them as they are now — together, sure, different, sure, but we get at best only glimpses of what built this family.

And for the new viewer, it is difficult to comprehend how emotional it is when Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) and Wash (the wonderful Alan Tudyk! Oh, Wash! We love you!) are killed, as it were, in action. Book, at least, is still a mystery, though it seems more and more likely that he was an Operative for the Parliament himself, from the clues in both the series and the film, and his appearance in the film is small and almost insignificant but for one telling conversation with Mal. Wash, on the other hand, shines through in the film almost as strongly as in the series, but like all the supporting cast, his role is small and seems largely comic relief… whereas in the series, he served as a calming influence on his wife, Zoe (Gina Torres) and the rest of the crew.

Three beginnings, and each could have led to different outcomes. By the end of Serenity, River is nominally free, the Alliance is exposed in their meddling, and the crew sets off again for the black with Mal at the helm and River serving as the new pilot (poor Wash!). But what is left to come is unknown, and still in the hands of the fans, as the story has been since Fox cancelled the series in 2002.

The LegendaryMonkey is also Alisha Karabinus, a blogger and writer from Little Rock, Arkansas. Find out more at Sudden Nothing.

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About Alisha Karabinus

  • Nathaniel Winn

    Having just watched the show on DVD, I’m gonna differ and say that Simon paid big bucks for info on how to get to River. That said, haven’t seen Serenity yet.

  • htom

    I’m going with the “the Alliance nabbed her and Simon got her back again” theory. This explains why the parliment members were exposed to her; bragging about their prize capture, they had to show her off.

  • http://yyz.us/ Jeff Garzik

    I agree that establishing characters is something that Whedon did well in the series, and is something that the movie format cannot ever do really well.

    I blogged about this in a post Serenity: movie vs. TV.

  • cat

    I’m not sure where, but Joss Whedon has confirmed that he did mess with canon in changing the River’s rescue (maybe in the Visual Companion). When he was writing it he thought it felt too impersonal having strangers save her, that it was best to have someone the viewer could care about. So we can assume that in the show Simon was telling the truth about the rescue and his lack of knowledge of River’s abilities.

  • Buster

    One small point of contention : Both versions of River’s rescue are correct. If Simon didn’t have paid help to rescue River, then who is piloting the get-away ship from which they dangle in the ‘rescue’ video? Thus far in the Serenity / Firefly universe we haven’t seen spectacular auto-piloting technology, else why have Wash at all?

    Further, Simon was not himself – as it were – so from where did his ‘cover’ spring forth? In TV terms, that had to be an inside job, which surely didn’t come free.

    Also, since Simon is paying for a result – the freedom of River – would it not be logical for those helping him to a) not be obvious about it, and b) want him ‘vested’ in the outcome to make sure they get paid?

    All in all, as good TV or movie writing goes, it is all perfectly sensible. After all, when telling someone you ate lunch at McDonalds, one doesn’t have to go into excruciating detail to covey the meaning of the common experience – i.e. for you to ‘get it’. Simon could omit details about the number of accomplices and degree of assistance he received to protect those who did help.

    But all this strains at the suspension of disbelief which makes a ramshackle ship and motley crew so blessed much fun to watch. In short, and in the vernacular – you’re puttin’ too much gorram work into it, and not having enough fun.

  • PKelly

    Also, afterwards she could’ve still been put in the cryo box. She needed to be, because it would be a bad idea for her to walk around where she might be seen.

    I firmly believe that Simon was lying to Mal in the pilot. Telling him that his latest passenger was a pyshic, living weapon with a trigger, would have most definitely got him kicked off.

    I also believe that, while he heard a general overview of what was done to her, he didn’t know specifically how to help her, which doesn’t contradict the series.

    Lastly, why is it against character for him to be confident? Especially when it comes to River? Throughout the series, he found his backbone wherever she was concerned. With Dobson, with the hill people and their witch burning, with Early, with Mal…and that’s where his confidence emerges in the film.

    Out of protecting River. Plus, time has passed since the series. About half a year, if I recall correctly, so it would seem to me that things that happened in that span of time, would change him a bit, toughen him up.

    And you can look at his punching Mal as a callback to the pilot, when Mal punched him. Full circle.

  • http://www.mcgeheezone.com/weblog/ McGehee

    My take is that when Simon was telling the Serenity crew in the pilot episode about River’s retrieval from the Alliance, he didn’t know them well enough to trust them with the full details of what he’d done — and this also explains some of his apparent lack of confidence in the series.

    By the time the movie starts, though, the atmosphere on the ship has become tenser because of Book’s and Inara’s absence, and Simon has come to regard Mal as more of an adversary after all.

    Of course, this wouldn’t have been apparent to those who hadn’t first seen the series episodes. Multiple times…

  • http://kalroy.blogspot.com Kalroy

    Okay, via the novel, released just before the movie (talk about spoilers), Simon Tam flew the ship. It was on remote and had a crew space only big enough for one so River went into the cryo-box in the cargo area. Oh, and no, I didn’t read it before seeing the movie. I simply hid it so I didn’t have to see it every day while waiting to go see the movie (that and the visual companion).

    Kalroy

  • http://www.suddennothing.net LegendaryMonkey

    I hear the novelization sucked.

    As for the difference between the story of River�s rescue in the film and that in the movie, I think it�s clear that canon changed slightly. I don�t think it�s bad (not at all!), but I know it�s not the only change that was made (i.e., Whedon has said Wash wasn�t originally supposed to die� sigh� Wash!). But there were some good points raised here. I do think Simon was not completely truthful with the crew in the pilot episode. However, from the way things progressed in the show, I don�t think he himself knew as much as he did in the movie until he examined her on Ariel in the hospital heist episode.

    Further, from the way she is in the beginning of the series, there are some clues that definitely indicate changes to the original storyline:

    a) River could NOT have done the things she did in the movie, like hiding� when Simon first takes her out of the box, she seems to have very little control or presence of mind. That comes over time.

    b) When she emerges from the cryo box, she seems surprised to see Simon. If he rescued her himself, she wouldn�t be� unless you want to assume a lot of crap about how cryo-sleep makes you lose some of your memory, blah blah blah, and Whedon isn�t one to gloss over things like that.

    Thus, it was a change. Doesn�t make it bad. Personally, I kinda like the story of the rescue in the movie better, but I think the story in the show made more sense with that characterization. In the movie, Simon needed to be more active. In the show, he had time to grow and become strong. Not so in the film.

  • http://www.casperbass.com/thoughts Casper

    Actually, in the movie, just before the Operative kills the doctor (in the opening scene), the doctor says something to the effect of “Yes, Simon Tam. Highly qualified doctor, spent his family fortune to get into the complex and both he and his sister out.”

  • deborah

    there’s another reason that the ‘canon’ had to have been changed for the film. in the film, the dr explains to the disguised simon tam what has been done to river. he specifically says river’s brain was stripped, etc. whereas in the series, there’s a whole episode in which simon gives the crew of serenity a job so he can get into a hospital to see what they did to river’s head. but in the film he’s been told what’s been done to her.

  • http://www.inmuscatine.com Buster

    Deborah, you confuse the how and the what. I can tell you I stripped your engine and ported the head, but that is the WHAT. It doesn’t tell you HOW I did it. Simon knows WHAT they did, but he can’t fix it until he knows HOW they did it.

    Just because a brain surgeon describes his/her work to us laypeople doesn’t mean we have the slightest clue how to go about it. But, we have been told all the what to make it happen.

  • http://www.suddennothing.net LegendaryMonkey

    I’m not sure that’s entirely the case in this instance, Buster. Simon wasn’t a layperson — he was in fact a gifted surgeon. A trauma surgeon, to be sure, but he would be at least passingly conversant with brain surgery.

  • Jim Rockford

    I don’t think the series will return in any form. The show and movie were both very marginal, niche entertainment that could not break out to a larger audience. It’s part of Hollywood’s larger problem, appealing to a very loyal, hard-core audience but forgoing mass-appeal. If you weren’t already a fan I don’t think the movie would make you one.

  • Ridolph

    The poor performance of the movie (after a good opening week) probably means there will be no new season. Unfortunate.

  • Greg

    Not true, Jim Rockford. I wasn’t a fan of the series (I saw one ep, and said “ho hum”), but I saw the movie and loved it. Now I’m going back and enjoying the series on DVD as backstory to the movie. Speaking anecdotally, I know several other people who’ve reacted the same way to the movie.

  • http://www.suddennothing.net Alisha Karabinus

    Call it a lackluster performance in the theatre — but a month before release, the DVD is already #27 at Amazon and there are 300 customer reviews.

    Maybe people didn’t go to the theater like they should, but that movie is going to be crazy on DVD.

  • ummm

    well TV or movie firefly aint ever gonna make any money.. because for every hardcore geek who goes and buys the DVDs or goes to the theatre; there’s a million other semi-geeks who just download it for free. I love firefly/Serenity too and wud take it in a very uncomfortable place to see a second season or movie… but it aint gonna happen. and I live in a UK and know one gives a fuck over there…. the Serenity DVDs are stacking up and no-ones buying them… it’ll be £7.98 before you know it. its sad but true.