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.