This is not so much a review as a eulogy. It is often lamented that Firefly was canceled after one incomplete season and it’s a great loss that the project wasn’t seen through to its fruition. In writing this, I’ve come to bury Firefly/Serenity not to praise it but I will lavish some condign praise as I go. It’s sad but the series is dead and gone. In explaining his reasons for deciding not to try a reunion or a remake, Joss Whedon alludes to the ‘The Monkey’s Paw’, a short story in which a man wishes his son back to life only have him come back a shuffling corpse, a grotesque simulacrum of his boy. In attempting any movie, any television series, any story of any kind, there is a risk that it will turn out not to be good. These risks must be dared, and sometimes disappointing outcomes must be borne. Joss Whedon knows this as well as anyone but in this case, something great might be marred, something already accomplished might be undone. In spite of all his anguish and regret, he’s not willing to take that chance.
When Firefly was canceled, there was no ending of any kind, the show simply cut off after a particularly strong episode. All attempts to continue the program on another network failed, leaving only the option to make it into a movie. This movie could provide at least some form of conclusion, but as a movie it stood alone. It couldn’t be merely a conclusion, nor a sequel, but needed to be a complement. New viewers were to see it without any prior acquaintance, and the characters all needed to be reintroduced, the situation set, the story unfolded and resolved within a very short span. This was a tale that was originally to be spun out in fifty to seventy hours, and now it was to be compacted into two. It’s inevitable from this sort of compression that the story might seem patchy, fragmented, and rushed.
The show married science fiction and westerns, not such an outlandish fusion as might be thought. The wild west was only what it was because it was the advance from what was densely populated, ordered, sophisticated, established, into what was empty, new, and improvised. It was the flowing of the old world into the new. The navigation of space is exciting and perilous, much sailing of the oceans centuries ago. Some striking out into the beyond find riches and glory, some meet with calamity and death. Whether it’s voyaging from the east to the west, from Manhattan to Dodge City or California, or from the central planets to the outer rim, the impulse is to flee from the inequities, the unjust laws, the undue influence of wealth and power, to what is unspoiled, free, and open to all regardless of origin or background.
There are dangerous corollaries and consequences to this attractive picture. Every man, no matter how rugged, austere, and unaffected will impart some measure of civilization to the frontier. Unwilling to eat grass like Nebudchadnezzar in his madness, he will herd livestock and plant fields. He may camp under the stars occasionally but he will want some abode, a roof over his head to keep off the rain, walls around him to keep out the wind. There will be other men around, dangerous as he his, and this will lead to fighting. Everybody must sleep, and not even the hardest man wants to live in a Hobbesian state of nature, and so the wildest and most unmanageable will be killed by their fellows. The outlaw and the renegade may be admired, and looked upon, after they’re safely dead, with some touch of unreasonable nostalgia, but their absence is hardly deplored when the pioneer or rancher is exhausted, or sick, or about to start a family. In this process, the frontier is tamed to some degree, and this safety will bring the men the pioneer and frontiersman most detests, the men he’s fled. Bankers, lawyers, and politicians will now flow inexorably from the crowded, orderly, tame megalopolises, and with them come all the trappings of that world. Just like in the west of Larry McMurtry, Gus and Call end up killing all the interesting men for whom they bear a sneaking admiration, and clearing the way for men and institutions they despise. The west is won and afterwards becomes more and more like the east; San Francisco becomes a Pacific coast New York.
Not all the men who flee civilization for a new life will be simply trying to liberate themselves from the nepotism, jobbery, and hypocrisy of civilization. Some will be hardened sociopaths, seeking to evade the most basic constraints of decency and humanity. In a world where everybody is armed and everybody must find his own justice, the meek and the helpless will not flourish. Not all the institutions of civilization are cloying and corrupt, and it is usually the poor and the weak who most need the succor and intercession of the state. To cite another great, and very dark, depiction of the wild west, Deadwood, the frontier was often not romantic or colorful, but horrific and brutal. Here the rich and powerful didn’t need to observe even a semblance of restraint, and they were free to prey on the defenseless, reducing them to little more than slaves.
Not everyone who worked for the Alliance was an assassin or a soldier, and the outer worlds held their dark side. Firefly aired on network television and this alone would have held it back from the barbarisms of Deadwood but Joss Whedon always explored every aspect of a situation, and if given opportunity some of these themes were certain to have emerged. The story simply came to an end before the some of the virtues and benefits of the Alliance were shown, or more men like George Hearst and Al Swearengen came onto the scene.
Despite the inevitable flaws, the movie is much like a longer installment of the television show. One metric of a story’s quality, whether in visual or written form, is the number of absolutely brilliant lines per unit of length. Serenity contains one inspired, hilarious line after another. Other writers can come up with funny, memorable sayings but Joss Whedon’s gems are more frequent and more dazzling. His gift for characterization is frequently and deservedly lauded, and Mal, Inara, Jayne, Zoe, and the rest are so quickly and deftly sketched that it’s sometimes overlooked that their creator was called upon to do so twice.
One gift that Joss Whedon alone seems to possess is to write a group conversation between nearly a half dozen characters speaking nearly at once. Nearly every writer, myself included, can only handle conversations between two characters, much like Newtonian dynamics can only describe and predict the interaction of two bodies. While these other writers might have a large cast of characters, they almost invariably come together in a series of dialogues and if they attempt a group dynamic, it breaks down into binary subsets. Some of the debates and planning sessions that whirled around the library in Buffy can find their counterpart only in the debates and planning sessions that raged around the mess table of the Serenity or on the scene of the massacre at Haven. I concede that this is an extravagant and not inarguable claim, but if anyone can give me a counterexample, I’d be happy to review it.