Serenity (2005)

I’ve rewatched all of Firefly a couple of times since I first saw it in 2005. I’ve left Serenity on the shelf. It’s not at all a bad film, but the experience of seeing it that one-and-only time, having no idea what was coming, was just so deliciously potent that it overpowered the narrative. It overpowered it so much that I forgot several important plot points, in particular the whole business about the nasty future government being responsible for the creation of the Reavers. That’s why the last time that I wrote about them, I said they were unlikely threats, but there was a perfectly good explanation that I didn’t recall. I’ll tell you what I did recall in just a minute.

So since we left Firefly with its ignominious cancellation in December 2002, some of the show’s small-for-a-network audience of two million viewers were discouraged, but their ranks quickly swelled. Firefly‘s home video release was a phenomenon for its time, and the audience of people who had no idea Fox had commissioned such an entertaining program just kept growing. The original studio couldn’t be bothered with new episodes, but Universal liked the idea of a reasonably-budgeted movie with a built-in audience. You might make the argument that they then undercut the possibility of turning the project into a hit by making sure every member of that built-in audience got to attend one of what seemed like hundreds of free advance screenings in the summer of 2005, but at least the audience kept quiet about what happened in the movie.

But almost sixteen years on, we’re past the point of spoilers, so I’ll say that this was one of the best theater experiences of my life. The setup is that those two creepy dudes with blue gloves don’t find River; an Alliance operative played by Chiwetel Ejiofor does. He seems reasonable and not at all angry; he just wants Mal to surrender. When Mal doesn’t, the operative and his crew systematically raze every bolt hole our heroes have ever used, and one of them was where our old friend and castmate Shepherd Book had been living. Book dies in Mal’s arms and about half an hour of screen time later, Wash joins him in one of the most shocking and surprising death scenes ever.

So things are very bad and they start getting very worse, and with absolutely everybody injured and the Reavers charging in, Simon also takes a bullet, and I remember sitting in that half-empty theater by myself silently swearing and realizing “They’re doing the last Blake’s 7.” None of them were getting out alive. I couldn’t believe the moxie and just marveled that the film was seriously going to kill off all the heroes. What stones.

As it turned out, I was completely wrong, but we all learned in 2005 is that capping two of your nine lead characters going into the climax really is an effective way to tell your audience that you’re not ready to play by the rules.

Serenity was a box office failure, barely earning back its budget despite some very good reviews. It’s a really good film that ties up most of the show’s loose ends. I don’t think that they put a single foot wrong in its two hours. Our son was very impressed, although, unlike me, he was able to keep from trying to guess what would happen next to whom. We all enjoyed it very much, and even though the whole Firefly experience found smaller audiences than anybody spending money to make it wanted, it’s safe to say that almost everybody who explores this ‘verse was very, very happy with it. Maybe one day, Netflix or somebody else will give it a reboot. I’ll certainly take a look if they do.

Firefly 1.14 – Objects in Space

Firefly closed its network run with an excellent and tense story called “Objects in Space.” It wasn’t the last one that they actually made – that would be “The Message” – but since this one was a reasonably simple shoot that required only one small additional set and one other actor, it was easy to slot in a few weeks early. The other actor is Richard Brooks, playing a bounty hunter who probably would have become a serial killer if there weren’t any jobs as bounty hunter available. I had never seen Brooks before this; he’s cold and creepy and fascinating to watch. Years before, he played Paul Robinette on the earliest seasons of Law & Order, which I came to much later. He also has a recurring role in Bosch, which people keep telling me I’d enjoy, but like a lot of contemporary streaming shows, nobody wants to put it all in a nice Blu-ray set when they could force you to subscribe to something instead.

Anyway, “Objects in Space” was made with the knowledge that ratings were low and it was touch-and-go as to whether Fox was going to order an additional nine episodes to carry them to May 2003, so it had to serve as a series finale just in case. There’s a lot that I could complain about regarding television from this period and how its producers ignored little realities like that, so honestly I appreciate that the Firefly team considered their position. They didn’t end on a cliffhanger or introduce new problems or characters, but they did a lot more with River for the first time in a very long time, and closed up the really loose end of her quietly killing three men in “War Stories” and Kaylee keeping quiet about it.

It’s a solid hour that kept our son worried for the characters and very attentive. They didn’t give him the return of his favorite villains, the Reavers, but he’ll only have to wait one week to see them again. Unfortunately, “Objects in Space” was the lowest-rated program on the four major networks that evening, December 13th 2002. Rumors about it ending production had been buzzing for weeks, but it seems that it was actually on the 13th itself that the news was quietly released; Firefly would not return in a new timeslot in 2003 with the unaired stories.

Fox had already scheduled the shelved pilot episode for the 20th, and that was it. Fortunately, releasing the episodes on DVD as quickly as they did brought the program to a much larger audience very quickly, enabling them to get a feature film greenlit about eighteen months later. And we’ll see how that went in just a few days.

Firefly 1.13 – Heart of Gold

It’s fair to say that this episode wasn’t going to be a complete winner with our favorite ten year-old critic. He enjoyed the gunplay stuff enormously, but there’s a whole lot of grown-up stuff in this one as well, and not just the smoochy bits. We talked about whether to explain to him beforehand what a brothel is, but decided in the end that he’s intelligent enough, since we explained what Inara’s job as a companion entails some weeks ago, to figure this out.

The brothel in question is run by an old friend of Inara’s played by Melinda Clarke, who is so much believable and engaging here than she had been a few years previously in a pair of silly Xena episodes. The kid draped himself under a blanket when Mal and Clarke’s character started their smooching, and he certainly didn’t understand what happened the morning after…

See, if you’re older than ten, then this almost cruel scene of Inara, heartbroken because she can’t tamp down her feelings for Mal anymore and that changes everything, does not make any sense whatever. But for me, it’s one of the saddest little moments of any television series. Morena Baccarin is a very good actress and we like her in everything we’ve seen, but this scene, and the episode’s coda, are both remarkable. Inara is so hurt. If you don’t leave this episode a little hurt, too, well, you must be ten.

So we had a discussion about what all the tears and sadness meant, and how Mal and Inara simply can’t be in a relationship together. Mal is too controlling, too possessive, too insecure and full of jealousy, to have an open relationship. Inara loves her work too much to leave it, and she loves her family too much to let a relationship with Mal be the thing to destroy it, so she leaves. I think this is how Firefly built such a loyal fandom; it’s because something so real, and so painful, hadn’t been done anywhere near this well in an American sci-fi show before then. It’s truly great writing and great acting, and hurts just as much now as when I first saw it sixteen years ago.

Firefly 1.12 – The Message

I told our son that if he ever watches any grown-up TV from about 1993 to the present, he’ll bump into Richard Burgi, who makes a memorable appearance here as a bent Alliance cop. He’s always playing heavies, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that he seems equally at home in soap operas as in direct-to-video beat-em-ups. 112 episodes of General Hospital! What an amazing career he’s had.

We also told our son that if he ever decides to go to cons, he’s probably going to see people wearing Jayne’s hat. Well, maybe and maybe not, times and fandoms and fashions change, but for at least a decade after Firefly was cancelled, the delightful, silly, and just a bit ridiculous hat was the fashion statement of everybody who knew how to order from an Etsy seller. Though I think that people with limited patience for Browncoats might agree with Richard Burgi’s character’s final word on the matter: “That hat makes you look like an idiot.”

Anyway, “The Message” was directed and co-written by Tim Minear, and it’s a great, great story that begins with Zoe and Mal receiving the body of one of their war buddies in the mail, and ends with Nathan Fillion acting the absolute hell out of the climax. Even without Burgi or the hat, this one would be one of my favorites.

Firefly 1.11 – Trash

I mentioned in earlier posts that Fox aired Firefly out of its intended order. The funny thing is, owing to actor and location availability, the last four episodes weren’t made in the intended order, either. “Trash,” which features the return of Christina Hendricks as the villain who sometimes is called Saffron, was the thirteenth story filmed, and the producers would have liked for it to have aired on Fox as the eleventh installment, on December 13, 2002. About ten days earlier, Fox announced that they were changing the schedule and pulled the last of the completed hours, “Objects in Space,” up to show on that date instead. “Trash” and the next two stories never aired on the network.

(Actually, just to confuse this nonsense even more, Fox had actually originally announced that it was “Heart of Gold” – the second-to-last of the completed hours – that was going to air on December 13. I didn’t know that until I dug around on the auld newsgroup and found Lee Whiteside’s essential-in-the-day “SFTV: Upcoming Episode Schedules & News” posts. I was not watching much television in 2002, but six or seven years previously, I inhaled that guide when it came out.)

And by this point, the show’s continuity is really important to understand what the characters are referencing, and extremely entertaining. This one calls back to the events of “Ariel” a couple of times. While it stinks that broadcast viewers never saw this one, at least Fox didn’t air it out of order like they did the October-November episodes.

So Fox viewers really missed out. “Trash” is completely wonderful, and the kid was thrilled throughout. It’s a fun story of who’s double-crossing who, including the magical line “Also, I can kill you with my brain” among its jewels. Our son mused about how at this point, our heroes have three recurring villains: Saffron, Niska, and the dudes with the blue gloves. Shame there’s so little of it left for any of these baddies to take a final bow. But he also said the other day that he hopes they run into the Reavers again. Hmmmm.

Firefly 1.10 – War Stories

“War Stories” is the much-loved episode that many fans can recite from memory. In telling the story of how Wash’s silly jealousy about Mal and Zoe’s shared past gets him in a huge amount of trouble, it brought quotes like “I’ll be in my bunk” and “Take me, sir, take me hard” into everybody’s jargon. The scene where Mal and Wash are being tortured together is also comedy gold, unless you’re a ten year-old, in which case it’s really amazingly unpleasant.

The episode is a follow-up to “The Train Job”, and they get too deep into the territory of the crime lord from that episode. I wonder whether they stole back the ransom that they paid for Wash when they go back in to rescue Mal. The kid, naturally, really loved the extremely well-staged gunfight, and forgave the episode for its earlier ugliness. I like how a couple of the members of the crew turn out to be almost entirely useless with guns, and it isn’t played for jokes. It also sets up a couple of things which will become really important in the follow-up film, Serenity.

Firefly 1.9 – Ariel

I really enjoy “Ariel” because no other episode of Firefly goes this deep into life in a major city in this universe. Almost all the episodes are set on the periphery, but in this one, they go to a large and heavily-populated city for Simon to scan his sister’s brain and find out what was done to her. It’s a really good episode of a heist that should not have gone wrong, except Jayne betrayed the crew to sell out Simon and River.

The climax is completely amazing. I think that because Firefly is largely a light show with a humorous touch, and also because Nathan Fillion moved on to star in the incredibly light and silly hit Castle for ABC, he’s got a reputation as not really being an actor who tackles dark and heavy. But what Fillion and Adam Baldwin do in this final scene is amazing and a little scary. This is the sort of breakdown in trust that many television series don’t go anywhere near, and it’s blindingly brilliant.

Anyway, while it was certainly a shame that Firefly would be cancelled – there were five more episodes to come and the axe would formally fall about one month after this was shown, when Fox would tell the producers that they would not be needing the “back nine” installments that would have gone into production in early 2003 – one of the biggest disappointments is that we’d never get a television resolution to the story of these two dudes with the blue gloves, played by Jeff Ricketts and Dennis Cockrum. They appeared briefly in “The Train Job” but were never seen again after this story. They are hunting for River and murder anybody – even Alliance police – who have talked to her, using a device that causes painful and almost immediately lethal hemorrhaging of the blood vessels in people’s skulls. They ended up getting an entirely unsatisfying sendoff in an issue of the Firefly comic in 2005. If they could have made just one more installment of this series, I wish they’d have done one more with these guys.

Firefly 1.8 – Out of Gas

“Everybody dies alone.”

Sadly, the kid absolutely hated this one. We weren’t surprised; it’s a very heavy episode for such an otherwise light series. We see the ship floating dead in space, we see its corridors and rooms abandoned, and we see Mal crash to the floor of the cargo bay, bleeding from a wound in his stomach.

Tim Minear’s script is possibly my favorite of the show’s run. Going back and putting this nightmare puzzle together is unbearably tense in places. I think it’s an absolute jewel, and everybody involved should be proud of it.

The kid got the treat of our first trip to a movie theater in more than a year earlier today. We watched Godzilla vs. Kong and he pronounced it “probably the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.” It probably was a bit of whiplash going from a lighthearted crowdpleaser like that to a downbeat event like this, and that didn’t occur to me. Probably should have swapped the blog running order and followed the monster movie with something more fun; as it is, he went to bed very, very grouchily.

Firefly 1.7 – Jaynestown

Much as I’d like to claim that something important about Adam Baldwin’s character of Jayne was our kid’s takeaway from this episode, it wasn’t. He certainly enjoyed the scenario and everybody’s performances. Our heroes stop in on a distant, poverty-racked moon only to learn that Jayne is a folk hero, because he’d dumped stolen money here four years previously in order to reach escape velocity in a crippled ship. He has a statue and even a song, and it’s very, very funny.

But no, the high point for our son was Ron Glass’s remarkable head of hair, which is of course normally tied down in a ponytail. He’s going to be chuckling about this for another week.

Firefly 1.5 – Safe / 1.6 – Our Mrs. Reynolds

Something’s got to be your least favorite of a show’s run, and “Safe” is the Firefly that I really don’t enjoy, but I remember, when I first saw this show, watching these episodes together in one evening, and it’s actually structured so well that episode six addressed my main complaint with episode five. In “Safe,” the Tams get abducted by some “hill folk” in need of a doctor for their very isolated town, but River’s weird psychic connection with people, which they’re only starting to explore at this point (Summer Glau doesn’t even have any lines in episode six and is hardly seen, as though she was unavailable for filming) freaks out the locals, who decide to burn her at the stake because she’s a witch.

And I remember thinking “Really? We’re still doing crazy religious people plots in the 26th Century? We’re not saying that the future isn’t better on that point?” And the very next episode proves that we are not.

“Our Mrs. Reynolds” is one of everybody’s favorite episodes, and the kid liked it tremendously. It guest stars Christina Hendricks as somebody from another crazy religious community who ends up married to Mal in a local ceremony that he did not understand was a ceremony, and only wants to please him, like her Bible said. Our son loved the business of everybody being either furious with Mal or finding great comedy in his situation, and indeed it’s completely splendid on that front, so much so that when we learn that Hendricks is not actually from such a crazy religious community as we believed, he was so wrong-footed that it took him ages to catch up.

But I also really admire the very casual and very believable world building. There are lots and lots of planets and moons in this system, and a scarcity of resources has meant that most of these far-afield settlements have had to be built with no tech at all. We get hints that the cities on the major planets are full of corruption and pollution so dense the sky can’t be seen, and see that life on the outlying places is incredibly tough, with no electricity, very scarce resources, and rare deliveries of goods. These are worlds where ignorance and superstition are bound to come back into play, because there’s no modern world to keep them out. In fact, the next episode is all about the power of myth, in its way.

Firefly 1.4 – Shindig

I suppose that sweeps months are still a thing, but since nobody watches network TV anymore – certainly not at the time that it’s broadcast – I don’t imagine that they matter all that much these days. But it used to be that every November, February, and May, the networks would bring out their biggest guns, biggest guest stars, two-part stories, returns of classic characters, and crossover events during sweeps months, because the networks’ local affiliates would set their ad rates for the next quarter based on the ratings that they’d earn during sweeps. Often, the networks would rearrange the running order of ongoing series if they thought a particular episode was sexy or strong enough to be a sweeps player. As I mentioned previously, Firefly was absolutely not unique in this regard; it happened to all kinds of series on all the networks, which is why many producers would plan ahead and prep their big crossover or whatever, with guest stars Raquel Welch, George Clooney, and Charo, across the episodes that they expected would air in November.

With that in mind, Fox made the utterly bizarre decision to hold back episodes four and five for sweeps month, and moved episodes six through eight forward. Why’d they do this? Nobody can guess. “Shindig” is a pretty good episode, even if its high point is Kaylee, in a delightfully frilly dress at a really chic party, holding court with a gaggle of admirers talking about spaceship engines, and not the main plot of Mal and Inara dealing with a big problem at the bash, but it’s hardly a “this changes everything” story like you’d occasionally get with sweeps episodes. You can’t even say there was a really famous guest star in it who’d move the ratings needle during sweeps. It’s got Larry Drake, a fine character actor who we saw as a villain in a Stargate SG-1 made two years previously, and in a splendid Nero Wolfe Mystery around the same time, but I don’t think Fox was waiting on him to work Nielsen magic.

The kid was very pleased. It’s got a sword fight – though it’s not honestly a really great one since Mal is not an expert with the weapon – and fun character moments, and a silly last-shot revelation of what the crew is carrying to an outer planet for Drake’s character: about a dozen cows. Our son was delighted by the apparent absurdity of it, but of course it makes perfect sense: farms are always going to need new livestock from different breeding lines, even in the 26th Century.