Once upon a time there was Firefly and it was one of the best television shows that almost no one ever saw. Premiering on the Fox network in September, 2002, it was shown out of sequence in a very nomadic time slot. Finding the next episode was like playing “Where’s Waldo – The TV Guide edition.” After doing little to promote or support the series, Fox cancelled it after airing only 11 of the 14 episodes produced.
Then something kind of bizarre happened. The complete series, included the three unaired episodes, was released as a DVD boxset in December of 2003. It sold like crazy, especially for a little-known show that was cancelled after eleven episodes. It turns out that Firefly fans, who call themselves “Browncoats,” are fanatical enough to make Trekkies look as fickle as Los Angeles hockey fans. Something about the DVD sets flying off the shelves that convinced Universal Pictures to take a chance on a feature film. Considering that it took Star Trek a decade to reach the large screen, despite running for three seasons initially, it’s remarkable that a half-season wonder like Firefly could turn that trick in less than three years.
Like the TV series, this movie is the story of the crew of a Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity (natch). Her owner and captain is Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who fought for the forces of independence, or Browncoats, against the oppressive Alliance and lost. Now outwardly bitter and disillusioned, he makes a living doing pretty much what anyone will pay him and his crew to do, legality and morality be damned.
His first mate, Zoe Alleyne Washburn (Gina Torres), is an old war buddy, married to Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot. The appealingly free-spirited and eternally optimistic Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) is the ship’s mechanic. Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin) functions as the ship’s muscle and probably wouldn’t be the sharpest knife in the drawer even if he were the only knife in the drawer.
Two characters from the series aren’t around at the beginning of the film. Derrial Book (Ron Glass) is a Shepherd, or traveling preacher, who had been hitching a ride on board the Serenity. At one time renting out space on the ship was Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). She’s a certified “Companion,” which is basically a unionized, high-class courtesan. Ironically, being a Companion made her the most respectable member of the crew, often gaining them access to places where they might not otherwise be welcome.
The ship’s medic, Simon Tam (Sean Maher), is an idealistic young doctor on the run from the Alliance with his teenage sister, River (Summer Glau), a child genius who was taken from her school by the Alliance and subjected to experiments that left her emotionally damaged but with unknown and potentially deadly new abilities.
Simon and River’s flight forms the core of Serenity‘s story. The film begins with him brazenly springing her from the Alliance stronghold where she was held. Cleaning up the mess he left is a nameless, amoral Alliance agent known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). His methods leave no loose ends other than a few bodies on the floor.
Meanwhile, Mal is using River for payroll heist, over Simon’s rather vocal objections. The job is successful but complicated by an attack by Reavers, feral and cannibalistic people that civilization has left by the curb. Furious at the danger in which his sister was placed, Simon decides to leave the ship at their next stop. Unfortunately, a signal from the Alliance activates some of River’s more conspicuous abilities, such as single-handedly beating up a bar full of rough people. Their presence a little too visible, they have to flee on Serenity again.
Indeed, the Operative catches wind of River’s little outburst and, now aware of Mal’s identity, uses Inara to lure the Serenity crew into a trap.
The Operative is one of the better movie villains to come around in a while. He’s a man who believes he is creating a perfect world that he himself cannot share in because, in order for people to leave in a peaceful Utopia, he is willing to kill anyone who gets in the way of that dream. He knows he is evil but simply accepts this as the price of doing business.
He contrasts sharply with Mal, a man with no discernible code or goal but survival. He is a bit closer to moral, however, simply from his willingness to live and let live when his life’s not on the line. He’ll kill, even in cold blood, but only when he thinks it’s a matter of his own life and death or that of his crew. It’s when he finally puts something ahead of his own survival that the consequences have lasting impact for his friends.
That’s the real strength of the Firefly universe and Serenity. Unlike other science-fiction universes I could name, morality is not spelled out in black and white. Right and wrong is a multiple choice question and sometimes even the right answer is messy. It’s this focus on the individual and the often complicated choices of rather ordinary characters that gives Firefly and Serenity a relevance that goes beyond simply being entertaining science-fiction.
Too bad the studio totally screwed the pooch on the marketing side of things and screwed it so hard that the pooch is still walking funny. Due mostly to Universal’s empty-headed marketing strategy, Serenity laid a bit of a turd at the box office. The movie’s advance advertising was directed at the built-in audience of Firefly‘s rabid fans. This is like trying to sell beer to NASCAR fans. They’re already aware of the product and were going to buy it anyway. All the Browncoats needed to know was the release date and they would be there in force.
From the beginning, the real marketing push should have been directed people who knew nothing about Firefly but might be interested in watching a fun, exciting and humorous sci-fi action movie, the people who actually needed to know the movie was on the way. I guess that was a little too obvious and sensible for Universal. Based on how stupidly many movies like Serenity are often promoted, I am amazed that the film industry’s marketing people are capable of dressing themselves, let alone planning something a complex as a publicity campaign. I often think you could throw a roomful of chimps at the problem and their solution would be no worse.
I aim to misbehave.