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Heart of Firefly

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The Heart of Serenity

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First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 3
Credits
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton

In the article series Heart of Firefly, I spent some time looking at the themes which lie at the heart of each Firefly episode. When I came to the end of the episodes, I looked back over the themes I had identified and realised that – for all the differences between the individual episodes – the same thematic threads were running through them. Often one theme, say, the idea of the crew of Serenity as a created family, would come to the fore in a particular episode, but references to other themes would be woven in as well, in more subtle ways.

After Firefly came, of course, the film Serenity. Intended to be accessible to those who had not seen the series, and at the same time satisfying to those who had, how does Serenity follow on thematically from Firefly? Does it develop further the same themes or take us in an all-new direction? What lies at the heart of Serenity?

One of the recurring themes in Firefly is the conflict between civilisation and savagery, often represented in the contrast between the core and the rim. Bushwhacked and Shindig, for example, are two episodes which focus on the tension between the two extremes, with the Alliance officer in Bushwhacked finding out that playing by the rules doesn’t always work out so well out in the black and Mal discovering in Shindig that fitting into civilised life in the core can be equally problematic. When we come to the film Serenity, the contrasts of the core and the rim, and of rules and freedom, are also very much present:

MAL
Put this crew together with the promise of work... Which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won't be room for naughty men like us... to slip about at all. This job goes south, there well may not be another. So here is us, on the raggedy edge. Don't push me, and I won't push you.

Mal continues to value the freedom of his life on the “raggedy edge”, staying out of the way of the meddling Alliance as much as he can. In a flashback scene, the young River also recognises the interfering nature of the Alliance:

RIVER
People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes and in their heads and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome.

River’s use of the first person here shows that she includes herself, as someone who was born into a privileged core life, along with the meddlers. The Operative, though, is the main representative of the values of the Alliance and in his first encounter with Mal, we see those values clash with those of the rim, represented by Mal:

OP
I want to resolve this like civilized men. I'm not threatening you. I'm unarmed.
MAL
Good.
OP
I am, of course, wearing full body armor. I am not a moron.

The film develops the theme of the conflict between civilisation and savagery beyond what we know from Firefly as it reveals the truth about Miranda and the tragic and savage consequences of the Alliance’s attempt to enforce civilisation by means of the Pax. We also learn of the lengths to which the Operative is prepared to go to cover up the truth, lengths which include murdering children in order to create a “better world”. Once he himself has learned that truth, however, the Operative is, in his own words, no longer the Alliance’s man. He has lost his belief in the righteousness of his mission.

In contrast, Mal, by the end of the film, has gained some belief and found a cause worth fighting for again:

MAL
Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief... that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.

This is perhaps the greatest thematic difference that I see between the film and the series. Throughout Firefly, Mal’s ambitions were simple: keep flying and keep out of the way of the Alliance. After Serenity Valley, he was content to be lost in the woods and without any grand purpose. This is how he is at the start of the film:

OP
I've seen your war record. I know how you must feel about the Alliance.
MAL
You really don't.
OP
Fair to say. But I have to hope you understand, you can't beat us.
MAL
I got no need to beat you. I just want to go my way.

As Mal tells Inara later in the film, he has no rudder. If the wind blows northerly, he goes north. But once Shepherd Book is killed and Mal begins to realise what the Operative is capable of, he takes the risk of heading through reaver territory to Miranda. And once he finds out the truth of what happened on Miranda, he decides it is time to stop running and take the fight to the Alliance:

INARA
I just want to know who I'm dealing with. I've seen too many versions of you to be sure.
MAL
I start fighting a war, I guarantee you'll see something new.

The idea of Mal revealing something of his true self in this way is another theme which is found in both Firefly and Serenity. Many characters spend time in the series hiding their true selves by playing parts. There’s Mal in his soft cotton dress, and Simon as a mud buyer, to note just two memorable examples. Mal gets to dress up in the film too, as he sneaks into the companion training house, and even Serenity has her chance to join in with the part playing when she is made to look like a reaver ship.

As well as playing parts, the characters in Firefly often play each other, as Saffron would say, not letting their true feelings show. Not much seems to have changed in this respect at the start of the film. Kaylee is still carrying a torch for Simon, and Mal and Inara are even further apart, literally and metaphorically, than they had been during the series:

KAYLEE
If you had a care for anybody's heart...
MAL
You knew he was gonna leave. We never been but a way station to those two. And how do you know what he feels? He's got River to worry on but he still could've shown you... If I truly wanted someone bad enough... wouldn't be a thing in the 'verse could stop me from going to her.
KAYLEE
Tell that to Inara.

However, as the events of Serenity unfold, both pairings make some progress in revealing their hidden feelings. By the end of the film, Inara is unsure whether to leave Serenity again to return to “civilised life”. Meanwhile, a shared near-death experience definitely brings Simon and Kaylee closer together:

SIMON
My one regret in all of this... is never being with you.
KAYLEE
With me? You mean to say, as... Sex?
SIMON
I mean to say.
KAYLEE
Hell with this. I'm gonna live.

The theme of the crew becoming a created family and finding a home on Serenity is one that runs through many episodes of Firefly. It is also present in the film, but mainly in the background, as more dramatic events take centre stage. As the film starts, we realise that Inara and Book are no longer aboard Serenity. The price to be paid for creating a family is the possibility that it will eventually be broken up, and Mal and his crew have discovered that for themselves. It also looks like Simon and River will soon leave Serenity:

MAL
I got to finish this job and get us another one. Can't do that carrying those two.
KAYLEE
How can you be so cold?
ZOE
Captain didn't make them fugitives.
KAYLEE
But he could have made them family.

There is a great contrast between how things stand at this point in the film and how we left the crew at the end of Out of Gas, for example. By the end of the film, the contrast is greater still. On the one hand, the family has been broken up in the most tragic and final way possible, as Book and Wash are dead:

BOOK
Can't order me around, boy. I'm not one of your crew.
MAL
Yes, you are.

On the other hand, Inara is contemplating staying on Serenity and River has become a part of the crew in a way which was not possible before the truth of Miranda was revealed. At the end of Safe, Mal refers to River as “our witch” and at the end of Objects in Space, he tells her she “ain’t quite right”, but each time she gets a step closer to being accepted into the family. By the end of the film, the acceptance is complete:

MAL
So, you gonna ride shotgun with me, help me fly?
RIVER
That's the plan.

And that leads me to the final theme which I see running through Serenity: love. It is a good deal more dangerous than madness, according to the Operative, and the motivation for Simon to risk everything to save River. It is the first rule of flying, according to Mal, and it makes Serenity a home. I think I have to agree with Mal. Love is what truly lies at the heart of Serenity.


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