Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Shiny: Review of Finding Serenity and Serenity Found edited by Jane Espenson

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon’s Firefly
Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe
Jane Espenson (ed.), 2004, 2007
Dallas, TX, Benbella Books
pp. viii + 238 and pp. 218
both $17.95, £12.99 (paper)

The story of Firefly will always be for me one of the great tragedies in the history of American television. Firefly, the brainchild of creator/writer/director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) and writer/director Tim Minear, debuted on the Fox network on 20 September 2002 in the dreaded Friday night time slot. It lasted for eleven episodes. Despite its “failure” on broadcast television, however, Fox decided to release the show on DVD in December of 2003—all fourteen episodes in their correct running order. It became a hit, such a hit that three years later Universal and Whedon brought the fireflyverse to the big screen with the film Serenity. I wish I could say that there was a Hollywood happy ending here but there wasn’t. Serenity earned back a little more than what it cost thus making it unlikely that any further resurrection of the fireflyverse will occur. Die hard fans like myself were left to reflect on what might have been.

But what of the Firefly that was? Firefly was a SF/western (with, like all Whedon shows, a wicked sense of humour) set in a 26th century where China and the US, the two remaining superpowers, have merged into the Alliance. As is the case today the Alliance has strong ties with corporations, specifically one giant megacorporation, the mysterious Blue Sun, which appears to have united all corporations under its economic umbrella just as the Alliance has united (using force) all the planets under its political umbrella (a metaphor for political and economic monopolization common today?). There are essentially two worlds in the fireflyverse—the clean and clinical antiseptic “utopia” of the wealthy core planets and the “primitive”, “dystopian” poverty stricken planets of the new wild frontier (metaphors for the first and third worlds of today?) where the settlers, out of necessity, live in frontier towns, ride horses, speak in western slang with a bit of Chinese thrown in now and again for good [expletive deleted] measure, and engage in an awful lot of good old vigilante “justice” (Whedon was a student of Richard Slotkin at Wesleyan, well known for his regeneration through violence thesis). The show centres on a group of nine people living aboard the Firefly class ship Serenity who sail “the black” trying to stay out of the way of the Alliance and trying to eek out a living through a variety of barely legal and not so legal means. Like all of Whedon’s work Firefly is full of dense and complex narrative and character arcs and themes revolving around existentialist social ethics, chosen families, friendship, love, conflict, disillusionment, and the possibility of redemption.

The essays in Finding Serenity and Serenity Found touch on these and much more. As in the other collections in Benbella’s Smart Pop series writers, intellectuals, critics, and academics reflect on a variety of aspects in the fireflyverse and the Whedonverse. And, there’s really a little bit of something for everyone in these two collections. Fans (and really anyone interested in inside information on how TV is made) will enjoy Firefly actors Nathan Fillions’s (“I, Malcolm”) and Jewel Staite’s (“Kaylee Speaks: Jewel Staite on Firefly”), and Buffy, Angel, and Firefly special effects guru Loni Peristere’s (“Mutunt Enemy U”) memories of the series. Those interested in how TV shows work from the inside will appreciate Buffy, Angel, and Firefly writer Jane Espenson’s (Espenson, by the way, was an undergraduate and graduate student in Linguistics at Berkeley) always interesting and intriguing if far too brief introductions to each essay. SF nerds will appreciate Orson Scott Card’s appreciation of Serenity (“Catching Up with the Future”), David Gerold’s (he of Star Trek fame) exploration of character development in Firefly (“Star Truck”), and Roxanne Longstreet Conrad’s wonderfully imagined comparison of Firefly and Enterprise (“Mirror, Mirror: A Parody”). Those interested in the use of Chinese in the series will revel in Kevin Sullivan’s “Chinese Words in the Verse” and “Unofficial Glossary of Firefly Chinese”. Academics will learn much from Geoff Klock’s superb structural analysis of the episode “Out of Gas” (“Firefly and Story Structure, Advanced”), Natalie Haynes’s brilliant exploration of the portrayal of women in Firefly (“Girls, Guns, Gags: Why the Future Belongs to the Funny”), and Michael Marona’s fascinating analysis of “weaponised women” in Firefly and the Whedonverse beyond Firefly.

As with any collection some of the essays in Finding Serenity and Serenity Found are interesting though not earth shattering. There are enough interesting and sometimes enlightening analyses in both collections, however, for me to recommend both books to anyone interested in quality storytelling and filmmaking, in how social ethical concerns impact film and television, in the work of Joss Whedon and Company in general, and in everything Firefly in particular. By the way, I recommend both in tandem with the two volume official companions to the series published by Titan Books (Firefly: The Official Companion, volumes I and II). The interview with Joss Whedon in those books alone is worth the price of admission.

This review originally appeared in slightly different form as “Review of Jane Espenson’s Finding Serenity and Serenity Found”, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 29:1 (April 2009), pp. 151-153. The editor of this piece, by the way, didn't like my assertion that upon its release the Firefly DVD was a hot item. He failed to note the following statistics: Firefly DVD's at had average daily rankings of between 1st and 75th in 2003, 22nd and 397th in 2004, 2nd and 232nd in 2005, and 2nd and 31st in 2006 as of June 27, 2006.

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