Joss Whedon is believed to be the first ever third-generation TV writer. In the Fifties, his grampa John Whedon wrote Leave It To Beaver, still earning big syndication bucks today, and in the Sixties The Donna Reed Show. In the Seventies, his dad Tom Whedon wrote Alice, and in the Eighties Benson. And in the Nineties Joss created Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel.
Unlike John and Tom, Joss is the first TV writer in the family to be known to the public. He’s not exactly a household name, but he’s more famous than any cast member of Firefly, his space-age TV series to which Serenity is a big-screen sequel, or franchise extension. When he gives TV and radio interviews, the lines are jammed with callers professing to be fully paid-up browncoats. For some reason, ‘browncoats’ always reminds me of Wodehouse’s name for Roderick Spode’s Fascist movement — the Black Shorts. Bertie assumes he means ‘shirts’, but Spode explains that all the good shirt colours have been taken so they’re obliged to go around as the Black Shorts. ‘Footer bags, you mean?’ gasps a horrified Bertie. Presumably, the brownshirts were taken so Firefly fans are obliged to go around as browncoats. I think it’s a reference to the show’s dress code, and certainly the film version has, with the exception of the intergalactic high-class hooker, the drabbest wardrobe of any movie this side of Ken Loach.
Anyway, Serenity is half-space-opera/ half-horse-opera. That’s to say, it’s a sci-fi yarn with a western sensibility — a ragtag bunch of space cowboys riding around the galaxy 500 years from now in an old rustbucket called the Serenity, and dropping in on dusty planets where the towns look like frontier outposts with saloonfuls of dodgy characters. The government of the day is a somewhat coercive regime called ‘the Alliance’, and along for the ride there’s some outer-space spaced-out barefoot hippy-chick catatonic-flower-child type called River, who’s good at sensing the presence of Reavers, creepy marauders who get their kicks eating you alive.
Fox cancelled Firefly after 11 episodes, which the network managed to screen out of order, which can’t have helped. But for the sci-fi crowd axing the show is only confirmation of how good it is and how much it deserves to be kept alive (Star Trek is the scary template here). So Whedon has now written and directed a big-screen version of the show that plays somewhat like a long TV episode.
I don’t mean that as a criticism. I’d never seen Firefly and I didn’t know Serenity’s pedigree when I saw the movie. Towards the end, some character who’s had half-a-dozen lines of no particular consequence dies, and the three other guys in the theatre with me gasped audibly. Turns out the bit part’s a big deal from the TV version. But, even before that, without being able to quite put your finger on what’s up, you notice the film doesn’t seem to be speaking entirely normal film vocabulary. For example, quite often some guy will say something and Whedon will cut to a reaction shot that looks kinda goofy. And, after a while, you recognise it as TV shorthand: in sitcom land, if somebody says something and the cutaway of the long-suffering loyal secretary shows her rolling her eyes, you know the other guy’s being snobbish, because the Gal Friday character is the audience’s point of view on the material; on the other hand, if somebody says something and the cutaway of the boss shows him rolling his eyes, you know he’s being snobbish and bored.
There’s a lot of reaction-shot shorthand in the early scenes here, especially from Kaylee, who doesn’t seem to get much else to do. She’s the interplanetary version of a bluestocking — a whizzo mechanic with not much of a sex life — played by Jewel Staite. That’s right: Jewel Staite. For a space show, the characters all have fairly normal names — Mal, Zoe, Simon — but they’re played by actors who sound like minor parts in Star Wars: Summer Glau, Morena Baccarin. The bad guy is a shadowy operative called The Operative, and he’s played by an actor called Chewitel Ejiofor. Didn’t Chewitel Ejiofor get killed by Mace Windu and Oppo Rancisis in Attack of the Clones?
In the end, it’s not Star Wars — though, as Mal, Nathan Fillian’s floppy-haired put-upon hero reminds me a little of Bill Pullman in Mel Brooks’s Lucas spoof Space Balls. Other than that, it’s what Star Wars might look like if George Lucas had less money and more to say. Too many space yarns spend too much on the ships and the planets. They look too clean, too glossy, too sterile. In Serenity, there’s a plausible messiness to everything. The dogfights aren’t about laser beams zapping through the pristine blackness of space but something closer to a demolition derby. Even the dialogue, which is a lot hokier than the pulp cool it’s aiming for, is refreshingly free of the over-inflated Rodenberry/Lucas grandiosity.
By now you’re probably wondering, yeah, so you liked the rough’n’ready sets and TV dialogue and reaction shots, but is it about anything? Well, it claims to be. The tag line on the posters in the US was ‘Because the future is worth fighting for.’ And, if it doesn’t quite live up to that billing, it’s got more going on than the Star Wars Zen-by-numbers colouring book. Having won the war, the Alliance begins mind-washing its citizens to make them more content and placid. Unfortunately, as a side-effect, folks also lose the desire to go to work, to breed, and ultimately to live — except for a very small minority whom the mind-washing backfires on and turns into feral predators who destroy everything they come near. Hmm. Aside from anything else, Serenity is also an excellent allegory for the next ten years of the European Union.