Finding Serenity : Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly
by Jane Espenson
Review by Kit Mason
Benbella Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1932100431
Date: 01 April, 2005 List Price $17.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Was Joss Whedon's Firefly a dystopic space opera or a postmodern feminist western? Did it take a serious look at a possible future or did it interpret our own times to us in a visual language we could understand? Whedon has specialized in creating fictional universes so textured and memorable that they inspire discussion on more complex levels than simply who-did-what-to-whom. Jane Espenson, scriptwriter for all of Whedon's series, has brought together an intriguing collection of essays on the Firefly universe.
In "Star Truck", David Gerrold, who wrote the script for the original Star Trek episode, "The Trouble With Tribbles", examines how the science-fiction-western universe was designed, in comparison with Star Wars and science-fiction television shows. Larry Dixon, in "The Reward, The Details, The Devils, The Due", considers the ways in which technology and character in the series reflect the real-life experiences of soldiers and life in less-than-affluent society. "Asian Objects in Space" by Leigh Adams-Wright critiques the integration of Chinese symbols, culture and characters in the Alliance, and suggests alternatives that could have been pursued if the series had continued. (For the completists among us, the book features an "Unofficial Glossary of Firefly Chinese" containing translations and suggested pronunciation for every Chinese phrase or ideogram used in the series.) "Listening to Firefly" by Jennifer Goltz discusses how changes in the series music affect viewers understanding of character. Actress Jewel Staite's commentary on her favorite parts of each episode adds a little mind candy from inside the set.
"Thanks for the Re-enactment, Sir" by Tanya Huff considers the many roles of Zoe, the only warrior woman on television who kept her clothes on. "The Captain May Wear the Tight Pants, But It's the Gals Who Make Serenity Soar" by Robert B. Taylor views the women of the ship as role models. "Whores and Goddesses" by Joy Davidson examines subversive female archetypes portrayed by Inara. "I Want Your Sex: Gender and Power in Joss Whedon's Dystopian Future World" by Nancy Holder finds this show's universe situated more in the past than the future, to the detriment of its characters. "More Than a Marriage of Convenience" by Michelle Sagara West, considers Wash and Zoe as having a marriage of adults, a relationship unlike any shown on other Whedon series.
I couldn't stop laughing while reading "Firefly v. The Tick" by Don Debrandt and "Mirror/Mirror" by Roxane Longstreet-Conrad, while "The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Firefly" by Glenn Yeffeth, had me snickering at the thought of the show being approved (or not) by any version of the bounty hunter from the episode "Objects in Space".
Speaking of that bounty hunter, Lyle Zanda compares him to Sartre's Roquentin in "We?re All Just Floating In Space" and sees the character's discussions of choice as raising existentialist and theological issues.
Two essays struck me as more politically grounded than others. Mercedes Lackey evaluates the nature of freedom and bondage in the Alliance universe -- and finds less freedom than might be expected -- in "Serenity and Bobby McGee". John C. Wright's "Just Shove Him In The Engine, or The Role of Chivalry in Joss Whedon's Firefly" views Whedon's vision as ineffective in its presentation of the traditionally understood Code of the West -- but Wright's thesis seems to me to prefer the cinematic view of the West to that seen in historical accounts and journals of pioneers and settlers.
In the chilling "The Heirs of Sawney Beane", Lawrence Watt-Evans considers the historical and mythic context from which come the series inhuman Reivers, cannibals so dangerous that the mention of them terrifies even the toughest fighters.
The sad fact remains that Firefly was officially unsuccessful as a series, cancelled before all the episodes were ever shown on American television. Ginjer Buchanan surveys the likely culprits for its demise in "Who Killed Firefly?". And "The Train Job Didn't Do the Job" by Keith R. Candido questions the effect of the first episode chosen to air on the success of the series.
Although I've sorted the essays by theme here, the book employs no such categories. This may be less helpful to fans of the series who are more interested in critique of specific issues than in simply delving into the discussions. However, unlike the similar essay anthology Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale, the reader need not have an extensive understanding of academic criticism in order to enjoy these essays. I often found myself arguing with the authors as I read, as the essays inspired further thought and questions. This is a tribute to the richness of thought that went into them, as well as the skill of the writing.
Finding Serenity should interest any fan of Joss Whedon's series as well as media fans in general, and should not be too lightweight for academic media studies students as well. It's a good thing to read while we wait for the movie, Serenity, to come out.