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Firefly - "Serenity" Movie - Dramatica.com Review

Chris Huntley

Tuesday 21 February 2006, by Webmaster

"Serenity"

Serenity is a rollicking Sci-Fi/Fantasy film that manages to walk the fine line between serious science fiction and silly space opera. I found it surprisingly enjoyable. Based on the short-lived Firefly television series, Serenity successfully weaves a Dramatica grand argument story within several substories growing from its ensemble crew of unlikely heroes. For the sake of this analysis, I focus on the main story revolving around Serenity’s mysterious passenger, River (click here for a brief plot summary).

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read any further if you have not seen the film and wish to enjoy the surprises Serenity has to offer.

STORY ANALYSIS:

When I first sat down to find the storyform for Serenity, I got mixed up with the film’s interesting back story. I created a storyform using the Alliance’s desire to “change” its citizens’ behavior and it’s subsequent media manipulation to cover up the disastrous results. The resulting storyform was close but didn’t feel right.

I then decided to forget being clever and go with the obvious-River has escaped and the Alliance wants her back before the dangerous information contained within her psychologically damaged mind is revealed. Once I changed how I looked at the story, a storyform practically popped to life on its own. In fact, the second storyform is 95% similar to that of the first with the major difference being that I swapped the Overall Story and Main v. Impact Story throughlines. Once I did that, everything clicked.

CHARACTERS:

Though the Overall Story characters are not quite archetypes, they do fit them when looking at them broadly. Here’s my take on archetypes in Serenity:

* Protagonist: Malcome (Mal) Reynolds, Serenity’s captain. Though hardly archetypal, he is the principal character leading the charge to get River’s “message” out (once he understands what she’s about). * Antagonist: The Alliance and its primary representative, the Operative. * Guardian: Zoe, Serenity’s second in command, and Shepard Book. * Contagonist: Simon Tam, the doctor and River’s brother. * Skeptic: Jayne, Serenity’s muscle. * Sidekick: Kaylee, Serenity’s mechanic. * Reason: Wash, Serenity’s pilot. * Emotion: River, the Alliance’s psychologically damaged weapon.

There are several substories in the film as well. Since I’m not familiar with the series, I don’t know how many of these are carryovers from the TV show, but they play only minor diversions to the main story:

* Mal / Inara Relationship * Kaylee / Simon Romantic interest

Dramatica Storyform Settings:

I got down to a single storyform and decided to go into more depth than usual for a story analysis. As a result, I have uploaded the .DSF Dramatica story file for those using Dramatica or Writer’s DreamKit. It is not complete, but I’ve got a lot of the storytelling written. (Note: The DSF file contains the same material as follows.)

Story Points Output for "Serenity"

MC Resolve: Steadfast (the ultimate disposition of Malcome Reynolds to Change or Remain Steadfast as it concerns how Malcome Reynolds ultimately retains his essential nature):

Mal’s status as an opponent of all the Alliance stands for is sorely challanged. He fought for the rights of individual’s and continues to do so. When the Operator challenges Mal directly on this issue, Mal determines he is still willing to die for his stance. In his substory with Inara, he remains ambiguous about his feelings toward her: Mal: "So what are you going to do?" Inara: "I don’t know." Mal: "Good answer."

MC Growth: Stop (Malcome Reynolds’s growth toward an ending or beginning as it concerns how regarding Malcome Reynolds, the audience is waiting for something to end):

Mal struggles to outlast the conflicts with the crew and others caused by River’s presence, especially the pursuit by the Operative. On a more personal level, Mal waits while hoping for Inara to change her mind about their relationship.

MC Approach: Do-er (Malcome Reynolds’s preference for external or internal problem solving techniques as it concerns how Malcome Reynolds looks for a physical solution to his problem):

Mal’s crew needs money...he robs a bank. Inara is in trouble...he goes to rescue her. Mal needs to get past the Alliance armada...he picks a fight with the Reavers and let’s them chase him into battle, and so on.

MC Problem-Solving Style: Logical (Malcome Reynolds’s tendency toward linear or holistic problem solving as it concerns how Malcome Reynolds uses inherently logical (linear) problem solving techniques):

Cause and effect...Mal’s crew needs money...he robs a bank. Inara is in trouble...he goes to rescue her. Mal needs to get past the Alliance armada...he picks a fight with the Reavers and let’s them chase him into battle, and so on.

Story Driver: Action (the kind of activity that pushes the overall story forward as it concerns how in terms of the Overall plot, actions force decisions):

The inciting event is the kidnap/escape of River from Alliance control. The closing event is the broadcast of the Melinda recording. Other action driven key events include River’s reception of the hidden broadcast message and subsequent rampage, the destruction of Shepard Book’s outpost, etc.

Story Limit: Optionlock (the constraint of time or options that, by running out, forces the story to a climax as it concerns how the story climax occurs because all options have been exhausted):

Serenity has only a limited number of places it can go to ground before the Alliance will capture and destroy it.

Story Outcome: Success (a logistic assessment of how things ended up as it concerns how the original goal is achieved):

River’s message is broadcast to all available outlets. The Alliance’s dirty Melinda secrets are exposed.

Story Judgment: Good (the story assessment of whether or not Malcome Reynolds ultimately resolves his personal problem as it concerns how Malcome Reynolds ultimately succeeds in resolving his personal problems):

Mal’s over his past complications with Inara. He no longer feels his reputation is tarnished by his connection with the "losers" in the Alliance war.

THE OVERALL STORY THROUGHLINE:

OS Throughline: Activity (an activity or endeavor is the general area in which the Overall Story’s problem resides):

A secret human weapon named River has been kidnapped from Alliance headquarters and takes refuge on Serenity, a raider space ship

OS Concern: Obtaining (achieving or possessing something is the area of shared concern in the Overall Story):

The Alliance will do anything to retrieve or stop River, including sending out a ruthless assassin willing to destroy entire villages of NCO’s to get her back. River wants to get rid of her nightmarish “visions.” The captain wants money to fund his crew. The unseen rebels what River’s secrets revealed. And so on...

OS Issue: Self Interest (doing or being based on what is best for oneself is the Overall Story’s thematic focus):

The Alliance is looking out for it’s own best interests. The captain and crew of Serenity constantly argue over doing what’s best for them or for others. Simon’s willingness to risk the crew’s life for the safety of his sister, River.

OS Counterpoint: Morality (doing or being based on what is best for others is the Overall Story’s thematic rebuttal):

Getting the word out about "Melinda" in spite of the Alliance threat. Using the "calming" chemical to make better people. River’s concern for the others’ safety with her aboard the Serenity. Shepard Book’s willingness to harbor the Serenity fugitives.

OS Thematic Conflict: (the Overall Story’s thematic comparison as it balances Self Interest against Morality):

Should Mal have pushed the townie off their vehicle into guaranteed death at the hands of the Reavers (Self Interest) or kept the man and chucked the stolen money overboard (Morality)? Should the captain and crew of Serenity get rid of River (Self Interest) or take her to Melinda and reveal its secrets at any personal cost (Morality)?

OS Problem: Control (directed, constrained is the source of the Overall Story’s difficulties):

The Alliance’s efforts to control it’s populace killed everyone on Melinda. Their efforts to control their human assassin makes her unstable and a threat to all, including the Alliance. The captain’s efforts to control his crew creates greater conflict among them.

OS Solution: Uncontrolled (directionless, unconstrained is the actual remedy for the Overall Story’s problem(s)):

Freeing the information found on Melinda will undo the Alliance’s hold and warn the populace about the dangers of the Alliance’s efforts to control human evolution. Unleashing the frenzied Reavers allows the Serenity to break through an otherwise overwhelming Alliance armada.

OS Symptom: Pursuit (the drive to seek after is the principal symptom of the Overall Story’s problem(s)):

The Operatives chase after River results in hundreds of innocent deaths.

OS Response: Avoidance (stepping around, preventing or escaping from a problem is the apparent remedy for the principal symptom of the Overall Story’s problem(s)):

Run away, run away—the Serenity tries to hide from the Operative and the Alliance.

OS Benchmark: Understanding (appreciating the meaning of something is the standard by which progress is measured in the Overall Story):

The more the crew of Serenity understands who and what River is and the nature of the secrets she holds, the closer they get to their ultimate destination.

OS Catalyst: Approach (one’s methodology of doing or being is the kind of item which serves to push the Overall Story forward):

The Operative’s emotionless and ruthless approach to finding and retrieving River gets him closer to her faster than he would otherwise. Serenity’s captain and crew approach of meeting conflicts head on ("It’s a trap. Let’s go in.") speeds the eventual conflicts with the Operative and the Alliance.

OS Inhibitor: Delay (putting off until later is the kind of item which serves to impede the Overall Story’s progress):

The few tmes the Serenity ducks out of sight or the captain puts off making a decision about River slows down their conflict with the Alliance.

THE MAIN CHARACTER THROUGHLINE:

MC Throughline: Situation (a situation or environment is the realm of Malcome Reynolds’s personal journey and growth):

Mal is captain of the Serenity and haunted by the fact that he enlisted with and fought for the losers in the battle against the Alliance. It’s not so much a stigma as a dubious badge of honor.

MC Concern: The Future (what will happen or what will be is the issue or issues held in greatest importance by Malcome Reynolds):

Mal is deeply concerned with his crew’s future well-being, and the fact that he doesn’t seem to have much to look forward to (on a personal level) since Inara left.

MC Issue: Delay (putting off until later is Malcome Reynolds’s personal thematic focus, topic, or value standard):

Mal prefers to put off conflicts rather than to address them directly. Shepard chastises him for fence-sitting.

MC Counterpoint: Choice (making a decision is the thematic opposite to the area of Malcome Reynolds’s greatest sensitivity):

Mal doesn’t understand why others may choose him (as lover or leader), but is reluctant to fight it. On the other hand, he is quick and willing to make choices that may be unpopular.

MC Problem: Support (indirect assistance given to another’s efforts is the source of Malcome Reynolds’s drive; the source of Malcome Reynolds’s problems):

Mal gets riled up with bad things happen to those who support him.

MC Symptom: Pursuit (the drive to seek after is the area or item Malcome Reynolds believes the problem to be):

Mal got the short end of the stick when he signed up to fight with the rebels against the Alliance and the Alliance won. Mal believes chasing after Inara won’t solve anything.

MC Response: Avoidance (stepping around, preventing or escaping from a problem is the response of Malcome Reynolds to his apparent problems):

Mal steers clear of Inara and other personal entanglements to keep peace.

MC Benchmark: The Past (what has already happened is the standard by which Malcome Reynolds’s degree of growth is indicated):

We see Mal’s personal development as both Inara and his role as anti-Alliance fighter come more and more into his every life.

MC Unique Ability: Openness (willingness to reevaluate is the quality that makes Malcome Reynolds uniquely qualified to resolve the story’s problem):

Mal’s openness to River’s special qualities makes him take her back on board even though he knows how dangerous she can be. Mal’s openness to River’s certainty of the importance of "Matilda" gets them to find out River’s hidden secret. Mal’s openness to go against the odds and think outside the "box" lets them get past the Alliance armada and lets them broadcast the secret to the populace at large.

MC Critical Flaw: Self Interest (doing or being based on what is best for oneself is the quality that inhibits or undermines Malcome Reynolds’s effectiveness, specifically his Unique Ability):

When Mal acts in his own self interest, he loses credibility as a capable captain—his judgment is called into question. For example, when he chooses money over the villager during their bank robbery, and when he chooses to dump River and her brother off at the outpost because she’s a threat to Serenity’s safety.

THE IMPACT CHARACTER THROUGHLINE:

IC Throughline: Fixed Attitude (a fixed attitude or outlook is the general area in which The Operative operates):

The Operative is a single-minded assassin blindly adhering to the Alliance’s world view, even though he knows that is no place for him in it.

IC Concern: Innermost Desires (basic drives and desires is The Operative’s primary objective or purpose):

He finds faults in others through their "sins" but works to relieve them of their fears (to the opposite effect) as he kills them. For example, he kills the technician responsible for River after she escapes because the technician suffered the sin of "Pride" He rationalizes the technician’s death as a "good death" while the paralyzed technician slowly falls on the Operative’s upturned blade.

IC Issue: Hope (a desired future that falls within reasonable expectations is the area of The Operative’s greatest impact):

The Operative hopes to help bring about the Alliance’s "perfect" future even though he knows he is damned and that there is no place for him in it.

IC Problem: Control (directed, constrained is the nature of The Operative’s drive):

The Operative’s absolute control of his actions and ideaologies blinds him to behavior that occurs outside his influence. For example, his belief that he has absolute control over Inara blinds him to her planting a bomb in his presence. The Operative’s control over Mal using the "stun" move is critically ineffective because Mal had that nerve relocated after receiving a war wound.

IC Solution: Uncontrolled (directionless, unconstrained is the item, event, or process needed to truly satisfy The Operative’s drive):

The Operative lets the crew of Serenity go and goes on the lamb himself once the broadcast of Melinda’s secrets have been broadcast.

IC Symptom: Logic (a rational sense of how things are related is the area in which The Operative believes the problem can be resolved):

The Operative finds logic to be incompatible and cumbersome to maintaining his fanatical beliefs. This is one reason he does NOT worry about the rationale behind the Alliance’s plans.

IC Response: Feeling (an emotional sense of how things are going is The Operative’s point of attack):

The Operative exists in almost a fanatic’s calm fueled by an unassailable feeling of righteousness. This makes him a most effective killing machine.

IC Unique Ability: Closure (bringing something to an end or to completion is the quality that makes The Operative uniquely qualified to pressure Malcome Reynolds to change his nature):

The Operative impacts Mal by killing any known associates of his. This produces severe doubt in Mal’s efforts to help River.

IC Critical Flaw: Commitment (a decision to stick with something regardless of the consequences is the quality that inhibits or undermines The Operative’s impact):

The Operative’s fanatic willingness to do whatever is necessary to bring about the Alliance’s new world order undermines his effect on Mal because it there is no room for negotiation.

THE MAIN VS. IMPACT STORY THROUGHLINE:

M/I Throughline: Manipulation (a manner of thinking or demeanor is the general area of difficulty between Malcome Reynolds and The Operative):

Mal and the Operative play a game of psychological cat and mouse as hunted and hunter. The Operative tries a variety of psychological pressures (threat, fear, guilt, intimidation) while Mal counters with his own feints and unexpected reversals (knowingly enters traps, etc.).

M/I Concern: Changing One’s Nature (transforming one’s nature is the topic of contention between Malcome Reynolds and The Operative):

Mal is quite content to continue being his independent self, but the Operative thinks all those that can should be "evolved" per the Alliance’s plans—that or erased.

M/I Issue: Commitment (a decision to stick with something regardless of the consequences is the Main vs. Impact Story’s thematic focus):

The Operative is committed to the Alliance’s cause even though he will never be a part of their new world. Mal is firmly committed to his crew, even though their support of him is sorely tested.

M/I Problem: Faith (accepting something as certain without proof is the underlying cause of the difficulties between Malcome Reynolds and The Operative):

The Operative pity’s Mal because Mal does not share the fanaticism of his faith in the Alliance. The Operative’s faith energizes Mal to prove the Operative wrong which Mal ultimately does when he challenges the Operative’s faith by forcing the Operative to watch the Melinda broadcast.

M/I Solution: Disbelief (the belief that something is untrue is the specific element that can resolve the difficulties between Malcome Reynolds and The Operative):

The Operative’s eventual disbelief in the Alliance brings the former foes into their own tentative alliance.

M/I Symptom: Pursuit (the drive to seek after is the area in which Malcome Reynolds and The Operative’s attention is concentrated):

Though the Operative’s directive is to pursue and procure River, his growing hunter/hunted relationship with Mal makes it more personal.

M/I Response: Avoidance (stepping around, preventing or escaping from a problem is the nature of growth in the relationship between Malcome Reynolds and The Operative):

Mal does his best to keep away from contact with the Operative.

M/I Benchmark: Developing a Plan (visualizing how an existing idea might be implemented is the standard by which growth between Malcome Reynolds and The Operative is measured):

We can see the tightening of Mal and the Operative’s relationship as hunted and hunter as the cat and mouse game plans become clearer. While Mal is completely unaware of his hunted status at the beginning, he is nearly completely aware by the time he tries to warn his friends to leave before they’re attacked-too late.

CENTRAL PLOT POINTS:

Story Goal: Obtaining (achieving or possessing something is the central "objective" of the Overall Story):

River (and the knowledge she holds) is clearly the object of desire by the Alliance. The foes of the Alliance (the “good guys”) want her secrets exposed. The Story Goal is to make known the secret hidden within River.

Story Consequence: Changing One’s Nature (transforming one’s nature is the result of failing to achieve the goal):

The lesson of Melinda will not be learned and a likely repeat of the Alliance’s efforts to "evolve" mankind may result in extinction of most of the human race.