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From Montereyherald.com


Sci-fi fans, rejoice : "Serenity" delivers

By Barbara Rose Shuler

Sunday 9 October 2005, by Webmaster

Hey, sis, have you seen ’Firefly?’"

"What’s ’Firefly’?" I ask.

My brother exuded a focused enthusiasm that told me he had just struck entertainment gold. A teacher and psychotherapist by profession, with an extensive background in live theater production and performance, my sibling also possesses a discriminating nose for art and excellence in television and film.

Especially savvy about adventure, science-fiction and fantasy genres, he’s hard to satisfy in these realms, so when he’s on fire about a new discovery, it’s worth stopping to listen. I did.

"’Firefly’ is superb character-plot driven TV space opera for intelligent, mature audiences with very gifted people at the helm delivering excellent, unique direction, acting and camera work," he said on one breath.

"After watching five minutes of an episode, I knew this is what we’ve all been waiting for: a series that delivers the quality and substance of the best science fiction writers but in a television format. I mean, finally science fiction has come of age in the modern medium of film.

"Wow, Mark!" I said. "Who created it?"

"Joss Whedon," came the answer. "’Firefly’ came out in 2002 on Fox, which only ran 11 of the 14 episodes — out of sequence, I might add — and then dropped it, the fools. So hardly anybody saw it. But the fans kept the flames alive so when the DVD version came out, a huge new audience quickly developed."

I recalled my esteemed dramaturge friend Dan speaking highly of Whedon’s earlier work. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was it? Sheesh! I haven’t seen the shows.

"And, guess what?" My brother was clearly about to deliver the coup de grace. "Whedon’s feature film version of ’Firefly’ opens in a week. It’s produced by Universal Studios and it’s called ’Serenity.’"

"Hmmm. OK. You definitely have my attention," I said.

Mark and I grew up on a remote island town in southeastern Alaska that came late to television. Our scientist-physician dad often relaxed by reading science fiction; hence the shelves were packed with short stories, novellas and novels by masters of the genre such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Zenna Henderson, Harlen Ellison, Frank Herbert and many more.

Undistracted by TV screens, I dived into this endless supply of imaginative fiction in early grade school with a ferocious, indiscriminate zeal that peaked in my late teens. Then I turned into a hard-to-please sci-fi snob who took refuge in nonfiction and classics.

About that time my brother discovered the genre and, like our father, made it a permanent part of his life.

"Tell me more about this ’Firefly,’" I said. We talked about the Whedon series for about two hours. Mark belongs to an informal group of local, bright, literate sci-fi-fantasy buffs. They share information and materials, meeting when they can for video showings, film openings and lively discussions.

Only once in their decade together had all the members given unanimous thumbs-up to a film: Peter Jackson’s "Fellowship of the Ring" from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Sci-fi group member Stephan had finally succeeded in sitting Mark down to watch a few episodes of "Firefly." Now both of us wanted to get our hands on those DVDs. I immediately rush-ordered the full set.

The rest of the week ascended into a happy blur of "Firefly" episodes, accompanied by commentaries, features, forays to the Internet and lots of discussions.

Whedon proves a master dramatist, filmmaker and director who develops his narrative with Dickensian care and sophistication. Each one-hour episode counts as a gripping chapter in a longer epic that gradually reveals fascinating, complex character relationships, intriguing plot twists and interlacing themes.

Whedon — an honest and independent-minded artist — avoids Hollywood formulaic writing, filming, editing, directing, computer graphics and casting. His characters are both flawed and heroic but heroic in the way of real people prevailing in tough, challenging circumstances. They become a scrappy, self-chosen family who survive by their wits, loyalty, skill and grit. By episode 4, I was smitten with all of them.

The drama takes place 500 years in the future and follows the adventures of maverick-loner Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the motley band that crews his beloved rattletrap space vessel, Serenity. Serenity is a "Firefly-class" cargo ship.

A large planetary system has been populated by humans — no aliens, thank you! — whose ancestors left Earth to colonize space. Select moons and planets have undergone a scientific process called terraforming, which provides earth-style habitations for the settlers often reminiscent of the Old West.

The central planets are governed by an alliance that formed out of the "earth that was" from its two remaining superpowers, China and America. The series opens in the wake of a devastating civil war between the core planets and the independent outer planets that tightened the imperialistic grip of the Alliance.

Capt. Reynolds, known to his crew as Mal, and his female second in command, Zoe, fought as soldiers for the independents. They live a Robin Hood-style existence aboard the Serenity, stealing from the Alliance and selling goods to the outer colonists, cut off from the comforts and bounty of the Alliance planets.

Mal hires three more crew: a droll pilot named Wash, who later becomes Zoe’s husband; Kaylee, the charming ship’s engineer who possesses an eye for the lads and a genius for machines; and a brawny mercenary named Jayne. Inara, a stunningly beautiful, sought-after interplanetary Geisha, works out a strict business arrangement with Mal that allows her to meet with clients in her rented Serenity shuttlecraft and use it as transport to her elite on-planet clients. In return she provides occasional cover for Mal through her highly placed connections.

Paying passengers include Book, a sworn man of God with an enigmatic past, and a brother and sister, whom we soon learn are fugitives from the Alliance. Dr. Simon Tam has rescued his cherished mega-genius sister River from evil mind-tampering by a secret government cabal that intends to use her enhanced powers for dark purposes. Unfortunately for the Serenity crew, these shadowy Alliance figures mean to retrieve River however Machiavellian or deadly the means.

By Sept. 30, I had secured an invitation to join Mark’s sci-fi group for the opening of "Serenity," followed by its traditional debriefing session.

Whedon made the transition from television series to big-screen feature film with seamless elegance. The movie made a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to my full-immersion "Firefly" week. Well, that is, except for the moment that broke my heart (and that of every other "Firefly" enthusiast) with the demise of a beloved character. No Hollywood formulas, remember.

At the all-night eatery, over coffee and food, we dissected "Serenity." Present at this eclectic band of irregulars were the encyclopedic computer whiz J.R., who denounced film critics with a menacing growl; a multitalented, raven-haired beauty named Beverly and her husband Patrick; Mark, a writer and emergency medical technician; Stephan, a gregarious, savvy entrepreneur; and my brother.

For the second time in 10 years, the group heaped unanimous praised upon a film, including Mark the writer, who had not seen the original series.

Whedon, his actors and associates are reportedly eager to produce more "Serenity" feature films or even extend the television series. The film ranked in the No. 2 position at the box office its first weekend, beaten out only by Jodie Foster’s "Flightplan." Time will reveal "Serenity’s" destiny.

"Hey, Dan, have you seen ’Firefly?’" I ask my dramaturge friend.

"Not yet but I hear it’s terrific. I love Joss Whedon!"

"I remember," I say. "By the way, can I trade you my ’Firefly’ series for your ’Buffy, the Vampire Slayer’ episodes?"

"Sure," says Dan, "That is if I still have my ’Buffy’ DVDs by the time I see you. It turns out my son is equally taken by ’Firefly’ and Josh Whedon. He also insists I see them all.

"And now, after my telling him for years to watch ’Buffy’ and putting up with his film-school derision about his old father watching high-school geeks kill vampires, he wants to borrow ’Buffy.’ Figures! He should have listened to me in the first place."

To view trailers for "Serenity" and to read a message from director Joss Whedon, go to www.serenitymovie.com