Serenity: A Cliché But True

Time for a little foray into the world of Science Fiction as I watched an old favourite of mine last night: Serenity, released in 2005. The movie was produced as a closing statement to a prematurely cancelled television series called Firefly after fans and Joss Whedon pressured the studio into making it.

The Serenity universe consists of a single stellar system with multiple stars and terraformed planets moving in orbit around a central star. The inner planets are high-tech and “civilised”, ruled by The Alliance, with the outer independent planets being a modern version of the Wild West, governed at a distance by the Alliance.

Serenity is the name of the craft in which the protagonists ply their trade, a trade that often sees them on the wrong side of the law.

The Captain is Malcolm Reynolds, a veteran of a civil war between the Alliance and Independents that the Alliance won. Mal was on the loosing side and this colours his thinking a little. OK, a lot.

Mal’s First Mate is Zoe Washburn, his Lieutenant from the war. She’s a tough bitch but very likeable. The Pilot is Hoban “Wash” Washburn, married to Zoe. Master-At-Arms is the mercenary Jayne Cobb, a gun for hire who constantly reminds everybody that he would switch sides for the right amount of money (though we all know he’s really a softie). Rounding out the crew is the Engineer, well actually Mechanic, Kaylee Frye. Kaylee is a mix of flower child, love struck teenager, and genius mechanic.

The cause of bad blood between Mal and the Alliance rests in the other two people on board, Simon and River Tam. Simon is a brilliant Doctor acting as the Serenity’s Medic who gave up everything to rescue, and re-rescue, his sister River from the Alliance who were conditioning her to be a weapon. River, thanks to that conditioning, is a psychic, a fighting machine, and vaguely insane in a cute but scary sort of way.

At one point in the movie, as River’s madness starts to take on a focus, she talks about the men of the shadowy government behind the Alliance from who she inadvertently discovered a secret.

Old men, steeped in blood. It doesn’t touch them but they are drowning in it.

River Tam, Serenity

This quote is one seldom mentioned in favour of the more jovial quotes, mostly from Mal. Personally I find it profound and a thoroughly accurate description of the ruling classes of our world. The real one, out here. The wording has an almost Shakespearian sound.

With very few exceptions politicians and generals have always been quick to go from idea to discussion to argument and then into war. Yet somehow, until such time as war is lost, they seem exempt from the consequences of that mindset. Their children too, again with very few exceptions, manage to somehow stay remote from actual conflict. The wealthiest of the society, along with their scions, also remain safe … until they end up on the loosing side.

The people who actually fight are always those from the lowest socio-economic strata of society. Their masters in battle come from the next level up, with their masters resting even further up the ladder. This pattern is seen throughout history, except where some mighty ruler wished to be seen by his people as a conquering hero and writes, or rewrites, the history books to show this.

Another quote, this time from Mal, explains this rewriting of history quite nicely.

Half of writing history is hiding the truth.

Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity

Even famous warrior kings of Medieval times put their most expendable, otherwise known as poorest, people in front. Once they were winning, the king would ride into battle to claim his prize. Alternatively, once his minions were wiped out and there was no choice, the king would fight for his life … or run away and hide.

But back to the movie!

The omnipresent secret police, common to every country on Earth in one form or another, is represented in Serenity by The Operative. He’s the man-without-a-name who has ultimate authority and power at the behest of the government. Played by brilliantly Chiwetel Ejiofor the character is a cold, calculating single-minded believer in what his masters tell him, never questioning what is right or wrong.

Those masters are trying to create a civilisation that is peaceful and compliant, with disasterous effects for the guinea pigs living on one planet.

All-in-all, I reckon Serenity is a bloody good example of how to write a movie that is both fun and engaging. It tells a moral story without moralising and combines fun with some pretty deep concepts and fast-paced action.

More on Serenity:

More on Firefly:

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