(LOOKS LIKE THE ENDNOTES DIDN'T MAKE IT OVER TO THIS POST.)
The shot of Mal kissing the cross is so quick that it is easy to miss, literally lasting 1-2 seconds. The conjunction of Mal’s expression of faith with Serenity Valley and the turning of the war to bitter defeat is necessary to understanding Mal’s later expressions of disdain for faith and its practice and the ways in which he is, for all intents and purposes, stuck in Serenity Valley. This is true for the scene which follows: the camera focuses upon Mal watching the Alliance ships descend – shooting Bendis in the process, contrary to Mal’s earlier assurances to Bendis of heavenly protection.[xiii] The mise-en-scène is essential here as well, with Mal’s face shot half in shadow, low key lighting, no ambient sound (music replaces it), the slow motion death of Bendis, and the slow dolly in to a close-up shot of Mal’s shocked face. Time literally slows down and ensnares Mal within Serenity Valley like an insect in amber. The impact of this moment is shown in part through the editing, cutting from this shot to Mal upside down “six years later,” which suggests the continued upheaval of Mal’s world (Buckman). These six years represent a large gap which will not be addressed until “Out of Gas” fills in some of that time, providing additional thick moments. The lack of observable growth during that period suggests that six years later is very little time indeed for someone who is still stuck in the past.[xiv]
In Cynthea Masson’s essay on “The Girl in Question,” an episode from another Joss Whedon production, Angel, she argues a point that reverbrates throughout the Whedonverse: the need to move on from one’s past or risk getting stuck there in a Waiting for Godot-like crisis. This is vital to Firefly as well as to the other Whedon productions, including Buffy. Mal’s loss of faith is not truly a loss: he remains burdened by his anger over God’s seeming desertion of him at Serenity Valley and the ensuing Browncoat defeat, so much so that the ship, which represents freedom to Mal (“Out of Gas”), instead represents his stagnancy: “There’s no place I can be since I’ve found Serenity.” Serenity, which is meant to be a state of peace and equilibrium, instead is a sign for the battle never fully left behind. He literally carries it around with him through the sky.[xv] Badger remarks on this in the “Serenity” pilot, going so far as to state that Mal is not a captain; instead, “…I think you’re still a sergeant. Still a soldier. Man of honor in a den of thieves.” One useful moment of “The Train Job” is finding out that Mal always manages to find himself “in an Alliance-friendly bar…come U[nification] day.” In this episode, he finds himself on the edge of a precipice, surrounded by Alliance-friendly barflies, and he remarks to Zoe,“This is why we lost [the war]. Superior numbers.” “Thanks for the re-enactment, Sir,” Zoe dryly replies. He is stuck, repeating time and place incessantly. In “Bushwhacked,” the captain of the Alliance ship observes, “For some, the war will never be over… I notice your ship’s called Serenity. …Some say…the war ended in that valley. Seems odd you’d name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of,” getting at Mal’s refusal to move past Serenity Valley. Such inability to work through the past is one more aspect of generic characterization for the Western hero and the war veteran, both of whom generally carry the past with them (see, for example, John Ford’s Stagecoach or the more recent Dances with Wolves). John Cawelti writes that the violent past of the Western hero often serves to alienate him from community (82); while Mal has formed his own tightly knit community on Serenity, including even a few who did not fight in the war or who actively supported unification (Wash, Jayne, River and Simon did not fight, and Inara supported it), he is alienated from the larger ‘verse. Mary Alice Money notes, regarding Mal in “Out of Gas,” “The hero remains, ultimately, locked away, maintaining his status as loner even while we watch his memories unfold” (123).[xvi]
One might argue that River’s character is static as well: her path to recovery from the experimentation performed by the Alliance is uncertain and slow. This experimentation – and the mysterious men with hands of blue – pursues her and prevents her from moving on. However, such moments as her nightmares, one example of which occurs in “The Train Job,” provide thick moments in which place and time intertwine. Time and place are experienced differently within the dreamscape than within reality. The pain and terror River feels is communicated visually and aurally with expressionistic sounds of pain and a rhythmic noise that suggests a heartbeat. The cinematography of the nightmare scene is important: the bright lights, blurry quality of the picture, and use of spotlight drown out the details of place even as place – both within a laboratory and within Alliance control – and time are exceptionally important. Extreme closeups of her head, hands, and puncture sites, off center framing, lack of clarity, and slow motion as well as bright lighting and expressionistic sound form a moment out of time and place that is simply nightmarish and neverending. The latter seems true even once she awakes since she cannot leave this past behind due to the literal physical and emotional trauma she has suffered as a result of it.
Once onboard Serenity, River must be coaxed into the surgical bay because it reminds her of the trauma endured at the hands of the Alliance. This trauma is the best evidence – other than their callous attitude and storm trooper-esque costumes – that the Alliance is suspect as a system until the film Serenity. Due to its narrative placement, the nightmare scene of the Alliance’s manipulation of River becomes analogous to Nisska’s torture of those who fail him: it becomes a critique of the system in place. Additionally, as a result of the predominant generic elements of the series, one might view River’s story as a captivity narrative, a reversal in which the forces of order and civilization take on the role of the barbaric savage of the traditional Western even as the origin story of the Reavers – which differs importantly from that which we saw in the series – will be revealed as a story of fascistic control and imperialism.
The editing of the first scene of Serenity makes clear this connection between imperialism and River’s story; Jeffrey Bussolini, in “A Geopolitical Interpretation of Serenity,” argues that the film is a critical commentary on U.S. foreign relations as well as “policies of pharmaceutical and military control” (139). Mercedes Lackey connects the Alliance’s use of psychological warfare to 20th and 21st century American political life as well (64). In the opening scene of the film, River’s teacher is explaining the conflict between the Alliance and the Independents as one resulting from the foolhardy and misguided ignorance of the Independents. The scenery of this central planet is peaceful and lush, the classroom outdoors, and the teacher mildmannered and softspoken. Time progresses at a normal, relaxed pace. Asking why the Independents would reject the Alliance, the teacher approaches River, who has offered that, “We meddle….We’re in their homes and in their heads, and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” “River,” she responds, “we’re not telling people what to think. We’re just trying to show them how.” She then stabs at River’s forehead with River’s stylus, which then becomes a needle stabbed into River’s head by one of the doctors in the lab. “She’s dreaming.” “Got that? Off the charts.” “Scary monsters.” The editing creates a direct link between education, experimentation on humans, and imperialism. The teacher becomes the doctor’s “scary monsters” just as, later, a Reaver will attack River in her memory of this moment. Sharon Sutherland and Sarah Swan discuss this scene as well in their essay on Serenity as dystopic fiction. They write, “The message [of this scene] is abundantly clear: the state has won the war and will not tolerate questions as it teaches its children its version of history” (93), and they argue that dystopic fiction often addresses the manipulation of history in the education of the populace (93). That this manipulation occurs within the heart of the Alliance is appropriate as well, suggesting the rotten core of the system.
The events on Miranda function as a parallel for River’s abuse at the hands of the Alliance. It is River who finds the tape detailing the effects of the Pax, and the mise-en-scène suggests that the female scientist recording the information is speaking directly to River – with River even mouthing the scientist’s words along with her at one moment, seeming to know what the scientist will say. After the tape is turned off and River vomits, she is able to positively respond to Simon’s query about her health: “alright. I’m alright.” Her repetition, her tone, and her glance upward at her brother in surprise seems to suggest that this new knowledge has healed her, has allowed her to integrate the fragments of her self as she recogizes her own abuse by the Alliance as analogous to the abuse of the population of Miranda, which, although it occurred 12 years previous, seems to function as if in the present through the hologram. The fear of the Reavers evident in the holographic woman’s words is very much a fear for the present crew as well. Sealed off for those twelve years from the rest of the system due, once again, to the manipulation of history and knowledge, Miranda exists as if in a time bubble that is burst once the crew of Serenity discovers her secret.
Now that River has control of this information, she has power over it; she is no longer able to be controlled by the Alliance, and her crew does not need to fear her as unknown danger. Knowledge, combined with the force of community, has given her the ability to NOT be a Reaver. This is the story the Alliance wanted to keep from River and the rest of the ‘verse; by gaining access to knowledge, she becomes a threat to their control over both her body and the worlds. Place, time, and movement coalesce through Miranda, River, and Mal’s pasts and the physical site/sight of this trauma in the present; this chronotope engages with the ideology of both science fiction and Western genres of Serenity, leading up to the moment of the Western’s last stand.
What we see in these examples of River and Mal is the interaction of place with time, character, genre, and ideology. Each of these moments focuses on the individual and their loss of a sense of control over the world, a theme important to the borderland location of the Western as well as a signal of its postmodern construction and production; science fiction often relies upon the motif of autonomy as well. When both the Captain and River gain the knowledge of Miranda in Serenity, it enables their action, their withdrawal from unproductive stasis. The Captain feels free to embrace the “bad guy” within (although he becomes the white hat by distributing knowledge) while River takes her “turn” at protecting Simon and the rest of the crew; both commit to the last stand. And yet one might wonder what the outcome of this stand will be and whether it will bring meaningful change. The philosophy here seems similar to that expressed in Whedon’s Angel: “if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do” (“Epiphany” 2.16).
The final moments of Joss Whedon’s Serenity are typical of Hollywood cinema: Captain Reynolds and River sit on the bridge of the ship, Serenity, and the former gives an aptly romantic speech about how love keeps a spaceship flying. Enemies vanquished, at least for the moment, and casualties tallied, Reynolds and River will fly off into the sunset with their remaining crew, living to fight another day. This neatly wrapped bit of closure differs, however, from the narrative momentum of the television series Firefly and the first portion of the feature film Serenity. One might wonder why it differs – isn’t this prototypical Hollywood ending reflective of many Western and science fiction and fantasy stories and thus a fitting end? A chronotopic analysis would suggest that this ending would be appropriate in that it does reflect the usual generic Hollywood ending. However, in analyzing the construction of time and space within Firefly and Serenity, we may see why so much of the series does not fit within the framework of the ending. Though a comforting and triumphant ending for fans who lamented the early cancellation of Firefly, providing them with some narrative closure, this ending is in stark contrast to the dominant construction of time and place within the series and the first part of the film; the narrative relies upon constant movement between the past and present.
In discussing the chronotope, Bakhtin theorized about the text as a whole. Here, I have discussed a few moments that seem particularly charged in terms of the interaction of time and place with the narrative and its ideology. Set several hundred years in the future, Firefly and Serenity rely upon genres firmly rooted in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In using the Western, Whedon relies upon a genre which emphasizes the individual in conflict with both order and chaos, as represented respectively by the forces of civilization and ‘barbarism’, one which generally dealt with a nation torn apart in the aftermath of the Civil War. The science fiction aspect provides models for dystopia and the depiction of scientific inquiry. Both genres move toward a revised manifest destiny. By setting the series and the film within a future and yet using past – although tweaked – narrative modes, the narrative action itself is firmly embedded within the past, much like the Captain and River. Mal and his crew are trapped physically, temporally, and generically between the border and the core planets and between past and future, endlessly moving.
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