Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Serenity Found

The latest in my quest to read any and all things sci-fi-related was discovered in Serenity Found: More Essays On Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe [Completely Unauthorized]. These collections are always a hit and miss bag of fun. I also have to admit I'm a bit partial to analysis books than I am original fiction. It's a sickness. While I should be enjoying original stories I always get caught up in dissecting other people's analysis of my favorite shows. It gives me the chance to be the final arbiter and judge on someone's take, right or wrong, and their assessment of the shows near and dear to my heart.

Anyway, I had read the previous book, Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds And Space Hookers In Joss Whedon's Firefly, some time ago back before I began blogging, so I'll need to revisit that at some point to write about it. Both books are published by Benbella. I love their collections. I had previously given my thoughts on Stepping Through The Stargate: Science, Archaeology And The Military In Stargate SG-1 also by Benbella.

The two Firefly-centric publications are edited by the normally fantastic Jane Espenson [this one edited with Leah Wilson]. So here we are with Serenity Found, the sequel to Finding Serenity and since Joss Whedon made the film, Serenity, this book builds upon the previously ephemeral series and combines analysis with thoughts on the film.

To say I liked Firefly is an understatement. It's an amazing series. One of the best. I hope to squeeze an episode by episode analysis in someday before I die.
Let's take a look chapter by chapter at Serenity Found. There are 19 chapters if you include the Introduction.
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Introduction: Espenson pours much praise on Joss Whedon albeit deservedly and not without great reasoning.
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Catching Up With The Future: Orson Scott Card really does a number on many of our favorite science fiction shows doling out all kinds of criticism here, there and everywhere. He's an unabashed Firefly fan and, like myself, saw the series long after it was cancelled. He got me quite annoyed with one section in particular. Leonard Nimoy might beg to differ and take him to task with his analysis. After reading I Am Spock, he'd never let him get away with this one. "Scif-fi films and television shows had no characters whatsoever. Oh, they had people wearing costumes and saying lines, but once you had stated their role, there was nothing more to say. On Star Trek, what were the crew of the Enterprise after you set aside their ethnicity and their job description on the ship? Nothing." Ouch! I mean perhaps you can argue it to a point, but the chemistry of these actors and the characters they played made this series endure. He takes it one step too far here. "And as for Spock, he was a one-note character (He gave the illusion of being an interesting character because he was played by the one excellent actor in the series)." WOW! I think there are a few actors on that show that would beg to differ with you Mr. Card including one pompous William Shatner. I really felt he was way off base. Here, let's add insult to injury and give you his final parting shot. "(I realize, of course, that saying these things will result in Trekkers burning me in effigy, but it's simply true. We know what film and television characterization looks like-finally-and it simply was not present, was not even attempted, in Star Trek-or, I must add, any of its spin-offs and sequel series. It simply wasn't part of the formula as it is today in, say, Lost or Medium)." HOLY COW! What were these characters played by? Card board cutouts. Seriously, Lost even better Medium? We'll see where Medium is in ten years. Formula? I thought you didn't care for formula. You said it yourself. Look, I understand Card's point, but it is a different era and what was achieved in the 1960s with Star Trek, with character, was pretty profound. Excuse me, I have an effigy to burn. Okay....I'm back. Oh and Blade Runner was "good." Uh-huh. This guy rips just about anything sci-fi, but Firefly, at least a little. As much as this guy pissed me off, I really liked his article. I really did. You never saw that one coming did you?
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Mars Needs Women: How A Dress, A Cake, And A Goofy Hat Will Save Science Fiction: Maggie Burns concentrates on the female element of the show, girl power if you will. She doesn't dog other science-fiction quite as intensely. It's another solid entry. She makes a few cool points worth mentioning. First, she points out Farscape's success, but that it was centered upon an alien-centric cast as opposed to a human one like Firefly. "The only sci-fi television show that has ever dared to tell the truth like this was Farscape, which only got away with it because every character except the hero was an alien. Farscape showed us messy,gross, violent, crazy alien life in Technicolor... Until Firefly, we never saw so much reality played out with people." Next, she makes a great point here, but again it was a defining character by its creators within a military context, "I adore the admirable Samantha Carter of Stargate SG-1, but she is just not representative of most women I've ever met." That's pretty funny. Finally, she talks about how the crew of Serenity are real and deal with real, emotions, scraping by, surviving, scrapping it out. They even lived on a ship that felt lived in with food and "dirty dishes" as she puts it. I love this line. "Didn't you always wonder about the bathrooms on the Enterprise?" I didn't actually, but now that you mention it, I really think there is a lot to discover on the next Star Trek series within the ship itself. Bring on those bathroom urinals! We want details!
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Girls, Guns, Gags: Why The Future Belongs To The Funny: Natalie Haynes really delves into why Firefly was such a success thanks in part to the humor. Like alot of female writers she really zeroes in on Joss Whedon's ability to write strong female characters. Still, she makes a great point that men are well-represented too, case in point, Mal Reynolds. It's another fine essay. My favorite line: "Zoe is what Condoleezza Rice would be if she were in the future and had a better boss- smart, brave, and compassionate, with really nice outfits." I love that!
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River Tam And The Weaponized Women Of The Whedonverse: Michael Marano delves into the world of Whedon's female characters as weapons. He begins with Alien: Resurrection. This brings me to a point I finally had the chance to write about. I think I knew, but may have forgotten and it came as a bit of a revelation that Joss Whedon had provided the script for the fourth, much maligned and underrated Alien installment. Here's the thing. I have always been a huge fan of that film. In fact, I've seen it a few times, because it's just so damn creepy and scary and it just freaks me out. The film was truly massacred by critics upon arrival. Marano is correct in assessing Whedon's characters as weapons. Ripley has truly become one in this film beautifully directed by then future star director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Here are the reasons to this day I qualify Alien: Resurrection as a great piece of science-fiction: First, the Joss Whedon script. Second, director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Third, Brad Dourif [Babylon 5's Passing Through Gethsemane], Ron Perlman and of course Sigourney Weaver all star. The script, the cast, the atmosphere and the ship [the Betty- it's just so Whedon!] are all highlights for me. Everything about it is the perfect fusion of Whedon and Jeunet and I had since forgotten about the fusion of the two. I never knew the reasons why I loved it so much, but they are obvious in retrospect. I had to jump in with my own thoughts on the aforementioned film because it has always bothered me that it has been so strongly ridiculed and belittled. About the only error in judgment for me was the use of some of the CGI. Anyway, the article is written at an academic level with loads of River Tam examples and, if you like it, loads of Buffy, which I haven't actually seen.
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I, Malcolm: Nathan Fillion provides personal insight into his experience as a cast member on Firefly. It's a nice piece with humor. He refers to his experience as "super duper." I love that phrase. It's such an old, nostalgic way to describe something cool. While on the subject, I actually became a huge Nathan Fillion fan after witnessing this series. It's been kind of sad to see him bounce from job to job, some successful, some not. I think he'd return to Firefly in a heartbeat if they reignited the old girl. In the meantime it almost feels as though he's always trying to find the right place in the universe for himself since having such a wonderful experience with his fellow castmates on that show. Let's do a quick run through since his days on Firefly and before that One Life To Live. Before his launch to science fiction stardom he had a brief part in none other than Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan as well as an episode of The Outer Limits [Star Crossed]. Following the demise of Firefly it has been a struggle. He's appeared in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Desperate Housewives [good Lord], Lost [he was Kate's main squeeze in flashback episode I Do], and Drive [he was a primary cast member in this even shorter-lived ensemble series]. He got a starring role in a terrific, old-fashioned horror comedy Slither. Great stuff! He also starred opposite Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff in White Noise 2: The Light. More recently he appeared in Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog as Captain Hammer [you know what body part the hammer referes to]. More great stuff! Up next he stars as Nick Castle in TV series' Castle. I wish the man all the best because he is immensely talented and a scream to watch. I sure would love to see a Malcom Reynolds rebirth though because Nathan Fillion made that role his. It wouldn't have worked without him.
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Freedom In An Unfree World: Forget about Democrats and Republicans, P. Gardner Goldsmith takes the libertarian ideals and philosophy and applies that to our Robin Hood-like Captain Malcolm Reynolds. The theme of freedom is embodied in the person that is Mal. I do think Serenity is the vehicle that gives Mal hope for freedom just as the theme song describes, but Goldsmith clearly sees freedom as something embodied within each and every one of us. It's a nice piece.
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A Tale Of Two Heroes: Shanna Swendson makes a case for two heroes in Firefly [obviously there were many heroic moments for all], Mal and Simon. Now, truthfully, I scoffed at the suggestion. I mean, Simon? Come on. The idea seems preposterous. Rediculous I said. After reading her essay and her plethora of parallels and evidence to argue the point I was a changed man. I am a believer. Well done.
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The Good Book: As you might well imagine this one concerns Shepherd Book. No. Come on. Stop. Really. I loved this observation from writer Eric Greene. "Mal's crew was an extension and reflection of Mal. Echoing attributes of the central character in the supporting characters is of course a time-honored technique. Star Trek again offers an instructive example in the way Spock reflected Kirk's intellect and McCoy embodied Kirk's emotions. Watching McCoy and Spock argue was like seeing Kirk's internal dialogue externalized. This dynamic made both Spock and McCoy vital to Kirk's success as a captain and integral to his wholeness as a person. It also helps account for why the trio was so compelling as a unit." Well said. I'm sure this observation is nothing new but it is well artuclated here. Another way of seeing it, and I'm sure this has been discussed ad nauseum in the Star Trek universe, is the whole idea of McCoy as Id, Spock as Superego and Kirk as Ego. A friend of mine and I were just discussing the whole Freud dynamic regarding Star Trek: TOS the other day around the watercooler. Yeah, we have pretty good watercooler talks. Seriously, this is why Star Trek remains number one on science-fiction lists. It was complex in idea and concept back then and it remains so today. It's easy for criticism to be levied against Star Trek today, but given its timeframe and everything it achieved, it still remains the benchmark series. Now, I must tell you, the essay spirals out of control in the end. The final 3-4 pages takes Greene into political territory and is just plain maddening. I'm glad I never watched Serenity in this way because he attempts to connect dots that I think just can't connect. I love essays like this that go on these anti-American tirades with all of the injustice in the world. I know the US has problems, but you never hear the other side of it. It's always America bad and guys like this apologize for the rest. Did you know The Alliance is really the US government? You do now. Then we have the anti-Catholic and anti-Christian angle of the piece. We get a little anti-George Bush. I'm not a fan of the man mind you but this stuff gets old. The evils of torture at Guantanamo and the veil of "terra-forming" as nation-building. Good Lord. He ties The Reavers to an Iraq gone wrong and we even get some Donald Rumsfeld throw in for good measure. It's all those Neo-Cons! Damn it! They are evil. Blah blah blah. Come on. Look, he makes a few points in this piece I will concede I agreed with, but it's completely one-sided and he gives a free-pass to, as he puts it mildly, "sectarian militias." He breezes over the hijackers of 9/11 and their belief that "God" was their co-pilot and quickly moves on following his two-word concession "point taken." What? This stuff is just so one-sided it more or less pissed me off. Not my favorite piece you could say. Here I was just enjoying the adventure that was Serenity as delicious storytelling and science fiction. I was clueless to the political subtext and parallels to my own country. Thank God for my ignorance in this application.
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Mal Contents: This is a truly tremendous analysis of our hero Captain Malcolm Reynolds. This digs deep and remains focused throughout the discourse. A few key points I enjoyed from writer Alex Bledsoe included his keen observation on the relationship between Mal and Serenity. It is a strikingly profound point. "During the trip to Miranda, there is a short, wordless scene where Mal, alone in the depths of Serenity, shows how affected he is by the recent tragedy. He can drop his facade to this degree only with his ship, the one thing he fully, totally trusts." Exactamundo. This is precisely why Serenity is such an essential character to the show like so many space vessels are to their respective series. Serenity is real. In fact, Bledsoe delves into Mal's character and how he relates to all of the characters of the series. He also rightfully gives tremendous credit to Nathan Fillion for his work. This is another great article written post-Serenity as most of the pieces in this book are by writers who penned them after seeing both the series and the film [unlike the series only-based Finding Serenity].
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Curse Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal: Things My Husband And I Have Argued About While Watching Firefly: This is an amusing piece by two fans of Joss Whedon. It's a very conversational article about their battles over various topics while viewing Firefly. It probably didn't hurt that Lani Diane Rich absolutely sings the praises of editor Jane Espenson in one section. Anyway, she declares, "My husband and me? We're geeks" The only problem I had was this. "I am a fan of neither Westerns nor science fiction, so for me, believing that I would be remotely interested in a combination of the two was way beyond my limited vision." Okay, what self-respecting geek doesn't like science fiction? I'm having a hard time with that one. : ) She does make loads of great observations including the fact that "engaging storytelling is not genre-dependent." There's a brief mention of how alot of people watch Whedon's work in groups or with other people. Sadly, I am here to declare I watched Firefly solo. There's no shame in that as far as I know. Granted I have turned others on to watching it alone. I can hear the song by George Thorogood & The Destroyers in my head to I Drink Alone, "I Firefly alone and with nobody else."
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Mutant Enemy U: If you want to know more about the special effects team in the Whedonverse this is your article. In fact, the title of the article by Loni Peristere is fairly misleading and should be called How I Designed Serenity as it is almost exclusively dedicated to an in-depth analysis of one of our favorite characters, lady luck herself, Serenity. There's something very feminine about her as one might well imagine from the mind of Joss Whedon. The complexity and detail of creating one of science fiction's most beloved ships is a thing to behold. The title of the article itself refers to the education, on the job, of Mr. Peristere.
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Geeks Of The World, Unite!: Great title and while it didn't quite deliver the promise I was expecting it made some clever and entertaining points. Writer Natasha Giardina utilizes Mr. Universe as an example of Geek champion to implement her points. I love this: "He seems to own his very own planetoid, as well as the fortress, satellite dishes, and associated computer hardware, including the lovebot. (And may I just point out here that the Serenity crew, by contrast, own little more than the clothes on their backs and the junk-heap they fly around in. Action heroing may look good, but it doesn't seem to pay the bills too well.) So if you're starting to think that maybe geeks aren't that unappealing after all, I have some good news for you: if you have an Internet connection, can make your computer go, and have ever bought or sold anything on eBay, then there's really little difference between you and Mr. Universe, it's only a question of degree." That is absolutely classic, but I will say this as a self-respecting geek, don't be calling my lady girl Serenity a "junk-heap" girlfriend. I will fight you on that. I will leave you with this final thought from her essay which really is a bit of a coda for me, "the ideology of geekdom says that life should be fun, that play is part of life and should be undertaken with great enthusiasm." Amen!
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The Alliance's War On Science: I'm not surprised San Diego physics professor Ken Wharton gets into a healthy dose of America-bashing here. For many in America it has become something of a favorite pasttime thanks in part to George Bush and in part to self-loathing. I wasn't crazy about this piece which analyzes The Alliance and suggests it to be a glimpse at one possible future resulting from corporate America. On the one hand some nations don't have enough scientific freedom, while still others, America, are just plain out of control. I'd love to see a guy like Wharton have to spend a year in Iran, Russia or North Korea. If we had to wait to protect ourselves we would have ceased to exist years ago. Look anyone can put their spin on US or world history without giving you all the facts [and please disregard Pearl Harbor and the kamikaze pilots over behind the curtain number two]. I've read stories where the Japanese even accept responsibility for the way the end of World War II went down, case in point, thoughts by anime filmmaker Isao Takahata who directed Grave Of The Fireflies. Here's an excerpt from Wharton's piece on the A-bomb: "During World War II, America concentrated many brilliant scientists and engineers under tight security in a major effort to create these weapons. Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist running the effort, kept the exchange of information relatively open (within the large project), and the scientists were able to produce two different types of atomic bombs-from scratch-in just a few years. But despite their quick work, the war in Europe had already ended, leaving only the war with Japan. Japan was effectively already defeated; they were simply holding out for face-saving surrender terms." I love that. Isn't that nice? It was just that simple. "The Russians were about to declare war against Japan, clinching the victory. All of this was known to the U.S., and yet they deployed not one, but two atomic bombs on civilian populations before Russian involvement could end the war on less favorable terms. The death toll was hundreds of thousands." Yeah Ken, war is a nasty business and it's ashame the governments in play would allow their civilians to be targeted as victims to press forward with their political agendas. There are winners and losers. Maybe you should read the history books. There are a number of authors who offer a more accurate read on history than yours. I'm not sure the Japanese were as anxious to take the gloves off following the devastation of World War II, but you go ahead and paint America to be the bad guy. Democrat Harry S. Truman would beg to differ with your assessment were he alive today. "And after the war, when Oppenheimer and other scientists proposed strict controls over these weapons, they were persecuted by the very government that they had served so faithfully. Scientists 'in charge' of secret projects have been manipulated into producing what is desired of them, but upon success, they inevitably lose their imagined control. The weapons becoming militarized, the knowledge becomes classified, and the scientists become obsolete nuisances." Oh come on, the scientists aren't growing flowers for cryin' out loud and scientists globally were doing the same. It's always a race for power Ken. The scientists the deal. The nuclear club includes the following: USA [1945]/ Russia [1949]/ United Kingdom [1952]/ France [1960]/ China [1964]/ India [1974]/ Pakistan [1998]/ North Korea [2006] and Israel [1979]. Iran is next. "Our primary anti-science innovation has been the rise of the corporation." Check it out for yourselves to read more on the evil nation that is America and "how scientific truth is a frequent casualty of capitalism." But heck what do I know? I'm just a lowly blogger. Honest, I swear, I do not work for The Alliance. I wasn't all that impressed with Jane Espenson's introduction to the essay either. Certainly I wasn't surprised and everyone is entitled to their perception of the political game as they see it even if they subscribe to a more than healthy dose of conspiracy theory.
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The Virtual 'Verse: This one tackles, with great enthusiasm, MMOG [Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming]. My favorite line in the whole article is this: "Lean closer. I'll tell you the real secret of the Firefly MMOG. We want the game to be such a big damn success that studio execs will be tripping over themselves to make more TV shows or movies. A pipe-dream? An immposibility? Pfah. We're Browncoats. We do the impossible before breakfast." That's the spirit. That is pure optimism. It's a fine position that anyone of us supports while I reserve my skepticism for another day.
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Firefly And Story Structure, Advanced: Writer Geoff Klock serves up an incredible dissection of the Firefly episode, Out Of Gas. It's a solid read and like him, I agree, this particular episode is an "outstanding" entry and remains one of my personal favorites. Klock thoroughly analyzes the entry. I love how Serenity is kind of the glue that holds the whole thing together. It really is a love story of sorts and anyone, if you're like me, can understand why Mal would fall in love with an old girl like Serenity. She's a beauty. I love how Klock ties it all together. This is a very eloquent close. "Out Of Gas tells a science fiction love story, but rather than a man and a woman against the world and time, Out Of Gas shows us love among a rag-tag 'family' of outsiders, and the love between a man and a ship, the symbol of his freedom." A man and his ship....how romantic. Now that's my kind of love story.
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Cut 'Em Off At The Horsehead Nebula!: I began the article with the kind of built-in bias against Westerns that I possessed for Firefly. I didn't check it out until long after its cancellation because of it. By the end of this essay writer Bruce Bethke had won me over with his oustanding entry backed with loads of great background on why we as viewers are so prejudiced against the Western genre and don't dare marry it with science-fiction. It's a fascinating study and supported with critical thinking. The bottom line is Bethke actually brings us back in time to the point where science-fiction outlawed the Western as a genre. The piece really gets at the heart of all of the anti-Western sentiment that discarded it from ever influencing sci-fi, except here we have a classic called Firefly. Nice stuff.
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The Bonnie Brown Flag: Evelyn Vaughn compares the world or at least the war backdrop of Firefly's world to the American Civil War with mixed results for me. Slavery enters into the equation too. I find pieces like this sometimes read into things that just aren't there.
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Signal To Noise: Media And Subversion In Serenity: Jacob Clifton inserts his one-sided political agenda into his arguments here. There is one great point made about River and Reavers being "siblings." I never really connected the two in quite that way, but it's true. He gives a nod to Babylon 5's Psi-Corps and the X-Men's Dark Phoenix. Normally I'd be won over immediately by those kinds of references, but alas we were squarely in different camps on the political tone.
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The greatest testament to the popularity and endurance of this amazingly brief series, Firefly, is indeed thanks to the fans who appreciated such intelligent writing and characterization within the Whedonverse. Further proof of how it endures is in the fact there are roughly 40 essays combined between Finding Serenity and Serenity Found. All of this coming on the heels of 15 episodes and just one film. Now all we need is a third book installment, Beyond Serenity, and a Firefly re-launch [including the same actors] and all will be right with the world. When you think about it, Firefly gave birth to the Browncoats and there are moments when I pause for a second to ponder- could this be the infancy and birth of another franchise in much the same way it was for Star Trek in the 1960s? If so it will be inspired by and built upon what amounts to a series that lasted a little more than a mere half season. Time will tell, but that there is something special folks.

6 comments:

Maggie said...

Thanks for the nice review! Glad you enjoyed the book!

Havremunken said...

Hey,

I just started rewatching all of Firefly, this time with my fiancé on board. It's the only show I've seen that could have the potential to topple B5 from the top of my list of favourite shows.. I too came in late, but I definately fell in love with the show right away.

There was talk (perhaps just wishful thinking) about some cooperation between jms and Joss Whedon some years back, sigh, I guess we can only dream.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Maggie. It's an honor to have you stop by. Thanks for visiting. Keep up the tremendous work. Sometimes I feel I don't have the time to give one's writing justice. It is a great book.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

I'm with you Havremunken. I agree completely and there isn't much you can stack up against Straczynski but I think Whedon succeeds with Firefly. It's all in the writing and here we have two of the best.

Shanna Swendson said...

Mwa ha ha! Eventually I will bring everyone around to my take on Simon, one persuasive argument at a time.

That is my evil plan.

I'm totally up for a relaunch. Or another movie. Or tie-in novels.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Shanna. Thanks for stopping by. It really was a nice piece or writing. I think your plan to conquer the Browncoat universe may be a legitimate one. You're plan is a good one, or evil : ). You may be able to say 'done the impossible' before it's all over.