Review: Serenity Found

Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon’s Firefly Universe
edited by Jane Espenson
Rating: 3 out of 5

What can I say? Meh. Another collection of essays (following the superior Finding Serenity) discoursing on the deep meanings to be found in the universe of Firefly, a short-lived TV series as well as Serenity, its major-picture followup.

Let me preface by saying: I “get” Firefly; I’d be a Browncoat if I were any sort of joiner. I loved the show, which I discovered post-mortem like most people; and I think that Serenity is the best-made science fiction movie of at least the past decade. Its technical execution is mind-blowingly awesome. I’ve bought Those Left Behind (the limited-run comic series), and the RPG, and, and the soundtrack for the TV show and the one for the movie, and both versions of the Serenity DVDs. I get Firefly; I’m a fan.

After which, all I can say is: Meh.

More below the fold.

What went wrong? Nothing, really. Just not enough went right — perhaps an unavoidable risk of an anthology of essays. It’s clear that every one of the authors is a fan and has, in fact, obsessed on the show and the movie. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not. At best, it gives us a real flash of insight into the show and its appeal. “Mutant Enemy U” by Loni Peristere is one of the good ones. We get a detailed description of the thought processes behind the graphics design crew that “built” the Firefly model for the show. It’s a neat look behind the curtain and actually educates and illustrates quite well.

Another excellent piece is “Firefly and Story Structure, Advanced” by Geoff Klock. I usually have no patience for lit crit or its bastard offspring, film crit. But Mr. Klock’s essay makes clear why that’s a limiting viewpoint. He walks the reader through the convoluted structure of the episode “Out of Gas”. While I’ve always been amazed by the complexity of the plot, Mr. Klock brings it to a whole new level, focusing on the transitions between scenes and how the writer and director used these to further the message of the episode. I learned a lot from the essay and enjoyed every moment.

Unfortunately, on the other side of the sheet, there are the people who love Firefly so much that they’re convinced it must be about whatever their own little bugaboo is about. They so want to have their important totems validated by a revered authority (Joss Whedon) that they manhandle and force the material to eke out a glimmer of that. “River Tam and the Weaponized Women of the Whedonverse” (Michael Morano) and “Freedom in an Unfree World” (P. Gardner Goldsmith) commit this sin the most egregiously by attempting to make the show little more than a rant on feminist issues or on libertarian philosophy, respectively. They boil the complexity and nuance out of this rich show and leave us with an unappetizing paste. “The Good Book” (Eric Greene) falls prey to this syndrome, too, but manages not to succumb entirely, as do “The Bonnie Brown Flag” (Evelyn Vaughn and the idealized South) and “Signal to Noise” (Jacob Clifton and the triumph/threat of media).

These authors go astray because they mistake one theme for the theme. Firefly was deep and nuanced, and hit many different levels of meaning. Indeed, one of the themes running through the show — through all of Joss Whedon’s show, I believe — is that there isn’t just one theme — that life is rich and complex and anyone pruning away that is doing you a disservice.

To wrap, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about “I, Malcolm”, by Nathan Fillion, the actor who portrayed Captain Malcolm Reynolds. This essay was worth the price of the book. It’s insightful and revealing and touching. For me, it reminded me why the show resonated so much with so many people and why, even six years later, people aren’t willing to give up on an experiment that — by all the usual standards of TV — failed. People talk about “life-changing roles”; clearly, Mr. Fillion has had his and he lets the reader into a private space in exploring it.

So, final conclusion: Would I recommend this book? Just barely, if you’re already a Browncoat. For me, it turned out to be thoroughly zemu.

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