It was a minor miracle that Serenity, the film continuation of Firefly, ever got made at all, an occurrence driven by a fan campaign of dedicated “Browncoats” (more on them – well, us – at a later date) and the enthusiastic lobbying of Whedon himself, who finally got Universal to pony up the cash and the support to get the film made in 2005. But the budget was never going to be gigantic by sci-fi film terms, and such limitations, only to be expected from a studio that could not possible have been sure that Whedon would actually be able to come up with a decent return on their investment, would be felt in the marketing department.
And so, in a bid to aid the promotion of the film before its release, Whedon sat down with Summer Glau in a dark room with some basic recording equipment, and made “The R.Tam Sessions“, a serious of short videos that aimed to showcase River Tam to fans new and old.
The premise is simple: River is being questioned by an “Interviewer”, played by Whedon himself. The first video shows the Interviewer dying after getting a pen to a neck, before the next jumps back a considerable amount of time. We see River just starting out in this Alliance academy, not yet a “reader” but demonstrating incredible perceptive abilities, eager to be a part of this challenging new program while also namedropping her Doctor brother. But as time goes on things get darker and darker: River, undergoing whatever treatments and procedures the Alliance subjected her to, becomes more and more grim looking, demonstrating her newly instilled “reading” abilities, speaking in nonsense and desperately pleading to be transferred, or to see her brother. Lastly, she asks for a pen, to write down a “mission” that “Dr Mathias” gave to her, it left unsaid whether this was actually true – that Mathias wanted the Interviewer dead, perhaps as a demonstration of what River could do under his control – or if River was acting on her own initiative.
The Sessions are a disturbing bunch of videos. Shot on the cheap, they are still a fascinating little bit of the Firefly/Serenity canon, essentially the only section of it that actively shows River during her time at the mysterious Alliance academy, not counting the opening minutes of Serenity itself. In that, they are the only times that we see an adult River sane and happy, not counting, perhaps, the closing minutes of Serenity. The River Tam of the second video is a bright, precocious girl, playfully shrugging off the jealousies of others while talking up Simon, despite his intellectual inferiority to her, as somebody who is performing a job that she herself could never do. The Sessions have a few things to accomplish, and one of them is to affirm the connection between Simon and River, as well as the dynamic that will be at play between the two in the course of Serenity: Simon’s role as River’s protector, the person who can do things for her that she cannot do herself. This is re-iterated in the penultimate video, when River’s final plea before losing all hope is to see Simon.
But the other main point is to really get to grips with what the Alliance represents. The Sessions weren’t meant just for the fans of the show, eager to see any more of their favourite characters. They were for the new people as well, and those new viewers can take in a lot of what the Alliance is in the Sessions. The first is that they are faceless: the Interviewer is only ever seen from behind, speaking in a dull monotone consistently. Not even when he is apparently dying do we get to see his face. Dr Mathias is only mentioned, not seen, this creepy individual who experiments on the innocent and doesn’t seem all that bothered by the people he has lost. So, we have the Alliance: willing to do the ghastliest things to people, and all in the name of “a better world”, the mantra that will be at the heart of the Alliance’s aims and motivations in Serenity. Indeed, the central crux of River’s attack on the Interviewer may actually be a part of that, of her controller seeking to find out if his puppet will perform to his commands, even at the expense of an individual who is a part of the Academy. The Interviewer, like so much else in the eyes of those who make up the Alliance’s lifeblood, is completely and utterly expendable. Even River herself could die on an operating table, and just be dismissed as another experiment gone wrong.
And there is River of course. A new viewer would be forgiven for having no idea what to make of this girl, dishevelled, desperate, violent and altogether unnerving. There is a grace and a beauty to her of course, but that is largely lost as time skips forward again and again, and the girl we see at the end is a very different animal to the girl that we saw at the start. The Sessions leave many plot hooks dangling in a tantalising manner: will River escape from her tormentors? What kind of missions will she have? Will she be a positive or a negative force in Serenity? The Sessions leave things open ended, as they pretty much must considering they are barely nine minutes long in total.
Nothing much else to see here really: the Sessions are brief enough that they must defy any deeper attempts to see meaning or narrative purpose in them. As a means of promoting Serenity, I would say that they are really only a partial kind of success, as I feel that there is a certain obtuseness to much of what they try to present, that might confuse a potential new viewer as much as engage them. As it was, I’m not sure that there was much that could have got more punters in the door – I’ll talk Serenity’s box office performance when the time is right – but The R. Tam Sessions are still a neat little diversion from the main show.