Serenity: The Intro

(Unfortunately, I can’t find the clip to put in here as a reference, and screencaps just wouldn’t cut it).

The opening of Serenity, the first 10 minutes or so anyway, needs to accomplish a lot. Most of the viewers – or at least the studio would have hoped so – would not have been familiar with the TV series, and so wouldn’t have any idea what to make of the many characters inhabiting this fictional universe. The early shots established that universe in deliberately simple terms – Exodus from Earth, new solar system, Alliance good, war fought, Reavers – then we got to see Simon and River’s situation and relationship defined, then we got that amazingly effective introduction to the Operative.

And then we see Serenity. And in a sequence that lasts only a few minutes, the audience learns the following information:

-what kind of a ship Serenity is

-What it’s various interior rooms look like

-The five core crewmembers

-Their roles on the ship

-Their relationships and conflicts with each other

-Their trade and current status

-Simon and River’s dynamic on the ship

And most of that is delivered in a faux one-shotter (it’s actually two shots, with the break as Mal starts walking down the stairs while talking to Simon) that takes us from the cockpit to the cargo bay. Whedon has this intro included in the “Kitchen Sink” script, and it is retained almost to the letter, indicating he had this whole idea in mind for a long time. I consider it a genius sequence in regards dumping a lot of necessary info in a subtle and natural fashion. Let’s go through it.

The early shots show Serenity gliding gracefully into view, before the more visceral experience of its entry into a planetary atmosphere. Those used to modern sci-fi films are bombarded with smooth flying vessels that are as sleek as they are shiny, and while Serenity is dirtier than most, it isn’t too far off this stereotype.

Until a piece of it suddenly falls off. And then we are in the interior.

MAL:

What was that?

WASH:

Did you see that?

MAL:

Was that the primary buffer panel?

WASH:

It did seem to resemble…

MAL:

Did the primary buffer panel just fall off my gorram ship for no apparent reason?

WASH:

Looks like.

So, we have a guy at the controls, presumably a pilot, and the guy proclaiming Serenity to be his ship, presumably the captain. More than that, we learn that Serenity is no sleek Star Trek/Wars-esque spacecraft, but a banged up machine that has bits falling off of it, to the exasperation of its owner. Immediately, there is a sense of desperation being made, helped by the alarms and the shaking, that will grow and grow.

MAL:

I thought Kaylee just checked the entry couplings. I have a very clear memory of…

WASH:

Well, if she doesn’t get us some extra flow from the engine room to offset the burn-through, this landing is going to get pretty interesting.

MAL:

Define “interesting”?

WASH:

“Oh God, oh God, we’re all going to die”?

Here we can glean that a person named “Kaylee” is the engineer. More than that, we immediately get an idea for the kind of dialogue that is frequent on the ship, that slightly sarcastic, slightly dark sense of humour, that will come from Wash most of all. Mal gets on the intercom.

MAL:

This is the captain, we have a little problem with our entry sequence, so we may experience some slight turbulence and then…explode.

Mal’s captaincy confirmed, and the dark humour continued. Off course, this also gives the feeling that Serenity isn’t about to crash, since Mal treats the idea so playfully.

MAL:

Can you shave the vector?

WASH:

I’m doing it, it’s not enough.

MAL:

Well, just get us on the ground.

WASH:

That part will happen pretty definitely.

More humour, and indications of the kind of relationship that Mal has with his crew, but Mal is already walking away. The slightly grungy interior of the cockpit gives way to the blue tinted hallway leading to the galley as the camera follows Mal, who is immediately checked by a huge burly man carrying a large gun and with many grenades strapped around him. Straight away, we can guess that this is a tough guy.

JAYNE:

We’re gonna explode? I don’t wanna explode?

But not a guy with “an overabundance of brains” clearly.

MAL:

Jayne, how many weapons you plannin’ on taking, you only got the two arms?

JAYNE:

I just get excitable as to choice, like to have my options open.

MAL:

I don’t plan on any shooting taking place during this job.

JAYNE:

Well, what you plan and what takes place ain’t ever exactly been similar.

MAL:

…No grenades.

JAYNE:

Huh? Ah!

MAL:

No grenades!

OK, so we know that Jayne is muscle, and likes to shoot things, clearly. But in that he frequently clashes with Mal, though in this specific instance it is mostly a friendly manner. Still, there is that spark of dispute between them. Further, we know that this crew has “a job”, and it looks likely that it is criminal I nature. Even further, we can infer that, when it comes to things like this, Mal doesn’t have the very best luck.

Mal continues his odyssey and runs into a woman walking towards the cockpit, dressed similarly to him.

ZOE:

We crashing again?

This happens a lot then, it seems.

MAL:

Talk to your husband.

So, Zoe and Wash are married.

MAL:

Mule prepped?

ZOE:

Good to go Sir, just loading her up.

Everyone is preparing for this job, that will require a vehicle of some kind. Not really important in terms of exposition, but gives an indication for what’s to come. We can briefly overhear a fading conversation between Zoe and Jayne.

ZOE:

Those grenades?

JAYNE:

Yeah, captain don’t want ‘em.

ZOE:

Jayne, we’re robbing the place, not occupying it.

So, the crew is about to commit a robbery of some kind, one big enough that it requires guns and vehicles.

Mal wanders through the galley, a place that is strewn with various kinds of messes: plates, food, utensils, all scattered about. This really isn’t Star Trek, this place has that lived in look. The ship shakes violently again, rattling plates, causing Mal to actually have to stand in place for a moment, before he shouts “offscreen”, continuing on his way through another hallway and to what appears to be an engine room.

MAL:

Kaylee! Kaylee, what in the sphincter of hell are you playing at? We got the primary buffer panel coming right…

The language being used here gives a firm indication as to the rusticness of the characters and the setting.

A short woman, wearing engineer clothes and with a very greasy face appears from the right, looking stressed as hell amid the moving parts and numerous buttons. The engineer/mechanic, clearly.

KAYLEE:

Everything’s shiny captain, not to fret.

Sparks fly and steam appear, betraying the casualness of her words. She continues working while Mal talks.

MAL:

You told me those entry couplings would last for another week…

KAYLEE:

That was six months ago captain…

She doesn’t even look at him when she says this, and the tone is matter of fact. Kaylee is well used to this. Serenity is a ship that clearly has all sorts of problems with old and failing parts. After a beat to digest his failing memory, Mal has his retort:

MAL:

My ship don’t crash. She crashes, you crashed her.

Kaylee gives him a glare as more sparks fly, unhappy with the assertion, setting up some of the animosity between Mal and Kaylee later. So, we’ve introduced the five core crewmembers, established their roles on the sip (bar Zoe, but that will become more clear in time), the basis of their interpersonal relationships, some of their interpersonal conflicts as well as the status of the crew, their livelihood and their ramshackle ship. Then Mal turns and Simon, who has already been introduced previously, is right in Mal’s face.

MAL:

Doctor. Guess I need to get inoced before we hit planetside. (Ship rattles). Bit of a rockety ride, nothing to be worried about.

SIMON:

I’m not worried.

MAL:

Fear’s nothing to be ashamed of Doctor.

SIMON:

This isn’t fear. This is anger.

MAL:

Well, kind of hard to tell one from t’other, face like yours.

SIMON:

Well, I imagine if it was fear my eyes would be wider.

MAL:

Hmm. I’ll keep a lookout for that next time.

There’s an automatic tension between the two, Simon directly calling attention to the fact that he’s fixed Mal with a hard stare he has no intention of breaking. Mal tries to laugh it off, and fails.

SIMON:

You’re not taking her.

MAL:

No, no. This is not a thing I’m interested in talking over…

SIMON:

She’s not going with you and that’s final.

It doesn’t take a super genius to figure they are talking about River. Mal turns more serious and tries to walk away, and then Simon puts his foot down. But it’s a pained thing, as even Simon with the stern voice and stare seems small next to the more authoritative Mal, who turns and fixes Simon with his own hard stare.

MAL:

I ever hear the word “That’s final” coming out of your mouth even again, they truly will be.

We know he means what he says, and his threat is so much more effective than Simon’s resistance. This is the biggest part of the soft reboot, and the animosity between Mal and Simon is instantly established. Mal and Simon start walking down some stairs.

MAL:

This boat is my home. You all are guests on it.

Mal establishes that Simon and River are not considered part of his crew proper, which differs markedly from the TV series, but I’m sure makes reasonable sense to a new audience.

SIMON:

Guests? Now I earn my passage captain.

MAL:

And its time your little sister learned from your fine example.

SIMON:

I have earned my passage treating bullet holes, knife wounds, laser burns…

MAL:

Some of our jobs are more interesting than others…

So, Serenity and its crew are frequently involved in violent activities that require the attention of a doctor. Simon’s place here becomes achingly clear.

SIMON:

And you want to put my sister in the middle of that.

MAL:

Didn’t say “want”. Said “will”.

Mal stamps his authority even further. We know that there is only one way that this will end.

The two move through a sparse living area and into the blue-lit infirmary.

MAL:

It’s one job doc, she’ll be fine.

SIMON:

She’s a 17-year-old girl. A mentally traumatised 17…

MAL:

She’s a reader. See’s into the truth of things. Might see trouble before its coming, which is of use to me.

SIMON:

And that’s your guiding star isn’t it? What’s of use?

Some reiteration of River’s status here. We already knew she was a psychic, but Mal uses a more colloquial term. The crew knows about River’s abilities anyway, and of their potential use. Simon’s accusation that Mal is treating people only as well as he can get some use from them sets up further conflict down the road in regards the Captain and his crew.

MAL:

Honestly Doctor, I think we might just crash this time anyway.

SIMON:

Do you understand what I have gone through to keep River away from the Alliance?

MAL:

I do, and it’s a fact we here have been courteous enough to keep to our own selves.

That’s a threat if ever there was one, and Simon sees it as such.

SIMON:

Are you threatening…

What follows is the manifesto of movie Mal, as he and Simon move gradually into the cargo bay.

MAL:

I look out for me and mine. That don’t include you less I conjure it does. Now, you stuck a thorn in the Alliance’s paw. That tickles me a bit. But it also means I have to step twice as fast to avoid them, and that means turning down plenty of jobs. Even honest ones. Put this crew together with the promise of work, which the Alliance makes harder every year. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all. This job goes south, there may well not be another. So here’s us. On the raggedy edge. Don’t push me. And I won’t push you.

A lot here. There is Mal’s antipathy towards the Alliance, which we might sense is more than just the difference between a criminal and an authority. There is the crew’s lack of success, and the seeming possibility that they are about to fall off the brink un terms of financial survival. There is Mal’s own temperament, which is clearly reaching the breaking point, something that will be important later. And Mal walks off speaking Mandarin, introducing that facet of the universe.

As Simon walks up a catwalk, Mal converses with Zoe.

MAL:

Zoe, Wash gonna straighten this boat out before we get flattened?

ZOE:

Like a downy feather sir, no one flies like my mister.

That’s Wash and Zoe named, their marital status reaffirmed, and Wash’s skill as a pilot emphasised. Simon finds his sister lying on a catwalk, in a pose that could suggest sleeping or eavesdropping.

SIMON:

River…

RIVER:

I know. We’re going for a ride.

Her slight creepiness, her “reader” abilities and the action to come are set-up with that small exchange.

That’s the end of the tracking shot, but there is a little bit more. Mal and River share a moment that emphasises Mal’s dissatisfaction with his lot in life right now (more in delivery than in word), there is more humour between Mal and Simon before the more serious stuff later, and there is also a very important beat between Simon and Kaylee, to set-up the romantic sub-plot between them.

The entire sequence lasts only a few minutes, but the amount of characterisation, exposition and general set-up that has been accomplished is utterly immense. We know these characters’ names, how they interact with each other, the ship and its various facets, and what is to come. Other films and other properties would spend much longer doing all of this, and would probably do it a mite clumsier as well. But not Whedon, and not Serenity.

 

 

This entry was posted in Firefly, Reviews, TV/Movies and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s