This is a hard one to write. Trying to predict where someone like Joss Whedon would have taken his characters in the event of Serenity being a bigger success than it was, in subsequent films or whatever medium, is a dodgy and subjective process, that can rapidly become more of “Where I wanted the characters to go”. But I’ll give it a shot anyway. With the conclusion of Serenity as a starting point – Book and Wash deceased, Miranda broadwave released, River temporarily free of pursuit – where do I think that Firefly/Serenity would have gone?
In the grand scale of things, the Alliance would still have ended up going after River again, as the Operative predicted. Sequels and continuing stories require escalation: that would have required a larger effort, and it is easy to imagine other “readers” from the Academy being part of that effort, with River forced to confront the thing that she was on the road to becoming.
But at the same time, a measure of escalation would also have been necessary in the resistance to the Alliance. The ‘verse, some of it anyway, would not have just stayed static after something like the Miranda broadwave, and a larger resistance to Alliance rule would surely have been something that would have been depicted. I’m not talking Unification War II or anything so grand, but a more active, tangible pushback on Alliance control and Alliance philosophy, that Serenity and its crew would inevitably have been drawn into. Indeed, when Zach Whedon was given the task of continuing the story in comic book form – and ‘ll get to “Leaves On The Wind”, believe me – he incorporated both additional “readers” and a renewed Browncoat movement.
But that’s the large scale. What about the stuff that truly matters? What about characters?
Mal is still in charge of course, but now he’s a different person. He’s got a cause back, or at least had it back for a time. It turned him into someone very dangerous, and it cost him the lives of two very important people. The question would be how much that would continue. Would Mal become the kind of resistance leader, Solo-like, that could continue to take hops off the Alliance?
I wouldn’t think so, or at least not immediately. Such a path would be something a man like Mal would resist, out of distaste for what he can do if nothing else. The Miranda business was one thing, a man making a stand with just his ship and its crew on the line because it was the right thing to do. Getting involved in a larger struggle is another. Having lost Wash and Book, and with a potent reminder of that always present in the form of Zoe, Mal would be the kind of man more likely than ever to avoid trouble if he could, to just “go on his way”. Any continuing story would surely see him drawn into that struggle against his will and then maybe more willingly, but the way that happened would have to be well-handled.
The Zoe reminder would be very obvious, because everything was set-up for her to be pregnant at the conclusion of Serenity – when Wash dies, part of her wailing includes “we’re going to have a baby”, though it’s so hysterical and high-pitched you could ignore it – and the inclusion of a child on-board the ship would be an interesting dynamic shift. You’ll have Zoe torn between grief over Wash and the duties of a mother, with the growing conflict of continued resistance to the Alliance causing complications. You can well imagine Zoe burning for revenge on the Alliance more than Mal as a plot point, and how that affects her relationship with him. Zach Whedon also took this idea and ran with it.
The man they call Jayne, well, he could go in any direction really. Staying on the ship and causing his usual brand of mayhem, or getting off it and doing something different, the world is Jayne’s oyster in character progression terms. It’s hard to imagine him getting on-board with any Browncoat movement – he simply isn’t that kind of politically motivated character, the “something right” of Miranda being a more moral obligation – and Jayne is really all about the bottom line. Him getting off the ship in the event of a more active participation in resistance would be an interesting thing to explore: how would someone like Jayne function out on his own again? Badly I imagine.
Then there’s Inara. Serenity left her status on the ship and her relationship with Mal fairly open-ended, with the possibility of something occurring. Maybe it would, but it’s as doomed a relationship as Whedon would ever have constructed: Mal and Inara might slot together nicely in some respects, but they are very different characters and people. Inara was a Unification supporter, and even something like Miranda would be unlikely to completely destroy her faith in what the Alliance represents, or get her to back a violent resistance to its activities. And she’s still a companion, with all that that entails: it’s something that Mal wouldn’t be able to tolerate. A fiery, but brief, romance is what it would be. Where that would leave Inara is anyone’s guess, but off the ship again is likely.
That brings us to Simon and Kaylee. The coming together of the two was a nice touch at the end of Serenity, but this is Joss Whedon: there is no way Simon and Kaylee have a happy ending in a continuing story, they are simply too adorable a couple, rife for a Whedonesque tragedy. And if the tragedy would come, I think it would be Simon to suffer, his larger role as River’s protector now no longer existent, and so his role on the ship as a character no longer as vital. Him and Mal have more things to clash over, and I’m not the only one who saw a premonition in Mal’s words to the doctor in Firefly’s Pilot: “If I ever
kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”. How all of that would affect poor Kaylee is not a nice thing to contemplate, but it would give her character something really interesting to go through, the kind of innocence shattering event that would be up there with the turning of Angel in Buffy’s second season, or Connor’s betrayal in Angel’s season three.
That leaves River. She’s healed. Well, sort of. A bit. It isn’t actually clear, but she’s better than she was at any rate. She’s a character well-placed to step into the role of pilot – some nice possibilities for clashes with Zoe there I think – but her larger place is still in the grand narrative. Simply put, River is the Mockingjay of Firefly/Serenity, the character, far more then Mal, with the ability to lead a fight back against the oppression of the Alliance. It’s more than just her impressive mental and physical abilities, but her status as an example of everything terrible that the Alliance is capable of, a symbol for people to rally around. And a child shall lead them.
These are just vague character ideas and expectations. In the end, it’s hard to see where Firefly/Serenity would go. It wasn’t a Star Trek or a Battlestar Galactica, with big political elements and epic wars, and I can’t comprehend the kind of story where Serenity becomes something akin to the Millennium Falcon, making a run on the Alliance’s version of a Death Star. Whedon tales could never go to such simple places, as comforting as it might have been. The Alliance is not some evil empire to be dragged down and replaced with a benevolent utopia of Independents. Mal is not some plucky hero to slay the dragon and win the girl. River is not a chosen one destined to bring balance to the Force. But maybe they could have done some good, and changed the ‘verse for the better, though the cost might well have been high.
But it is still all a pageantry of the mind.