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How Did I Fall in Love with a Ship?

First aired: The Signal: Season 5, Episode 1
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton

I’m a science fiction fan, but what usually hooks me in to a story is the fiction. The science, not so much. The science needs to be there to create an interesting world for the story, but to be honest, warp coils and phaser arrays leave me cold. I really don’t mind if the science doesn’t make complete sense, as long as the story does. Consequently spaceships in sci-fi don’t tend to leave much of an impression on me.

But something odd happened when I watched Serenity the BDM for the first time. Like many Browncoats, I watched the film first, having missed the series. By the end of the film, as Serenity crash-landed on her way to Mr Universe, I found myself wincing at every scrape and blow she suffered, just as if she were a human character. And then as she soared gloriously into the Black at the end of the film, my heart soared with her. Somehow I had fallen in love with an inanimate object and cared deeply for her, not “it”. How on Earth-that-was did that happen?

Let’s go right back to the beginning. If, like me, your introduction to the Firefly ‘verse started with the BDM, your introduction to Serenity came just after the Operative asks “Where are you hiding, little girl?” As befits the tenth character, Serenity gets a proper introduction, accompanied by her own beautiful music. As we pull back from her nameplate to take in the whole of the ship, we can sense that we are being told to pay attention to this ship. She is not simply a nameless, faceless mode of transport, that happens to be hiding River at this moment. Then as we follow Mal through the ship, taking in her different parts, it becomes clear that this is not a ship full of identikit corridors and multiple characterless decks. Instead, everything fits together and the inside doesn’t look bigger than the outside. We get a sense that this is a real ship with real people living on her.

If we entered the ‘verse via Serenity, the pilot episode, then we were treated to an equally beguiling introduction. As Serenity twists away elegantly from the derelict ship and moves off, we can’t help but cheer inwardly as the little ship that could gets away from the imposing and generally unfriendly-looking Alliance Cruiser.

It is The Train Job though, which provides the most dramatic introduction to our favourite ship. As Mal, Jayne and Zoe are teetering on the edge of a cliff when their bar fight suddenly gets serious, Serenity rises up behind them in the nick of time to save the day.

I'm thinking somebody needs to put you down, dog. What do you think?
I'm thinking we'll rise again.
Every man there go back inside or we will blow a new crater in this little moon.

The physical attributes of Serenity also play a part in how we take her to heart. She might be named after a bug, but she looks more like a bird in some respects, and certainly flies and lands like one. By contrast, the Alliance ships we come across are huge upright structures, that resemble skyscrapers. They glow with an ugly, antiseptic green colour that makes Serenity’s warm orangey glow even more inviting. Inside, the Alliance ships look like offices, whereas Serenity is clearly a home, with flowers painted on her walls, comfy chairs in a welcoming dining area and other home-like touches.

The reaver ships that we come across in the series and the film are all about hard angles and spikes (not to mention red paint and skeletons), making Serenity seem all the more gentle and appealing in contrast. The distinct musical cues for the three types of ship also bring out their differences. The music is cold and stark for the Alliance ships, discordant and threatening for the reaver ships, but warm and uplifting for Serenity.

In the commentary to the pilot, Joss Whedon notes that the name “Firefly” for the class of ships to which Serenity belongs was chosen because it conveys strength – fire – and motion – fly. It is also something insignificant that has a powerful name. And I think the apparent insignificance of Serenity is also something that endears her to us. She is smaller than most of the other ships we see and natural affection for the underdog tends to draw us to her side.

Our feelings towards Serenity are also determined to a large extent by how other characters view her. The bad guys tend to disrespect her and that immediately puts us – like Kaylee – on her side and on the defensive. Think of the series pilot, where the men on the Alliance Cruiser wonder disparagingly if Firefly class ships are still made and hope that “Maybe someone’ll step on those roaches”. Then in Bushwhacked, the Alliance commander refers to Fireflies as “old wrecks” and Serenity as a “junker”. The men lying in wait for Serenity with their net in Our Mrs Reynolds also consider Fireflies to be wrecks and a lot of cheap parts without any “flash”.

In contrast, with the exception of Simon in Safe, the reactions of our BDHs to Serenity are positive. Mal and, especially, Kaylee clearly love Serenity and therefore so do we. As Joss notes in the DVD commentary to the pilot, we tend to follow Kaylee’s emotions. If she loves Mal, so do we. If she loves Serenity, so do we. In the pilot, Kaylee tells Book at Eavesdown Docks that of all the ships he’s looking at, Serenity is the “nicest”. Later she refers to Serenity as her “good girl” and gives her a loving stroke. And did you notice how in Safe, as Simon disparages both Mal and Serenity in an unguarded moment, Kaylee leaps to the defence of her ship, rather than her captain?

Fun. Right. I consider this "fun." It's "fun" being forced to the ass-end of the galaxy, to get to live on a piece of <crap> wreck and eat molded protein and be bullied around by our <stubborn martinet> of a captain. It’s "fun."
Serenity ain't <crap>.

Inara is another character who we see loves Serenity. She says as much in conversation with Simon in Out of Gas. And at the end of Shindig she wonders wistfully why she would ever want to leave Serenity, a herd of cows in the cargo hold notwithstanding.

I think one of the reasons that we come to view Serenity as the tenth character is that she has character. She isn’t all clean and shiny – well, she is shiny, but in a different sense! She’s rough, a bit dirty and rather beat up. She also gets similar story lines to human characters. In Out of Gas she gets sick; in the BDM she gets a disguise. And in Objects in Space she even gets a voice. Kaylee may already feel that Serenity speaks to her, as she comments in Out of Gas that “usually she lets me know when something is wrong”, but in Objects in Space we get to hear that voice too through the medium of River. Even though we know that it is River speaking, not Serenity, what she says sounds just like something Serenity would say if she could and the surprise of hearing River speak coherently at length for the first time gives the words even more resonance:

I'm not on the ship. I'm in the ship. I am the ship.
River's gone.
Then who exactly are we talking to?
You're talking to Serenity. And Early... Serenity is very unhappy.

Serenity is also named in the same way as the human characters. As Inara tells the Alliance commander in Bushwhacked, it’s just Serenity, not “The Serenity”. Serenity is not a military ship and no more needs a definite article in front of her name than a human does.

Serenity is more than just the tenth character though. She’s also the tenth member of the gang. She is not simply a means to get the crew to their various escapades, she also often plays an integral role in them. And the role she plays is a very human one. When she saves the day it is by cunning, not by technobabble. In The Train Job, for example, she saves Mal, Zoe and Jayne from the bar fight by means of a grand entrance and a nice bit of bluffing about having guns. Then later in the same episode she has a key role in the train job itself by lowering Jayne onto the train. And she’s not above a bit of killing, as we see when she neatly disposes of Crow.

There’s also the Crazy Ivan in the pilot episode which gets the crew out of a sticky spot and another impressive entrance in Safe that helps intimidate the settlers about to set fire to Simon and River. And in Heart of Gold the plan is for Serenity is to play her part in defending the brothel with some low fly-overs with her engines “tipped earthward at full blast”. Clearly, Serenity is a BDH, just like her crew.

I tell ya, Zoe, we get a mechanic, get her up and running again. Hire a good pilot. Maybe a cook. Live like real people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come— ain’t never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get... we'll just get ourselves a little further.

Mal is a man who values his freedom above all and what better than having your own spaceship to keep hold of that freedom in a world intent on meddling. No wonder he is prepared to go down with his ship in Out of Gas. Serenity is more than his home, she is his independence and freedom. And as I watch how that plays out in the series and the film, I can’t help but feel a little bit jealous. How I would love to have my own spaceship like Serenity, where I can be the captain, shut the rest of the ‘verse out and fly away into the Black.

Maybe above all else, that’s why I fell in love with a ship called Serenity.

Love. You can learn all the math in the 'verse... but you take a boat in the air that you don't love... she'll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down... tells you she's hurting before she keels. Makes her a home.
Storm's getting worse.
We'll pass through it soon enough…

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