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“We’re in Their Homes and in Their Heads and We Haven’t The Right”: Personal Freedom and Government Control in Joss Whedon’s Serenity

By Kerri Zuiker

“We’re meddlesome.” This one line by River Tam describes the attitude towards the government’s control of its people in Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity. One of the main ideas of the film is the question of how much power a government should be allowed to have over its people. The film takes the stance that a government cannot impose complete control without collapsing. People need to be free to live their own lives. They need to know the truth of what their government does, and decide for themselves how to respond to it.

The characters of Malcolm Reynolds and River Tam are the two main characters in this film who are most greatly affected by things the government has done to them, and it is only at the end of the film that they finally begin to be free of some of those constraints. On a personal level, the character arcs of Mal and River both reflect the damage the government can do when it’s too meddlesome. Also, on a much larger scale, the disaster on Miranda reflects what happens when the government gets too cocky about the amount of control it can impose on people.

First, we’ll briefly explore the character of Malcolm Reynolds as the classic western antihero. In the opening of “Serenity” – not the film, but the pilot episode of the Firefly series – we are introduced to a younger, idealistic Mal, fighting on the side of the Independents (the “Browncoats”) in the Unification War, when the Alliance tried to extend their control from just the central planets to include all of the planets in the Universe. This younger Mal is brash and cocky, has faith in God and faith in people, until the moment comes when the Independents lose the Battle of Serenity Valley, and Mal himself loses faith in everything. Almost seven years later, Mal has become the typical western protagonist. He is cynical and pessimistic. After having had his world ripped away from him, now he wants nothing but to be left alone and to continue making a living free of the Alliance’s control. He has become a criminal, living on the outer edges of the universe where the Alliance does not have so much power.

In the film Serenity, Mal and his crew are in a much darker place than they ever were in the Firefly series, and the color scheme of the film reflects this, using darker tones overall than the series ever did. We gain some brief insights into Mal’s character at the beginning of the film that clue us in to the attitude he still holds toward life. In the first instance, the crew is loading up the mule in preparation for the bank heist on Lilac, and Kaylee tells Mal, “Have faith, Captain.” Mal responds simply, “Not today.” This is a small reflection of the fact that Mal has lost his faith and now relies mostly on his own power to achieve his goals. The second instance of a glimpse into Mal’s character is during the heist, when the Trade Agent sees Mal’s coat and says, “Y’all are the Browncoats, eh? Fought for independence? Petty thieving ain’t exactly a soldier’s work.” Mal responds, without looking at the man, by saying, “War’s long done. We’re all just folk now.” This reflects his current attitude about the fact that all he wants is to be left alone and free to live his life. He has stopped believing in any larger causes besides day to day living and keeping his ship in the air.

The character of River Tam is the other main example of the damage that a government can do to its people. In this case, River was a child prodigy, she excelled in everything she tried. Her brother Simon describes her in “Serenity”, the pilot episode of the series, saying, “River was more than gifted. She was… a gift. Everything she did, music, math, theoretical phsyics – even dance – there was nothing that didn’t come as naturally to her as breathing does to us.” Her parents sent her to what they believed was a special school for gifted children, but the school turned out to be a secret government facility that took young geniuses and experimented on their brains to turn them into psychic assassins. Simon eventually managed to rescue her and take her into hiding, but the amount of damage the Alliance did to River left her mentally unstable and unable to control her emotions.

The journeys of these two characters are a central part of the plot in the film Serenity, and it is the larger issue of the secrets that River knows that will ultimately lead both River and Mal closer to the recovery of their former selves. There are four key scenes in the film that make up the larger arc of exactly what the Alliance Parliament has done, and why they are going to such great trouble to find River Tam and prevent her from revealing the secret she knows.

The first scene is in the prologue of the film and is a dream sequence or memory of River as a younger girl in the Alliance academy. It begins with River’s teacher ending a brief lecture on the history of the Universe. The lecture served mostly as an introduction for the audience to the world that this film would be taking place in, but also sets up the Alliance’s viewpoint that they are bringing “the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization” to all of the outer planets.

In this scene, the editing is fairly straightforward, except for a few memorable shots that add emphasis to certain elements of the scene. The first is during the children’s discussion about Reavers, when one girl says, “Reavers aren’t real.” The shot is a high angle medium close-up over the girl’s shoulder. As she says her line, the teacher’s feet step into the top left corner of the frame, and there is a sound bridge to the next shot as a boy responds, “Full well they are.” In the context of the standard editing of the rest of the scene, this shot is unsettling and slightly ominous. There is the sense that the teacher, representative of the Alliance, is trying to prevent people from questioning things too much and finding out the real truth.

The next shot that breaks from the standard editing of the scene is one of River. She has begun her speech about how the government is meddlesome, and there is a cut to a straight-on medium close-up of her face on the right side of the frame. The shot does not change as she says, “Don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right.” Because the shot does not move or change throughout the scene, some emphasis is put on it and it makes the words that River’s saying clearer and more important in the scene.

This speech of River’s is actually one of the key moments in the scene, because it serves to set up the film’s position on government and its involvement in peoples’ lives. The teacher asks the class, “With all the social and medical advancements we can bring to the Independents, why would they fight so hard against us?” River responds immediately by saying very calmly, “We meddle.” She goes on to say, “People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.” This clearly sets up the film’s stance on government, as the teacher responds to River, displaying the Alliance’s point of view. She says, “River, we’re not telling people what to think. We’re just trying to show them how.” This line sets up the idea that the Alliance is under the illusion that they can control peoples’ lives in order to show them the proper ways to live. Another key scene in the film is the revelation of exactly what happened on Miranda, and what the Alliance has been keeping secret for over a decade. The setup for this revelation begins when they first land on the planet. The light outside is very overexposed, reminiscent of a desert or a ghost town. It immediately creates an unsettling atmosphere, and the feeling that something isn’t right. There are very few sound effects, except for the characters’ dialogue and quiet, eerie music. When we start seeing skeletons and preserved corpses of dead bodies, we start to wonder exactly what happened. The camera movement is largely still or slow, with slow cuts, until River starts to become agitated. Then the camera starts to track in faster circles around her, intercutting the scene with flashes of dead bodies, which create a feeling of agitation that mimics River’s breakdown. The scene switches to the crew entering the research and rescue ship that an emergency beacon has been broadcasting from. As they enter the ship, the interior is dark and shadowed compared to the overexposed light outside. This place and the knowledge it contains has been buried in darkness for over a decade until the Serenity crew finds it again. River finds the recording left by one of the scientists, and as it plays, we learn exactly why all of the people on the planet are dead. During Dr. Caron’s holographic recording, there is no music, no sound effects, and no other dialogue besides her voice. She explains that the Alliance added a chemical to the air processors that would decrease aggression in the population. Then she goes on to say that it worked, but on a more extreme level than they had ever expected, as the people stopped fighting, then stopped doing everything else and just lay down and died. The quiet of the scene emphasizes both the importance of her message, and the reactions of the crew, framed mostly in medium shots or medium close-ups so that we can clearly see their reactions. Not until the revelation of how the Reavers were created does the music start up again, and it’s all in low, eerie tones that create a feeling of apprehension and dread. The camera movement is also completely still, like time has stopped as this message is played. Only after the message is turned off do the characters and the camera begin to move again as they come out of the shock of what has just been revealed.

The disaster on Miranda is a chilling example of the vast amount of damage a government can do when they become too sure of their own power to control people, when they meddle too much. While the dead people on Miranda represent the government having too much control, the Reavers represent what happens when the government loses all control and there is no order whatsoever left in society. Society needs to have order, it needs to have a government. However, that government cannot impose total control, nor can it allow complete freedom. There needs to be a balance so that people can still live like people, free and in control of their own lives.

The next scene emphasizes the film’s agreement on this point, going back to the original ideological position of the film. It is also a turning point for Mal’s character. This is the point where he realizes that something has to be done. He can’t just go on living his life, indifferent to what happens to those around him. When faced with the fact that thirty million people died because of the government’s mistake, he realizes that he needs to do something about it. He needs to show people what has happened, so that the government doesn’t have so much power over them anymore.

The scene begins with a sound bridge over a shot of Mal standing alone outside the rescue ship as he says, “This report is maybe twelve years old.” Then it cuts back to inside Serenity, tracking slowly down the corridor towards the kitchen as Mal says, “Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear.” The shot then cuts to inside the kitchen, with Mal standing at the head of the table, almost invisible through the flares of sunlight that come through the upper windows. The crew sits around the table in front of him, most of them off to the sides of the frame except for River, who sits in the chair directly in front of Mal as the camera tracks slowly toward the two of them. Mal goes on to say, “’Cause there’s a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it too. They’re gonna see it.” Then it cuts to a shot of Mal alone, in clearer view, as he says, “Somebody has to speak for these people.” This is a turning point in Mal’s way of thinking as he realizes that it’s become his responsibility to get this message out and let people know what their government has hidden from them.

There is a cut back to another tracking shot down the table, showing the entire crew as Mal continues offscreen, “You all got on this boat for different reasons, but you all come to the same place.” The camera cuts back to showing Mal in the middle background, still washed out by the sunlight, and the camera tracks forward slowly again as he says, “So now I’m asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all.” Eventually, the camera has tracked in enough that only Mal and River are visible in the shot, and Mal continues, “’Cause as sure as I know anything, I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground, swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better.” He looks at River as he says this, one of the victims of the Alliance’s attempt to make people “better”, and then the camera continues to track forward as he says, “And I do not hold to that.” Then Mal steps forward and comes into focus, shot in a low angle with the sunlight behind him as he finishes his speech. “So no more running. I aim to misbehave.” Finally, there is a glimmer of the old Malcolm Reynolds, the man who believes in his cause so strongly that he will do anything to see it through. Mal may have been on the losing side in the Unification War, but this is a battle that he will not lose.

From the beginning of the scene, a violin softly and slowly plays the Serenity theme, establishing the idea that the crew, faced with the task of delivering this message, is regaining their purpose and their belief as Mal is. The fact that this scene takes place in the kitchen is significant, too, because in the show, it was the place where the whole crew was usually shown together. Throughout the film, the crew has been disjointed and separated, either physically or emotionally, and this is the last scene in the film where the whole crew is shown on the ship together, unified again and ready to carry out their plan. The final scene that is important to the progression of the narrative is the second to last scene of the film. After the Alliance Operative who has been chasing the Serenity crew through the entire film sees the truth of the secret he’s been trying to keep hidden, he loses his belief that the Alliance is doing the right thing. He allows Mal and his crew to go free, and gives up his position as an Operative of the Parliament, effectively losing his whole identity. He comes to see Mal one last time as Serenity prepares to leave. Throughout the scene he is lit from behind and filmed mostly in shadow, almost a silhouette of a person, while Mal’s face is lit from the front, clearly showing his face. This represents the fact that with the revelation of the Miranda secret, Mal has regained his identity and some of his freedom, while the Operative and the government he stands for has lost some of their power. He tells Mal, “I can’t guarantee that they won’t come after you. The Parliament. Your broadwave about Miranda has weakened their regime, but they are not gone, and they are not forgiving.” Though the government is not completely gone, Mal’s mission has been accomplished. He has taken some of their power from them, has gained some of his own freedom and power back. The Operative on the other hand, in representing the government, will effectively disappear, saying of himself, “There is nothing left to see.”

Through these four scenes, we see the progression of the corruption in the Alliance government and the way in which individuals must fight back to regain freedom and control over their own lives. The characters of Malcolm Reynolds and River Tam have both taken significant journeys, starting out as broken characters at the beginning of the film and by the end, are on their way to becoming whole again. The film has shown what happens to a government when it becomes too meddlesome in the affairs of its people, and all of the tragic consequences that can come with it. But most of all, it has reaffirmed the notions of freedom in society, both for its characters and for society as a whole. It brings us back to the root of the Firefly series, which I think is best put into words in the Firefly theme song.

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me

Kerri Zuiker – December, 2007.