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September 20, 2010

You cannot stop the Serenity

After a long ride up to the blue line’s Montrose stop and a 15-minute walk through a landscape peppered with low-lying fast food joints, comic book stores, and suburban houses, I reached the sign “Cashy Money Only.” This was no unfortunate typo; no, Can’t Stop the Serenity 2010, hosted by the Chicagoland Browncoats, had quite a bit of the freewheeling, cowboy-meets-Midwestern-meets-Chinese dialect of Joss Whedon’s somewhat dystopic future from Serenity and Firefly.

For $15 (to be donated to Joss Whedon’s favorite charity, Equality Now, and a local beacon of hope, House of the Good Shepherd), fans were invited to watch Serenity and two episodes of Firefly on the Portage Theatre’s silver screen, view or participate in a costume contest, and bid on a variety of Whedon memorabilia.

Upon entering the theater, I received a program which cheerfully proclaimed “Ni howdy,” along with ballots to determine which two Firefly episodes would be screened. The voting process was quintessentially and unabashedly Chicagoan, as the official vote counter periodically got up on stage to announce that additional ballots could be purchased, votes could be dismissed for a three dollar fee, and backroom dealing was welcome up until the very last moment. Since the proceeds went to ensuring women’s rights in Chicago and abroad, the audience took full advantage of these inconsistencies.

All in all, the screenings, contests, and auction proceeded with a mild, friendly ruckus—with one exception. At the film’s climax, the audience let out an enthusiastic and vigorous roar as the heavy duty doors protecting Serenity’s crew opened to reveal the character River triumphant, having demolished dozens of Reavers, the film’s token bad guys, in battle. That moment struck me as weird.

Yes, River holding the axe and sword has become a classic cult image for fans. But the crowd of easily over 100 had been rather demure before then. Instead of raucous cheering, viewers of all ages—teenagers to senior citizens—had mostly beamed throughout the evening and late into the night. Even during the costume contest, which showcased an engineer Kaylee, a Kaylee in her memorable fluffy pink dress, an attractive Companion, an armed River, and a dashing Browncoat, applause and shouts were measured despite the fact that the contest was judged only on audience response. Yet few fans had dressed up, and the number of people who screamed at the top of their lungs for the participants on stage was almost as scarce.

It seemed like the appetite for the pomp and circumstance of sci-fi conventions was diminished, and that something more meaningful had replaced it. In the end, Can’t Stop the Serenity 2010 felt like a thoroughly Midwestern affair. Yes, the Chicagoland Browncoats and their guests watched Captain Mal and his crew traverse distant planets; some fans wielded equally foreign katanas. But I would hazard that, at some level, many were there to see more local questions asked and/or answered in a heroic way. We get to witness a happy, romantic resolution to an old (perhaps the oldest) culture war: urban, cosmopolitan, and urbane versus rural, provincial, and sincere. And we are straightforwardly asked: Centralized authority or local autonomy?

At first glance, Serenity and Firefly seem like clarion calls to libertarianism. However, Whedon makes sure to portray the “nasty, brutish, and short” aspects of life on the edge of the ’verse. Joss Whedon has asserted that in his vision of the Firefly universe, “nothing will change in the future: Technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today.” If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be surprised to find “homebody Midwesterners” boarding a ramshackle space vessel and living constantly in transit—to preserve their quirky, yet deep, sense of right and wrong, their unexpected humor, their latent desire to achieve big things, and their community.

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