The space ship is one of the more common tropes in science fiction, ranging from rockets taking humans to new worlds to super-dreadnoughts going broadsides with one another and discharging projectiles, lasers, blasters, and torpedoes before boarding parties launch their attacks. Sometimes a ship is just a vessel, servicing the story and getting characters from point A to B with a few interior scenes where buttons get pushed and consoles are held tightly as the ship is put through its paces launching, landing, or evading pursuers.
Joss Whedon, writer and creator of the science fiction series “Firefly” and director of the movie “Serenity” considered his space ship Serenity the 10th character of the series rather than a mere conveyance or place for his characters to deliver their lines. The ship Serenity turns out to be one of the most fully-realized interior spaces in a science fiction television show or movie. Why?
First, it conveys a sense of place evident from the scenes which span the bridge, kitchen, cargo hangar, bedrooms, and the hallways that connect them all. Contrast this with the original Star Trek TV series where we get a sense of individual locations like the bridge, transporter room, engineering, some of the hallways and the lift, but these places always felt disconnected rather than parts of a single entity. The Enterprise was big but disjointed, always feeling as large as the script needed it to be. Meanwhile Serenity dictated and limited the actions of the characters while on board. New rooms were never added. The ship dared to be inconvenient, limiting characters’ access to certain points if the wrong door was locked. Things broke. Sometimes these things could be repaired. It always had a jury-rigged charm that went beyond the requirements of a mere backdrop to the story going on around it.
The overall design also conveys a less-than elegant charm that is reflected by the other characters, slightly obtuse, perhaps even past its prime and outdated and out of pace with the rest of the universe. Yet it dares to persist. I’d have to re-watch the series to see if there is an episode that doesn’t include a line mentioning how old the ship is.
On the trivia end, the sets were destroyed or largely disposed of after the television show stopped production This meant when the movie Serenity was greenlit, the set would have to be built anew. This would prove to be a challenge since some of the design plans were now gone.
Nathan Fillion to the rescue!
In his enthusiasm for the original show he had photographed all of the set interiors. These shots became the foundation for recreating Serenity from the ground up. Some of the crates in one scene of the film are labeled “Reuseable Container – Do Not Destroy,” which was an inside joke referring to the destruction of the original set. Actors rarely care about their sets to this degree.
We get to enjoy the interiors to the full in the opening pre-credit tracking shot in the movie Serenity where we (almost) seemlessly follow Captain Reynolds through the ship from the bridge down to the cargo bay. The ship resided on two separate sound stages, one for each deck. Yet while on camera, it exists as a single place that is essential to the huge success of such a short-lived production.