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Journal of Theatrical Combatives July 2006

The Brute, the Brawler, and the Ballerina:  Fighting Styles and Character Development in Firefly and Serenity

copyright © 2006 Jason Couch, all rights reserved
by Jason Couch

(Editor's Note: Jason Couch is a lawyer living in Maryland who has been practicing a handful of styles on and off since about 1995, primarily different forms of kickboxing, grappling, and stickfighting.  He has contributed a number of previous articles to EJMAS.)

The series Firefly was broadcast on American television in 2002 and was cancelled after eleven episodes.  Thanks to writer/director Joss Whedon and his clamoring fans, the theatrical film Serenity, based on the Firefly series, was released in 2005.  Both the series and the film are now available and selling briskly on DVD.  This genre-bending "space western" is a blend of drama, action, and comedy set in the Firefly/Serenity ’verse, a solar system far from Earth and 500 years into the future.  The major conflicts include the totalitarian Alliance government’s attempts to suppress the Independents’ coalition in a civil war of the worlds, shown through the post-war actions of the rebel captain of the Serenity spaceship, Malcolm ("Mal") Reynolds, and the hunt for psychic River Tam, a fugitive from Alliance control.  The franchise offers a depth of character, dialogue, and plot that allows fans to enjoy, critique, discuss, and debate the different elements nearly endlessly while crossing their fingers hoping for a sequel.

The Firefly/Serenity franchise has captured a large following partly because of its well-developed characters.  A subtle aspect of the character development is the way each character’s style of hand-to-hand fighting reflects his or her broader character traits, and in some instances reflects growth experienced by the character.  While there are nine crew characters in both the series and film, the three hero characters that spend enough time fighting to be able to analyze are Jayne, Mal, and River, respectively referred to here as the Brute, the Brawler, and the Ballerina.

Spoiler Alert: Significant plot elements of the Serenity film are discussed, as well as smaller mentions of the Firefly television series episodes.  If you have not watched Serenity, but plan to, please consider yourself warned.

The Alliance

The clearest signs of organized martial arts in the ‘verse are found in characters that presumably learned their art through Alliance association.  The discipline needed to study an organized martial art reflects the societal dichotomy between the rigid Alliance and the wild and woolly frontier.  For example, two characters in the Firefly series loosely associated with the Alliance show glimpses of trained martial behavior.  Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass), a wandering preacher whose mysterious past implies Alliance service, performs an efficient weapon disarm, including an open hand strike to the throat of an Alliance spy in the Firefly pilot episode. The smooth execution of the technique implied that it was a practiced disarm, rather than a situational improvisation.  Similarly, Jubal Early (Richard Brooks), an Alliance bounty hunter, executes recognizable techniques with a crisp and fluid style in the “Objects in Space” episode.  However, the clearest evidence of formal martial arts training is displayed by the fighting style of the Alliance Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who appears only in Serenity.

The Operative, the Alliance agent pursuing fugitive River Tam, displays an economy of movement from his walk to his fighting style.  When fighting, he relies on precision rather than force by striking pressure points with his spearhand techniques.  From his stiff upper body posture, sword, Zen-like calm, and seppuku speech, the Operative evokes the impression of a neo-samurai.  Oddly, while the Operative’s fighting style is efficient, it does not especially feel like Japanese martial arts.  Even so, the Operative’s fight choreography does mirror the experiences of the character.  Serenity opens with the Operative executing an Alliance doctor who let River Tam escape a controlled facility.  The Operative first paralyzes the doctor with a nerve strike to the back, then, as professional as a lumberjack marking out a tree landing, he places his sword for the doctor to fall upon.  As the film progresses, the Operative’s calm eventually slips as his efforts at capturing River Tam are repeatedly frustrated by Malcolm Reynolds.  In his first encounter with Mal, the Operative is the bemused professional assassin, hitting at will with his targeted strikes.  However, by the final fight scene at the end of the movie, the Operative’s fight style becomes less precise, his physical techniques displaying his character’s broader frustration by relying more on large movements, such as slamming Mal around, than on his earlier pinpoint nerve strikes.

The Independents

The Brute

The best articulated character of the Firefly/Serenity franchise has to be Jayne Cobb (played by Adam Baldwin).  He is, to put it bluntly, a lewd, crude beast, both physically and socially adapted to the Hobbesian nature of the frontier worlds of the Firefly ‘verse.  Jayne’s professional role is generally either thug or sniper: when not providing a visual reminder that Mal has physical back-up, or threatening to torture someone with a large knife for information, Jayne is awaiting the order to pick off targets from a distance.  While he shows professional competence, such as when he brings out his favorite gun (named Vera) to save ship and crew in the “Our Mrs. Reynolds” episode, the very activities in which he is competent reinforces his role as hired muscle.  Similarly, Jayne’s off-duty interests are limited to the baser pursuits.  Jayne’s main activities appear to be lifting weights and working out, followed by eating, sleeping, and masturbation.

Jayne is also, in one sense, the most direct character portrayed.  Jayne is interested only in things that profit Jayne, moreover, Jayne will be the first to say so.  One example is in the “Heart of Gold” episode, where the crew is being called upon, as a favor to a friend, to assist a group of beleaguered women on a frontier moon:

Jayne:     Don’t much see the benefit in gettin’ involved in strangers’ troubles without an up-front price negotiated.

Booke:    These people need assistance.  The benefit wouldn’t necessarily be for you.

Jayne:     That’s what I’m sayin’.

Zoe:        No one’s gonna force you to go, Jayne.  As has been stated, this job is strictly speculative.

Jayne:     Good.  Don’t know these folks, don’t much care to.

Mal:         They’re whores.

Jayne:      I’m in.

Jayne’s fighting style mirrors his direct and brutish nature.  In Serenity’s bar fight, an anonymous patron takes a swing at Jayne, who, annoyed, blocks and then executes a visceral hammerfist to the crown of the head, all without missing a beat.  The instinctual choice of such an inefficient technique emphasizes that Jayne’s fighting style owes more to brute force than precision training, since a targeted blow would have required less force while delivering the same result (1).  In “The Train Job” episode, Jayne again eschews formal technique, opting instead to explode out of the saloon swinging a large metal stool at those unfortunate enough to be in his path.  Direct, effective, and very much in character.

Jayne is not a completely one-dimensional character, however, for it is his sly humor (and his love for his momma) that endears him to the viewer.  When describing how he would kill a man “in a fair fight…or if I thought he was going to start a fair fight,” his glance and subtle grin muster a likable charm that tempers his otherwise offensive demeanor.  That whimsical side is mirrored in Jayne’s fight in Serenity’s payroll robbery.  As a guard bursts into action, Jayne clotheslines the guard as he runs past, then, as the guard rotates in midair from the force of the clothesline, Jayne grabs him by the ankles and bashes his head into the floor, rendering him hors de combat.  The movements are executed through sheer power, from the initial clothesline to lifting the guard by his ankles, but Jayne’s humor slips through because of the patent absurdity of the gravity-defying technique.

Criminal laws, shipboard rules, and even societal norms do not apply to Jayne.  He has disdain for those who would fight fairly, he is a career criminal, and he constantly betrays those with whom he is associated.  It is therefore ironic that Jayne is the first to cry “foul” when someone fails to follow through on something that would benefit Jayne.  Going back to the bar fight in “The Train Job,” it is therefore Jayne who calls out the crew’s opponents for pulling a gun in a fistfight: “Them ain’t kosherized rules.”  Were the situation reversed, it is doubtful that Jayne would be quite as concerned with the rules.

It is telling that when Jayne is finally felled in a fair fight, it is by River Tam after being grabbed from behind by Jayne.  River grabs Jayne’s groin, which stops Jayne long enough for River to catch him with a back elbow, followed up with a serving tray to the body then face.  Although there are any number of techniques that could have been used for that scene, it is fitting that Jayne’s defeat came through an attack to his thought center - his genitals.

The Brawler

Malcolm Reynolds (“Mal”) is the uncompromising captain of the spaceship Serenity and, like the ship itself, serves as one of the centers around which other characters revolve in both the series and film.  Played by Nathan Fillion, Mal is a Han Solo-ish combination of cowboy and sea captain, figuratively firing from the hip while expecting, or rather demanding, others to either follow his lead or leave.  He follows a code, simple though it may be: when he makes a bargain, he follows through and expects others to do the same.  That may sound basic, but in the Firefly ‘verse, others seem to think a bargain is only as good as the ability to physically enforce its terms.  It is only Mal’s experience, with a dash of deviousness and a little help from his friends, that allows him to semi-successfully conduct his business.

Mal’s fighting style is just as forthright as his business philosophy.  When Mal fights, it is with liberal use of the roundhouse punch.  Normally this is the familiar John Wayne big right hand, but for variety sometimes a big left will also be thrown.  Success with this technique, as with Mal’s business ventures, is often mixed at best and the punch is useful mainly when he uses it in a less forthright manner, i.e., when he sucker punches someone.

When Mal faces experienced foes, such as his first physical battle with the Operative, he fails abysmally with the roundhouse punch.  In fact, he only escapes the encounter due to help from friend Inara and that dash of deviousness referred to earlier.  Mal is no tyro, though, as he does display fighting knowledge, but it is likely gained from experience rather than formal training.  For example, his limited success in his first fight with the Operative came when he used a broader arsenal of his skills, such as knees, elbows, grappling, and improvised uses of the environment.  These techniques are clearly secondary considerations to Mal, who admits that he likes punching people even when he knows an open hand blow may be more sensible.  In the infirmary after a barroom brawl in “The Train Job,” Mal acknowledges that “They tell ya, never hit a man with a closed fist, but it is, on occasion, hi-larious.”  Unfortunately, his favorite fistic technique fares no better in his second encounter with the Operative.

Mal, aware that an Alliance fleet is lying in wait to ambush him, mutters the words “They’re not going to see this coming” before setting his plan in motion to avoid the trap leading to the finale in Serenity.  Similar words could be used to describe his eventual defeat of the Operative in their second encounter.  A trained fighter, the Operative easily evades Mal’s telegraphed roundhouse punches and spends time slamming Mal around into floors, railings, and every other available surface.  Reaching the turning point in the combat, the Operative strikes Mal with a spearhand in the lower back.  In the ‘verse, this is a strike to a nerve cluster that causes a standing paralysis (well, to all but Mal, who had it moved due to an old war injury).  Mal is apparently familiar with this strike and its intended consequence, because he pretends to be paralyzed until the Operative attacks, thinking him helpless.  Mal then dodges, catches the Operative with an elbow to the throat, and then dislocates the Operative’s arms with a reverse nelson that apparently has the effect of a “surfboard” in wrestling, tearing or dislocating the shoulders by forcing the arms back.  Mal’s deception in this fight mirrors the deception he used to overcome the Alliance fleet.  That capacity for deception, possible in this instance only because of his experience with nerve strikes, is often a factor in the resolution of Mal’s broader adventures in the ‘verse.

The Ballerina

Although the Operative’s fighting gave a glimpse of how his character changed as Serenity progressed, it is River Tam that best shows the development of her character through the fight choreography.  River is played by Summer Glau, a former professional dancer who underwent training first with Hong Kong stuntwoman Ming Liu, then three months with stunt coordinators Chad Stahelski and Hiro Koda in preparation for filming Serenity. All three had formerly worked on Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

River’s backstory, known to Firefly viewers but revisited and slightly repackaged for Serenity, is that an Alliance-associated entity held River against her will and performed brain experiments on her.  The doctor in charge of the facility recognized that River possessed an extraordinary grace, which River’s brother attributed to her love of dancing.  One result of the experimentation was programming River to be a “living weapon…conditioned for combat.”  Another is that River experiences ongoing mental problems due to the experimentation.  River’s first fight scene begins with an event in a bar triggering River’s mental conditioning.  The stakes in the fight begin low since River is not attacked, but she instead attacks the bar patrons without provocation.  The almost luminescent lighting of the scene underscores the dissociation River is experiencing after she has been triggered.  If the viewer suspends disbelief long enough to accept that roundhouse kicks to the heads of multiple opponents is a reasonable choice of technique, then the scene is shot as an athletic, acrobatic, and effective display of River’s conditioning.  As the scene proceeds, River’s techniques get more and more combative, going from the long range roundhouse kicks to close range elbows, throat strikes, and knife and gun work.  Roundhouse kicks aside, the scene shows how deeply River’s mind has been fractured when she switches from a seemingly normal, if confused, teenage girl into a demolition machine (2).

River’s later fight scene takes place after she has undergone an experience that has seemingly cured her mental issues.  Unlike the first, this is a fight she enters voluntarily.  The stakes are also higher this time around, because she is battling an onslaught of hyper-aggressive Reavers, wild men who will, to paraphrase one crewmember, rape you to death, eat your flesh, then sew your skin to their clothing…and if you’re very, very lucky, it will be in that order.  The Reavers themselves battle in their own characteristic manner.  Their goal is to penetrate and rend, and their primary weapons are harpoons of varying sizes at distance and their teeth and hands when in close.  By contrast, River visits a whirling, Wushu-inspired ballet of slicing destruction upon the Reavers.  Whereas in her first fight River was athletic and combative, here the grace of her movements shows that she has combined the programmed Alliance fight training with her background as a dancer, culminating in her own style that is both lethal and lovely.  The integration of her background and the fight programming reflects the healing that took place within River’s own mind, and allowed her to voluntarily call upon her skills instead of the having the programming control her.

    Whedon, in creating Firefly and Serenity, clearly paid attention to the details when he crafted his characters, plots, and dialogue.  It would appear that some attention was also paid to the fight choreography in support of the broader character development in both Firefly and Serenity.  From Jayne’s direct pounding of skulls to Mal’s maybe-it-will-all-work-out-this-time roundhouse punch, characters’ traits were reflected in their fight styles.  Likewise, the Operative’s growing frustration and River’s mental healing were also reflected in the differences between their earlier and later fight scenes.  What could have been obligatory action scenes instead contributed to the richness of the characters in both the series and the film.  Shiny.

(1)  Although this technique may be listed as atemi-waza in some older jujutsu or judo curricula (see, e.g., the TENTO at http://www.ejmas.com/jcs/2004jcs/jcsart_Koizumi_0704.htm), it is not common today and is highly inefficient. More importantly, the context simply does not imply that the movement was a practiced technique of Jayne’s.

(2)  The roundhouse kicks in River’s first fight are distracting because of the inevitable comparison with one of Whedon’s other series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Buffy also features a slip of a teenaged woman kicking Bad Guys in the head.  On the other hand, the actress here does most of her own fight work, unlike in Buffy, which helps deliver a superior product all around.  According to one of the stunt coordinators, virtually all of the bar fight scene was performed by Summer Glau herself.


Firefly was released on DVD to the US market by 20th Century Fox in December 2003.
Serenity was released on DVD to the US market by Universal Studios Home Entertainment in December 2005.

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