Specifically, I’m dying to know what the long, slow playout of River Tam’s story was originally supposed to be. Of all the foreshortened abridgements fans of the space-western have no choice but to content themselves with, I feel River got the worst deal. I don’t know for sure that Whedon had a highly detailed, epic arc already written in his mind, waiting for seasons two through eight of Firefly to reveal, but I’d like to think it’s so. And, honestly, not to second guess a guy whose creative output I have tremendous respect for, but I like to think that the way River’s story should have gone is something I can at least take a stab at myself.
I say this because, after I had watched Firefly but before I saw Serenity, I actually thought I had River’s deal figured out. As the movie opens and establishes the premise that River is being hunted by the Alliance because she knows a secret, and it has something to do with the Reavers, I thought to myself “Well, of course.” And then, in the actual movie, here’s how it all fits together: River has some latent psychic powers, and while she was being experimented on by the government, she telepathically overheard that the Alliance is directly responsible for the creation of the Reavers, due to use of a happy-gas on a far-off colony planet. So the hunt is on for her to guarantee this information never makes it to the public at large, who would presumably revolt against the Alliance if they knew the Alliance had spawned the most horrific nightmare in the galaxy. That’s it.
I mean, that’s a lot, don’t get me wrong. Serenity had the thankless task of tying up what was intended to be an open-ended tv series via a two-hour blockbuster, and I’d call it a success. Mal and his crew strike a blow for truth and accountability against the monolithic Alliance because River’s secret knowledge does get out to the public, and it’s not as decisive perhaps as blowing up the Death Star with the Emperor on board, but that’s perfectly apt for a grimy series about damaged ideals like Firefly (plus a less-than-complete victory leaves the way open for sequels, which no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time). My main objection is that it gives River something to do as a plot device, but it falls just a little short explaining her as a character.
Now, allow me to describe my own completely non-canonical interpretation of River Tam, which I really thought might have been the way it was supposed to go down all along. She is a victim of the machinations of The Alliance, just as (it turns out in the movie) the Reavers ultimately are. She has a certain scary savagery about her when she goes into fight-n-kill mode, just as the Reavers are scary savages. And even when she’s not actively embodying a terrifying frenzy of violence, she’s more or less inscrutable. Just like the Reavers. Even the names sound eerily similar: River, Reaver. Because … they’re the same?
This was my Grand Theory: River is an embryonic Reaver. Simon “rescued” her from the Alliance laboratories before they could fully complete her transformation, but she has begun the genemetamorphic process which ends with her becoming a slaveringly insane cannibal monster. The Alliance intended to perfect a process for creating super-soldiers but the methods only produce Reavers, which are quietly released into the wild when they show signs of falling apart, just before they become too dangerous to contain. The Alliance keeps trying, determined to work out the bugs in the process. River was just part of the most recent batch which the scientists hoped would be stable but was probably doomed to fail.
And that last part would have propelled her arc through the series. She is slowly but surely turning into a psychotic deathstorm … probably. Maybe not! Maybe the Alliance scientists got her formula just right! On the other hand, maybe they would have gotten it right if Simon hadn’t interrupted, so maybe by trying to save her he’s damned her. There’s no way of knowing short of surrendering her to the Alliance and making her a guinea pig again, and that’s out of the question (except for the inevitable storyline where the possibility is entertained). Instead, only time will tell what happens to her. And during that time, is it better for River to exercise the superhuman strength and reflexes the experiments gave her, for whatever advantage that brings to Serenity and its crew? Or does every moment in which she taps into those reserves actually hasten the transformation from human girl to animalistic atrocity? (Yes, I am a sucker for the “my superpowers are KILLING ME!” trope.) Can she ever be cured – not via successfully completing the efforts of the Alliance, but by completely removing all of the enhancements, ensuring she won’t become a Reaver by taking away the sci-fi kung fu embedded in her brain? Does the rest of the crew accept her as their personal pet nightmare, or gradually turn on her?
And so on. I truly feel like the seeds of this are right there in the
extant material, right down to the Crowning Moment of Awesome finale
in Serenity, wherein River single-handedly wrecks an entire swarm of
Reavers. How is she able to do that? To my mind there’s three
1. Solely because of her Alliance augmentations. (Which means the Alliance already has the means of creating bio-weapons that could wipe out their big mistake, the Reavers. This begs the question of why they haven’t gone ahead and done so already.)
2. Because of the unique combination of her Alliance augmentations with her one-in-a-trillion naturally psychic prodigy brain. (I think this is actually the canon explanation.)
3. Because you fight fire with fire, you catch a thief with a thief, and you kill Reavers with a super-Reaver. The Alliance hasn’t seriously attempted wiping out the old Reavers with new Reavers because there’s profound flaws in that logic. But one shiny new escaped proto-Reaver can easily hold her own against the older feral versions. (This is the explanation I’m partial to, myself.)
No matter how long I think about it, or leave it alone and then come back to it, I really like “River knows where the Reavers came from because she telepathically eavesdropped on Alliance personnel thinking about it” less and less, and prefer my imaginary “River knows where the Reavers came from because she is one and comes from there herself” take. So yeah, face to face with Whedon, I would want to lay that all out for him and hear him admit that, indeed, if Firefly had run off 144 episodes or so, that’s exactly how River’s saga would have unfurled. Or, if not, at least hear Whedon say that while it’s not the way he would have gone it is a pretty nifty idea.