Saturday, February 2, 2013

Firefly Special: The R.Tam Sessions

Sci-Fi Saturday

Kept prisoner at the Academy, River Tam becomes the subject of Alliance experimentation, falling deeper and deeper into psychosis and losing sight of who she is. Though never directly stated, River's given mission grows steadily clearer the longer she's held hostage, and she's forever changed by the experience.

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River's (Summer Glau) time spent at the Academy has only ever been hinted at, and though a few brief snippets have been shown of her classes, the nature of the experimentation done to her has remained a mystery. Here we see her interactions with the Counsellor (Joss Whedon) tasked with studying her, a relationship that deteriorates wildly before our eyes.

River notes that people say what they're thinking through many means, such as cadence of speech, body language, and she notes that she's just intuitive. Briefly she hints toward her psychic potential, telling the Counsellor that Simon (Sean Maher) had often complained that she knew what he was thinking, but she thinks nothing more of it, as she doesn't believe that she's abnormal in any way. River is so normal in this appearance, having had no tests done on her beyond this interview yet, and there's so much hope in her eyes. The progression of this happy young girl to the dysfunctional woman she will become seems genuine given the terrors that lie in wait for her, and it's presented very well here.

Her mission is to kill her Counsellor, as a test of what she can become, and it's evident that her role, at least according to the Academy, is that of an assassin. While the intentions of the Academy are not fully clear, the impact that they've had on River has been evident throughout the series proper, and it's likely to culminate in something amazing.

Whedon's delivery as the Counselor is sometimes incredibly affected, and it's strange that he didn't simply choose to use his speaking voice. Were his intentions to convey an authoritative presence through his intonation he has failed, and his cadence acts more as a distraction than anything else.

As an unofficial promo to set up the events of the film, this series of web videos is designed to be just a small window into the past of River Tam. While the videos are well produced in every way, it's just a shame that they're so short, as I likely could have watched a larger number of these interviews. It doesn't detract from the overall quality of the product, but it would have been nice to have a little more than what has been offered here.

In the second chronological except, where River has a breakdown and tries desperately to convince the Counselor that she doesn't belong in the program, Glau conveys the complete lack of hope that her character has in escaping to any form of normativity. Glau is absolutely incredible in this piece, and she carries it from beginning to end, the camera fixed almost constantly on her face, and this is really a display of her acting range. Were there ever any question of how she got the job in the first place, the R.Tam Sessions would certainly lay them to rest.

Director Whedon chooses to open the series at the close, with the Counselor having been stabbed in the neck, dying, his back to the camera so that it's just him unmoving for a few moments before he gargles and collapses. Going from the final excerpt to the first allows a good contrast between the psychotic River and the sweet innocent girl the audience never had the chance to meet in the series. By the end of these videos River is eternally broken, not even the ghost of who she once was; the series ends with River reaching for the pen, and knowing how it plays out after this makes it all the creepier.

Also written by Whedon, these vignettes are the character study of River Tam, and her journey is fantastically displayed through these short segments. When asked if she'd like to join the Academy, River wonders if she "would[...]still get to dance," but soon the effect that they've had on her is very evident. By the third chronological segment she has completely lost her grip on reality, but the things she says are likely true; she's being tested on, and she's growing paranoid that everything is a test, everything is out to prod or poke her, and her panic is very real, made all the eerier by the Counselor's lack of reaction to everything she does. Whedon tasked himself with showing a logical progression of who River was to who she has become, and he does so very naturally.

The larger story behind what makes River tick is on full display here, and it certainly paints a vivid picture of the tortures she was subjected to without ever showing the terrible things that were done to her. Her role in the greater scheme of things is made perfectly clear through these short vignettes, and though she's made to fulfill the desires of those who crafted her destiny here, she will prove an incredible force should she focus her abilities on her own motives.

Next: Serenity


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