Can We Talk About Firefly?

I know that today is V for Vendetta day or something like that… and I shan’t wish to be hoisted by my own petard, but… let’s discuss another revolution/rebellion for a moment.

Another of those, “Bring Back Firefly” chants passed through my social media feed the other day and it brought back my complicated feelings about the “Firefly Phenomenon.” First, I should say that Firefly, seen in its entirety and in the proper episode order, is one of the best examples of TV Sci-Fi we’ve ever had as geeks. Second, it is one of my favorite shows* of all time. Finally, I’ll say that Malcolm Reynolds is probably my favorite sci-fi character. I’m a huge, unabashed Captain Mal fan. I also live in Virginia, in the heart of Civil War country. I am a comfortable day trip (or less, really) from about 10 Civil War battlefields and my home city has a Confederate graveyard.

Also, a few hours from my home, there is a yearly event called the Browncoat Ball.

I have complicated feelings about Firefly. Here’s a little part of why…

When we look at Firefly, and when I say we, please understand that I am speaking through my own biases and lenses as outlined above, we see echoes of the U.S. Civil War. These echoes are enhanced by the resemblance of the shows themes/design to U.S. Cinema’s post-Civil War westerns as well as the inherent battle of the Independents vs. the Alliance. Joss Whedon has spoken of his inspirations for the show coming from the Civil War and from the idea of exploring characters on the losing side of a war.

The complicated part of that though is that Firefly, as a mirror of the Civil War, has the rough edges buffed away. The Independents are not the Confederacy. We root for the Independents because the spectre of slavery which hangs over our own recollections of the American Civil War are not present. We can revel in the spirited freedom of Mal and his family because we respect that drive to be outside of a restrictive government that doesn’t represent us. We can respect the Independent cause because all we really know about it from the show is that the Alliance Core Worlds hadn’t really lived up to the promises made to the outer worlds and colonies. So they wanted to be free. Without the shackles of slavery rattling in the background like Marley’s ghost showing us our own sins, we are free from needing to make deeper, critical judgements about the Independents. When we look at the Serenity cast, not just on the ship but also off the ship, we see different kinds of people represented. Sure, many are white males, but we also have Zoe and Inara – two strong, powerful women who do not fit the traditional white, male hero stereotypes. We have Reverend Book as well, who is an interesting foil to all the cast as well as a minority character. Oddly, we have no Asian characters, as one of the primary cultures of the Alliance is Pan-Asian and they constantly use Chinese expressions in their language.

By putting this cast in front of the audience, as well as the background characters of the show, the audience sees a world where the color of our skin means less than our social standing. It is more about haves and have-nots. We are given no hint that slavery (or a similar cultural sin) exists for the planets who were part of the Browncoats.

This is true of many of the other aspects of the show as well. We are shown that Companions are a form of legalized prostitutes who are highly regarded. Or they are supposed to be… But we see Inara confront the same old, “I bought her/just a whore” problems that we’d expect with any story about prostitutes. This is done, I’m sure, to give her painful scenes on screen, but we are also led to believe (through dialogue and occasionally action) that Companions have a special status. It is somewhat muddled in its final execution but the point remains the same… Inara is a Companion, the ladies we meet later in the series are Prostitutes. Again, it is more about the government and the social standing of the individual. But the rough edges are sanded away from prostitution (for the most part) to give us a picture of the Companion as a cultural touchstone. We Americans of the United States have very weird and complex problems with sex and sexuality that we are still working out.

Firefly even shakes the rough edges off of the “Indian Problem.” Early westerns often depicted Native American Tribes as “enemy.” Our government certainly treated them as such. And while that is also a complex and complicated part of our U.S. history, Whedon deftly sidesteps that aspect of our western culture through two devices. First, there are no natives to the worlds we colonized. No aliens. Second, to give us a savage threat to the rugged heroes of the frontier, we have the Reavers.

The Reavers give the characters of the show an “other” to be terrified of and to fight against without the need for remorse. Shepherd Book provides a voice that speaks of a possibility that they can be helped… that they are men, but the rest of the crew is all too willing to condemn them. The Reavers serve a further purpose when considered in the light of the Serenity film. They provide evidence that the Alliance is – in fact – the evil empire ™ that the Independents fought against so bravely. They are the ones who have all the sins laid at their feet and the Browncoats are held up – through the characters of Mal and Zoe – as far more heroic. The Alliance is shown to be a very dark society where thought-policing, money, and governmental overreach are powerful and constant factors.

Ultimately, in my assessment, I find the comparison to the U.S. Civil War to be less than helpful as I think about Serenity. When thinking about the society of a people that lost the war and a better American Myth to compare it to, I almost want to compare it more to the American Colonies revolution from Britain. A government that many were escaping for freedom? Broken promises to colonies? Harder existence in a hostile wilderness? Social standing of paramount importance (aristocracy)? “Give me liberty or give me death?”

Imagine the colonies under British rule if we had lost the Revolutionary War. I am not a colonial historian or an alternate history writer but it seems to me that despite the six-guns in space atmosphere of Firefly, there are far more parallels between a Colonial loss to the British Crown than to the post-Civil War world of Reconstruction and Westward Expansion. The comforting narrative of the heroic rebels struggling against a monolithic power is far better represented by the myths of the Revolutionary War than the Civil War.

Firefly is a brilliant show that succeeds admirably at Joss Whedon’s often stated line that his shows are about family. It is writ as large across Firefly as it ever was across Buffy or Angel and they are all amazing in their own ways. I am unabashed in my love for Firefly and for many of the works Whedon has created. You even see it in his handling of the Avengers films. And in that regard, he created a wonderful world for us to step into and enjoy. But the comparisons to the U.S. Civil War are tenuous and shallow at best, with a lot of the sharp edges rounded off so we don’t bump our imaginations into them and hurt ourselves. Love Firefly for what it is, but let’s also be honest about what it isn’t.

Thanks for reading.

*oh, yeah, that note up there… so, full disclosure. As much as I love Firefly, I hate the movie Serenity. Don’t talk to me about Serenity. Never happened. Like Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull or the Star Wars prequels… We just pretend those don’t exist. Ugh.

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6 responses

  1. I rather like the comparisons drawn between the firefly show and the Revolutionary war rather than the Civil war. Although it has been several years since I watched the show, the points you’ve made make me want to rewatch the show with a historic lense rather than that of watching it to appease nerdy friends who push people into watching things because ‘you’re not a true nerd until you do’.

    The posts that want to revive the show are a bit grating as well. From what I saw, yes it was a good series that could have had a good run if there had been more funding/network support. But what was done is done, and now because of Serenity* the story would never be the same if it was revived. As with the modern attempt to bring back Star Trek with Star Trek: Enterprise, Scifi narrative lines seems to have a limited lifespan on television these days because audiences are not willing to sit through the first season’s build up of universe/setting before launching into deeper social issues as classically good scifi television has done.

    *Serenity was probably made when whedon was on a drinking binge from feeling sorry that the show got cancelled which is why it is so whackadoodle.

  2. Oh man… I can get excited about things but I’m with you. There is no good excuse for, “watch this or you’re not a true geek!”

    And I also agree that it should be left as is. Reviving it now would be a strange thing indeed and probably not go well. It is a shame that shows feel the need to rush through storyline because “we may not get a second season” and I hope that the success of some of the “geek” shows of the last few years helps to slow that down.

  3. While I would not mind returning to the Verse, I think Firefly’s time has passed. Let us see some new heroes plying the spacelanes.

    Good thoughts on historical comparison there. Though since our civil war moved into the ‘wild west’ it is far easier to see Firefly through the American Civil War lens, but comparing it to a failed revolution makes good sense.

    And entirely agreed on that movies that starts with an “S”.

  4. And there have been some decent to good shows since then. Plus, there is enough love for the Verse that there are card and board games plus an RPG. So you can (sorta) go home again.

  5. It’s good to remember things which ‘should never be forgot.’ Firefly was a grand gift from Whedon, cast, and crew and it’s a shame it was cut short.

    Comparing it to the Civil War may have been a convenience, as as you note there are far more relevant parallels to the American Revolution. Either way, the spirit of rebellion lives on in the show.

    I am surprised a bit that you found nothing to like in Serenity, though. It hearkens back to the pilot and a much darker vision of the ‘Verse where Mal had lost faith. In a sense, in the film, he restored it.

  6. Serenity always felt liked a “dumbed-down” version of Firefly to me, simplified for the movie-going audience. A story that was two rushed and strayed away from the things that made Firefly great (although I would posit that the things that made Firefly great are more difficult to reproduce on the big screen).

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