Actor Nathan Fillion, who played Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds. Creative Commons photo by vagueonthehow.
By William H. Stoddard
In the decade and a half since Firefly came on the air, it’s emerged as one of the high points of television science fiction, both for its characterization, and for the unusual depth in which its setting is imagined. In fact, that depth helps explain the characterization. The crew and passengers of the Serenity come from different places in a complex world, and their motives and relationships reflect this. On a first viewing, they’re inevitably two-dimensional, inviting the watcher to see them as dramatic stereotypes. Fitting the description of Firefly as a “space Western,” they often seem like Western stereotypes: the cynical veteran, the glamorous dance-hall girl, the preacher, the naïve city dweller out of his depth. But over the course of the first (and only) season, viewers came to know their backstories, and to see their actions in more depth, in relation to their pasts as well as their presents.
Their society is an internally divided one. Unlike Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets, it isn’t a unified organization with only external foes; unlike Star Wars, with the Empire facing the Rebel Alliance, it isn’t neatly divided into heroes and villains, who see each other only from a distance. Both sides are represented on board the Serenity: the Alliance by Inara Serra, Simon and River Tam, and probably Derrial Book, as part of his mysterious past; the Independents or “Browncoats” by Malcolm Reynolds, his loyal ally Zoe Washburne, and Kaylee Frye. The two main romantic tensions within this group, between Mal and Inara and between Kaylee and Simon, both cross over this split.
The situation can be read as part of the “space Western” aspect. Many of the classic Westerns took place in the years following the American Civil War, a struggle between the central authority of the Union and the rebellion of the Confederacy. The Independents could very well have adopted the motto of the American South, “All we ask is to be left alone.” It’s noteworthy, though, that Whedon has inverted one aspect of that struggle: His Alliance, after the war is over, maintains what amounts to slavery, with many people held legally in bondage (at one point Inara claims Mal as her “bondsman”), whereas the Browncoats appear to have defended independence for others as well as themselves. This allows Mal to be a sympathetic figure, and helped lead to the show’s fans calling themselves “Browncoats.”
But there’s more to it than that. The ‘Verse, the setting of Firefly, also reflects a quite different conflict, one within science fiction itself.
How do we envision the future? Much of science fiction is set in imagined futures. Of course the human imagination can produce all sorts of things, and science fictional futures are diverse. But are there common patterns?
One common pattern can be seen in the fiction of H.G. Wells. Wells is a deeply ambivalent writer at times, one whose work often is deeply pessimistic, as in the grim visions of humanity’s evolutionary future in The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (where the vampiric Martians are described as the inevitable end state of intelligent life) or of the imperfectly humanized creatures of The Island of Dr. Moreau. But he also hints at a different future in novels such as The Sleeper Awakes and A Story of the Days to Come and in the final paragraphs of “The Star.” This Wellsian future is highly urbanized, with large, centralized populations sustained by advanced technology. At his most optimistic, Wells hoped to see this technology developed and controlled by scientific elites, such as the “samurai” of A Modern Utopia. Visually, this is a world of clean, well ventilated, brightly lit cities, usually with urban planning that ensures a consistent architectural style – in other words, it’s what James Scott (in Seeing like a State) calls “high modernism,” as exemplified by Le Corbusier.
Wells’s vision was picked up, after him, by Hugo Gernsback, who made it part of his vision of the future. Isaac Asimov portrayed several such urbanized futures—in the Earth of The Caves of Steel, for example, and in Trantor, the planet-spanning city of the Foundation stories; he also portrayed scientific elites, such as the Council of Science of his juvenile “Lucky Starr” series, the Eternals of The End of Eternity (though they were a deeply flawed elite), and the psychohistorians of the Second Foundation. Disney’s Tomorrowland started out offering a similarly shiny high-tech future, and the original Star Trek helped bring it to a mass audience: The Enterprise’s voyages might take it into all sorts of dark, dangerous places, but the ship itself, with its clean, brightly lit corridors, was like a Wellsian city of the future in miniature.
At the same time, a different image of the future was emerging. If space really was “the final frontier,” as Star Trek described it, its people could be envisioned as frontier dwellers—explorers and colonists struggling for survival and perhaps wealth in a rough, dangerous environment. E.E. Smith hinted at such a vision in his Lensman novels, with their portrayals of “meteor miners” and of a uranium mine on a remote planet (with two different heroes assuming the role of miners during undercover investigations); but it was Robert Heinlein, in his juveniles, and later Poul Anderson, who gave us a fuller vision of space travel as a continuation of the American westward movement. Their stories also reflected American ideas about constitutional government and free enterprise, in contrast to the more planned worlds that Wells and Asimov thought were inevitable.
What’s striking about Firefly is that its setting combines both visions of the future. Most of the episodes take place in “frontier” worlds, with relatively small populations leading hardscrabble lives and having little access to technology on a day-to-day basis. But elsewhere in the same interplanetary community are the wealthy, high-tech, shiny worlds of the Alliance. Alliance military ships travel the same regions of space as the Serenity and other beat-up small spaceships, imposing the authority of the central government. And the political and cultural elements of both futures are also present, perhaps best captured in the opening of the film Serenity, which shows a very young River Tam in a high-tech classroom questioning the rationale for Unification, the Alliance’s imposition of its control over the outer worlds.
Curiously, Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, is definitely progressive politically, and opposed to the libertarian or conservative ideas the “frontier” setting suggests; and it’s not uncommon for the show’s fans to share his political outlook. But Whedon made Malcolm Reynolds, a staunchly libertarian independent, the show’s hero, and the “Browncoat” fans of the show largely seem to identify with him. Firefly seems to offer, as J.R.R. Tolkien put it, not allegory, which imposes an interpretation on the viewer, but applicability, which sets views free to find their own understandings of it, and to like it even while disagreeing with aspects of it. And this is also the case for libertarian viewers, who can appreciate Whedon’s making such an eloquent case for values he doesn’t entirely share. (The Libertarian Futurist Society awarded Whedon a Special Award in 2006, for Serenity.)
As for the “science fictional” aspect of Firefly, here, too, its two colliding futures embody two different understandings of science itself. The Alliance reflects science as an organized body of knowledge, on whose basis rational plans can be made and order imposed on the world, in Scott’s “high modernist” style. This is science as the application of existing knowledge. But frontier settings, which the independent worlds represent, confront things that aren’t yet known or ordered, that have to be discovered, and thus reflect science as a process of discovery, one in which we don’t yet know what we’re doing. And at the deepest level, the revelations of Serenity show that the Alliance, in important ways, didn’t and doesn’t know what it’s doing, and needs to be open to discovery, and to the free communication of what has been discovered.