Review of Firefly (2002) and Serenity (2005), created by Joss Whedon
At the risk of infuriating my fellow nerds, I present the following truth: Firefly is massively overrated.
Don’t get me wrong, I see the potential for it to have become an excellent show after a few seasons, and I love me some Nathan Fillion, and I’ve appreciated some of Joss Whedon’s other work. But a boatload of potential and a well-cast show is not the same thing as a show that is actually good. Firefly is—despite all its possibility—a patchwork of inconsistent themes, ill-conceived plot devices, and contradictory moralizing. Fortunately, Serenity goes a long way towards correcting these defects.
Of the possible problems with Firefly, the one I find most irritating is the core theme of the show. Namely, it is a false assumption that goes something like this:
-Virtue is being true to yourself and living a life of authenticity [yes, yes, that word is getting annoying to me, too] in line with your hopes and dreams, as the Independents/Browncoats tried to do and as exemplified by Mal and his crew and the various folks they defend along the way.
-Evil is compelling others to live the way you want them to live, according to your moral code and values, as we are supposed to assume the Alliance does using its power and technological advantages (more on whether that is accurate in a minute).
Throughout Firefly we see Mal and his crew decry the government for bossing people around, harassing the common man, compelling all people to live according to their rules, and generally being oppressive and tyrannical. By contrast, the scrappy Independents remain true to themselves and live with each other by choice on the illegal-but-free fringes of society.
I suspect this is something of the reasoning behind the relationship between Mal and Inara. Mal tells her (though I forget in which episode) that he respects her as a person, but has no respect for her profession. Presumably, it’s not so much that he is against prostitution—we see him defend a brothel from attack (Episode 13). I assume that Mal’s problem is either that he wants her for himself, or that he is upset that she has conformed even in some small way with the oppressive Alliance. Or both.
So what’s wrong with all of this? Shouldn’t be we be true to ourselves and fight the Man at every opportunity? Of course not. At least, not if we are responsible adults living in a grown-up world. The reality is that authority is not inherently evil and being true to yourself is not inherently good. And, ironically, Firefly is an excellent example of this. What sorts of people are held up as the protagonists of the show? Smugglers, thieves, and prostitutes. What do we see the “evil, oppressive government” doing? Rushing to the aid of merchants and settlers in need (Episodes 1 and 3); running hospitals (Episode 9), sending medicine to distressed colonies (Episode 2), stopping illegal salvagers from harvesting a derelict ship before its rightful owners can arrive and claim it (Episode 1), and pursuing wanted fugitives (throughout). In other words, we see it largely doing what governments do under most normal circumstances. Sure, we see the men with blue gloves—presumably associated with the government in some way—kill a bunch of people. But who do they kill? Other government employees! (Episode 9) We also see a rogue officer chasing down a wanted criminal using questionable methods—but that’s just the point, he’s rogue. As in, not following the usual rules and procedures that presumably everyone else respects. (Episode 12) Even in the second scene of the first episode, the crew manages an escape by deploying a false distress beacon—the assumption being the Alliance will rush to help those in need before capturing petty thieves. If a cop pulls you over to give you a speeding ticket and you get out of it by telling him the local orphanage is on fire, who’s the real bad guy in that scenario? However “true to yourself” you were being when you were speeding, you haven’t successfully proven that the cop is the villain.
Now, to qualify all this: the movie Serenity does a much better job making the points I think Whedon wanted to make in the series, albeit with a slightly different focus. Again we have the idea of an evil authority, but this time there’s better alternative than the naive “you should be able to do whatever you want.” In Serenity we see the contrast between authority badly used (attempting to perfect humanity through social programming) and authority properly used (attempting to care well for a flawed community). Even the moment when Mal sounds authoritarian—take my orders or get off my ship—we see a fundamental distinction between him and the Alliance: there is still choice on the part of those taking orders, and a realistic concern for the welfare of the community on the part of those giving orders. As Christians, these are exactly the sorts of things we need to be on the watch for. We need to realize that government is both good (Romans 13) and bad (John 18) and that wisdom is needed to help us pursue the one and avoid the other. At least as far as it goes, Serenity is a much better guide for us than Firefly.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t watch Firefly. It really does have potential, is well acted, and has some interesting moments (the bar in ‘Jaynestown’, for example). What’s more, Whedon has created a world that demands to be explored—as all good science fiction does. We really do want to know more about just what happened to Earth-That-Was and why society developed the way it did; we want to know more about the war; and we want to know what’s really going on with River Tam. So do watch this show, but do so realizing that they do not live up to their hype.
Also, just to make sure I hit my full quota of nerdiness, here’s my fan theory: Why is it that everyone in this future world speaks both English and Chinese, yet there are no Asians in the show? My theory is that the Reavers were intended originally to be people of Asian descent. Try watching it through again with that in mind and see how quickly the show gets offensive…
Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri, where he mercilessly crushes the authenticity of his students with his oppressive authoritarianism.