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Firefly and the Struggle of the Human Spirit

on Thu, 06/20/2013 - 00:00

Joss Whedon, creator of the short-lived FOX drama Firefly, often used the “Stagecoach in Space” analogy when describing the series back in 2002. The 1939 film, directed by John Ford and featuring John Wayne, follows a group of strangers as they make their way through lawless and dangerous Apache territory. Five hundred years into the future on Firefly, meanwhile, a similar rag-tag group of strangers struggle to make a living on the outreaches of occupied space. While Stagecoach consisted of seedy and damaged characters, including a prostitute, an alcoholic doctor and a bank embezzler, Firefly is likewise populated by the underbelly of society searching for a way to escape their past in an uncertain present.

First and foremost amongst this group of space scavengers is Malcolm Reynolds, captain of the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity. Years earlier, Reynolds had fought on the side of the Independents during the War for Unification, in which the Alliance government successfully sought to extend its control to the border planets of the universe. The subsequent defeat changed Reynolds from a religious believer who wore a cross around his neck to cynical non-believer intent on sliding under the radar of the Alliance and living a life free from government control. It also turned Reynolds into a hardened individual despite a deep and understanding sympathy for the common man underdog, a trait that still leaks to the surface no matter how hard Reynolds may try to hide it.

The polar opposite of Malcolm Reynolds is Shepherd Derrial Book, a preacher who has found his way onto Serenity. Although he spouts such lines as “I believe there’s a power greater than men, a power that heals” and “you don’t fix faith, faith fixes you” in numerous episodes, Book is not necessarily looking to bring religion to Malcolm Reynolds and the other characters of Firefly but acts more as a moral compass to the situations they find themselves in. Not that he is always successful in this endeavor as he has learned that the “way of things are not always so plain as on the central planets—rules can be a mite fuzzier.” Shepherd Book also harbors some sort of mysterious past and continuously displays knowledge on a wide variety of criminal-type activities, making him a source of counsel even for a man like Malcolm Reynolds.

In between these two polar opposites are the rest of the cast of Firefly. Inara Serra is a professional “companion,” i.e., prostitute, who adds an air of “respectability” to the crew of Serenity. Zoe, meanwhile, is Reynolds’ right hand (wo)man, dating back to their days fighting for Independence. Her loyalty and commitment to the captain of Serenity is often the cause of conflict and subsequent arguments with husband Wash, who pilots their ship. Kaylee Frye is the adorable mechanic while Jayne Cobb is... well, Jayne’s role is a little harder to define. An expert tracker, weapons connoisseur and all around muscle, Jayne is also the least intelligent of the group and the one who strays the furthest from a moral standpoint.

The two remaining passengers on Serenity are Simon Tam and his younger sister River. A brilliant doctor from a top hospital on the core planets, Simon is now a fugitive on the run after rescuing his even more brilliant sibling from a government facility where they performed secret experiments on her. River is thus psychologically “damaged” and spouts nonsensical run-on sentences while demonstrating the occasional temper tantrum of tossing objects around the room. Although there inevitably is more to River than meets the eye, the relationship of Simon to his sister and the extent to which he went to rescue her, losing everything in the process, is a touching affirmation of the bonds of family.

And “family” is ultimately what Firefly is all about. While Simon and River are of the blood-type variety, in reality the entire crew of Serenity is a self-formed family unit. Much like he did with his other television creations—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and even Dollhouse—Joss Whedon crafted a narrative with Firefly that demonstrates that it’s not necessarily the relationships one is born into that matter but the ones that are developed through the natural course of life. Although his tough exterior prevents him from admitting it, Malcolm Reynolds needs the crew of his ship just as much as they need him. Life can be a long and hard road for most people, just as it is for the cast of Firefly, but no one can travel that road alone. Everyone needs “family,” even if it consists of a rag-tag group of space scavengers simply trying to eke out a meager existence.

Unfortunately Firefly was cancelled after a mere 11 episodes in December 2002, but thanks to the passion of its fans and determination of creator Joss Whedon, Universal Studios agreed to produce a big screen continuation of the Firefly saga in 2005 called Serenity. While the film may not have been a box office blockbuster, it reaffirmed Firefly’s status as a cult classic and enabled Whedon to further explore the Firefly Universe. In the final episode of the television series, for instance, it was revealed that River Tam is even more psychologically damaged than originally thought when she begins demonstrating a mind-reading talent as well as an adept ability to handle firearms.

Although the story of River Tam was left unresolved on Firefly, it became the central focus of the film Serenity. Not only was River important to the Alliance because of the skills they had imparted in her but also because of government secrets that she may have been psychically exposed. Thus enters the Operative, a special agent of the Alliance with no official ranking or name, who has been assigned to retrieve River Tam regardless of the cost and by any means necessary. Serenity isn’t just about River as it is also the story of Malcolm Reynolds. Despite the hardened and solitary individual he has evolved into, a “softer” side still remains. When he discovers the deepest, darkest secrets of the government he once fought against, Reynolds cannot let the atrocities go unanswered—not because of vengeance but because it is the right thing to do.

In the end, Malcolm Reynolds broadcasts those secrets to all of the ’Verse during a bloody battle against not only the Operative and his vast army but the cannibalistic Reavers as well. It is not so much a victory for Reynolds and his rag-tag crew of space scavenger, however, but a triumph for the human spirit instead—demonstrating that no matter the odds, the truth will always come out and that “good” will always trump “evil.” As one character phrases it, “You can’t stop the signal,” and that not only proves true for the cast of Serenity but creator Joss Whedon and the numerous fans of the original Firefly who likewise did not give up and defied the odds in their own way. The television series may have been cancelled but the crew of Serenity lives on nonetheless because of a small rag-tag group of self-proclaimed Browncoats who refused to not believe in the impossible.

“Love,” Malcolm Reynolds explains as the first rule of flying in the final scene of Serenity. “You can learn all the math in the ’Verse but you take a boat in the air you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurting ’fore she keens. Makes her a home.”

And so it is with Firefly and Serenity.

Anthony Letizia

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