At its best, science fiction advocates liberty. While Star Trek lamentably supported a “Federation knows best” mentality, other works like Star Wars and Robert Heinlein’s novels have promoted the dissolution of central rule and the triumph of the individual. For the science fiction writer, space means one thing: freedom. Like the Wild West where men made their own rules and property rights were enforced at the end of a landowner’s shotgun, space has afforded the hope that one day man can move beyond the reach of any government’s oppressive hand.
No recent T.V. series understands this better than Fox’s Firefly, the tragically cancelled masterpiece spawned from the mind of Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel. Firefly was critically acclaimed, but sadly mismanaged and was cancelled after only eleven episodes aired in 2002. But thanks to DVD sales, Firefly has maintained a steady popularity. It currently ranks at 49 among DVDs on Amazon.com after seventeen months since its release.
The story of the series follows a smuggling ship captained by Malcolm (Mal) Reynolds. Mal and his first mate Zoe fought in the great galactic civil war as Independents resisting the unification of all the planets under the rule of the great behemoth, the Anglo-Sino Alliance. Ultimately crushed by the boot of empire, Mal buys a spaceship that can give him the freedom the Alliance threatens to steal. He tells Zoe that with the ship, “[We] never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get a little further.” And one gets the feeling that, while Mal, Zoe, and the other independents lost the battle, they will never give up the war.
Naming his ship Serenity, Mal takes on a crew, which includes a pilot, a mechanic, a mercenary, a preacher, a prostitute, and a fugitive doctor and his sister. A diverse band whose crimes almost solely revolve around a desire for freedom, the crew of Serenity must endlessly dodge the ever-looming presence of the Alliance that threatens to close them down. The series’ central theme seems to concern the ineptitude of strong central government and its tendency to oppress and stifle rather than free or secure. As Mal says, “That’s what governments are for, [to] get in a man’s way.”
Through Mal and his crew Whedon asks us to consider: What does freedom mean when the nearest government agent could be millions of miles away? Like the nineteenth century American West, civilization on the outer rim of the “verse” depends not on bureaucracy, but on natural law and contracts.
Precisely because the centralized law is the very force that Serenity escapes, Mal must hold his ship afloat through a very rigorous sense of duty and loyalty; his crew is his life, and to defend them, he would do just about anything. Because of their basic human decency, Mal and his crew embody the responsible spirit of freedom. Here are some of Firefly‘s foundations for liberty, the foundations Mal upholds:
Trade should be uninhibited. Operating under the precepts of free trade, Mal is a principled smuggler; while the government places barriers on trade, Mal believes the smuggling he does is honest work. As he tells a prospective client who is apprehensive about dealing with supposedly dishonest smugglers, “Seems to me there’s nothing dishonest about getting goods to people that need ’em.” That philosophy extends to mud, medical supplies, and in one delightful episode, cattle.
The best protection is self-defense. Everyone in Whedon’s universe is armed and ready to fight at the first sign of trouble; after all, if the government is too far away to protect you, or if it is itself the aggressor, someone must take up arms. Even the resident preacher will. As he says, while the Bible may be specific about killing, “It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.”
Prostitution is just another way to earn a living. Inara, the ship’s prostitute, lends the band of smugglers “a certain respectability.” Prostitutes, or companions as they are known in the story, are a highly organized, highly selective group of cultured and trained women. They are not forced into their work and carefully choose each of their clients out of a screened registry.
The government is not always benevolent. The fugitive doctor, Simon, and his sister River are running from the Alliance. River was the subject of a government experiment and Simon helped her escape when he discovered the danger she was in. It is unclear what the government was trying to accomplish with the teenage girl, but what is clear is that River is left damaged, violated, and afraid.
Contracts must be honored. On the outer rim of the Alliance, no government entity is accessible to uphold contracts or settle disputes. Even when dealing with clearly immoral and corrupt clients, Mal is sure to either provide the service he agreed to or return the money he was paid. Without such basic principle, the outer planets fall into lawlessness, and the Alliance might feel the need to step in and regulate; by honoring contracts, the outer rim stays free.
The ship Serenity may represent freedom, but those of us who seek it on television are out of luck for the time being. Thanks to poor scheduling, Firefly was canceled before the end of its first season, and while episodes can still be seen on DVD, no new revelations have emerged in the past three years regarding many of the story’s mysteries.
But there is hope. On September 30th of this year, a full-length feature film entitled (what else?) Serenity will take up, once again, the story of Malcolm Reynolds and his crew. Set six months after the final episode, the movie picks up right where the last show left off, with Serenity still existing at the edge of the ‘verse and evading the not-so-omnipresent Alliance. Like the best of science fiction, Joss Whedon’s Firefly is a tale of freedom and self-reliance. Here’s hoping Serenity carries on with those themes.
Sara T. Hinson is a freelance writer and is the assistant director of a fellowship program in Washington, D.C.