Firefly: Exploring Humanity in the Science Fiction Western

Material Information

Firefly: Exploring Humanity in the Science Fiction Western
SKORUPA, LINDSAY ( Author, Primary )
Copyright Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Alliances ( jstor )
Badgers ( jstor )
Fireflies ( jstor )
Planets ( jstor )
Science fiction ( jstor )
Serenity ( jstor )
Television programs ( jstor )
War ( jstor )
Weapons ( jstor )
Westerns ( jstor )

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Holding Location:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
Copyright Lindsay Skorupa. Permission granted to the University of Florida to digitize, archive and distribute this item for non-profit research and educational purposes. Any reuse of this item in excess of fair use or other copyright exemptions requires permission of the copyright holder.
Embargo Date:
Resource Identifier:
659871216 ( OCLC )


This item is only available as the following downloads:

Full Text




2 Lindsay Skorupa


3 To my family: past, present and future


4 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I would like to thank my committee for thei r unrivaled knowledge and encouragement. I would also like to thank my frie nds and family for their tireless understanding of my desire to write a thesis on a relatively obscu re television show. I would also like to thank my students for helping me to realize the relevance of my work beyond the ‘verse of academia. Finally, I would like to thank Bradd, whose ab ility to put up with my mood swings, late nights and frustrated rantings surely qualifies him for some kind of award.


5 TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS...............................................................................................................4 ABSTRACT....................................................................................................................... ..............6 INTRODUCTION................................................................................................................... ........7 CHAPTER 1 ON GENRES...................................................................................................................... ......9 2 ON CHARACTERS...............................................................................................................18 3 ON OBJECTS..................................................................................................................... ....28 4 CONCLUSIONS....................................................................................................................33 LIST OF REFERENCES............................................................................................................. ..36 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.........................................................................................................38


6 Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts FIREFLY: EXPLORING HUMANITY IN THE SCIENCE FICTION WESTERN By Lindsay Skorupa May 2007 Chair: Andrew Gordon Major: English Joss Whedon’s television show Firefly was cancelled by FOX in 2003 after only eleven episodes aired. But despite the show’s failure , Universal released Whedon’s film version Serenity in 2005. Uniquely blending science fict ion and western generic elements, both the television show and the film us e these genres as metaphors to both entertain modern audiences and critique modern politics. T hough the genres seem to be rooted to the past (western) and the future (science fiction), they are always, only ab out the present. Using fiction and genre to displace the problems of the present, Firefly critiques global capitalism and the war on terror. Paying attention to detail in ch aracter and objects, Whedon offers individualism as a potential solution for the problems he sees in the world after 9/11.


7 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION The television show Firefly aired on FOX on September 20, 2002. Heralding the show as a fun and hip new science fiction series, FOX executives refrained from mentioning that the show more accurately belongs to the genre of the space western. Whether it was fear of the limited modern interest in television westerns or just an omission of ignorance, FOX carefully hide any references to the west ern-inspired tropes critical to Firefly ’s meaning. The DVD packaging says it all; among pictur es of the spaceship Serenity,1 the box displays a bold quote from The New York Post: “A Very Funny, Very Hip, Very Terrific Sci-Fi Show.” Likewise posters for Serenity, the film version of the TV series, cont ain the taglines “The Future is Worth Fighting For” and “Can't Stop the Signal,” both hin ting at the SF elements of the film. The DVD cover for Serenity also omits any Wester n references, quoting a San Francisco Chronicle proclamation that Serenity is “a Triumph! A Thrillingly Origin al Science Fiction Creation.” At the top of the DVD viewers are asked to “expe rience the ultimate action adventure.” But nowhere are we asked to saddle up, cowboys and girls! Firefly follows the stories of the crew of Serenity, a space cargo ship captained by Malcolm Reynolds. Reynolds and his crew live 500 years in the future, where “Earth-that-was” has expanded and colonized other solar system s to support a rapidly growing population. The disparate conditions between those who live on th e more desirable or Core Planets and those who live “on the Rim,” sparks a war between the ru ling elite Alliance and the Independents. In a galactic Civil War the Independents fight for “S tate’s rights” or more accurately, for local 1 Throughout this essay I will use the word “Serenity” with three distinct meanings. Serenity, without any emphasis, will be used to refer to the fictional cargo ship shown throughout Firefly. “Serenity,” shown with quotation marks around the name, will be used to refer to an episode of the television show Firefly , which aired on FOX on December 20, 2002. Finally, Serenity , shown in italics, will be used to denote the film version of Firefly which premiered in 2005.


8 control of planetary resources. The Alliance, on the other hand, wants to unite all the planets under one banner. When the Independents lose the war, their sold iers are forced to integrate into the very society against which they once fought. Malco lm Reynolds (commonly re ferred to as “Mal”), former Sergeant in the Independent Army and now captain of the cargo ship Serenity, hauls both legal and contraband materials fr om planet to planet, all the while hoping to break free from Alliance control. With him on Serenity are his First Mate and former soldier Zoe, her husband and the ship’s pilot Wash, crew mechanic Kayl ee, and muscleman Jayne. The crew takes on as passengers Simon, a doctor, and his sister River, whom he is trying to hide from the Alliance, Shepherd Book, a preacher with a surprising amount of knowledge of weapons and Alliance tactics, and Inara, a high-class prostitute (aka “companion”) who travels fr om planet to planet visiting clients. The show is full of rich details and complex ch aracters that draw the viewer into the world that creator Joss Whedon has made, making one wonder how the show met such an untimely end, cancelled only 11 episodes into its first season (Buchanan 47). But what makes Firefly worthy of study is not its ability to entertain. A large part of what makes Firefly unique is exactly what both FOX and late r Universal tried to omit. Whedon uses the science fiction (SF) and Western genres as metaphors in his explor ation of Humanity. I begin with two basic premises. First, fic tion, regardless of form, is always about the present. And second, all good fiction takes as it s primary task the exploration of humanity. Whedon’s Firefly does both, making the show not only enjoya ble, but artistic, rich and critically engaging.


9 CHAPTER 2 ON GENRES The combination of SF and Western generic tr opes did not originate with Joss Whedon. SF novels such as C.L More's Northwest Smith st ories which date back to the early 1930s and Robert Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973) both include Western themes. In film such examples of generic blending as Star Wars (1977) and Outland (1981) precede Serenity by almost 30 years. The space western is not new to television, either, with Star Trek (1966), once promoted by creator Gene Roddenberry as “ Wagon Train in Space,” airing nearly 40 years before Firefly . It is not just that Whedon puts SF and the Western together; we have seen that before. It’s the way in which he uses the genres as metaphors to represent different complicated struggles of humanity. Science fiction has been making its way to television since 1951 when Tales of Tomorrow transitioned from a radio serial to TV. Earl y SF TV shows took two forms: those for children and the adult serials. The children’s shows included Flash Gordon (1954) , Buck Rogers (1950) , and Captain Video and his Video Rangers (1949) . In addition to Tales of Tomorrow , adult programming also included The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Outer Limits (1963). In the 1960s, adult SF TV including Dr. Who (1963) and Star Trek (1966) began expanding beyond the serial and started sustai ning plot arcs between episodes. The number of SF TV shows has slowly increased throughout the years, peak ing at the turn of this centu ry with the very successful Star Trek spin-offs The Next Generation (1987), Deep Space 9 (1993), Voyager (1995– 2000) and Enterprise (2001). Brian Stableford calls this growing trend to televise SF the “third generation of genre science fiction” (1). Since the 1990s, Stablefo rd argues, science fic tion's primary means of dissemination has been through television. Though Stab leford worries about the effect that this


10 “evolution” will have on the ge nre itself, Keith Booker argues that, “SF is, as a genre, particularly well suited to the kind of thoughtfu l and imaginative visions that demonstrate the positive potential of televisi on” (2). In other words, Booker ar gues that television is the perfect medium for exploring them es central to SF. And Firefly embraced many of those generic tropes throughout its short but glorious life span. One of the most notable things that defines Firefly as SF is its setting. The show takes place in space, aboard a transporter ship . Throughout the series, ot her SF generic icons are invoked, including advanced medical equipment and weapons, the mixing of world cultures, the colonization of other planets, and the search for a utopian society. But as any SF fan knows, it is not just the space ships and the futuristic toys that make something science fiction. There are many definiti ons of SF, and it is beyond the scope of this particular essay to examine them all. For our purposes, let us accept Da rko Suvin’s influential definition of science fict ion as the literature of cognitive estrangement (27). Suvin appropriates the notion of estrangement from Brecht, who defines it as a repres entation “which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamili ar” (qtd. in Suvin 25). Suvin adds to this the notion of cognition, or of empi rical knowledge, to separate SF from fantasy and other estranging genres which hold to what he calls “anti-cognitive” laws. In other words, a SF story is one in which the audience is able to comprehend and relate to the action taking place while simultaneously feeli ng distanced or “estranged” from that action. SF creates worlds which seem real even though they are set 500 y ears in the future; SF characters can be relatable even though they may be androids or aliens. “SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the pr esence and interaction of estrangement and


11 cognition, an whose main formal device is an imag inative framework altern ative to the author’s empirical environment” (27). Would Suvin consider Firefly SF? Absolutely. Firefly pays attention to the cognitive aspect of Suvin’s definition. Whedon’s uni verse is bound by empirical laws of physics, mechanics, and medicine. Furthermore, though we may be unfamiliar with the details of how this future came to be, we can still relate to the char acters and their situations. It is this very estrangement which gives SF its power. The fact that futuristic troubles are still ultimately familiar indicates that the real object of evalua tion may just be our own troubles, distanced just enough so that we can make them out more clearly. In Archaeologies of the Future Frederic Jameson argues that SF “enacts and enables a stru cturally unique “method” for apprehending the present as history” (288). In other words, SF distances the read er (or viewer) so that it can imagine the present as “history.” Jameson also sa ys that “elaborate strate gies of indirection are therefore necessary if we are so mehow to break ‘experience’, for some first and real time, this ‘present’” (287). In order to experience the pres ent, SF must use “strateg ies of indirection, or techniques of the genre, in orde r to estrange the reader. Thus , in the end SF, like all fiction regardless of setting, is always about the society in which it was produced. In Screening Space , Vivian Sobchack compares SF films with other genres that she considers more historically rooted (66). Sobc hack argues that these genres, specifically the Western and the Gangster film, are primarily iconogr aphic, using characters, objects, settings and costumes linked to a very specific and immutable past. She sees SF, however, as a genre “which is unfixed in its dependence on actual time and/or place” (66). This ability to move through time and space and yet still relate to th e present, Sobchack claims, gives SF its power as a genre. The Western, on the other hand, remains fixed in time, stuck with the same metaphors and characters


12 used in the early days of ci nema and television to depict The Great Train Robbery (1903) and the singing cowboys of the 1950s. Though out of favor with modern audien ces, Westerns once ruled the airwaves. Hopalong Cassidy (1949), Gene Autry (1950), Gunsmoke (1955), and Bonanza (1959) are just a few of the many TV westerns aired in the early days of television. A 1959 issue of Time magazine, analyzing the abundance of TV Westerns curren tly on air, claimed that “Theorizers, both professional and amateur, think th e western helps people to get aw ay from the complexities of modern life and back to the 'res tful absolutes' of the past” (1 ). Though the genre experienced periodic rises in popularity marked by such successes as Little House on the Prairie (1974) and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993), the western is a rare sight on modern TV screens. 1 If Sobchack's critique stands and the Wester n genre is stuck in the past, why is it still around at all? Jack N achbar, founder of the Journal of Popular Film and Television and a fan of Westerns since childhood, argues, The longevity of Westerns is, arguably, due to the ability of the genr e to change horses at each cultural way station. The subject matter of Westerns usually has been the historical West after 1850, but the real emotional and id eological subject matter has invariably been the issues of the era in which th e films were released (Nachbar 178). Thus, at heart the Western is not just about cowboys and Indians or saloons and gunfights. Westerns, like SF, can reflect the current situatio n while remaining set in the past. But, with a little help from other genres, such as SF, the West ern can escape its histor ical setting while still remaining intact as a genre. Westerns, though on ce tied to a fixed historical setting, have now been freed to enact their thematic struggles in innumerable new times and places. The icons of 1The most notable excep tion to this is HBO's Deadwood. Premiering in 2004, the Western drama has received critical acclaim for its use of western motif s to comment on “empire-building.”


13 the Western have their place in our past and the genre carries these cultura l associations with it as it travels across time and space, playing out the mo re thematic concerns of the Western genre. The western is a genre of binaries, often dramatizing the conflict between two opposing, irresolvable sides: the east a nd the west; the civilized and th e savage; the good and the evil. Most obviously, Whedon makes continual use of the visual signifiers of the genre. Firefly takes place in a frontier, pioneer societ y where life is often crude and harsh. Throughout the series the lead characters engage in gunfights, train heists , and quick draws; they patron saloons and whore houses; they ride horses and at one point they even herd cattle. Thematically, as well, Firefly draws on the conventions of the western. Our hero es (the crew of Serenity) battle the savage wild (the Reavers) in lieu of Native Americans. They also at times battle against the corrupt forces of civilization, represented in Firefly by the Alliance, in traditional Westerns by citizens of the Eastern cities. The Western and SF make for good partners for a number of reasons. First, as mentioned, their settings (the past and the future, respectively) are both es tranging techniques that distance but do not remove discussion of the present. Second, like all good fic tion, SF and the Western take as their subject, hum anity. In his essay on Firefly David Gerrold argues that, “the underlying core of science ficti on is the existential question: what does it mean to be a human being?” (189-190, emphasis in original).Similarl y, Westerns often examine the individual human, the lone ranger. But Whedon has a broader view of the exploration of humanity, one that is not limited to particular genre. You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. If there's any ki nd of fiction better than that, I don't know what it is (qtd in Finding Serenity) . It is important to note that Whedon does not say which “genre” he is referring to; all fiction, according to him, is about th e exploration of hu manity, including Firefly . The western,


14 with its historical roots and fi xed icons, represents the American past. SF, with its unlimited potentials, represents the unforeseeable American future. Their combination can be seen as an attempt to understand humanity's present. By combining the two genres, Whedon also manages to ask big questions about the current state of humanity by dramatizing a possible future result of our current actions. He's also able to use the We stern to question the role of the individual in society. Firefly explores humanity on two levels. Most obvi ously, the show atte mpts to understand the humanity of its characters, the focus of the episode “War Stories”. In “War Stories” the fictional poet Shan Yu claims that only through tort ure can one really find a person's “true self.” Invoking the words of Shan Yu serves two narra tive purposes. Shepherd Book's mention of the fictional poet questions the motives the Allia nce had for experimenting on River. Though experimentation for the sake of torture is a mo tive Simon quickly dismisses, Book may not be far off. The Alliance may not have been interested in torture to see how much River as an individual could handle, but they were intere sted in testing the limits of hu manity. In other words, perhaps their motives were less focused on understandin g “River” and more focused on seeing how far their modern medical know ledge could take them. In the episode the sadistic villa in Niska, a recurring character who is devoted to torture as a means of understanding the indi vidual, also quotes Shan Yu. Niska values his personal reputation and honor, and the penalt y for those who cross him is a very in-depth exploration of the perpetrator's “humanity,” usi ng Shan Yu's torture tactics. But the exploration of humanity is not limited to Niska's torture or the Alliance's experiments. Throughout the episode, we meet two of our most quixotic ch aracters. In this episode we first meet River, or at least Rive r as she was before the Alliance conducted their


15 experiments on her. We learn tw o significant things. First, we are reminded of who River was: she's really only a young girl who was robbed of her youth. Finally, we also begin to learn who River has become. When Kaylee is pinned down during Mal's rescue, River comes to her aid by shooting three men with her eyes closed. She then says a very childish, “No power in the 'verse can stop me,” as if her actions were a continua tion of the game she and Kaylee were playing at the start of the episode. Here we begin to see a depth to River pr eviously unexplored, as Whedon fills out the details of who River was and what she's become; we begin to realize that River is both child and superwoman. Another character we “meet” in this episode is arguably the show's most enigmatic character, Shepherd Book. A preacher from the Southdown Abbey, Book reveals a few things about himself in this episode that make us que stion his identity. To begin with, Book has an extensive knowledge of snipers which he claims comes from shooting rabbits at the Abbey. We then learn during Mal's rescue that not only is he willing to shoot others (albeit, only in the kneecaps), but that's he's also pretty good at it. He exhibits knowledge of m ilitary tactics and singlehandedly defends Simon (who shoots wildly and doesn ’t hit a thing) and Ka ylee (who never fires her gun). In addition to exploring the humanity of its characters, Firefly also focuses on exploring humanity at large by asking, visual ly and narratively, what happens to a society that tries to control too much, a question Westerns have be en asking for a long time. Joss Whedon has created a show that is all about being human. Whedon also uses space as a link that brings the Western and SF together. Star Trek paved the way. Trek's opening monologue which proclaimed th at space was “the Final Frontier,” clearly formed the link between the western them e of expanding American life to a new frontier,


16 and the SF exploration of the “space” of the universe. Firefly's theme song proclaims the importance of space with the lyrics, Take my love. Take my land. / Take me where I cannot stand. / I don't care, I'm still free. / You can't take the sky from me. The connection here is between the promise of a “new start” offered by the frontier and the idea of infinite space for expansion that the universe pr ovides when the land of “Earth-that-was” is all used up. I began this chapter with the claim that Whedon 's originality lies in his use of the SF and the Western genres as metaphors. When using SF tropes, Whedon applies optimistic “Golden Age” icons and themes with aspects of the Allian ce that he sees as primarily beneficial to society. Inara's open sexuality, her blending of Asian and Western cultures, and Simon's medical knowledge are all championed. There is also a true “sense of wonder” when examining the ships of the future, especially Serenity . Whedon also uses New Wave pessimism central to later SF texts to cri tique aspects of the Alliance's regime that he finds less than sa vory. The medical experi mentation done to both River and the Reavers, the disparate conditi ons between the Core and the Rim and the Operative's blind obedience to Alliance command illustrate the dystopian themes often played out in SF. Whedon illustrates the dual sides of the Wester n genre as well. Us ing Western tropes to signify both the freedom from the law and the gang crime that replaces Alliance control, Whedon applies each to different characters. Crime lord s Niska and Badger represent the threat that a truly lawless state poses. Mal, on the other hand, is like a rovi ng cowboy with his family of helpers and represents the free dom that the Western embodies.


17 Whedon's willingness to use genre in complicated and unpredictable ways gives Firefly and Serenity a unique approach to the e xploration of humanity, not humanity as it was in the 19th century and not humanity as it might be in 500 years, but humanity as it is right now.


18 CHAPTER 3 ON CHARACTERS It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does. —William Faulkner The test of any good fiction is that you shoul d care something for th e characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible. —Mark Twain If you’re going to have a charac ter appear in a story long enou gh to sell a newspaper, he’d better be real enough that you can smell his breath —Ford Maddox Ford Many have argued that the sole determinant of quality in a piece of fiction is the strength of its characters. Some authors, like Faulkner, see their work beginni ng and ending with their characters. Others, like Twain value the audience's relation to the characters. And still others, like Ford, champion works with impeccable detail so th at even the smallest of characters is fully realized. While discussing the characters of SF, Ursula K. Le Guin asks “what good are all the objects in the universe, if ther e is no subject?” (133). For Le Guin, like Faulkner, Twain and Ford, the character is centra l, regardless of genre. But genres are known for their stereotypical char acter “types.” SF has its aliens, scientists, astronauts, and robots. Westerns have their lone cowboys, corrupt or heroic sheriffs, and savage or noble Indians. How can anyone claim that genr es which are so relian t on shared symbols can actually produce unique and intri guing characters? Le Guin's e ssay “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown” asks this very same question, focusing on Virginia Woolf's character Mrs. Brown as the measure of character depth. For Le Guin, as for Woolf, characters must be “people. Round,


19 solid, knobby. Human beings, with a ngles and protuberances to them , hard parts and soft parts, depths and heights” (126). But in her analysis of some classic examples of genre SF, Le Guin was hard pressed to find any “Mrs. Browns.” But in none of the spaceships, on none of the planets, in none of the delightful, frightening, imaginative, crazy, clever stories are there any people. There is Humanity, and After, as in Stapledon. There is Inhumanity, and After, as in Orwell and Huxley. There are captains and troopers, and aliens and maidens and scien tists, and emperors and robots and monsters – all signs, all symbols, statements, effigies, allegories, everything between the Stereotype and the Archetype. But not Mrs. Brown. Name me a name. There are no names. The names don’t matter (124). At stake, Le Guin believes, is the entire pur pose of writing altogether . She argues that if SF cannot produce any characters worth rememberi ng, the work is meaningless and without art (130). But, finding refuge in Zamyatin and Lem among others, Le Guin finds that SF is capable of producing plenty of Mrs. Browns, provided that the genre uses its symbols and metaphors “novelistically” (i.e., with the character at th e center). As an adde d bonus, with the focus on character, quality SF can “show us who we are, a nd where we are, and what choices face us, with unsurpassed clarity, and with a gr eat and troubling beauty” (135). In Firefly and Serenity , Whedon has created more than one Mrs. Brown. His universe is full of characters overflowing with details, smel ls, and unique personality quirks. Most notably, the show and film focus on the ironically self-proclaimed “Big damn heroes,” the crew and passengers of Serenity. Throughout the series, characters find themselves taking sides with either the Alliance or the Independents. Their choices dictate the ways in which they are filmed. Those associated with the Alliance are likewise a ssociated with objects and char acter traits more commonly found in SF; those characters who consider themse lves Independents are similarly equated with Western icons and themes. For example, River is a victim of the Alliance's futuristic medical experiments and accordingly she is filmed in futuristic lighting, costumes and angles.


20 River's intelligence, slender frame, agility and sensitivity are the makings of a science fiction heroine. Whedon has a reputation for maki ng heroes out of teenag e girls. His hit TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was based entirely on the idea that monsters could be scared of a 100-pound blonde who kicks vampire butt. River can thus be seen as a new Buffy, or rather Buffy if she lived 500 years in the future and was kidnapped and experimented on by the Alliance.1 Throughout Firefly, River's secrets only slowly reveal themselves in episodes like “Safe,” “War Stories,” “Ariel” and “Objects in Sp ace.” Robert Taylor argues that River's primary purpose in early episodes of Firefly was to serve as the show's MacGuffin, a plot device used to increase suspense and mystery yet in itself withou t any real purpose (135). Taylor continues to argue that over the course of the show River evolves from MacGuffin to primary focus of the later episodes. Ultimately the unraveling of River's mysteries becomes Serenity's main plot. Once River relinquishes her role as MacGu ffin, the enigmatic Shepherd Book takes her place. Book is a rich character not because of what we know about him, but because of what he refuses to tell us. His occasional tidbits of insight into the deep secrets of the Alliance make us question Book's past and his role on board Serenity. As a preacher, Book very easily could have been made into a stock character, the counselor and giver of spiritual and emotional guidance, like Deanna Troy from Star Trek: The Next Generation or Yoda from Star Wars. But instead Book is more complicated. In the very firs t episode “Serenity” (though not aired until last), Book becomes the seeker of solace. And, rather ironically, it is Inara, the companion/prostitute who gives it to him. 1Note that in season 7 it is revealed that Buffy's own powers are a result of a group of men who kidnapped the first slayer and forced her to merge with a demon. There ar e many similarities between River and Buffy, but for now the most striking one is their ability to turn their victimization into strength.


21 Inara's character, the prostitute in a wester n-themed comedy, could have been taken a number of directions. But Whedon does the most unexpected when he makes her the epitome of respect. Inara serves as the crew's entrance to civilized life. She is the one character on the ship who is “pro-Alliance.” It is her respected professional role that gives the crew access to a number of space ports which will not let ships dock unless they have a companion onboard. Inara's clothing is Geisha-i nspired, linking her to the As ian-influenced Alliance high culture. She is often sister/ mother figure to Kayl ee. And not surprisingly, she also serves as the captain's love interest. But what is unexpecte d, and therefore gives Inar a depth of character, is her reciprocation of his affections and the strength she uses to keep from acting on her desires. This brings us to Mal, the pr otagonist, the ship's captain, th e focus of the show. But unlike other spaceship captains of fame such as Kirk and Picard, whose strict sense of character and ethics had them saving innocent life after inno cent life, Mal is not so ethically motivated. Operating Serenity as a commercial enterprise, Mal has no desire to explore the galaxy or save people; he only wants to make a living and have the Alliance leave him alone. But his motives are not as selfish and morally bankrup t as he would have us believe. Serenity opens with him doing some pretty immoral and argu ably selfish things. First he forces Simon to allow the 17year old, mentally unstable River to help him rob a vault. And second, he pushes a young man fleeing an attack, crying “Take me with you!” off hi s transport and into a pack of cannibalistic Reavers. Yet despite these selfish acts, Mal allows Simon and River to stay onboard even though their presence causes immeasurable inconvenien ces with the Alliance. Mal has his own morality, equivalent to cowboy morality. His act ions make him unique as does his underlying sense of right and wrong. “You did what's ri ght,” Mal comforts the dying Book after the


22 Shepherd confesses to shooting down an attacking ship. “Coming from you that means almost nothing,” Book replies. Kaylee, the ship's mechanic, is ever cheer ful and optimistic. She is reminiscent of Buffy 's Willow, another innocent “Oh, gee” character w hose cuteness wins over the hearts of the audience. But even cute Kaylee is not as innocent as she appears. Her sexuality is overwhelming; it completely domin ates her interactions with Si mon, and it turns out to be the inciting action that got her onboard Serenity in the first place. Other than this surprising combination of sex kitten and girl-next door, Kaylee remains fairly one-dimensional and predictable throughout the series and film. Th ough, admittedly her job as mechanic would be seen as an inversion of stereotype were it not steeped in her womanly intuition. She never explains knowing how to fix ships; she me rely says that they “talk” to her. Simon, however, is arguably th e least intriguing of all of Serenity's crew. Seemingly onedimensional in his devotion to River, Simon never really contributes much else to the show. He often serves as the “straight ma n” against whom others can pl ay, and Kaylee's sexual attraction and frustration at his lack of response creates some romance in the series, but Simon himself seems there merely to patch up the wounded and argue for River's safety. Symbolically, Simon seems to have more of a purpose, standing in as a golden child of the Alliance, the embodiment of the utopian ideal that the Oper ative and others are working towa rds. So it's important to have him forced onto Serenity to show how perverted the Alliance has become. But as a character, Simon feels paper-thin. Zoe and Wash are enjoyable characters, but ne ither their humor nor th e enjoyability makes them unique. It is their odd couple pairing that makes them rich characters: a warrior woman and a goof-ball fall in love and marry; it does not happen often. We have seen warrior women


23 before (e.g., Buffy, La Femme Nikita, Sydney Bristow of Alias ) but they usually fall for strong able-bodied men who can hold thei r own in a fight. Wash, on the other hand, openly admits that his wife could kill him with her pinky. But so mehow, despite their role reversal, Zoe and Wash represent the perfect union that others on board aspire to emulate. If they can embrace their differences,2 one wonders, why Ma l and Inara cannot. Zoe and Wash represent a conflict of ge nder roles, which Whedon shows is easily reversible. Mal and Inara's conf lict, on the other hand, runs deeper. Their differences mirror the differences between the Alliance and the Independen ts. This conflict, we are told, is not so easily resolved. Jayne Cobb, Serenity's muscle man, is the mo st “Western” of all the characters onboard Serenity. Jayne's value lies in his ability to look out for himself and to fight; skills necessary for any Western hero (if Jayne coul d be called such a thing). I could easily dismiss Jayne as a simple generic trope used to inc ite mutiny on the ship, if only it we re not for the snow hat. In “The Message” Jayne receives a hand -knit snow hat from his mother. Now, a simple disgruntled thug would see that the hat holds no monetary va lue and would have discarded it. But Jayne was thrilled at the gift and immediately wore the hat. This show of affection for his mother is one of a few hints that Whedon gives us to help us s ee what Mal sees in Jayne. Despite his nearly catastrophic betrayal of the crew in “Ariel,” Ja yne is allowed to stay on board, thanks to Mal's forgiveness. Episodes like “Jaynestown,” and moments like Jayne's br otherly reaction when Kaylee's shot in “Serenity” and his child-like pa nic whenever anyone men tions Reavers, all add up to create a character too complicated to be dismissed as mere thug. 2 The show never makes the interracial nature of Zoe an d Wash's relationship an issue. In the future, we are implicitly told, race simply is not an issue.


24 Another unique aspect of Firefly is the complexities with wh ich it draws its villains. Unlike Star Trek , where the alien “other” is invoked to measure humanity against, Whedon's 'verse is only human, forcing us to analyze ourselves in all of our heroics and treachery. Many have noted this absence of alie ns and comment that the show does not feel like SF without them. Instead, Whedon gives us aliens in the form of his alienated characters , living outside of the Alliance, alone. As Roxanne Longstreet Conrad says of Malcolm Reynolds' universe, “no alien in the Enterprise universe as scary as the regular people on his” (177). What makes the “bad guys” so terrifying in Firefly is the fact that they're human and believable and hard to tell apart from the good guys. To explain why he felt villains needed to be rich characters, Whedon says, First person I ever heard say it was Willem Dafoe in an interview years ago when I was a kid. Somebody said, you know, “Do you like play ing heroes or villains better?' and he said, 'Ain't no difference. Everybody thinks they're righteous” (“Se renity” commentary). In casting his shows, Whedon often pulls from the same company of actors. The two main crew members of Serenity, Ma l and Zo, also appeared on Buffy and Angel , respectively. More importantly, however, these Firefly heroes were cast as villains . Gina Torres, who plays Zoe, once played Jasmine, a villain in Angel's fourth season. Jasmine is a “power-hungry” higher being (one of the “Powers that Be”) whose missi on on earth is not entirely evil. She wants to bring world peace and rid the earth of evil, but in order to do so she uses mind control. She also must eat humans to stay alive on earth (she is known as “the Devourer”). This combination of good intentions and evil actions plays with the good/bad dichotomy and pa ints a villain with moral ambiguity. Nathan Fillion, who plays Mal (interesti ngly enough, Latin for “Bad”), joined the Buffy cast in April of 2003 as Caleb, a priest who gives up God but not the cloth. Fighting with “the First,” the original evil, to end the line of the Slayer, Caleb combines serial killing with misogyny to create one of the most evil charac ters throughout the show's seven seasons. But


25 even though he's the “bad guy” of the show, Caleb believes completely in his righteousness; he really is convinced he's doing good work. 3 Whedon is saying throughout his oeuvre that th e line between good and evil is very blurred and subjective. Casting Torres and Fillion as bo th heroes and villains shows what all of his characters believe: Everyone's righteous. Everyone's the hero in the story of his or her life. For example, Badger is a backwater gang boss who has, as River says, “delusions of standing” (“Shindig”). He wears a fancy top hat, suit jacket and tie, clearl y trying to project an air of wealth and class that clashes with his Cockney accent and dirty clothing. In Badger's mind, however, he's the protagonist. “The Wheel neve r stops turning, Badger,” Mal says when Badger backs out on a deal in “Serenity.” Badger rep lies confidently, “That only matters to those on the rim.” Badger obviously sees his position as stab le and unlikely to be affected by anything with which Mal can threaten him. Badger sees himself at the center of all things. But the use of the word “rim” has another meaning within the cont ext of the show. The outer planets are often referred to as “The Rim” (as opposed to the “C ore”), and it is this Rim to which Badger most definitely does belong. He may be a king of thieves, but Badger's still a petty criminal as far as the Alliance is concerned. Even Niska, the sadist who tortures Mal and Wash, thinks he's a philosopher with his own set of moral principles. And Joss complicates ou r experience of him by making him funny. With lines like “at dinner I am getting an earful!” when explaining th e torture of his nephew, Niska seems like a nice guy. We want to like him. But th en he tortures and kills people, and cuts off 3Adam Baldwin, who played Jayne in Firefly , also played a villain in Angel's final season. He was Hamilton, a “creature” who worked as an agen t of Wolfram and Hart. Summer Glau also appeared in Angel though not as a villain. She was cast as a ballerina who fell victim to her ruthless and jealous manager. Even in Angel, Glau is cast as a victim though she gets her revenge, one way or another.


26 Mal's ear and shows absolutely no remorse while doing so. In short, there are no clear lines separating villain from hero. Serenity gives us a new “bad guy” to love/hate, previously absent from the TV show. Played by the charming Chiwetel Ejiofor, the Oper ative is very likable. His sense of humor, noble intentions, and good looks can almost charm one into forgetting that he kills innocent children. When confronted by Mal, the Operative is candid and adm its that he is a bad man who does not belong in the utopian future that he is fighting for. His honesty makes us like him even more. Herein lies the great power of the “bad gu ys” in Whedon's universe: they're hard to hate. What makes them evil is harder to recognize than the typical a lien invader of SF films or the mustached thug of the Western. Even when we think we have found purely evil characters in the Reavers, Whedon forces us to reconsider their guilt. The most surprisi ngly sympathetic bad guys of all are the Reavers. In Firefly , their presence is scatte red and only associated w ith fear. But the film Serenity investigates their history and di scovers that the cannibalistic mu rderers and rapists are actually innocent victims of a failed Alliance medical e xperiment. Only Whedon would have us feel sorry for a pack of cannibals. Not only are Wh edon's bad guys sometimes hard to recognize, but even when you find them they're sympathetic. Whedon does allow a few of his characters to be come the archetypes of the genre, without the unique touches of personality and complexity he grants to others. In the film Serenity , Whedon adds the character of Mr. Universe. Mr. Universe is your standard conspiracy theorist, computer geek and anarchist in one. His charac ter is never complicated, explored or pushed any deeper than what we learn about him in the first few minutes of our meeting him. Another static


27 character is Firefly 's Lance Burges, the misogynist rich man in “Heart of Gold.” Lance is your typical Western villain: unreasonabl e, unlikable, and uncomplicated. If the quality of a piece of fiction is determ ined by the strength and complexities of its characters, than Whedon has managed to cr eate a series full of “Mrs. Browns.”


28 CHAPTER 4 ON OBJECTS The depth of the characters is part of what scie nce fiction writers call “world building.” To create a futuristic world that feels believable, SF writers must portray ch aracters with depth. But another part of world-building is putting in the tangible particulars; the physical details of a world help make a story believable. These detail s are not unique to SF; any good piece of fiction is strengthened by the details. The more details a story has, the more believable it becomes. One way in which Whedon makes his universe believable is through his portrayal of food. When asked what Firefly is about, Whedon half jokingly answers, “It's about eating a strawberry” (“Serenity” commentary) . In other words, the show is not just about adventures and characters; it's also about the characters' relationshi ps to the tactile “stuff” of their universe. This is very literally presented in “Objects in Space” when Jubel Early, the bounty hunter, says, “People don't appreciate the substance of things . Objects in space. Pe ople miss out on what's solid.” Throughout the episode both Early and Ri ver are shown to be “sensitive” to their surroundings. River often walks barefoot, feeling her way thr ough the ship, and Early licks a wall while searching for River. Whedon wants us to think about and imagine the smells and tastes of Serenity, sensations normally absent from TV. Throughout the show, the tangibility of obj ects is represented most notably through produce. Many have questioned Shepherd Book's r eason for being on the ship. Mal, the original pilot “Serenity” tells us, was once a religious man who has sin ce abandoned his faith and now displays an open antagonism toward god and religi on. Yet, in “Serenity,” Book claims that he only has “a little” cash. So, why would they let him on board? The an swer is in the box he gives to Kaylee, the contents of which seem to be enough to welcome him onboard Serenity. It is soon revealed that the box contains strawberries.


29 Apples also play a large part throughout the series. As symbols they come to embody three different meanings. The first time we see an apple is in Badger's “office” in “Serenity.” He spins the arm of an apple peeler lazily while dismissi ng Mal, Zo and Jayne. In this scene, apples represent wealth and power. Badger has both. In f act Badger is so wealthy he does not even have to eat the skin off of his apple, but ha s a machine that discards it for him. We see apples again in “War Stories.” The crew has just pulled their most lucrative job todate, and the bushel of apples in the kitchen can again be seen as a sign of wealth. But these apples were bought as a gift from Jayne as penance for be traying Mal (by turning Simon and River in to the Feds in “Ariel”). Here a pples take on a new meaning: remorse. Finally, Zo tells the crew a story about her war days when apples were used to hide grenades. Here apples represent danger and treachery. Firefly's treatment of the “things” in the 'verse, the show's willingness to imbue objects with so much depth and meaning, creates a believable and human world. Other “things” in the Firefly 's universe add to the depth of the show, including the weapons they use, which also enact the show 's play between genres. The Alliance use two different weapons: the “sonic boom” gun seen in “T rash” and the mysterious wands that cause violent brain bleeding seen in “Ari el.” Both weapons are science fictional and futuristic, but are very different from each other, perhaps expressi ng the dual sides both of the Alliance and of the SF genre. The sonic boom gun stems from a long line of visions of a future without the need for physical violence. It is a direct descendent of Star Trek's phaser guns which can be set to “stun.” This is a “Golden Age” weapon, optimistic in natu re. The “brain bleed stick,” on the other hand, is a scientific creation so horrible and modern that it instantly creates a fear of the future promised by SF.


30 But for those on the rim, the weapons of choice are still the familiar generic six shooters, rifles, and pistols. Larry Di xon argues that the weapons of Firefly remain familiar because they are “still literally the best bang fo r the buck”; in other words, they are affordable and effective, making them perfect for those without the means or the money to procure more advanced weaponry (10). SF screenwriter David Gerrold comes to a similar c onclusion. “Perhaps oldfashioned projectile weapons are the easiest and cheap est to manufacture” (192). But, as Gerrold questions later but fails to fully examine, perhaps the choice of weapons goes beyond the logic of the narrative which w ould call for the cheapest and most effective weaponry. Maybe, as Gerrold ponders, the look-and-feel of th is technology is also a deliberate choice, specifically made to evoke the Old-West flavor of the series. The more recognizable technology we see, the more we identify with the circumstances of the worlds portrayed (192). But it's still more complicated. In “Ariel” as Jayne, Simon, and River are running from the men with “hands of blue” and their brain bl eed sticks, Jayne commandeers a sonic boom gun from one of the guards. Attempting to use the weapon to blow open a door, Jayne realizes the gun's ineffectiveness. Cursing at the weapon a nd dubbing it “high-tech Alliance crap,” Jayne, the show's most “western” of characters, illustrate s that the utopian advanced technology is just idealism that will not help a man in his situation. Because Firefly and Serenity are stories told in a visual medium, they can take advantage of the different meanings the details in mise-e n-scene can convey. The duality of the Alliance and its antagonism toward those who live the fr ontier life on the outer pl anets plays out in the visual style of the show as well. Whedon very obviously establishes color schemes for the two groups, referring to the Independents as “Brownco ats” and the Alliance as “Purple-bellies.” Costumes for characters are very obviously separated between the SF Alliance “purple-


31 bellies”1and the western, Independent “browncoats” and settlers. But Director of Photography David Boyd also shows us their differe nces visually through lighting. Life on the rim is often depicted with a very harsh, overhead white light, meant to signify the harsh suns of the alien planets. The outdoor shots often have the char acters squinting into the sun, showing the strain of living in the rough terrain. But life on the rim has a softer side as well and the golden brown of the dirt is echoed in warm light around the fire in “Our Mrs. Reynolds.” The core planets, on the other hand, are shown to have two contrasting sides. On the one hand, we see the utopian landscapes of the areas visited by Inara. Here the land is green, water flows, and the lighting is warm and full. These utopian visuals are what you'd expect from an optimistic SF television show. And th is is clearly what the crew of Serenity expects . When visiting Ariel, a core planet, Mal tells Zo to smile at strangers. Zo prot ests, saying that people do not smile in hospitals. Mal retorts, “Of course they do, it's the Core, everyone's rich and happy here.” But when the crew enters the hospital, the Alliance is literally shown in a completely different light. The interior of the hospital is lit in an eerie blue, which, in retrospect, is reminiscent of the light used in Simon's sick bay aboard Serenity. This association between medical spaces and eerie lighting brings us to the realization that th ere's something very nonutopian about the Alliance's use of medical technology. But the show does more than just establish a visual and narrative c onflict; it offers us a possible solution: Serenity. Visually speaking, the most balanced places in the show are those places where the elements of the two genres merg e, where people have both the relation to the land that the western provides and the scientific advancement offered by SF. Serenity offers the 1 The Alliance uniforms were taken from Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers.


32 warmth of home and individual freedom, but in a futuristic setting wher e bullet wounds are cured easily and travel has gone galactic. Whedon shows his willingness to bestow comp lexity upon the tangible and visible “stuff” of the Universe. The result is a fully realized a nd believable piece of fiction that appeals to all of the senses of the viewer.


33 CHAPTER 5 CONCLUSIONS We began with the premise that fictio n is always about the present. And, furthermore, that it is always about the pr esent state of humanity. So, what does Firefly have to say about humanity as it stood in 2003 ? The most important thing to note is that both the series and the film were pro duced after September 11, 2001 and have many things to say about post-9/11 global politics. By using what Jameson terms “indirection,” Firefly critiques globalizati on, and the war on terror. If we operate under this assumption, that Firefly is indeed a critique on the war on terror, a number of fascinati ng parallels emerge. First, it be comes clear that the Core and the Rim stand in for the First and Third wo rld, respectively. Those living in the Core benefit at the expense of the labor and res ources of those living on the Rim. The Alliance thus becomes a stand-in for the American government, forcing its control over land and people under the guise of making the world (or the universe) a better place. Serenity’s opening monologue describes the Alliance as a formation of the Central Planets which stood as “a beacon of civilization.” But “civilization” is a veil that masks the Alliance’s true reason for expansion: control and ec onomic interests. Likewise, after 9/11, the American war on terror soon began to hide be hind the rhetoric of “spreading democracy” to cover our economic interests in the Thir d World. After 9/11 the safety of America became entwined with the control of the Third world. Likewise, Serenity tells us that the victory over the “savage” Independe nts “ensured a safer universe.” The Operative in Serenity has a blind a llegiance to the propaganda set forth by the Alliance. He is the perfect follower stating, “Secrets are not my concern. Keeping them is.” He also blends his patriotic duties w ith his religious conviction claiming that he


34 believes in something greater than himself (a “higher power”), “a better world. A world without sin” (Serenity). He tr uly believes that his fight against Mal and the crew of Serenity is not a matter of Alliance control or nationalist pride, but rather a religious quest. Likewise the war on terror has also b een masked in the rhetoric of religious morality. Terrorists have been dubbed irreligious “evil-doers” and those who fight against them find themselves on a convenient moral high ground. Finally, the Reavers offer the most dir ect parallel between Whedon’s fictional universe and the reality of the early 21st century. The Reavers are made to seem analogous to the “terrorists.” Vi sually echoing this analogy is the film’s portrayal of the Reavers’ ships. They are decorated w ith human bodies and blood, symbolizing the violence of the aircrafts used on 9/11. Finall y, we are told that the Reavers operate their ships “without core containment” (i.e., someth ing we are told is suicidal). Thus, the Reavers become suicidal terrorists, wreaki ng havoc with their aircrafts as weapons. But, in Serenity, Mal and his crew di scover that the Alliance was in fact responsible for the creation of the Reavers. Once normal men, Reavers are the result of a planet-wide pharmaceutical experiment. This revelation echoes the raucous caused by Operation Cyclone, the CIA program that arme d Islamic soldiers in the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 70s and 80s. Furthermore, United States foreign policy was blamed for having caused the discordance that lead to the attacks on 9/ 11. In a sense, after September 11th it felt as if the U.S. really had “made” the terrorists. Whedon is extremely skilled at complicating his characters and the Reavers are no exception. In Firefly, the Reavers are faceless and bestial and consequently very easy to hate. But in Serenity they are made complex and, ironically, innocent.


35 Finally, how do we understand Whedon’s af orementioned attention to character and detail in light of its analogous relationshi p to the war on terror? Perhaps, for Whedon, the answer to the problems of the post-9/11 world lay in the individual and not in the system. The details, the idiosyncrasies of persons and places, are what Whedon sees as valuable. And Firefly is a warn ing; a dramatization of the wo rld after 9/11, a world that Whedon fears has lost that attention to deta il in lieu of amorphous political bodies. Joss Whedon has shown throughout Firefly and Serenity that film and TV are excellent arenas for high-quality fiction. By committing his show to the exploration of the present condition of humanity, Whedon elevates what could have been a comedic and simple cross-genre sitcom into a comple x, detailed, and rich modern fiction. No other television space western has ble nded genre so uniquely. The depth of his characters remains unrivaled. No other TV or film universe is as fully imagined and sensible. Firefly and Serenity are quite literally in a world of their own.


36 LIST OF REFERENCES “ 47 Years Ago in Time.” Time . 30 January 2006: Vol. 167, Issue 5 Booker, Keith. Science Fiction Television . Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2004. Buchanan, Ginjer. “Who Killed Firefly ?” Finding Serenity. Ed. Jane Espenson. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2004. Conrad, Roxanne Logstreet. “Mirror/Mirror: A Parody.” Finding Serenity. Ed. Jane Espenson. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2004. Dixon, Larry. “The Reward, the De tails, the Devils, the Due.” Finding Serenity. Ed. Jane Espenson. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2004. Erisman, Fred. “ Stagecoach in Space: The Legacy of Firefly.” Extrapolation 47.2 (2006). Firefly. Perf. Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Summer Glau, and Sean Maher, Twentieth Century Fox, 2003. Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction . Hanover: Weslyan University Press, 1998. Gerrold, David. “Star Truck.” Finding Serenity. Ed. Jane Espenson. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2004. Jameson, Frederic. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desi re Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. London: Verso, 2005. Le Guin, Ursula K. “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.” Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction . Ed. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2005. 119-140. Nachbar, Jack G. “Introduction: A Century on the Trail.” Journal of Popular Film and Television. Winter 2003. Sobchack, Vivian. Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film , Second Edition. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Stableford, Brian. “The Third Gene ration of Genre Science Fiction” Science Fiction Studies . 23.3 (November 1996). Suvin, Darko. “Estrangement and Cognition.” Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction . Ed. James Gunn and Matthew Cande laria. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2005. 23-36


37 Taylor, Robert. “The Captain May Wear the Tight Pants, but It's the Gals Who Make Serenity Soar.” Finding Serenity. Ed. Jane Espenson. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2004.


38 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Before entering the master’s program at th e University of Florida, Lindsay Skorupa received a B.A. from Syracuse University with a double major in English and textual studies and anthropology. After completing her thesis, Lindsay will seek full-time employment in secondary English education in Jacksonville, FL.