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Firefly and the return to human realism in tv sci-fi

Wednesday 23 March 2011, by Webmaster

Science fiction television before the year 2000 was remarkably uniform in its view of humanity becoming a somewhat idyllic society in the future. True, wars still existed, but most other problems that plagued mankind in the current era had disappeared from these universes. Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Babylon 5, and even seaQuest DSV all showed a future where mankind had, for the most part, eliminated poverty and disease from the social structure and people lived in a clean, almost utopian environment, as long as war was not in the picture. Consequently, most of the television franchises during the 1990s, Star Trek chief among them, also showed a future where social classes had disappeared, and the baser desires of people for acquisition and wealth had been suppressed.

While this vision did help represent a better future and gave people aspirations for such a future, many of these series omitted the human struggle against one’s own environment and the desire to improve one’s standing through possessions and material worth. This is one reason the Star Trek franchise has received some criticism in the past, for having human characters that are nearly devoid of current-day motivations, and for depicting characters that did have such motivations as either wholly evil, comic relief, or inconsequentially minor.

Joss Whedon, however, changed all of this with Firefly. In one fell swoop in 2002, he took the concept of the human utopia in science fiction, tossed it aside, and revolutionized the view of the human future on television. Whedon did not want a future without struggle against environment, nor did he want humanity to be without social classes and the allure of the almighty dollar. Thus, he created Firefly as an antithetical foil to Star Trek—a universe where power was still in one’s wallet, where corruption and deception retained their strongholds in the highest levels of society, and a man would (and actually could) still bleed to achieve his dreams. Science fiction was forever changed by this, and it is why Firefly should be one of the names listed among the greatest science fiction series of all time.

The cultural diversity and simultaneous uniformity of Firefly is one of its greatest strengths and one of its most innovative achievements. Creating a society dominated exclusively by American and Chinese culture not only allowed for a richer linguistic palette but also let viewers indulge in a multitude of new visual and sensory experiences on how common culture could be displayed and participated in. However, the variety of settings shown on the various worlds in the Firefly universe created a realistic atmosphere of humanity still leading an individualistic society, as each world had its own distinct flavor and biodiversity. In a sense, each world in Firefly represented a different piece of Earth’s own environmental mixture, and these worlds also reflected the ethnic and cultural choices of different groups within modern-day humanity. From the low-class urban areas of Persephone seen in the pilot episode and the backwater rural community of Paradiso in “The Train Job” (1.2), all the way to the hyper-civilized cityscape of the core in “Ariel” (1.9) and the ultra-rich floating islands of Bellerophon in “Trash” (1.11), Firefly ran the gamut of cultural possibilities, just in its settings.

Of equal significance, though, are the goals and aspirations of the main characters in Firefly, and none of these are more important than the star of the show, Captain Malcolm Reynolds. In many ways, Mal is Firefly‘s answer to Han Solo of Star Wars. The two share many of the same character traits: nobility, brashness, charm, and certain degree of selfishness. However, Mal’s goals are more centralized on himself. He sees the Alliance as evil, but he has given up fighting them in order to serve his own needs. His is a cautionary tale of what Han Solo could have become if the Rebellion had lost in Star Wars. On the flipside, Mal exhibits the positive aspects of the aforementioned character traits at greater levels than Han Solo does, and it’s easy to see that Mal’s sense of justice is broader than Han’s.

The episodes “The Train Job” and “Safe” (1.5) are the best examples of this, where Mal risks his life to help people that he could have very easily left behind at no consequence to himself or his crew. The fact that he gave of himself without question and put the well-being of others ahead of himself without any personal stake makes Mal a better version of the “lovable rogue” than Han Solo could ever hope to be. But Mal also has many tragic hero elements attached to him, most stemming from the crushing defeat he and his comrades in the Independents suffered in the pilot episode. These losses are what ultimately give rise to his selfishness and many of his principles that elevate the safety of himself and his crew over helping absolutely everyone in need. The basic human desires for security and freedom are the divining rod for Mal, which make him a positive character despite some of his less virtuous choices.

However, while Mal does show his own basic human desires on several occasions, he isn’t the foremost example of a character motivated strictly by self-interest in Firefly. For that, one only needs to look at Jayne Cobb, Mal’s hired gun and the most selfish character in Firefly. Truly, no character has ever embraced and extended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs greater than Jayne. He is a paragon of selfishness, desiring first to be able to eat, then to have protection, and finally to have his creature comforts. Indulging in every vice and excess that is presented to him, Jayne’s sense of restraint is nonexistent, and his nobility is severely limited, although it does exist. Before Jayne, no major character in any science fiction series possessed such moral ambiguity. While Jayne’s tendencies can sometimes turn him into a source of comic relief, his questionable nature is the biggest reason why he is so well-liked among Firefly fans. Jayne is the man of the future still in search of the 21st century American dream: get rich quick, live hedonistically, and die before the money runs out. What member of a Western capitalist society wouldn’t love a man embracing such character traits? Nearly every viewer can identify and agree with Jayne at some point in the series for some reason, even if they think he is scum for the rest of the time.

What Firefly changed most in science fiction, though, was the realism in the lives of the characters within the shows. As Joss Whedon put so eloquently in the bonus features of the Firefly DVD collection, the show dealt with the people that Star Trek would have just flown past without a second glance. Firefly was one of the only science fiction shows up to that point that displayed poor, homeless, diseased, and destitute people with any regularity. The aforementioned struggle against environment was prevalent in every major character in the show, as well as the majority of the minor characters that appeared in the show. And while Serenity minimized this aspect of the show to focus on the storyline centered on River, these elements still were part of the overarching plotline of the movie as it related to the goals of Mal and the crew. Everyone wanted to attain something that would give them a greater sense of independence, security, comfort, freedom, and ultimately of self. These desires and the trials associated with them are the greatest success of Firefly.

The realism of the show not only covered the mental and emotional aspects of the characters, but the physical and biological areas as well. On Star Trek‘s television incarnations, when a character was hit by a phaser blast or even stabbed, they rarely showed anyone bleeding. Even in the movies, when bleeding occurred, it rarely looked realistic (see the almost-comical bleeding effects of Star Trek VI for reference). On Firefly, characters bled frequently and profusely, and when someone got hit with a bullet, there were no dermal regenerators, nano-probes, or other techno-babble devices to provide instant fixes. Gunshots, stab wounds, and other physical injuries are just as serious in the future as they are today in Firefly. Furthermore, no one on the crew of Firefly was seen doing impossible physical tasks or remarkable feats of strength well beyond their abilities, with the obvious exception of River, whose enhancements were still within the limits of human normalcy. Staying outside these realms of fantasy is what makes the Firefly universe seem like a possible future for humanity, and is an enormous contribution to its appeal.

The impact of these changes on traditional science fiction archetypes not only added a great deal to Firefly‘s success over time but also influenced on future science fiction shows and franchises. The revamped Battlestar Galactica franchise, launched just a year after Firefly‘s television run, was successful because of a similar approach to that off Firefly, adding a great deal of human realism to the classic story. The added realism in Battlestar Galactica not only made that franchise seem like a more plausible future for humanity than what its original incarnation portrayed but also made the human characters more accessible and the ominous Cylons even more terrifying. Additionally, the television incarnation of Stargate, entitled Stargate SG-1, had subtle changes to the portrayal of its characters that made them seem more human and realistic, although not to the level that Battlestar Galactica did. These elements of increased humanity also became integral parts of the writing in the spin-off series Stargate Atlantis and Stargate Universe. Even the 2005 resurrection of Dr. Who and the subsequent seasons have taken a much more serious tone and attempted to be more realistic than their predecessors, although the comparison between American and British science fiction television will always make that discussion a matter of perspective.

Newer shows outside of existing franchises have also made the Firefly model of character portrayal a central archetype of their writing, especially shows that deal with people on Earth. Both Supernatural and Warehouse 13 created characters with very strong human desires, grounded in emotion and immediacy rather than logic and virtue. Meanwhile, traditional science fiction shows that adhered to the characterization models of old space operas lost public favor, such as the ill-timed Andromeda. There were also shows, such as the Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica, that took the elements of realism and humanism too far, resulting in their swift demise for lacking the inherent fantastical elements of science fiction in the storyline.

In the end, only one conclusion can be drawn from this: Joss Whedon and Firefly have helped kill the old model of the “space opera” as we know it. The grand epics of superhuman, hyper-virtuous, and utopian people are a relic of the past now. Modern science fiction meant for mature audiences will focus on the human mind, the capacities for good, evil, virtue, and vice that exist within it, and the struggles against environment that occur to attain success and self-actualization. While other franchises and series have received similar acclaim for their own use of these changes, Firefly was the first to do it successfully without losing its science fiction core. The universe of Firefly is a future that every person alive today can relate to in some way and insert themselves into, which is ultimately the deciding factor in the success or failure of any science fiction franchise in the modern day. Thus, even without the television ratings, merchandising sales, or international renown of its other series, Firefly will always be one of the greatest successes of science fiction.