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Star Trek’s ideology vs Firefly’s

Saturday 21 October 2006, by Webmaster

Firefly, the anti-Trek

All of the disturbing characteristics of the Star Trek shows, the militarism, collectivism, anti-capitalism, and atheism, are notably missing from the excellent but shortlived series Firefly.

Firefly only aired on the Fox network for three months at the end of 2002. Fourteen episodes were filmed, including the two hour pilot. Three of the episodes were never aired, and the others were shown out of sequence, even though they contained elements from previous episodes. This must have been confusing as the show was trying to find an audience. The pilot, which introduced all the characters, was shown last, after the series had been cancelled. Despite the cancellation, the shows had found an audience, which rallied in defense of the series. Although it was too late for Fox, the creator of the show, Joss Whedon, used the enthusiasm of the fans to persuade Universal to continue the series as a movie, Serenity, which was released in 2005. The movie didn’t have the greatest box office, but together with the series it lives, of course, on video, where sales have continued to be strong, better than some recent pretigious movies. Hopefully, the continued support of old fans, and the acquisition of new fans, like myself, will allow the story to return to some medium in some form — just like Star Trek.

Unlike the starship Enterprise, a powerful warship of the United Federation of Planets, the ship Serenity is a small, private "Firefly" class transport with no weapons — except the hand weapons of the crew. The captain and first officer, Malcolm (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres, the statuesque, sexually smoking, and real life wife of Laurence Fishborne, "Morpheus" of The Matrix), are veterans of the attempt to prevent the vast Alliance of planets from taking over their own worlds. They were fighting with the "Independents," and the ship is named after the battle of Serenity Valley, where the Independents all but lost the war against the Alliance. Now, Malcolm, Zoe, and the rest of crew eek out a living with small shipping jobs, smuggling, and theft under the unwelcome eye of Alliance cruisers and "fed" policemen. In the pilot, they also take aboard two fugitives from the law, a brother and sister, Simon (Sean Maher) and River (Summer Glau). Simon is a physican who rescued River from an Alliance "academy" where sinister police-state men with "hands of blue" were modifying her brain to turn her into a psychic and a "Manchurian candidate"-like assassin. This initially left her in a state of psychosis, from which she gradually emerges and becomes aware of her psychic abilities and powers of combat — in the movie she all but becomes Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Whedon’s previous TV series).

None of this makes the Alliance look very good. Whedon wants to make it clear, however, that he doesn’t think of the Alliance as evil (although the men with "hands of blue" are evil enough for the Third Reich, and the Alliance soldiers wear German-looking helmets, while the helmets of Independants look like WWII American ones), but rather as something perhaps too big for its own good, or the good of its citizens. Indeed, while the Alliance countenances slavery and indentured servitude, Serenity and the crew are as often saved by the inefficiency, indifference, or corruption of the authorities as by any official benevolence or justice. This in itself is all a rebuke to the statist complacency of Star Trek.

In the pilot, Serenity takes on, not only Simon and River, but the Shepherd, i.e. Minister, Book (played by the kind and noble Ron Glass, perhaps best remembered from the Barney Miller TV series). Although the Shepherd expresses his religious views in, usually, a low key way, and the details given of his beliefs are spare, he does have an actual Bible, and once he even seems to make a reference to Jesus, as a carpenter. In the movie, the word "Christian" is even uttered — though most viewers may not have noticed that the words "Jesus" () and "Buddha" (, literally "Buddha Founder") have both been spoken in Chinese during the shows. This is startling stuff in comparison to Star Trek. Captain Malcolm himself has lost his faith, but the Shepherd seems to the working on that. As the shows went along, it began to look as though the Shepherd himself had a military, police, or intelligence background. Unfortunately, one of the decisions made in the movie was to have him be killed, before we had learned all his secrets. He was such a good character, this is disappointing, but it is always possible that, if the story is continued in some form, his history could emerge anyway. That was pretty standard stuff on The X-Files.

There is frequent use of Chinese in the series, although actual Chinese actors were only, so far, in the background. The name Serenity is written in Chinese characters on the ship as , though the Chinese pronunciation is never used. This is the version of the word in the new "simplified" characters. An older form in traditional characters would look like , while even more traditional characters would look like . Joss Whedon evidently likes the idea that future human culture features both English and Chinese as the universal languages — though in Firely we also see some evidence of other languages and other cultures surviving as well.

Much of the appeal of Firefly is the ensemble cast. Besides Malcolm, Zoe, Simon, River, and Shepherd, we also have the engineer Kaylee (Jewel Staite), whose own sweetness embodies the persona of Serenity herself as a home for the crew, Jayne (Adam Baldwin), whom Malcolm has picked up as a bit of mercenary muscle, but who isn’t always faithful to his crewmates, Wash (Alan Tudyk, recently seen as "Steve the Pirate" in Dodgeball, a True Underdog Story, but who also did the motion capture performance for the robot Sonny in I, Robot), the pilot and unlikely husband of Zoe, and finally Inara (the lovely Morena Baccarin). Again, the decision was made to have Wash be killed in the movie, which is a grave loss if the story is to continue. Inara is actually a courtesan, a "registered Companion," who isn’t really a crew member, but who rents one of Serenity’s small shuttles to use as her detachable place of business. This seems very un-Trek-like also. Even in the pilot, it is already obvious that Malcolm and Inara have fallen in love with each other, but neither one is quite up to admitting it, and their feelings are often expressed in apparently hostile banter. This a familiar approach in many TV series and movies. It is not a relationship that is likely to be soon resolved, should the story continue, since Malcolm is already uncomfortable with Inara’s profession, and she would be unlikely to continue it were they to actually become involved with each other. We get some hints that Inara has some secrets in her own background. At the end of the TV shows, Inara and Malcolm have problems enough that Inara leaves Serenity. By the end of the movie, however, she returns, but matters are not otherwise resolved. On the other hand, the unrequited love category is kept in bounds when Simon and Kaylee, after some false starts, have become lovers at the end of the movie.

Yes, there is actual money — the familiar science fiction "credits" — in Firefly, and bank accounts. There also seems to be hard commodity coinage, in platinum, for the gold bugs out there. The hard money seems to go with the Wild West feel of the newly settled "outer planets."

The very best thing about Firefly, in comparison to Star Trek, is probably that it doesn’t try for the slightest bit of Utopianism. It does not assume that a single galactic government would be best, as it does not assume that present religion and capitalist economics are undesirable. This is refreshing, to say the least, but it is also done very well.

The science in Firefly consists of some basic science fiction conceits that generally do not need to be, and are not, explained. Serenity has an artificial gravity that Kaylee references once (in "The Message") and that we only see turned off once, at the beginning of the pilot, when Mal, Zoe, and Jayne float into the airlock and we see the gravity turn on. Otherwise, the artificial gravity still seems to be working even when the ship has lost all power, as in "Out of Gas." Nobody gets "beamed" up here, and while there are energy weapons, these seem to be familiar lasers rather than "phasers." The food is often tasteless synthetic stuff, not everyone’s favorite right out of the replicator. What it takes a while to gather is the scale of the universe in which Firefly is set. Despite references to the "’verse" and the galaxy, all the action takes place in one solar system — and not that of the Earth. This is not completely clarified until the beginning of the movie, where it is stated explicitly. Otherwise it must be inferred, given that there is no "warp drive" or any other reference to faster-than-light travel.

And space is pretty crowded in Firefly. Twice, in the pilot and in "Bushwacked," Serenity is caught in the act at a derelict ship by an Alliance cruiser. This would seem unlikely even in interplanetary space, and certainly impossible in interstellar. Similarly, in "Safe" we discover that an Alliance cruiser is only a few hours away. Nevertheless, Joss Whedon has not paid sufficient attention to how solar systems work. Characters often speak of the "quadrant," a term that is really only meaningful in galactic terms. In a solar system, planets move, and at different rates. The relationship of the planets to each other thus changes constantly, and a trip that might at one time might take a few days under high power might otherwise take weeks or months (all depending on the energy budget of space ships like Serenity, about which we are only vaguely informed). The geometry of space, where it is even shown, usually doesn’t make much sense. Thus, in the movie, the Reavers, in a tight mass, block the route to the planet Miranda, even though there would be countless ways, in a very large sky, to just go around them. With "dozens" of planets and "hundreds" of moons, the implication is that this new solar system is much large than that of "Earth that was." With a "blue sun," i.e. a brighter star, the solar system could be effectively larger, and we certainly have no sense that the "outer" planets are colder or darker than the "central" ones. Whether there can be solar systems with so many terrestrial bodies, in comparison to what we are familiar with, is an open question. A fair number of extra-solar planets have now been identified, but the overall makeup, or frequency, of other solar systems is still a mystery.

An unfortunate notion in the series is that space is dark. We do not see strong sunlight in the ship unless Serenity is visiting a planet (both in the shows and in the movie). However, it should be readily obvious on reflection that planets do not generate sunlight. Stars do. And the "blue sun" is going to be shining on Serenity whether the ship is near a planet or in deep (interplanetary) space. Interstellar space will be dark, but this is not the domain of Firely. Another problem with the science of Firefly is communication. We have no hint of "subspace" communication here, and in interplanetary space there would be no need for that. However, the velocity of light does impose some limits on communication even within a solar system. At almost any extra-planetary distance there will be delays of seconds in transmission (it is a light second from the Earth to the Moon), and more commonly of minutes or hours. This would make real time dialogue from Serenity to system planets awkward to impossible. We get no hint of this. On the other hand, we don’t get much in the way of real time dialogue anyway. Malcolm talks to Patience on Whitefall in the pilot, and Malcolm talks to Inara at her "training house" in the movie. There should at least be short delays, if not long ones, in reponses in both cases. Allowing for them, of course, would be bad, for wasting time, both on television and in movies. So perhaps it should be chalked up to poetic license.

The "science" in the "fiction" of Firefly is not very daring and is not intended to be. More so even than in Star Wars, where George Lucas made a point of it, the science tends to be invisible, and we get nothing of the deadly exposition that used to be the bane of science fiction — and sometimes still is. Instead, as in the best of Star Wars and in the Alien movies, the universe is presented as one lived in and familiar, even if things don’t get explained that perhaps should. In Firefly, there is even a bit of joke about this. In "Objects in Space," when Mal suggests that River reads minds, Wash says that this "sounds like science fiction." Zoe responds, "Dear, we live in a space ship."

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