Why review a television show that never completed even its first season nearly three years ago? The confluence of events and circumstances that resulted in the cancellation of the Fox show Firefly in 2002 has done little to destroy the resiliency of the Firefly phenomenon. While only 14 episodes were ever made, and only 11 of those ever shown, once the complete series of Firefly came out on DVD, it topped sales at Amazon for months (it’s currently ranked #7). Fans of the show around the country host parties to watch the complete series with their friends. And today a full-length movie debuts in theaters, bringing the resurrection of the Firefly franchise full-circle.
Just what is it about this show that has made it such a phenomenon? It’s one part western, one part space opera, and one part action-adventure, a creation of Joss Whedon, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame. Others have commented on the show’s libertarian themes, but in the final analysis I think these claims are somewhat overblown. While libertarian emphases are clearly present, contract ultimately is not king.
Instead, one of the keys to Firefly’s popularity and resonance with people is the relationship between the captain and the crew. Nine people find themselves thrust together, with no one else to depend on but each other (and sometimes not even then). The captain of the Firefly-class transport Serenity is Malcolm Reynolds, or Mal (Nathan Fillion); his first-mate and fellow war veteran is Zoe (Gina Torres); her husband the pilot is Wash; Jayne is the mercenary muscle; Kaylee is the ship’s engineer; Inara is a “registered companion,” an official prostitute (a profession respected in the Firefly universe); Simon is the ship’s doctor; River is his younger sister; and Book (Ron Glass) is a Shepherd, the future’s version of a clergyman.
Throughout all the adventures of the Serenity’s crew, what becomes clear is that Mal views everyone as part of a family, the basic unit of community in the ‘verse. Simon, River, and Book are the new additions to the crew as the series begins. As Mal and the others learn more about Simon and River, it becomes clear that they are running from the government. This becomes a leitmotif in the show, and from the previews seems to be the main thrust of the feature movie: River was abducted and abused by a government-run school for gifted children. Once Simon finds out that River is in trouble, he works relentlessly to free her. In seeking transport onboard Serenity while fleeing, Simon and River eventually become members of the rag-tag family.
Mal first and foremost seems to run a business on Serenity. He’ll transport or salvage anything he can to survive on the outskirts of civilized planets. His existence at the fringes of society is due largely to the role he played six years earlier in the War for Independence. He was a sergeant in the Independent army, and served with Zoe. The Battle of Serenity Valley, for which the ship is named, was a crucial defeat of the Independents (also called the Browncoats). After that, the Alliance gained the upper hand, and eventually consolidated power and government of all the populated worlds in the galaxy.
That defeat was a turning point in Mal’s life. He saw comrades die, he saw his friends abandoned by Independent reinforcements, and he saw the defeat of his fight for freedom. When Mal says, “That’s what governments are for, to get in a man’s way,” he’s talking primarily about the pervasive influence of the victorious Alliance. Mal once says , “That sounds like the Alliance, unite all the planets under one rule so that everybody can be interfered with or ignored equally.”
So while Mal tries to put the days of responsibility for others behind him, as captain of Serenity he invariably puts the needs of others before his own (sooner or later). When Book pushes him to find an explanation for why he would put himself in danger to provide refuge for Simon and River, Mal admits, “It’s the right thing to do.” The confluence of political and economic power in the unity of the Alliance and the Blue Sun Corporation following the war represents a real and pervasive threat to human flourishing.
Mal is a conflicted man, who refuses to acknowledge God, who he feels abandoned him in Serenity Valley. Mal reacts harshly to the Shepherd’s attempts to talk about God: “If I’m your mission Shepherd, you best give it up. You’re welcome on my boat. God ain’t.” At a meal when Book asks, “Captain, do you mind if I say grace?” Mal responds, “Only if you say it out loud.” But even so he cannot bring himself to abandon others.
When he finds out that the supplies they stole in “The Train Job” were desperately needed medicines, Mal reneges on his contract with the fearsome Niska to return the medicine to those who need it. A conversation with the Sheriff of Paradiso, the afflicted town, displays Mal’s underlying moral code:
Sheriff: “You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job, he might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.”
Mal: “I don’t believe he does.”
Firefly is a show with its own sub-culture, its own language, its own genre, much like the makeup of Serenity’s crew, a collection of riff-raff. You can see similarities and familiar bits in Firefly, but it combines these things in a way that makes it unique. The little things in the show, such as the fact that people speak Chinese as well as English, make the Firefly ‘verse a rich and complex world.
It’s clear that Mal’s compassion and loyalty to those he cares for is going to be the theme of the feature movie, Serenity, which focuses on the Alliance search for River. It’s this sense of family and devotion to others that subtly permeates the show that in the end makes it so compelling. Firefly is simply a great show, with rich depth, acerbic wit, and authentic emotion.