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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Firefly: The 'Verse According to Mal

I was first introduced to Firefly in 2011 while researching for a paper on the comparative merits of science fiction and fantasy. In hindsight, I believe that this particular subject was too subjective to warrant serious debate in an academic paper, amount to little more than an opinion piece followed by a comparison of box office numbers and accolades. However, researching for this paper allowed my dear friend Nathan (a different Nathan; not the one who believes that the 1978 Superman film is the greatest superhero film ever made, and yes Nate, I will never stop bugging you about that, old pal) to help me start watching Firefly. I remember liking the show then, and I recently re-watched the whole series on a whim, and I was blown away by how good it actually was to my older eyes. A combination of witty dialogue, fun action, engaging stories, excellent acting and production design, and a ingeniously creative plot made for what could potentially have been the greatest sci-fi TV show ever made.

For those who don't know, Firefly was a short-lived television series created by Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire SlayerAngel, and The Avengers. Firefly fell into the sort of unique genre-splicing category that Whedon is known for, being best described as space western. You have a nine guys and gals flying through space in a ship called Serenity in the years following a galactic civil war. Serenity is captained by Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a veteran of the losing side of the war, the Independents. The winner of that war, the Alliance, is depicted as a callous, draconian regime which Mal states is intent on everyone being "interfered with or ignored equally." After re-watching these 14 episodes in preparation for finally watching the big-screen sequel Serentiy, I came to conclude that Malcolm Reynolds is probably best described as a libertarian.

Don't ask me what Whedon's personal political views are, but I believe that this series is probably the most balanced and compelling portrayal of a political viewpoint which I remotely agree with. Mal cherishes what freedom and livelihood is left for him and his compatriots as smugglers, prowling the edges of "civilized" space looking for work, legal or illegal. He and his crew know that their business is a dangerous one, but Mal firmly wants to avoid being caught up in the society of the government he loathes, be it "make-work" jobs provided by the Alliance or even a semblance of legitimacy under the same oppressive system. In other words, he's a disaffected man of principle who doesn't like to admit that he still has principles.

And he truly is disaffected; before the end of the war, Mal was a religious man who fought for his comrades and his cause, ready to charge into battle at a moment's notice. When we see him in the series in the present day, he has no love for God, having an awkward, sometimes tense relationship with Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a preacher who finds himself traveling aboard Serenity. On the surface, Mal hasn't changed much since before and after the war, still being generally affable and honest, aside from the occasional illegal activity that he and his crew engage in. But underneath, he's plainly much more cynical and dour than he was before, and remains that way throughout the series. I haven't seen Serenity (the movie) yet, but I understand that this might change a little. And there's still all the Serenity comics that I have to read...

The main point, however, is that in a fictional world plainly meant to resemble post-Civil War America, Mal is a clear analogue to the Confederate soldier who honestly believed that he was fighting for a just cause when he signed up for the Confederate army, and then wondering why their just cause hadn't won the day. Unfortunately, that's where the similarities end. The Union is not the Alliance, and the Alliance is not the Union. There's no Lincoln here, no Robert E. Lee, no Grant, no Jefferson Davis. As much of a parallel it's meant to be, the context simply doesn't allow for any great analogy between the two situation than on a primarily superficial level.

Insofar as I know, there hasn't been much detail given about the exact nature of the Independents' idea of good government, if any, so it's obviously difficult to give a fair evaluation between the broad swathes of a despotic federated entity and a libertarian resistance movement. If what I've heard about the Alliance from other sources is anything to go by, however, I think that it's more than fair to say that they're obviously really bad guys. Until I watch Serenity and read the comics, I confess that I might not be able to produce as well-rounded an analysis on this subject as I could, but I believe that at the moment, I'm pretty sure this will do. Besides, when I finally do watch Serenity, I'll have someone else to write about: Shepherd Book.

Fun Fact: Alen Tudyk, who played Wash in Firefly, also voiced Mickey in Halo 3: ODST and Krei is Big Hero 6. Tudyk wasn't the only Firefly actor to voice a character in ODST. Nathan Fillion voiced Buck, and Adam Baldwin, who played Jayne in Firefly, voiced Dutch.

Image courtesy of moviepilot.com