Hope for the Browncoats

Joss Whedon, speaking at the recent SXSW Conference, suggested that he is willing and available to revive the short-lived series Firefly.  Anticipating that Whedon’s The Avengers makes so much money this summer that studios will throw money into other Whedon productions, Firefly may have a real shot at a comeback.   I could not be happier.

In fact, I am so happy that I decided to lighten up.  Instead of my usual complaints, here are my top four reasons why Firefly is one of my all time favorite shows.

For the uninitiated, Firefly is a space-western set five hundred years in the future.   It only lasted one season (pathetically managed by Fox), and spans 14 episodes.  Its rabid fan-base are known as “Browncoats,” after the nickname of the Independent side of the Unification War – a war they lost.   The fans maintained enough enthusiasm to prompt a feature film “Serenity” two years after the show ended.  Nearly ten years after being cancelled, Firefly remains a favorite in the geek-o-sphere.

Imaginative, but Recognizable Future

The future is high-tech but it is not sleek and polished like the starship Enterprise.  The advanced planets of the alliance (the stories villains) are not faceless multitudes, like Imperial Stormtroopers, but people who have adopted a particular worldview.  The outlying worlds, where those who resist the sterile government order of the alliance, is gritty and dirty.  There people live with simple technology, limited resources, and a need to struggle to survive daily life.

Often labeled a space-western for its dusty environs and rough justice, Firefly exists primarily among worlds that are impoverished.  The future has great material comforts, but the backcountry population of Firefly was unwilling to pay for them with their independence.

Each world and town has plenty of its own local culture and color, but all are inhabited by humans, not a mish-mash of aliens slapped together in the F/X department.  This helps things stay focused on the story.

Great Characters

This may be the strongest attribute of Firefly.  The nine principle characters are generally good people.  Full of flaws and quirks, they also maintain a strong code that values loyalty and a sense of fairness.  In this way they bring order to the chaos of space, without infringing on the freedom they so cherish.

The dialogue is fast, fun, and smart.  In the Firefly ‘verse colloquialisms abound giving a sense of real twenty-sixth century conversation without losing the audience.  Unlike many sci-fi space adventures, the stories are driven by very human characters and not just things that go boom, making it essential and pleasurable to listen to the characters.

Importantly, Whedon creates wonderful female characters.  The women of Firefly are fully developed people, not merely stereotypes existing only to fill out the world of the male leads.  The women are strong and flawed just like the men, but always recognizably women.  This contrasts starkly with other sci-fi women who if intended to be strong, really are portrayed as nothing but men with ovaries – like pretty much any Michelle Rodriguez role.

There is a Reason

The Firefly universe has a full and textured history.  There is plenty of backstory, some of it revealed – like the war between the Alliance and Independents – and some of it is left to be assumed – such as the blend of English and Chinese that people speak.

The plots of the episodes are also driven by reason, and oftener resolved not through the deus ex machina techniques of sloppy writers, but by the choices the characters make.  What’s more, real things happen to the Firefly crew.  They worry about breaking machinery and maintaining enough fuel to continue flying.  The harsh realities of their world force characters to deal with the consequences of living with their codes, sometimes resulting in morally ambiguous conflicts.

There rarely are easy answers in Firefly.

Philosophy

My favorite thing about Firefly is that it is decidedly conservative-libertarian in its applied philosophy.   Whedon may be personally quite liberal and a known supporter of exclusively Democrat candidates, but Firefly challenges the notion that security and comfort should be purchased with liberty.

As the main hero and ship captain Mal Reynolds has said, “That’s what governments are for — get in a man’s way.”  In Firefly, the government – the alliance – is the villain, but it is not evil.  The Alliance is just really big, and tries to impose order, and standardize life.  On occasion, the good-intentions of the Alliance, bring death and pain, such as its efforts to promote chemically supported harmony resulting in a bad reaction that wasted the population of Miranda.

Committed to his own liberty, Mal says the reason for owning his own ship, a out-dated, busted up Firefly class cargo ship is “[We] never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again. No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get a little further.”  Life without centralized control may be rough, but the Firefly gang understands that freedom is too precious and too fragile to be left to the clumsy hands of a massive government.   The title song explains it all.

 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.

Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain’t comin’ back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can’t take the sky from me.

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