So there has been no point in all of the time I’ve spent working on my film studies major that I have not seriously grappled with the question of whether or not Joss Whedon’s sci-fi TV show, “Firefly,” is the greatest thing to have ever occurred in front of a camera.
The very first tattoo I had done was of the Chinese characters for “Serenity,” the name of the space-faring vessel of focus in “Firefly,” because there will never come a time in my life when that show will not speak to some very profound, innate part of who I am as both an aesthetic and moral being … ain’t no power in the ‘verse.
In the “Firefly” universe, the Milky Way galaxy has become a new frontier for humanity. Something of a space-age Wild West is born. While there is an expansive, blinky terminal-ed, omni-government stomping around with giant gray space cruisers, the galaxy is predominantly made up of settlers, families, cattle-hands, sultry harlots and outlaws — everyday people all just trying to get by.
The events of the show are set following a galaxy-wide war that ripped humanity in two. The central planets’ Alliance sought to bring the recently-settled planets’ Independents under a single rule, a hard-fought dream that was eventually achieved.
The captain of the Firefly-class vessel that we follow around throughout the show is named Malcolm Reynolds, a man who, following fighting in the war as a sergeant for the Independents, turned freelance spacecraft captain, i.e. outlaw, smuggler, scavenger and oddjobber. As Malcolm drifts through space, “right” and “wrong” as he had come to know them have become very dim lights in the endless black of the newly unified galaxy.
Like any passionate love affair, my relationship with “Firefly” has been a tempestuous one. I watched a single episode of the show while it was on air in 2002 and could not at all buy into its outward appearance of space cowboys, complete with brown dusters and snappy retorts.
I think that in order to really get into “Firefly,” it takes having the DVD box set or Netflix on-hand. I have always sort of imagined that that’s why Fox cancelled the show so early in its run — it’s a strange concept for a show coming out of a genre as nichey as science-fiction and really can only be appreciated as you get to know the characters and see how they change as people over the span of several episodes.
While several people on the crew of Serenity — Mal, Shepherd, Inara, Simon — all do grow throughout the show, I became engrossed with “Firefly” when I personally connected with some of the mythic figures that these characters are drawing upon.
Malcolm is an antihero — pulled perfectly out of a fable, fairy tale or Western — and is a magnificent bastard. Though he is emotionally distant, often makes biting and rude jokes, and is an outlaw in the eyes of proper society, it is obvious that there is a both soft-spoken and yet tremendous resolve expressed in his choices.
Simon is an incredibly intelligent, educated doctor from the heart of the Alliance’s planets who has a prodigally brilliant sister, River. When he hears that she is being experimented upon after having been taken hostage by a super secret Alliance training facility, in order to rescue her, he sacrifices every chance he has at being a successful doctor, vilifies his name in many circles and condemns the rest of his days to life on the run as a fugitive. And he does all of this without even considering the alternative of abandoning his sister.
Simon’s love for River is of superhuman proportions — it unwaveringly and unquestioningly transcends everything about his life, his future, his society — and is made briefly tangible to us, mere mortals, in the form of an awkward, diminutive rich boy from the core who knows nothing of hard life on the edge worlds.
Malcolm does what he can for this poor, naive man — he brings him into his merry flock of brigands — because, as Malcolm says, he needs Simon’s passenger fare and a doctor onboard his ship. But between them it is clear that there is an unspoken, mutual understanding of one another’s resolve in the face of adversity.
Despite circumstance, several of Serenity’s crew have all found each other in the infinite black out of some common recognition of something … more. Though Joss Whedon’s dialogue is marked as chirpy and lighthearted, it’s the way in which “Firefly” taps into something so much deeper that gives me goose pimples of excitement.
If at any point in your life you have felt as though your moral compass was at odds with the circumstance that is reality, I could not recommend a piece of fiction to you more highly than I can recommend to you “Firefly.”
“Burn the land and boil the sea, you can’t take the sky from me.”
MICHAEL FIGLOCK in his brown coat can be reached via wave over the Cortex at email@example.com.