The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same: An Analysis of “Firefly” and “Serenity

The Fox TV series “Firefly” by Joss Whedon was very short-lived starting in September of 2002; only 11 of the 14 episodes were aired. The director cast and crew were saddened by this for they loved the show, but they could not do anything. Or so they thought. Whedon had promised the cast that it was not over and went in hunt of a “new home” for the unfinished story. Whedon found Firefly its new home with Universal Pictures in March of 2004.  In the summer of 2004 Whedon, the old cast and crew, along with some new help starting filming “Serenity”, which was released in September of 2005, only 3 years after the show “Firefly” had started.

The TV series “Firefly” and the movie “Serenity” can best be categorized in the genre of science fiction and western. This series/film combination is a science fiction work and western work. They are a science fiction work because first of all the episodes and the movie take place in outer space – which is where some science fiction stories take place. Secondly they are a western work, because like in westerns they take place on the frontier – this frontier just happens to be at the edge of space, which is also the edge of Alliance control.  Many of the terraformed moons appear barren and similar in appearance to the Wild West.

The main theme of “Serenity” and “Firefly” according to Whedon is that “in the future, nothing has changed. We’ve got more technology. We’ve got more people. But we’ve got the exact same problems: personally, politically and ethically”. Under this main theme there are many sub themes, or motifs. One of which is that the crew of Serenity is a “dysfunctional family”. Another is that the Alliance is stretching its control farther than it can. And the third is that the Alliance and the Blue Sun Corporation are doing things that are not ethically right, they are performing experiments on humans to better human existence and impose their views on others, with force and by way of manipulation and mind control.

In the commentary for both the TV series and the movie Whedon talks about how even though these stories take place in 2517 life for the crew of Serenity is not that much different from life today or life back in the 1800’s.  There are still wars, only this time the war is between the Alliance and the Independence, rather than the North or the South or even the US Army vs. the Native Americans. And there is still the rebuilding of cities and communities to be done after wars. Serenity is Mal’s community where they still have problems getting a job and getting out of trouble. Both of which are problems people face today with the declining job market and economy. Even in the future when there is more technology, like spaceships and terraforming, people are struggling to survive. Only now instead of struggling on the frontier of the American Wild West, where they have to deal with Indians, they are struggling to survive at the edge of the space frontier, where they have to deal with Reavers. In order to survive in the West some people did whatever kind of jobs they could both legal and illegal, Mal and the crew of Serenity are much the same. The crew takes what jobs they can, most of which are illegal, like smuggling cows or hiding fugitives. Because of these illegal jobs, just as in many western movies, Mal and his crew have to hide and run from the law, but instead of using horse or carriage to get away they use a space ship.  Instead of hiding in deserted towns or the desert, Mal and his crew hide at the edge of space or on isolated moons. Also, in the old west prostitution and the services of a companion were a valid and acceptable way to make money. One of the women on the ship of Serenity, Inara is a companion, who uses Serenity to get to her clients on different worlds and uses a video phone or video voice recording device to choose whom she will service.

One thing that everyone has or had at one point in time is a family. In the Wild West someone’s family may be the gang of guys they hang out with and do activities with, like stealing. During war someone’s family could be their unit. In this case it is on a star ship at the edge of space, and it is after the war between the Alliance and the outer worlds, a time when people are struggling to survive that the 9 crew-members become family. This family may be somewhat “dysfunctional”, but none the less they help make the ship feel like home. This dysfunctional family is subject to lots of fights; between Mal and Inara, Zoë and Wash, Jayne and Mal, Simon and Mal, Kaylee and Simon. This constant inner conflict that shows up establishes the instability and the lack of functionality of the crew as a family.

At the head of this “dysfunctional family” is Mal. He is the father figure and is a very sarcastic, bitter and callous man. He is constantly twisting or pulling the other characters’ legs. This happens in “Serenity” when Mal says to Simon; “Doctor, I’m takin’ your sister under my protection here. If anything happens to her, anything at all, I swear to you, I will get very choked up. Honestly, there could be tears.” Mal is the hero who lacks in emotion and is worried about getting the job done. This lack of emotion – or empathy – is shown in his actions. Like calling Inara “whore” on a regular basis. Or after the crew finds Book dead he orders them all back to work are examples to his lack in empathy.  His crew tells him he is inhuman sometimes. The line by Kaylee “Sometimes people have feelings. I’m referrin’ here to people.” is a good example of that. All though Mal isn’t as much of a hard case as we are lead to believe, he can be fatherly. In “Ariel” he hugs Kaylee when they get back from the mission and in another episode he kisses her on the head. He is also very protective of his crew as he says in “Serenity”, “I look after me and mine.” At the end of the movie “Serenity” the captain shows that he is not cruel and he teaches River, his new daughter a lesson, this is the first lesson of flying: “Love. You can know all the math in the ‘Verse, but take a boat in the air you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells ya she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her home.”

The mother figure is “a cross between Zoë and Inara”. Zoë is Mal’s second in command, though she is hardly the motherly figure, she is very hard and regimented.  Zoë follows the plans the captain makes and helps him accomplish these goals by backing up his requests; she does this in “War Stories.” Also like the captain she can be very cynical or sarcastic. For example when the break into the safe in “Serenity” and find a small sum of money she says, “At last, we can retire and give up this life of crime.”  The opposite of Zoë is Inara. Inara is very nurturing, sensual, and independent. She is always taking care of crew members, like Kaylee and River, she is very protective of them. She doesn’t let anyone tell here what to do – and that includes Mal – and likes to be free, which is why she got on board Serenity in the first place. She also brings a “certain respectability” to the ship and its crew, because she is a lady of class and good social standing.

Wash is the big brother on Serenity. He also happens to be the pilot of the ship. He is humorous in his own dark and slightly twisted way sometimes. Like when he tells his wife Zoë, “Sweetie, we’re crooks. If everything were right, we’d be in jail”. Wash is also the responsible one in the crew, because of this he is most often left with the ship, so that he can rescue them from Reavers or the Alliance. Wash hates fighting and violence and can be considered as a chicken, he is often a voice on reason – which usually speaks for peace “Can I make a suggestion that doesn’t involve violence, or is this the wrong crowd for that?” Also in an episode of “Firefly” he says “Can we maybe vote on the whole “murdering people” issue?” Wash’s voice of reason also asks for calm and reassurance sometimes, the way he brings it is the line “I’m a leaf on the wind; watch how I soar.” Though Wash is responsible and is often the voice of reason and calm, he is at heart a big kid; this is shown in the original pilot episode of “Serenity”, in which he is found playing with dinosaurs in the cockpit.

“The deceptively innocent daughter figure” in both the movie and the TV series is Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic. Innocence in Kaylee’s character can be shown within the TV series when she leaves the engine room a mess and goes to get her hair done by Inara. Another signature of innocence is shown when she chases River around the ship to get her apple back in “War Stories”. But we learn that she cannot be as innocent as she looks in “Out of Gas” when we find out how she gets her job on Serenity. This was by the captain finding her having sex with the previous mechanic and showing how she was more intelligent and mechanically savvy than the previous engineer. Aside from being the “deceptively innocent daughter” Kaylee is also the heart of the ship; her line of “we couldn’t leave them now” shows that she cares for Simon and River and thinks that the crew should help them. Kaylee always tries to make people get along. In the “Train Job” Kaylee tells Jayne not to treat Simon badly, and in “Out of Gas” she makes Simon a birthday cake, because she is nice. Kaylee’s intelligence and worry for others is reflected in the line “Don’t pay anybody in advance. And don’t ride in anything with a Capissen 38 engine, they fall right out of the sky”.

In “Firefly” and “Serenity” Jayne is “the bad son who really has a heart of gold.”  Jayne loves guns and girls and doesn’t like following the rules, even if they are Mal’s. In “Ariel” he turns Simon and River over for money. And in the movie “Serenity” he argues with the captain about taking grenades on the mission, and about the fact that Simon and River have been allowed back on the ship. In “Our Dear Mrs. Reynolds”, he tried to buy Saffron off the captain for one of his guns, and he is always checking out Kaylee. Even though he argues with the captain, and makes most peoples’ lives on the ship hard – especially Simon and Rivers – he actually means well. In “Serenity” Jayne helps River up after her vision of the Reavers and believes her when she says they are coming and it’s time to go. He also always tries to help Kaylee and is very protective of her when she is shot in the pilot episode “Serenity” and wants to kill the agent who hurt her. In the episode “Jaynetown” he again shows emotion, this time towards the mudders and pities them and thinks that maybe he could make a difference there.

Book is the grandfather figure in “Firefly” and though he does not play a huge part in “Serenity” he can still be considered as the grandfather figure in that as well. He is kind and likes to push people to be better. Book “challenges Mal to the fullest.” In “Serenity” Book tells Mal to “believe in something.” In the TV series, Book is often left on the ship and takes care of the people there, like in “Jaynestown” when he stays on the ship to watch after River. Book is older and wiser than most on the crew and they respect that. He knows a great deal about the Alliance and criminal organizations. In “Serenity” he tells Mal “They’ll come at you sideways. It’s how they think. It’s how they move.” Book is often asked about his knowledge of these things but he never tells anyone why he knows so much. In this sense we see that as much as Book is the grandfather it is realized that he has a past of his own.While the crew of serenity is hiding out with Book on a moon Mal says: “It’s of interest to me how much you seem to know about that world.”Book says “I wasn’t born a shepherd, Mal.” Mal interestedly says “You have to tell me about that sometime.” Book says “No, I don’t.”

The Tams are orphaned children whom the crew of Serenity picks up. Simon and River Tam are both intelligent. In the episode “Safe” we see Simon and River as children; in this scene Simon is doing homework and River points out an error in his book and that “This whole conclusion is fallacious.” This is one example of Rivers intelligence. An example of Simon’s intelligence as up and coming doctor is in the pilot “Serenity” when he says “I’m very smart. Went to the best Medacad on Osiris, top three percent of my class.” Even though Simon is intelligent he is very naive about what happens outside his bubble of comfort on a core planet. In the pilot episode “Serenity” Simon shows his ignorance about the outside world when he asks what will happen when Reavers board the ship. He shows it again in “Safe” when he doesn’t realize that voices in a ship carry and Rivers fits are making the cows go mad.  Simon is very used to living his own way and getting what he wants, he tries to order the captain around in the pilot “Serenity” as well as other episodes and the movie, and it does not work well at all. Out there on Serenity he has to adapt when coming into the new family, meaning that sometimes he has to patch up people he is mad at him or hide or do what he is told. It is also out there at the edge of civilization that he begins to learn that medicine and knowledge don’t fix everything. Even though in “Ariel” he finds out what they did to River, he cannot figure out what to do to help her.  River is Simon’s younger sister who is sick mentally, and quickly becomes the baby of the ship that everyone looks after. As stated earlier she is gifted – with intelligence and an ability to see and know things she should not- but it is what the Alliance did to her that made her sick. She often wanders the ship and mutters things. Because River is the youngest at 16 years old, she is frail – “90 pound girl”- and sick; most of the crew, including Simon, believe that she needs taking care of. In every episode from the pilot “Serenity” to the end “Object in Space” – and even in the movie “Serenity” -someone is taking care of her, wither it be Simon, Book, Kaylee, Inara, Zoë, or Mal.

With a sarcastic and bitter father, one hard as nails mother, one nurturing and sensual mother, one secretive yet kind grandfather, one humorous yet responsible big brother, one deceptively innocent daughter, one perverted yet loving big brother, and two orphans how could anyone expect this family to be functional. There are contradictions in every character and quarrels to be had between every character, but they hold together as a family, because they all need each other, in some way or another. Although this out of the ordinary family is held together by a thread may be one of the main personal problems, it is not the only problem to be faced in the TV series “Firefly” or the movie “Serenity.”

The main political problem in the TV series “Firefly” and in the movie “Serenity” is that the Alliance is trying to control too much. The Alliance does-not have the resources or the capabilities to control or protect the outer planets like they want to. But they try to control them anyways.

In 2506 the Alliance initiated a war to assert control over all planets in hope to unify them all under one rule – their rule. The three-month long strategic battle of Serenity; that held heavy casualties on both sides, with “Nearly half a million people … dead … at the end of the battle.” The fact that “about a third” of the casualties in the battle of Serenity were Alliance shows that the Alliance did not have the standing power to control the outer planets properly. Because the Alliance is limited in it has set up puppet regimes, on outer planets and moons. Canton, as seen in “Jaynestown” is one example one such puppet regime, where the foreman plays with his riches and does what he wants. Like forcing the mudders to work for nothing, or releasing  a prisoner to kill off old problems that return. Here on Canton the Alliance thinks that by putting someone Alliance friendly there will help them to control the moon. But in fact it doesn’t, the man has control, not the Alliance. Another example of the Alliances attempted yet failed control is in the movie “Serenity. In the movie we learn that not all planets have Alliance troops or police who enforcing laws. Instead the Alliance pays a group of independents to police the outer moons or planets that they cannot supply with troops or a stable form of government. Much like in  Heart of Darkness, the further away from the center, the less control the government has, and the more the situation is every man for himself. These paid police on the outer planets will only do for the Alliance what they believe will benefit them. As soon as the Alliances rules don’t fit they don’t use them.

Another problem with the Alliances wish to control the whole Universe is that they cannot support outer planets medically. Many of the outer planets do not get enough medicine, medical equipment or enough doctors. In the episode “Safe” Simon Tam is kidnapped from Serenity and her crew because one of the villages of people on Jiangyin need a doctor, and finding him, take him. In the “Train Job” the crew of Serenity heist something from a train, that they learn later is medical supplies that is to help the mining community of that planet.  The crew returns the goods because Mal and Zoe saw that it was very necessary for those people. In the episode “Ariel” the crew of Serenity with help from Simon, empty out a medical closet on Ariel. Then later in “War Stories” they sell the medical supplies to outer planets that are in need. The medical supplies is not the only thing the outer planets are low on. Sometimes the outer planets need food. But to the Alliance this is not important, they give them what they feel is their fair share and expect them to be ok. This however is not always true. Because as we learn in the episode “Serenity” that Whitefall could use some nutritional supplies, when Mal makes a deal with Patience and they swap money for nutrition bars. If the Alliance cannot supply all worlds with medicine and nutrition, they are clearly trying to control more than they are capable of.

The fact that most of the time the crew of Serenity have an easy-going time evading the Alliance shows that the Alliance is stretched too thin over a large area and that they do not have the capabilities necessary to hold control over the entire solar system.  In both the movie and pilot episode “Serenity” River and the crew easily evade the Alliance. The crew escapes them not because they are faster but because they outsmart the Alliance. They run from the Alliance when then can, or they put out decoys to help them escape. The crew actually gets boarded by the Alliance in “Bushwacked”  but Mal and the crew hide River and Simon outside the ship until the Alliance leaves. Or in the movie “Serenity” when the Operative has them cornered, they use the Reavers to engage the fleet of ships waiting for them, to help them escape. In “Objects in Space” the Alliance turns to bounty hunters, to get River. This does not work either. River hides herself off ship, and has the crew help dispose of the crazy bounty hunter.  In “The Message” one of Mal and Zoe’s old army buddies comes to them with his problems. His problems are of course Alliance, and with some spectacular flying and a quick plan, the Alliance leaves without their target, and the Alliance doesn’t find out about River or Simon being on board Serenity.

The Alliance and the Blue Sun Corporation are conducting affairs that are ethically incorrect. They are performing experiments on children and on entire worlds as well as enforcing their views upon a whole universe of people.

Then main government experiment that we learn about in the TV series and in the movie is that of River Tam. The Alliance is taking gifted children like River and running a series of tests and experiments on them. This experimenting left River, paranoid  and scared. She is jumpy and mutters to herself, and in the end attacks people because of her fears. In “Ariel” Simon finds out that they cut up her brain and that her amygdala had been “stripped”. Simon says that because of this “She feels everything. She can’t not.” In the movie “Serenity” we learn that River has memories that aren’t hers and that she knows secrets that she shouldn’t know. After she has been locked up because the crew learns how dangerous she can be, River tells Simon “It isn’t mine. The memory, it isn’t mine. And I shouldn’t have to carry it. It isn’t mine.”  The one big secret that River has is that of Miranda. She is so intent on finding out what happened that she takes control of the ship and tells the captain to go there. It is also in the movie that we learn that River is actually an engineered solider, who once the subliminal message is given  to her, she becomes a killing machine who can take out an entire bar or win a single-handed fight against a group of Reavers. River is no longer a human girl, she is a troubled government weapon.

Through out the short-lived season of “Firefly” there were always assumptions about what Reavers were. In “Bushwacked” Mal says “Reavers ain’t men. Or they forgot how to be. Now they’re just nothing. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothing, and that’s what they became.” Now in the movie the crew is able to figure out just what exactly the grotesque creatures are. Once the crew reaches Miranda we find out that the Reavers, too came from an Alliance experiment to better the human race.  The crew finds a beat up unit in which there was a recoding device. This is what the doctor on the device said. “These are just a few of the images we’ve recorded. And you can see, it wasn’t what we thought. There’s been no war here and no terraforming event. The environment is stable. It’s the Pax. The G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate that we added to the air processors. It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Well, it works. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, they stopped breeding, talking, eating. There’s 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die. I have to be quick. A better 10th of a percent of the population had an opposite reaction to the Pax. Their aggressor response increased beyond madness. They have become, well they’ve killed most of us. And not just killed, they’ve done things.” The Reavers that haunt the edge of space killing people came from an experiment the Alliance did on the planet Miranda to calm people and weed out aggression.  This experiment caused the death of a whole planet and created a monster race.

In the opening of “Serenity” we hear about the history of the Alliance and the colonization of the new worlds. Only this time instead of hearing it from the point of view of one of the crew members we hear it from the lips of a teacher in an Alliance class room. The teacher says “Earth that was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many. We found a new solar system, dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed, a process taking decades, to support human life, to be new Earths. The Central Planets formed the Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, the Alliance was a beacon of civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating, but the Alliance’s victory over the Independents ensured a safer universe. And now everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of our civilization.” This warped view shows the Alliance as right, just and in control and anyone else, like the border planets or the Independence as wicked and savage.  It is also in this scene that River talks about how the Alliance is not helping but rather hurting in the way that they invade peoples’ lives. She says “We tell them what to do, what to think, don’t run, don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads and we haven’t the right. We’re meddlesome.”

In the post industrial society of the TV series “Firefly” and the movie “Serenity” science and technology has impacted the role of the individual by trying to take away individuality and failing. Scientific experiments performed by the Alliance try to bring all individuals under their control. “Telling them what to do, what to think.”  Technology however allows people to be free. Space ships allow them to go off and find new planets and get further and further away from Alliance control.


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