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Religion in Science Fiction (7): Firefly

Contains minor spoilers for the TV show Firefly.

Firefly Five centuries into the future, and mankind has spread into space. In another solar system, the Alliance – a political merger of the United States and China – controls the core worlds, where its citizens live in affluence with a wealth of technology, while far from the civilised centre are frontier worlds: barely habitable, struggling to get by with what little they have. Between these diverse planets, the Firefly-class ship Serenity travels, crewed by a band of misfit outlaws and renegades, on the run from both the Alliance and various criminal syndicates, trying to eke out a living doing whatever jobs come their way. This is the setting for Joss Whedon's short-lived TV series Firefly, which consists of just 14 episodes and one movie.

Describing Firefly as “genre busting”, as some have done, is quite misleading. Space Westerns have a long and, frankly, undistinguished history. With the notable exceptions of Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973), and Peter Hyam's Outland (1981) – which is literally High Noon in space – the genre has always been considered quite unrefined. But the relationship between the pulp Western and Space Opera is inescapable since both forms are romantic melodramas, differing primarily in setting and not in tone. (Remember that Gene Roddenberry originally sold Star Trek to the networks as “Wagon Train to the stars”).

The science fiction magazine Galaxy Science Fiction, first published in 1950, attempted to achieve some distance between its stories and Space Opera, and indeed advertised itself in this respect. An ad that ran on the back cover of the early issues had the following copy:

You Won't Find It in Galaxy
Jets blasting, Bat Durston came screeching down through the atmosphere of Bbllzznaj, a tiny planet seven billion light years from Sol. He cut out his super-hyper-drive for the landing... and at that point, a tall, lean spaceman stepped out of the tail assembly, proton gun-blaster in a space-tanned hand. “Get back from those controls, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don't know it, but this is your last space trip.”
Hoofs drumming, Bat Durston came galloping down through the narrow pass at Eagle Gulch, a tiny gold colony 400 miles north of Tombstone. He spurred hard for a low overhang of rim-rock... and at that point a tall, lean wrangler stepped out from behind a high boulder, six-shooter in a sun-tanned hand. “Rear back and dismount, Bat Durston,” the tall stranger lipped thinly. “You don't know it, but this is your last saddle-jaunt through these here parts.”

The point being made was that pulp sci-fi had fallen into the same hackneyed tropes as two-bit Western stories, and “serious science fiction” was thus keen to distance itself from the form. From this ad, the term ‘Bat Durston’ was coined as a derogatory term for a bad Space Western, and the sub-genre has for some time been mostly avoided. However, with the arrival of post-modern Western movies epitomised by Unforgiven (1992), the Western was to enjoy something of a miniature revival in modern culture. This revival paved the way for Firefly.

Firefly has been carefully constructed, adapting the elements of the Western to a science fiction context, but also drawing on direct parallels with 19th century history. The frontier worlds are short of resources, and incompletely terraformed, which provides justification for their dusty environments, and the frequent use of horses and other frontier gear. That their bars look like Western saloons is harder to swallow, but just like the twanging theme song, the audience is just asked to swallow their disbelief. The collision of past and future is epitomised in the show's unique lexicon – which includes genuine Western slang terms like doxy and shindig, phrases fashioned in the style of Western slang (like “gorram” for “Goddamn”, and “the black” for space), as well as Chinese phrases and swearing in Mandarin – something truly unique to the show, which helps remind the audience that this really is the future, and not the past.

Prior to developing the show's concept, Whedon had read the novel The Killer Angels, which chronicles the survivors of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The idea of following the story of people who fought on the losing side, who went on to be pioneers in the wilds, had great appeal to him and formed a central part of the backstory. The two-hour pilot for the show (which was not aired until the end of its run, on account of Fox network executives dissatisfaction with it) begins with Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) fighting in the Battle of Serenity, as rebel “Browncoats” against the Alliance. They lose, forcing them to attempt to find a new life somewhere far from where the Alliance control is strongest.

Firefly's format of a crew of misfit outlaws has quite a distinguished history in science fiction. The classic archetype is the 1970's British TV show Blake's 7, created by Terry Nation (the man responsible for the Daleks), which featured a crew of six disparate humans – varying from freedom fighter Blake to antihero Avon – and the ship's computer, Zen. Nation credited the war film The Dirty Dozen as an influence, but the legend of Robin Hood also underlies the format. Rockne S. O'Bannon's FarScape (1999-2003) has almost exactly the same set up – prisoners escape and form a crew, once again, a crew of seven. Firefly feels very much in the same vein as these older shows. Whedon pitched his show as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things”.

Three of the main characters form the basis of the show's interface with religion: the captain, Mal Reynolds, who has lost his faith; Derrial Book (Ron Glass), a Shepherd (the literal translation of ‘Pastor’) who seems to be exploring his Christianity as much as he is preaching it; and Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a Companion – high-society courtesans who are highly respected – and a Buddhist. Captain Reynolds clashes with both of the other characters – Shepherd Book over their conflicting beliefs concerning God, and Inara ostensibly over her career although it is apparent this is a cover for their mutual attraction.

Inara's religious leanings are not well developed during the show's short life. The deduction that she has Buddhist beliefs rests mostly on some of her Chinese dialogue mentioning the Buddha, and certain iconography within her quarters. However, it is clear that her practices as Companion are highly ritualised, and the implication is certainly that the Companions are a spiritual and religious order. Rather than simply offering sex for money, Inara's job seems closer to sex therapist or even psychotherapist. Furthermore, she refers to the shuttle she rents and works from in one episode as a “consecrated place of union”. It seems clear that Whedon has more respect for Inara's beliefs than Book's: in the pilot, a scene is constructed which has Inara provide solace to the Shepherd, who is in considerable distress at his having “fallen in with criminals”. She puts her hand on his head in benediction. It's a clumsy scene, although well played by the cast.

Mal Reynolds, the central character of the show, is shown in the flashback from the pilot as a faithful Christian, talking of God to his troops, and kissing a cross he wears around his neck. Sometime between the Independents losing the war and the time of the show, he loses his ties to religion and his faith in God. Although this is never fully explicated, the implication is that he believed that his side, being just (in his eyes, at least), would win because 'they had God on their side'. Losing the war thus leads to losing his faith, an experience not uncommon among people raised as Christians if they believe in God as a being both motivated and able to intercede in their daily life: when facing tragedy, this God-concept becomes impossible to bear, and so it is abandoned. (More nuanced God-concepts are generally more robust in the face of calamity). Reynolds, however, seems to substitute faith in humanity for faith in God.

Book's faith serves as a point of tension between him and Reynolds. Shortly after the Shepherd joins the crew, Mal pointedly observes: “You're welcome on my boat. God ain't.” Later, as the crew gathers for a meal, Book asks: “Captain, would you mind if I say grace?” to which Mal replies: “Only if you say it out loud”. Thus, Book serves as a vehicle for revealing Reynold's loss of faith, and the bitterness he feels therein. There is a fascinating ambiguity surrounding Book which is never resolved within the show's short space of time. It is made clear that before he became a Shepherd he was a man of violence, but the circumstances behind his 'conversion' never come to light.

Perhaps the most interesting scene concerning Book's Christianity occurs between him and River, the genetically-enhanced walking plot device of the show. River, who has been driven to mental instability after having been the subject of gruesome experiments in the backstory, has found Book's copy of the Bible and is feverishly working through it, making corrections and trying to rationalise it with scientific beliefs. River says: “Bible's broken. Contradictions, faulty logistics – it doesn't make sense...” Book replies: “River! You don't fix the Bible!” She states flatly: “It's broken. It doesn't make sense.” Book replies: “It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about 'faith'. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you.”

This is not a view of the Bible that many Christians would share, and indeed reads like a non-believer attempting to justify the right for others to believe what they do not. (Ron Glass, who plays Shepherd Book, is a Buddhist, and Whedon an atheist, although as we will see, one with quite nuanced beliefs). However, in terms of Christian-complaints about Firefly, accusations are more likely to be levelled against the portrayal of Christianity in the frontier worlds, where it is practised as if it were still in the nineteenth century – implying a kind of religious devolution over the centuries to come. It is not that this portrayal isn't plausible, but rather that nothing else is provided to counterbalance this perspective except Book's almost academic perspective on faith.

As a result, Christians have been quite divided on the show's portrayal of Christianity. Many are willing to forgive its excesses, being thankful that a science fiction show was willing to allow Christianity and religion a place in both the future and (for that matter) the present. However, others find great fault in the way Christianity is presented in Firefly. One Mormon blogger accused the show of “heavyweight atheist propaganda” (which seems an unfair complaint when compared to, say, Russell T. Davies Doctor Who) noting that:

[Firefly] basically says that people don't believe in religion because it makes sense, they believe in it because they need something to believe in... However, this neglects something very important – from the believer's point of view, it does make sense! Joss Whedon doesn't show that point of view at all!

This kind of complaint lead to Whedon being asked in the press interviews for Firefly's movie sequel, Serenity: “What do you have against being a Christian?” His answer was as follows:

I don't actually have anything against anybody, unless their belief precludes everybody else's. I am an atheist and an absurdist and have been for many, many years. I've actually taken a huge amount of flak for that. People who have faith tend to think that people who don't don't have a belief system and they don't care if they make fun of them. It's actually very difficult: atheists are as a group not really recognised by the American public as people to be taken seriously. This does not mean that I rail against religion, however. The meaning of life, and the meaning of what we do with our lives, is something that is extremely important to me. I have included characters from many different religions particularly in [Firefly], but also in the other shows as well, because I'm interested in the concept. I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't and that's just how that works.

In fact, Whedon's beliefs have been heavily influenced by the existentialism of Jean Paul Sartre, and indeed the show's final episode, “Objects in Space”, draws heavily from Sartre's Nausea. In the last part of the response to the interview question quoted above, Whedon draws attention to an episode from one of his other shows, Angel, in which the protagonist is told that “the world is meaningless, nothing matters.” To this, Angel replies: “Well then, this is my statement: nothing matters, so the only thing that matters is what we do”. Whedon stated this is what he believes, that “the only reality is how we treat each other. The morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme.”

Thus, Whedon's beliefs lie between existentialism and humanism, but by following Sartre's existentialism (rather than, say, Camus) he ends up in a place which is not hostile to faith, yet neither is it truly supportive of it. It is accepted, but it is only barely respected. This (scratchy) video [or this one] of him accepting the 2009 Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at Harvard University on April 10, 2009, summarises his position nicely:

The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world – that is the thing we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.

That Firefly does not present a vision of Christianity that all Christians are happy with should not, I would suggest, be taken as a mark against the show – it's decision to include Christianity and religion at the centre of its story is in itself a bold contrast from other science fiction shows we have examined. Whedon, like most atheists, has little appreciation for the experience of a life of faith, but unlike many other atheists he is not hostile towards it – and this despite the rather rough ride that many nonbelievers who live in the United States must endure. As an attempt to bridge that gaping divide, the portrayal of religion in Firefly deserves some significant credit.

Next week: Battlestar Galactica

Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.


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I don't have any comment per se, other than to say that I am really enjoying these pieces very much.

A fine piece of prose there Chris! Being in New Zealand I haven't seen (or heard of) Firefly, but your post provides a sense of the show's nuances, and you certainly display competence in discerning the many subtexts embedded in the narrative - very interesting!

About half-way through reading your post, I got to wondering if you would mention Red Dwarf. But of course you didn't ... quite right too! After all, that would require a full doctoral thesis to do it justice! ;)

OK then,
All The Best!

My favorite blog post in this series, and also my favorite sci-fi show. Looking forward to the next one.

- Kim

Thanks for the kind words everyone! Very glad to know that these pieces are being enjoyed - they've turned out to be a lot more work than originally imagined, and it's good to know they're appreciated.

obd: Ha, Red Dwarf... I haven't even thought about this show in years. It had the worst attempt at a Biblical pun with its "seventh day hopists" - dreadful, but still funny. :D

Best wishes!

This was really wonderful to read, both as a huge fan of Firefly and as someone who minored in World Religions (but who wishes she majored in it!). I liked your analysis, and it was interesting to read about certain things I hadn't considered or thought about with regard to religions in Firefly.

There's better video of Joss at Harvard here:

elsh: thanks for the kind words! I enjoyed writing this serial, and have started to plan out another one on a similar theme.

C: thanks for the link! I've added this into the main body as an alternative.

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