minor spoilers for the TV show Firefly.
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:
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
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
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
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)
[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
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
Visit the Religion in Science Fiction page for links to all nine parts.