The Death of Utopia: 'Firefly' and the Return to Human Realism in TV Sci-Fi
Joss Whedon's science fiction western Firefly was revolutionary in several ways, not least its embrace of a degree of realism regarding human motivation, in contrast to the utopianism of earlier TV sci-fi such as Star Trek.
Science fiction television before the year 2000 was remarkably uniform in its view of humanity becoming a somewhat idyllic society in the future. True, wars still existed, but most other problems that plagued mankind in the current era had disappeared from these universes. Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Babylon 5, and even seaQuest DSV all showed a future where mankind had, for the most part, eliminated poverty and disease from the social structure and people lived in a clean, almost utopian environment, as long as war was not in the picture. Consequently, most of the television franchises during the 1990s, Star Trek chief among them, also showed a future where social classes had disappeared, and the baser desires of people for acquisition and wealth had been suppressed.
While this vision did help represent a better future and gave people aspirations for such a future, many of these series omitted the human struggle against one's own environment and the desire to improve one's standing through possessions and material worth. This is one reason the Star Trek franchise has received some criticism in the past, for having human characters that are nearly devoid of current-day motivations, and for depicting characters that did have such motivations as either wholly evil, comic relief, or inconsequentially minor.
Joss Whedon, however, changed all of this with Firefly. In one fell swoop in 2002, he took the concept of the human utopia in science fiction, tossed it aside, and revolutionized the view of the human future on television. Whedon did not want a future without struggle against environment, nor did he want humanity to be without social classes and the allure of the almighty dollar. Thus, he created Firefly as an antithetical foil to Star Trek -- a universe where power was still in one's wallet, where corruption and deception retained their strongholds in the highest levels of society, and a man would (and actually could) still bleed to achieve his dreams. Science fiction was forever changed by this, and it is why Firefly should be one of the names listed among the greatest science fiction series of all time.
The cultural diversity and simultaneous uniformity of Firefly is one of its greatest strengths and one of its most innovative achievements. Creating a society dominated exclusively by American and Chinese culture not only allowed for a richer linguistic palette but also let viewers indulge in a multitude of new visual and sensory experiences on how common culture could be displayed and participated in. However, the variety of settings shown on the various worlds in the Firefly universe created a realistic atmosphere of humanity still leading an individualistic society, as each world had its own distinct flavor and biodiversity. In a sense, each world in Firefly represented a different piece of Earth's own environmental mixture, and these worlds also reflected the ethnic and cultural choices of different groups within modern-day humanity. From the low-class urban areas of Persephone seen in the pilot episode and the backwater rural community of Paradiso in "The Train Job" (1.2), all the way to the hyper-civilized cityscape of the core in "Ariel" (1.9) and the ultra-rich floating islands of Bellerophon in "Trash" (1.11), Firefly ran the gamut of cultural possibilities, just in its settings.
Of equal significance, though, are the goals and aspirations of the main characters in Firefly, and none of these are more important than the star of the show, Captain Malcolm Reynolds. In many ways, Mal is Firefly's answer to Han Solo of Star Wars. The two share many of the same character traits: nobility, brashness, charm, and certain degree of selfishness. However, Mal's goals are more centralized on himself. He sees the Alliance as evil, but he has given up fighting them in order to serve his own needs. His is a cautionary tale of what Han Solo could have become if the Rebellion had lost in Star Wars. On the flipside, Mal exhibits the positive aspects of the aforementioned character traits at greater levels than Han Solo does, and it's easy to see that Mal's sense of justice is broader than Han's.
The episodes "The Train Job" and "Safe" (1.5) are the best examples of this, where Mal risks his life to help people that he could have very easily left behind at no consequence to himself or his crew...