Sci-fi is the new Western. Or maybe it isn’t so new. Historically, the U.S. has projected onto the space race a continuation of its expansionist dreams, so lovingly mythologized in the adventures of the Wild West. On the small and big screens, sci-fi stories have always been firmly embedded (to varying degrees of obviousness) in the stereotypes and tropes of frontier tales, as Star Trek‘s show-opening declaration makes most clear.
Joss Whedon’s Firefly re-embeds. And, rather than asserting sci-fi as some sort of evolution of the Western (same concerns, different costumes), Firefly messes up the timeline and gives us a future that mimics our own past. Episode one, “The Train Job,” begins with our newest space captain, a leader of a rag-tag band of brigands, in a dusty frontier bar. Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and a few of his crew have stopped in for a drink, but really so that “Mal,” as the crew call him (he’s a bad ass dude) can pick a fight with some soldierly types. A bar brawl ensues, with the requisite tossing of someone out the front window and the beginnings of a showdown on main street.
Firefly uses such generic conventions over and over. The crew members read like the cast list of a spaghetti Western. There’s the captain/sheriff; the town, er, I mean ship doctor (Sean Maher as Dr. Simon Tam); the co-pilot/deputy Wash (Alan Tudyk); the preacher, named Book, of all things (Ron Glass); and my favorite, the hooker with the heart of gold, Inara (Morena Baccarin, familiar to many as the Russian bad-girl of Alias). And, as the title announces, the first episode’s narrative revolves around a good old-fashioned train robbery.
If this all seems a bit tiresome, the surprise is that it really isn’t, or at least it’s not as tiresome as it easily could be. For one thing, Firefly is more complicated in its framing story and moral dimensions than the usual sci-fi or Western fare. The show takes place some 500 years in the future, after earth’s resources have been depleted and the human race has immigrated to a new solar system and terra-formed the planets for their use. This new solar system is eventually organized into “the Alliance,” after some years of civil war, during which Malcolm and his cohorts fought with the Independents against the fascistic, centralized government of the Alliance, clearly no friend to Johnny Law.
While the crew might engage in criminal activity (the train robbery), it is only out of necessity, as jobs and cash are scarce indeed in the far-flung reaches of their solar system. They struggle valiantly to stay alive and under the Alliance’s radar, and they always operate out of some inherent sense of justice and morality. So, when they discover that the cargo they have stolen from the train is actually medicine, desperately needed by some miners on the edge of Alliance territory, they give it back, incurring real risk from their uber-evil temporary employer Adlai Nishka (Michael Fairman).
On Firefly, though distinctions between good and evil can be easy to make, more often than not, they are less obvious, contingent on social, political, and economic relations. So, while thieving from the Alliance might be okay, stealing medicine from sick laborers is not. And while the Alliance as an entity is most assuredly “evil,” not all agents of law and order are. The sheriff of Paradiso, the town whose sera they initially steal, for instance, turns out to be more interested in justice than the letter of the law — he lets Mal and Zoe go after they return all the booty.
The crew of the Serenity (the name of their ship and the title of the initial pilot episode, which was for some reason jettisoned), reflect these moral complexities. They are neither the space-faring representatives of law and order, nor a self-serving band of outlaws. Rather, they are somewhere in between. In this Firefly repeats perhaps that most typical of Western conventions, the celebration of rugged American individualism.
What saves Firefly from wallowing in its own clichés is its self-aware send-up of both its parent genres. This much is obvious from the very opening credits, which juxtapose images of space ships and travel with curvy, fiery script that announces the cast, reminiscent of campfires and cattle branding. Add to this the twangy, country-western style theme song and you have a cut and paste show that knows from the start where it comes from and draws attention to the fact, most often to poke fun at the conventions.
This satiric thrust of Firefly is not surprising, considering Whedon’s past creations. Most famously, he tried (and succeeded in) a similar satirizing with the horror and teen film genres in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (both film and television show). Like Buffy, Firefly effects freshness, with the glib dialogue and fast-paced storytelling that have become something of a Whedon trademark. Whether Firefly can live up to Whedon fans’ expectations (as BVS fans sites have been abuzz with anticipation) of course, remains to be seen.
What is most immediately pertinent about Firefly is its inclusion in this year’s new television line-up. In a fall season that is shaping up to be overburdened by nostalgic shows, like American Dreams and Do Over, that seek to escape to a pre-9/11, even pre-1960s, fantasy of utopian America, Firefly instead looks both to the past and the future to create and ruminate on an increasingly morally complicated world. This alone is reason enough to check it out.