26 January 2010

A Purplebelly revisiting Firefly, with an old blog post and a fresh comparison with DS9

This is an old post of mine from The Anvil, the blog of my closest friend from college on which I occasionally posted, describing my mixed feelings about the Firefly series and the Serenity movie.

I am not unique in that I fell in love with Joss Whedon's Firefly from the first episode, nor in that I came late to Firefly fandom, having seen it on the DVD's. I felt, as most people did who love the show, that it was solid science-fiction that didn't require too drastic a suspension of disbelief and that even if it had it would have made up for it in spades with its characters. I got involved with the characters such that I was angry enough to bash something with my head when a certain character died in the movie (I won't spoil it for those of you who haven't seen it). It was not a serial; each episode stood on its own and on the strength of the development of its characters. It simply oozed style as a gritty space-western complete with shootouts, last stands and train robberies. It was, all in all, a wonderful piece of science fiction that deserves to be remembered alongside Star Trek.

There is, however, one problem that particularly stands out. I cannot bring myself to agree with the primary messages of the series.

The story centres itself around a chevalier-mal-fait named Mal who, six years ago, fought on the side of the Independent Faction against the Union of Allied Planets (known informally as the Alliance and by the derogatory Purplebellies) in a planetary Civil War of sorts. Suffice to say, the Independents lost, and now the survivors must pick up the pieces and find work where they can (often as pirates or smugglers), on the border planets. Mal bought a small freighter (the titular Firefly) and acquired a crew, which are the foci of the TV show.

There is firstly the issue of the rather unsubtle sympathy with the historical Confederacy and Reconstruction-Era South which I find reprehensible (a country founded on the primary basis of institutionalised racism and exploitation is nowhere near deserving of this kind of sympathy in my book - this aspect goes ignored in the allegorical history of the series). But behind this there is another, deeper issue. I would describe myself as a lower-case 'd' democrat, but I believe that if democracy is going to work, it is going to have to entail some kind of communitarian ethic in which the citizens recognise their responsibilities both to each other and to the rule of law. Firefly's romanticisation of what I call the 'cowboy ethos' is, of course, understandable given the tenor of the series, but at the same time, it is something I see as the Achilles' heel of American-style democracy. As a society, we tend to emphasise the individual rights as sovereign, sometimes to the detriment of the realisation that no man lives in a vacuum - he lives among a community of other people and in a natural environment, both of which should have his respect. The language of independence and rugged self-sufficiency is, of course, a staple of American historical and political rhetoric and practise (and embodied in the mythos of the lone American cowboy), but, in general, very little attention is paid to the aspects of responsibility, of community-building and of interdependence which must also be primary realities of democratic practise.

I bring attention to the dichotomy of the main characters' views in Firefly regarding their situation in the system: on the one hand, you have the former Independents, struggling to survive on the fringes of the system, looking out for number one, exercising their right to live free from Alliance meddling. On the other side you have the Alliance: bureaucratic, heavy-handed, its citizens living in comparative comfort and closer contact with one another under (what appears to be) an oppressive, 1984-esque regime. The main characters (particularly Mal and Zoe)stand in complete support of the former and complete rejection of the latter, no doubt in part because they are still seen as the enemy.

Yes, the Alliance seems quite sketchy from Firefly's perspective. Many of the officials are corrupt in the vast bureaucracy, there are strong corporate ties with megacorps straight out of a cyberpunk novel (the logo of the 蓝日 'Blue Sun' company appears in many places), it dabbles in abduction, assassination and human experimentation (as the backstory of River Tam shows). But the Alliance is also run by a Parliament (perhaps in name only, but even so), its citizens are by and large happy and well-off (and more civilised), and the attitudes portrayed by characters in the series who have a strong Alliance background (Inara, Book, Simon and River Tam) display without a doubt that they have no trouble expressing their own opinions on touchy issues (a good, democratic quality). Joss Whedon even made parallels in the commentary between his Alliance and Gene Roddenberry's more optimistically-portrayed Federation, and admitted that the Alliance was being portrayed from a very specific point-of-view.

In jest, I asked a fellow fan of the series whether she thought me a total fascist for having more sympathy for the Alliance than for the former Independents. She pointed out many of the same points in the Alliance's favour I've made here. It strikes me that if the democratic dream is to come to full fruition, it is going to have to establish a dialectic between individualistic ideals of independence and more communitarian ideals of mutual respect, support and social capital. We should build a democratic society on the twin pillars, to borrow Dr. Amitai Etzioni's metaphor, of individual rights and responsibilities to one's community.

For more good ideas from a radical-centrist with his head screwed on straight, allow me to recommend his weblog: http://www.amitai-notes.com/blog

Here's to finding a balance:

Long Live the Alliance! 同盟万岁!

In retrospect, my views on the political stance of Firefly have been a little bit better fleshed-out. (Certainly my writing style is better now than then!) The Civil War parallels and its apparent sympathy with the Confederate 'Lost Cause' are still as problematic and as dismaying as ever in my view, as is the 'cowboy ethos' which Firefly celebrates. But my view of American democracy has changed significantly, thanks in no small part to the election of Barack Obama, and also thanks to Alexis de Tocqueville, whose amazingly insightful book Democracy in America changed many of my preconceptions of the American potential for progress. In addition, my tastes in science fiction in film and television have taken a more recognisable shape due to greater exposure since then: Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, Total Recall - and particularly Deep Space Nine.

Yes, Firefly is politically problematic, and these problems tend to infect the rest of the show and the movie after it. The knee-jerk libertarian objections to any kind of notion of common values or the common good manifest in strange ways, particularly in Serenity, where when Mal's crew objects to turning Serenity into a facsimile of a reaver vessel, he pretty much says straight out 'if you get in my way I will gun you down'. But more than being morally problematic, it makes the ethical 'verse of Firefly Manichaean and mind-numbingly boring. Whedon asserted it as an artistic and moral criticism of Star Trek, but as such it doesn't get a lot of mileage. The moral centre is always Mal - that's the guy we're always expected to root for - and his enemy is always The System (whether represented by the Hands of Blue or by the Operative or by nameless captains of nameless Alliance vessels). The stories are all more or less variations on the same archetypical story, in which the Underdog must outwit The System to keep flying another day. Artistically, it tries to make use of a 'grungy' Western look, but fails to transcend the Bat Durston stereotype with it. (Excuse me? Cattle in the cargo hold?)

By comparison, Deep Space Nine takes Gene Roddenberry's utopian vision of the Federation and systematically subverts it in remarkably ingenious ways. Firstly, Cdr (later Capt) Sisko is not a perfect human being or even a model Starfleet officer. The first episode sees him struggling with his past and with his assignment, which is a source of tension between him and the Federation (as voiced by Capt Picard in the pilot episode, 'Emissary'). He finds himself embroiled in a volatile political situation on Bajor, which has managed to successfully overthrow the dictatorial Cardassian Union and erect a shoddy provisional government, which it is his job to prepare for entry into the Federation.

The secular-humanist universe of Star Trek is fractured in DS9 to make room for a thoughtful critique of religion. (Firefly doesn't do this at all and Serenity only marginally; despite Mal's outspoken atheism and Book's past as a preacher, it often ends in a 'let's agree to disagree' cop-out or doesn't resolve itself full stop.) We watch Sisko's struggle with the religious leaders on Bajor and with his own CO's, trying to come to grips with his own commitments and often stumbling - as when the Prophets sent the first Emissary to the station in an attempt to figuratively smack some sense into him (in the episode 'Accession').

Further, Deep Space Nine anticipates the critiques of Firefly, and it handles the central premises of Firefly with much better balance and insight than Firefly itself does. It talks about the lives of the ordinary people on the frontier, light-years away from Starfleet Command. It presents the colonists on the DMZ with Cardassia, who feel that they have been ill-served by the Federation (which signed a treaty that put them in Cardassian space). Many of them join the Maquis, a rebel group which is fighting for its own 'Lost Cause'. Even the character of Mal Reynolds was anticipated in Michael Eddington.

Sisko and Eddington

Only, the relationship between Eddington and Sisko is far more interesting than that between Mal and (for the most convenient example) the Operative. Capt Sisko is a believer in the Federation in the same way the Operative is a believer in the Alliance, but he is not a nameless, one-dimensional villain who subverts his conscience completely to his government. Sisko knows the colonists have been screwed over by the Federation. He rails against his superior officers' demands of him in dealing with the Maquis:

On Earth, there is no poverty, no crime, no war. You look out the window of Starfleet Headquarters and you see Paradise. Well, it's easy to be a saint in Paradise, but the Maquis do not live in Paradise. Out there in the demilitarized zone, all the problems haven't been solved yet. Out there, there are no saints. Just people. Angry, scared, determined people who are going to do whatever it takes to survive, whether it meets with Federation approval or not!

But Sisko is a realist - that's what makes his character so interesting. He commits to Federation ideals, but often shows himself capable of seeing the other side of the argument, and often demonstrates his capacity to bend the rules when the occasion suits, as in 'In the Pale Moonlight' (which I still think is one of the finest pieces of serial television ever made, ever). This is contrasted with the doctrinaire, romantic idealism of Eddington, who considers himself a Robin Hood or a Jesse James (even drawing an explicit parallel between himself and Jean Valjean of Les Miserables in 'For the Uniform'). As the hero of his own melodrama, Eddington gives himself licence for all manner of excess and crime - in much the way Mal does. (The difference is, Serenity wants us to buy into the idea that Mal is the Plucky Hero, that the Alliance is the Evil Empire, and that the setting of Firefly is the Grand Arena.)

Mal and Operative

But Deep Space Nine is consistently sceptical of such idealism, in ways that very much echo the critiques of Reinhold Niebuhr. The idealism of Eddington is ultimately a self-destructive fantasy (as Sisko points out in 'For the Uniform' when he notes that the colonists are victims not of Starfleet or of the Cardassians, but the Maquis themselves), and leads him ultimately to a revenge-obsessed nihilism against a universe that saw fit to dash his hopes (in 'Blaze of Glory'). This is mirrored to some extent in Mal's character, but it is never explored, examined, tested or resolved; he retains it unquestioning throughout the series and the movie, and we're just called to accept it. Firefly's idealism is just as unleavened and as unabated as the original Star Trek's idealism was - and every bit as dangerous - but it is a negationist and reactive idealism.

Visually, Deep Space Nine retains the sterile cleanliness of Star Trek, something which Firefly did succeed in challenging (for better or for worse). Technically, it is fairly unsophisticated, though the makeup work is significantly better than in Star Trek's previous incarnations. But in terms of story and philosophical exploration of ethical issues, there is simply no comparison.

I kind of feel like a Niner fanboy going 'DS9 good, Firefly bad', but really that's not my intent. I do think that DS9 gets fairly consistently overlooked as a solid (if flawed) work of science fiction, while a number of comparative pipsqueaks (Firefly among them) get praised well out of proportion to their merits - generally for the wrong reasons.

EDIT: for a fuller historical treatment on Firefly, here's Anarquistador.

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