Sunday, August 01, 2010

A Belated Review of "Firefly"

Yes, the show that was canceled in 2002, but which I only just now watched on Netflix.

I had never really heard of it and almost stopped watching midway through the first episode because I had to recoil from the unexpected blending of Sci-Fi and Western. The economist in me struggled with the notion that an intergalactic race of humans would travel from planet-to-planet in order to go on horseback cattle-drives. I managed to stay with it, however, and enjoyed it more as the (only) season progressed. I had a hard time discerning why I liked it, and really it wasn't until the end of the series and the follow-up movie that I was really able to articulate what I enjoyed about the show. In fact, I would say that the show took this entire span to develop its theme, and in the end I felt it was a decidedly libertarian theme. Since I know a fair number of libertarians follow the blog, I decided I would briefly explain why, since libertarian entertainment is in rather short supply.

(FWIW: I'm not the only one to make the connection, but I didn't agree with the few reviews I read. Here is Tyler Cowen, who sees it as "Burkean Conservative," but mentions that he had only seen it through 8 episodes. I read on a message board that the show's creator, Jos Whedon, is a socialist but said at a sci-fi convention that he intended to make the lead character libertarian).

The main setting of the show is on a space ship called Serenity, and takes place in the years following a failed war of succession during the 26th century. Most planets are ruled as part of an empire known as "The Alliance," but planets on the outer rim of the galaxy remain independent in a nobody bothers sort of way. The crew of the ship take miscellaneous jobs, most of which involve some form of smuggling or bootlegging, and the crew does its best to remain an honorable bunch.

More to the point of my review, however, is that the setting of the show really demonstrates a crew trying to navigate between two conflicting totalitarian regimes. The Alliance is a decidedly leftist regime with a strict utilitarian welfare function. In this regime, individualism is viewed with suspicion because it seems unnecessary, given the Alliance's pure and great objectives ("why wouldn't they want to conform" is a reoccurring Alliance retort). The individual human is flawed, but perfectable, and the perfection of humanity is the end in itself. They pursue this perfection with a utilitarian theme, which at its lowest point sacrificed an entire planet to an experimental drug that created a barbaric race called Reavers.

The outer planets are not ruled as a collective, but the constant threat of Alliance coercion causes them to operate in a state of either lawlessness and/or reclusiveness. In the series, each planet seems to be ruled by some type of right-wing regime that makes them about as totalitarian as the Alliance itself. This, to me, was a most logical outcome. The Alliance's pursuit of perfection created a galaxy-wide black market (an organ shortage, no less!). At the same time, the constant fear of annihilation (even among those who were not part of the black market) cultivated rather conservative societies, ruled by dogma and norms that apparently had proven useful for survival, and often with a very religious bend to them.

The crew of the Serenity demonstrate little interest in living under either regime, and frequently find themselves at odds with both camps. Indeed, their desire for independence makes them natural enemies of both forms of totalitarianism. Though it is the sort of independence that characterized much of the early American pioneers: rugged individualists who were also fiercely defensive of their community. In this way, they portray libertarians better than libertarians usually portray themselves.

By the series end, and especially in the movie, you get to see just how similar the leftist Alliance is to their conservative counterparts from the outer planets in their religiosity. Both preach adherence to blind faith and cultivate a self-serving status hierarchy. In no place are their similarities more apparent in the treatment of the character River, who it is implied has some psychic abilities. On one occasion in the outer planets, she is nearly burned following accusations of witchcraft. The Alliance, on the other hand, wants to dissect her brain "for the greater good," by which it turns out to mean the greater good for the ruling elites.

The way the two conflicting ideologies managed to merge in their practices, and watching a crew of independent (yet, not isolationist) bunch trying to navigate between them made for a decidedly enjoyable experience. My two cents. If you watched the show, I'd be curious to know how my interpretation squares with yours.

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