27 January 2012

Firefly and the Human Condition

When I fall for a TV show, movie, artist or novelist…I fall hard. I become a loud, pushy advocate. Ask any of my loved ones upon whom I have foisted all my favorites (Community! Gregory Alan Isakov! Brick!)…forced all but at gun-point. Minimal complaints so far, if I do say so myself.

Well once upon a time someone did this for me. They told me to watch some random movie called “Serenity” with them at the theater (Sci-fi? I was skeptical. Aliens aren’t my thing). This excellent movie was born of a short-lived TV show called Firefly, which concerns us here today. The show and the film both have a lot to say about the human condition, and so do I, so it naturally follows that we took to one another.

Truthfully I could use an awful lot of space detailing all the things I love about Firefly but I will try to be very conservative in both my summary and advocacy, because the themes are the thing here (Nevertheless you should watch firefly):

Notice the clothing implies psuedo-Western, but there transportation is space-ship, not stage-coach.

Firefly is a great genre masala—western, sci-fi (but no aliens!), action, drama, comedy, caper—and its basic premise is as follows: humanity spread out onto other planets which are made to be like Earth-that-was (as Earth is then called). A war arose between the Independent planets and “The Alliance” the former of which, as the name suggests, wanted to remain independent settlements, and the latter of which wished to unite all the planets in a progressive and regulated society. The Alliance won, and has become the central government of all inhabited planets—both their high-tech cities:

And their countrified back-waters:

Two of the protagonists of the story fought for the Independents during the war and have moved on from their loss to do smuggling and thieving work on the fringes of ‘the system’.

Zoe and Mal

The difference and tension between the outer planets (quite analogous to rural populations)—with the distant control/neglect they experience from the government—and the inner planets (rather like urbanites) and their appreciation for the government’s facilities and efficiency is pervasive throughout the show.

The excellence of the premise is that, although it shows “The Alliance” through the eyes of those that do not love it, it never claims that The Alliance is evil. It is real modern society in fiction: it provides roads, oversight, security (in the central areas at least), education and medicine. It is not precisely dystopian in nature in that it does not oppress groups, it does not ban art or literature. It has a high degree of physical authority, but it is not a police state. In fact, it is made rather clear that the Alliance truly does do many good things for the people. It is as though the UN were actually effective—moreover helpful—and set in space! It is based upon the most idealistic and humanitarian notions that mankind could bring to bear. The Alliance is, in most of the ways we tend to gauge political purpose and efficacy, a good government with good intentions.

But one of the themes of the show is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that human nature is not easy to keep in check; indeed our attempts to constrain or modify the worst elements of human nature may backfire. This is because the constraints are external, and the modifications superficial. And perhaps the most dangerous dystopia is one that believes utopia can be finagled…one that either refuses to acknowledge mankind’s fallen nature, or genuinely believes that by his own hands man can fix himself.

(I don’t want to spoil the story for anyone, so I will be as vague as I can…but be warned, details of show and movie are to be found here):

The Alliance does what many peoples and cultures have tried to do throughout the ages: to “weed out aggression in the population.” They want to make human nature better. They do it very benignly…as best they can, with no intent whatsoever to cause harm. If the image that pops into your head is that of a cop restraining an assailant and carting him off to jail, that is one legitimate way of weeding out aggression. So are anger management classes. Prisons, court systems, reform…these are all in that category.

So, too, is chemical behavioral modification. Likewise eugenics. Also, abortion. And massacre…and genocide.

If it seems like I’ve made a leap too far, I’m sad to say that I haven’t. We—society—like to believe that we can make ourselves better through sheer force of will: adopting this practice, excising that one. One would not say “survival of the fittest” any more, for social Darwinism has become scandalous for good reason…but this nevertheless remains the underlying principle in how societies, governments, laws, medical care and schools are built up. Or cultivated, rather. It seems like such an innocent aim until you realize that the holocaust in WWII—cold, systematized genocide of European Jewry—was derived in large part by a belief that Germany was eliminating that which was dangerous or unhealthy to it. In the minds that conjured the “final solution”, the Germans were “weeding” and “cultivating”, full stop.

Scholar Zygmut Bauman wrote chillingly and convincingly on the subject, showing good evidence that the distance between our desire to reform (which can, remember, be done benignly OR oppressively) and our willingness to do harm is not as far as we like to think. (I reference him here, because it is his eerie garden metaphor that I have just used.)

How does this relate to Firefly/Serenity? In the end of the tale about the Alliance’s attempts to improve human nature, the Alliance—via its great scientists, and its bright young social engineers—ended up causing a certain large percentage of the population to become overly complacent, and another small percent to become overly aggressive, exposing extreme reactions in human nature to these human attempts to modify it.

I must be clear. The complacency was such that, in the end, all those who reacted in that manner died of it. The aggression was such that it became violent madness. Blind suicidal pacifism on one hand and blind homicidal rage on the other. The pendulum swings. In this case a catalyst made it happen, but society does it all the time. We are pendulum swingers. Extremists. Reactionaries. Of our own devices, our reforms are normally just returns from whence we came and back again.

In Pilgrim’s Regress, as C.S. Lewis explores the spiritual and intellectual experiences that either waylaid or led to his conversion to Christianity, he discusses “Northern” and “Southern” ways of behaving—equal and opposite evils. He means by these directional terms metaphors for opposing tendencies of human nature…a thing which will automatically go awry to one of them unless anchored in God.

“Nature, outraged by one extreme, avenges herself by flying to the other”

-C.S. Lewis

We—people, art, literature, pop culture—are always trying to say “something” about the human condition. But in the majority of films and books, even the most poignant illustrations of life and death are merely a sober recitation of either that snide phrase; “life sucks and then you die” or that indulgent one “do what you feel while you can.” The former of these would be Lewis’ “Northern” fall from Grace, and the latter would be dubbed the “Southern” one.

Clearly neither of these are sufficient, but if there were no God, I think there would be no other conclusions to reach. I have several parts the cold-blooded rationalist in me and God is the only thing that renews me and keeps me from turning into what—in any story worth its salt—would be an outright antagonist. My very own nature gives me myriad reasons to be skeptical about human nature broadly speaking, and plenty of the things I’ve seen could make me one of those “life sucks and then you die” types.

This is part of why I like it best when the arts portray human nature as it is: broken and in need of repair; awry and in need of calibration; fallen and in need of salvation. The latter description may seem explicitly religious, but one can portray fallenness without asserting salvation (as is done all the time in popular culture), but at least this—in my opinion—is half the battle and far better than the other alternatives of either white-washing our nature or yielding to its worst vagaries.

That is why the story told in Firefly and Serenity strikes me so. It readily acknowledges that human nature is pretty well awry, but that us trying to doctor ourselves without the real surgeon present, presiding, and acting, is going to get us killed or worse. And human nature tends to toss back and forth, not quite understanding where on earth the solution is.

(Above) Captain Malcom Reynolds: “They’ll swing back to the belief that they can makepeoplebetter, but I don’t hold to that.”

These wounds are much too deep to staunch through our own means. We often end up doing ourselves damage because our efforts are entirely unanchored. But we don’t give up and stop helping, caring, working, fighting, protecting, building…because when anchored in the Lord, it’s a whole different story. That’s the center passage, the plumb-line and it’s anything but some mere compromise or happy medium. It’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. In Lewis’ allegorical metaphor, everything “North” of it is frigid, barren rock, and everything “South” of it is fetid, seething swamp.

Thus it’s the only real, solid ground at all.


  1. BIG smiley face!!!! Thank you, I often have a feeling that your writing is cut short...and that it could just go on and on. And I would continue reading it.
    I think someone here has the series...I should watch them again.

  2. REALLY enjoyed this. Have never seen either the movie or the show (nor have I seen any of the other faves that you listed) but I may have to make a trek to the video store. Miss ya by the way.

  3. If you liked Firefily / Serenity, you may enjoy the newer battlestar galactica. It is Sci-fi as well, but has a very human component and deals with spirituality, faith and many other human emotions. In total, it is about people and hope and faith and salvation.

    maybe you would enjoy, maybe not. I would give a full season a try though.