Few conversations between self-avowed geeks of my generation can last long without devolving into a single melancholy recollection: “I miss Firefly.” For the uninitiated among my readership, this was a sci-fi series in the early 2000s written and directed by Joss Whedon which didn’t survive it’s debut season. Many a debate and article has wondered over the “why” of Firefly’s failure, with most attributing it to the lack of popularity of genre fiction on prime-time television twenty years ago.
It’s almost hard to imagine a witty character drama nested within a sci-fi framework failing so utterly, particularly when looking at the massive popularity and success of geeky content now pervasive throughout popular culture. The Walking Dead (based on a graphic novel about the zombie apocalypse), Game of Thrones (a critically acclaimed series of fantasy novels first published in 1991) or, most apparently, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (rooted in half a century of serialized comic books) are all shining examples of products once consumed by relatively small communities that have become staples of popular media. But I contend that Firefly didn’t fail simply because it was the right thing at the wrong time, but because of a much more sinister and pervasive element to our culture: elitism.
On its surface, Firefly has all the elements of a successful science fiction formula: space ships, heroes on the wrong side of the law, witty comic relief, relevant character drama, consequential storytelling, complicated romance, and most importantly: Nathan Fillion’s butt.
But like most pragmatic science fiction, what it lacked was a sizable captive audience who genuinely related to the source material. This was not a story about a farm boy drawn to interstellar religious and political conflict (Star Wars) or an inquest of the existential crises brought about by a culture built around warfare (Ender’s Game). This was a series about literal space pirates who, while generally good people, were also morally dubious as well as largely unsophisticated murderers and drug traffickers. And while there are overtures to make the Browncoats (the army for which two of the ship’s crew fought) of the War for Independence into the good guys who lost, various obvious references are made to parallel them with the Confederacy of the American Civil War. One line of Captain Malcolm Reynolds’ in particular comes to mind: “We will rise again,” a clever quip in context of the show’s events, but one which plainly references the very real (and very uncomfortable) meme in American southern culture of how “The South will rise again.”
Moreover, Reynolds is depicted as a violently anti-authoritarian character, ready to bring down the status quo of the Alliance (a corporatized, proto-fascist bureaucracy) by any means, and frequently engages in anti-social behaviors to this end. And while many of us may rhetorically abhor and decry authority, we in the first-world are highly unlikely to engage in such extreme behavior. At best, Reynolds is a libertarian anti-hero who, while readily acknowledging the difficult realities of his pragmatic disobedience of the law, continuously refuses to excuse an ounce of corruption in the governing methods of the Alliance. It is this seeming hypocrisy that makes Malcolm Reynolds such an interesting character, because he’s not necessarily attacking government, but rather elitism.
The overarching thesis of Reynolds is best summed up in his climactic monologue from the film adaptation Serenity (produced as a sort of conclusion to the series). After uncovering a sinister government plot which resulted in the death of untold millions, Mal waxes poetic…
“As sure as I know anything, I know this: They will try again. Maybe on another world. Maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people ‘better’. And I do not hold to that. So no more runnin’. I am to misbehave.”
He just wants people to be free. Even typing it now I get chills, as it so perfectly encompasses my own anti-authoritarian philosophy. Mal’s desire does not stem from malevolent or maladaptive psych-social tendencies, or even a desire for anarchy, he’s simply tired of being told his way of life is unacceptable or abhorrent. And so he embraces (to his mind) the most perfect expression of his desire for freedom — freedom from laws, obtuse ethics, and to some degree the social contract. By all accounts, he was once a good and lawful man who was even religious, but elitism took all of that from him. The corruption inherent to bureaucratic agencies like the Alliance ran roughshod over the way of life that he loved in the name of creating “better worlds” for everyone.
And, if you’re careful, you’ll notice in Serenity that even The Operative, the film’s antagonist, (played by the magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor) is critical of these ends. He plainly recognizes the injustice, hubris, and inherent violence inflicted by the Alliance for the sake of fascistic utilitarianism, and chooses to embody them. Consider it a warning for anyone attempting to cultivate Utopia: si vis pacem para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”
So why did Firefly fail? The tendency toward elitism latent in most of our cultural thinking. Whether it’s political power, business acumen, or Tolkienian lore, we’re all prone to forms of elitism. We all want to claim special knowledge or understanding, and therefore have the ability to cast ourselves in the most positive light, and others as the charlatan. We use gate-keeping language and narcissism to affirm ourselves as the purveyors of a certain set of skills, or even hobbies. It is laughable at best, and abusive at worst. And this is most people; particularly those likely to consume popular media.
Firefly, with its underlying philosophy, thus caters to a niche audience — an audience that, despite its veracity, doesn’t grow very much beyond its original core. This is because it was written to be patently anti-authoritarian in a world becoming increasingly so; a world that becomes more elitist as times go by; a society which pays little more than lip-service to the working class out “on the raggedy edge of the galaxy”. Firefly acknowledged the complex struggles which beset those who are often driven to do reprehensible things not because they are bad people, but because they are given no other option... Only to be moralized by those who claim to be their better; by those who want to make people better.
Firefly failed because we live on an Alliance world.