Serenity & Lessons In Liberty

I finally got to watch Serenity, the movie climax of the short-lived but excellent sci-fi series entitled Firefly. The film, for some unknown reason, had disappeared from Netflix here in the UK for a while, but happily it became available again recently. I found it a great watch and a satisfying ‘ending’ to the series.

If you haven’t seen Firefly or Serenity but you intend to, then don’t read on because I’ll spoil it for you. However, if you’re not intending to watch it but want to read my thoughts on it, then here’s a synopsis of the story written by Joss Whedon.

“The show explores the lives of a group of people who fought on the losing side of a civil war and others who now make a living on the outskirts of society, as part of the pioneer culture that exists on the fringes of their star system. In this future, the only two surviving superpowers, the United States and China, fused to form the central federal government, called the Alliance, resulting in the fusion of the two cultures. According to Whedon’s vision, “nothing will change in the future: technology will advance, but we will still have the same political, moral, and ethical problems as today.

Throughout the series, the Alliance is shown to govern the star system through an organization of “core” planets, following its success in forcibly unifying all the colonies under a single government. The central planets are firmly under Alliance control, but the outlying planets and moons resemble the 19th-century American West, with little governmental authority. Settlers and refugees on the outlying worlds have relative freedom from the central government, but lack the amenities of the high-tech civilization that exists on the inner worlds. In addition, the outlying areas of space (“the black”) are inhabited by the Reavers, a cannibalistic group of nomadic humans that have become savage and animalistic.

Into this mix are thrown the protagonists of the show. The captain of the crew of Serenity is Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the episode “Serenity” establishes that the captain and his first mate Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) are veteran “Browncoats” of the Unification War, a failed attempt by the outlying worlds to resist the Alliance’s assertion of control. A later episode, titled “Out of Gas”, reveals that Mal bought the spaceship Serenity to continue living beyond Alliance control. Much of the crew’s work consists of cargo runs or smuggling. One of the main story arcs is that of River Tam (Summer Glau) and her brother Simon (Sean Maher). River was a child prodigy, whose brain was subjected to experiments. As a result, she displays schizophrenia and often hears voices. It is later revealed that she is a “reader”, one who possesses telepathic abilities. Simon gave up a career as a highly successful trauma surgeon to rescue her from the Alliance and as a result of this rescue they are both wanted fugitives.”

In the film the mysteries surrounding River are largely explained and as a result we learn of the monstrous origin of the Reavers.

“The crew of Serenity find evidence, in the form of an Alliance scientist’s holographic message, that Reavers were originally humans from the planet Miranda. The Alliance government used Miranda as a testing ground for the chemical agent G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate, or simply “Pax” (Latin for “peace”). It was added to the planet’s air processors in order to calm the population and weed out aggression. The agent worked, but too well: 99.9% of the population became so lethargic that they stopped working, talking and, eventually, eating and moving. They simply laid down where they were and allowed themselves to die. The remaining 0.1% of the planet’s 30 million people (approximately 30,000 total) had the opposite reaction to the Pax, becoming mindlessly violent and extremely aggressive.

Following the events of Miranda, the Alliance sealed all records regarding the event and deemed the world unsuitable for colonization. When Reavers began attacking outer colonies, only a few officials within the Alliance knew the real cause. This changes, however, when the crew of Serenity arrange for what they have uncovered to be broadcast throughout the system.”

In the film we are shown that the main reason the Alliance is pursuing River is that she inadvertently learned the truth about the origins of the Reavers whilst being experimented on by a careless Alliance scientist. A psychopathic Alliance assassin, tasked with the goal of keeping the Alliance’s secrets, pursues Mal and his crew across space in an attempt to retrieve River. When the assassin realises that Mal is not prepared to hand over River in exchange for anything and is highly skilled at being elusive, the assassin and his gang sytematically murder many of Mal’s and his crew’s friends on various planetary outposts in an attempt to break Mal’s spirit; to use Mal’s humanity against him. Although Mal is greatly saddened and grieved by the loss of his friends and knows that handing over River to the Alliance would probably have prevented their deaths, he refuses to commit evil himself by condemning her to death or a life of imprisonment at the hands of the Alliance by doing so. As is shown throughout the Firefly series, once Mal accepts someone into his crew he will protect them like he would protect himself or his own property.

The Alliance murders an unconventional priest known as ‘the shepherd’, whom Mal (a strong atheist) formed an unlikely friendship with when he was one of his crew. As he laid dying in Mal’s arms, the Shepherd’s last words were to believe in River. This is the moment where Mal, for the first time, is motivated to pursue a goal greater than his and his crew’s survival. When he announces his plan to visit the ghost planet known as Miranda in order to discover the truth behind River, the surrounding space of which is infested by Reavers and consequently no one (not even the Alliance) flies through, his crew are highly reluctant. They are also appalled when Mal asks them to tie some of the dead bodies of their friends onto the front of the ship in order to disguise it as a Reaver ship. Mal tells his crew in no uncertain terms that he is determined to discover the truth behind River, and that any of them who do not wish to follow him on this quest should stay behind. When he explains his willingness to “shoot down” anyone who tries to stop him or thwart his attempts the crew see a ‘new’ Mal, one that is prepared to pursue a cause greater than himself and them.

The crew are presented with a profound moral choice. If they stay behind they can avoid a gruesome and slow death at the hands of the Reavers, but in doing so they would be abandoning Mal, eliminating any chance of his survival or discovering the truth, and greatly reducing their chances of saving River from the Alliance. If it wasn’t for the fact that he had never abandoned or failed to protect any of his crew and for them knowing that he never would, then the crew, or at least some of them, might well have left Mal to face his seemingly suicidal mission alone. But they didn’t. Even Jane, the crew’s muscle-bound mercenary who possesses only the barest vestiges of morality, chooses to accompany Mal on his quest, despite there being no material gain to be had, which is usually Jane’s only motivation for doing anything other than cleaning his guns.

In the end, after some nail-biting moments, the death of their beloved pilot, and an epic bout of Reaver killing by the gracefully deadly River, Mal and his crew triumph over evil and reveal to the world a horrible truth; that the Reavers are not in fact naturally occurring monstrous aberrations of humanity, but rather the disastrous unintended consequence of a large-scale social experiment forcefully conducted upon a population of innocent people by the Alliance.

To paraphrase Mal’s internal monologue at the end of the film, they (the Alliance) tried to make people ‘better’ by force. But all they succeeded in doing was killing millions of innocent people and transforming thirty thousand or so into sadistic wretches – human only in appearance.

The principle of liberty is a key theme throughout the Firefly series and the Serenity movie, and through the actions and choices of Captain Malcolm Reynolds, primarily, we are presented with a simple and powerful moral principle; the non-aggression principle.

Due to the propagandizing of the Alliance, society sees Mal and his crew as ‘outlaws’, as people who have rejected peaceful co-operation and civilised society. But the truth is Mal and his crew are the good guys and the Alliance are the bad guys, which the Firefly series does an excellent job of illustrating. Mal never chooses theft over trade, or murder over negotiation. He kills people, for sure, but only ever in defense of himself or someone else being aggressed against. His crew act according to the same principles because they know if they didn’t they would be dumped on the next planet. Jane, who lacks the intelligence to understand the benefits of acting according to moral principles, is kept on the straight and narrow by being part of Mal’s crew, even though from his perspective he is just there to stay alive and hopefully make a big score someday. Often Jane has to be brought into line by Mal, but he always eventually realises that he is better off being part of Mal’s crew than not.

What’s interesting about the character Mal is that he resists and rejects the perception of himself as a principled or moral man. He just sees himself as someone who acts according to the best way to achieve his goal, which is to stay alive in a dangerous world. Mal understands that it’s in his best interest to keep his crew members alive, and so he protects them like he protects his ship. They are both vital to his survival. This mindset is probably a legacy of his serving as sergeant in the Independent’s army in the Unification War against the Alliance.

The Shepherd, when he was part of Mal’s crew in the Firefly series, recognised that Mal was a man who was uncommon in his ability to act according to principle, albeit one who didn’t think about, care much for or even understand how it benefited those around him. I think the Shepherd saw Mal as a good man, in the moral/religious sense, and admired the way he protected and treated his fellow crew or ‘flock’. On the one hand Mal seemed to find the shepherd’s assessment of his character irritating because he thought religion was stupid. But on the other hand he found it unexpectedly validating and comforting because he felt that his chosen lifestyle of cargo runner and smuggler wasn’t exactly the height of virtue, and thus didn’t think he had much right thinking of himself as a good man. In Captain Malcolm Reynolds the shepherd saw a man of moral courage and principle, whereas Mal himself saw a man acting out of self-interest. They were both correct. I think deep down Mal wished he could see himself the way the shepherd did, and that’s why Mal felt a strong bond with the shepherd; and why he, an atheist, enjoyed spending time with a preacher – which otherwise is a friendship that is perhaps hard to explain.

The Firefly/Serenity story expertly illustrates the nature of morality. That it can only apply where there is choice.

In the movie Mal was confronted with the non-choice of evil or evil, or the real choice of good or evil. He had a ‘choice’ between committing an evil himself in order to potentially prevent another evil being committed by someone else, i.e. handing over River in order to possibly prevent the murder of his friends. Or, choosing to do good instead of evil by choosing to continue to protect River, one of his crew, as he promised – and as the shepherd implored him to with his dying breath. In choosing to do good where it was a possibility Mal maintained his moral integrity, which no doubt would have pleased the shepherd.

The assassin was forcing the obligation upon Mal to prevent his own evil actions. But the assassin chose evil over good and so Mal cannot possibly be morally responsible for the consequences of the assassin’s choice.  From Mal’s perspective the choice was between evil and evil. Not much of a choice. That doesn’t mean that Mal doesn’t feel deep sadness for the loss of their lives, he is human after all, but it does mean he is justified in not feeling morally responsible. This is because deep down he knows he did the right thing where it was within his power to do so and that there was no possibility of doing the right thing under the conditions of the choice forced upon him by the assassin. Unlike the assassin, Mal never chose evil over good, wrong over right. He maintained his moral integrity throughout extraordinarily trying circumstances, which is what makes the character of Captain Malcolm Reynolds so compelling.

A story of good triumphing over evil is always heartening and that’s exactly what Serenity is. In this case not a pure, amoral evil like ‘the devil’ or some such, but the kind of evil deluded humans in violent authority over others all too often manifest; the kind that believes it is good. What the Firefly/Serenity story does so well is not just depict thrilling adventures in space, but illustrate the nature of man and morality. Through Mal and his crew’s daily struggle to survive as ‘outlaws’ on the edge of civilised society we are reminded that: morality requires choice; that Man is flawed; that the world cannot be made a better place by force; that violence begets violence. Writer Joss Whedon’s imagined future in space mirrors the world today. Those in government, with their wealth, power and glory, who claim to be the pillars of virtue in society protecting the public from monsters, are in reality the monsters themselves. The difference between the Alliance and the Reavers is that the latter don’t claim to be killing you for your own or the world’s good. Far from the Alliance being that which keeps the fragile flame of liberty burning brightly in this future, it is only Mal and his crew’s insistence on living that stops it from dying.

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