Nostalgia and humanity: Firefly’s take on the space western

/, Jane/Nostalgia and humanity: Firefly’s take on the space western

Gene Roddenberry may have been the first to pitch his television show as a “wagon train to the stars” (Worland, 20), but subsequent series such as Firefly have shown us that there’s more than one way to write a space western. While Roddenberry’s final frontier is explored by members of a utopian society intent on traveling the galaxy in a quest to better themselves and expand their understanding of life in all forms, in Firefly the idea of “the frontier” comes to have a very different meaning. Rather than setting forth as the sworn representatives of a highly principled society, Serenity’s criminal crew roam the edges of their ‘Verse with the goal of staying as far away from their dystopian civilization as possible.

Firefly’s engagement with Western tropes already sets it light years apart from the glorified, sanitized ideal of exploring new territory just for the fun of it. Through its carefully-constructed juxtaposition of past and future, such as a scene from the opening credits in which horses gallop across the open plain away from the roar of a spaceship’s engine, Firefly manages to create nostalgia for the bygone world of the Western even though it takes place five hundred years in the future. Critics have observed that the show, “most often recalls – both visually and in the idiom of its central characters – the post-Civil War American West, as it sought to create a genre pastiche, inflecting the western with space-opera elements” (Telotte, 80). While the inclusion of old-fashioned Western elements in one sense serves as an homage to that genre, the combination of past and future also epitomizes the inherent inequalities of Firefly’s dystopian world, as the harsh realities of frontier life are set against the futuristic technologies that should render such suffering and savagery a thing of the past.

This gritty, dystopian representation of the Western reflects a change, or at least a complication in attitudes toward the genre since Roddenberry’s launched it into space in the 1960s. At that time, the Western embodied sincere ideals of American bravery and patriotism; it provided hope for a better future built on the idea of self-improvement through discovery. Joss Whedon, on the other hand, was inspired to write in the style of a Western after reading Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, a brutal depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg told from multiple perspectives- both Union and Confederate (Jensen, 96). The book’s inclusion of narrative voices from Confederacy may also help explain Whedon’s choice to make his protagonists former soldiers from the losing side of a war (whose victors have precipitated the dystopian conditions under which the characters now live). “Firefly is about those who live at the mercy of those in power in the galaxy, outsiders living on the margins” (Peacock, 130). The protagonists’ place as outsiders, even rebels, lends a wholly different atmosphere to the Western theme. Rather than the glorious heroes, we are treated to a view of the underdogs, concerned not with the betterment of humanity, but merely the difficulties of remaining free in a world in which they have no legitimate place.

Another interpretation of Whedon’s choice to portray characters haunted by defeat can be found by considering the influence that the events of September 11th had on the formation of his narrative. Airing almost exactly one year after that tragedy, the series opens with a scene of the final battle in the war lost by the show’s protagonists. “

[B]y the end of the scene they are forced to surrender because nobody will come to their aid, planting the seed for disillusionment, a huge mental shift reflecting the complexities of the post-9/11 world” (Hunter, 43). In choosing to begin the show with this deeply moving story of defeat, Whedon immediately introduces the idea that this isn’t a narrative where the good guys always win. Loss becomes a driving force in the protagonists’ subsequent actions, as they travel the hostile ‘Verse in a ship named after the valley where that defeat took place.

The increase in anxiety over climate change and diminishing resources at the turn of the 21st century can also be identified as one of Firefly’s narrative influences (41). In this world, the impetus to explore space isn’t to seek out new life, but rather to find new resources and worlds capable of sustaining our own lives. The voiceover that begins each episode reminds us that the reason we’re in space at all is because, “Earth got used up, so we terraformed a whole new galaxy of Earths.” This cavalier attitude toward the ruin of Earth-that-was, and the apparent lack of any attempt to check humanity’s expanding consumption of the res of the universe’s resources once again serve to highlight the dystopian nature of this society, as well as act as a warning against the potential consequences of the havoc we’re currently wreaking on Earth-that-isn’t-quite-used-up-yet.  

Still, despite the cultural anxieties and recent trauma that influenced the creation of Firefly’s narrative, the show also contains a great deal of comedy. In building his own version of the space narrative, Whedon sought to create a relatable world that focused on the humanity of its characters, their daily lives, emotions, and interactions: “‘One of the first things I thought was, I’m gonna have a ship with a toilet,’ says Whedon. ‘I wanted a ship that felt lived-in’” (Jensen, 96). By centering the show around the behavior and desires of its protagonists rather than on technology or alien encounters, Whedon manages to balance out Firefly’s dystopian, defeated worldview with grace and humor, producing a show that is as funny as it is tragic, that allows us to feel nostalgia for the Western while also deploring the violence and brutality that accompanies it, and that shows us a world that we long to be a part of despite its darkness.


Works Cited

Hunter, James. “The Wild West… In Space! Postmodern and Historical Nostalgia in Firefly.” Tennessee Philological Bulletin 51 (2014): 40-49. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 1, 2016).

Jensen, John. “Galaxy Quest.” Entertainment Weekly 671/672 (2002): 96. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed November 1, 2016).

Peacock, Steven. “Reading Lost: Perspectives on a Hit Television show.” Critical Studies in Television 4.2 (2009): 127-32. ProQuest (accessed November 1, 2016).

Telotte, John P. “Serenity, Cinematisation and the Perils of Adaptation.” Science Fiction Film and Television 1.1 (2008): 67,80,191. ProQuest (accessed November 1, 2016).

Worland, Rick. 1994. “From the New Frontier to the Final Frontier: Star Trek From Kennedy to           Gorbachev.” Film and History 24, no. 1/2 (1994): 19-25. Film & Television Literature Index with Full Text, EBSCOhost (accessed October 12, 2016).

By | 2018-01-07T15:01:51-04:00 November 2nd, 2016|Essay 3, Jane|0 Comments

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