Firefly & Theology, Part 1: The Alliance and The Reavers

A-Theodicy and the Problem of Evil

A few months ago, I was introduced to an excellent t.v. series and film, Firefly and Serenity. For those that are unfamiliar, Firefly was the invention of Buffy the Vampire creator Joss Whedon. Imagine the last three episodes of the Star Wars saga, intermixed with the greatness of the film Tombstone (“Im ya Huckleberry”) and you get the science fiction legend that is Firefly. In fact, the western frontier setting, though taking place in outer space and on terraformed planets, Whedon admits in interviews that he was inspired by the history of the Civil War, and it shows.

I enjoyed Firefly very much, as a political thinker, as a lover of history, and as a theologian. So, today begins my theological interpretation of the series + the movie, and minus the comic books, which I have not read. The reader should be aware that Joss Whedon, in interviews, rejects any notion of a “sky bully” but there are many religious themes that play out, especially in Buffy (the movie and the series).

This is part ONE of SIX.

THE UNION OF ALLIED PLANETS, aka,THE ALLIANCE

The problem of existence of evil is a theme that looms large in the world of FIREFLY. Several questions come to mind: What is the face of evil? Where does evil come from? How can humanity respond to it? The last question will be addressed in the last five posts, for in the FIREFLY universe, Whedon’s response to the problem of evil comes in the form of the crew of Serenity, the space ship.

What does evil look like? In, my interpretation of FIREFLY, wickedness looks like human domination. It comes in the disguise of good intentions such as civilizing other cultures and bringing technological advances, but on the inside, the good deeds turn out to be the worst of all wickedness in the drive to control the minds and bodies of other human beings.

Our saga begins when the Earth is overpopulated (according to the film Serenity). Humanity must create terraformed planets that take decades to form. Out of these planets, there are the core planets, the center, or what becomes known as the Alliance, which becomes the “beacon of civilization.” The outer planets [the people groups on the margins ;-)] are seen as “not enlightened.” In the name of a safer universe, the Interplanetary Parliament decrees the War for Unification. The Independents lose, and the Alliance rules the galaxy, so to speak. The Operative (the nameless antagonist in the film Serenity) represents the ideology of the Alliance. Inara calls him dangerous, for he is a true believer, “intelligent, methodical,

    devout

.” The Operative, speaking in the royal we, announces, “We’re making a better world. All of them. Better worlds.”

THE OPERATIVE

What makes the Operative (and therefore the Alliance) represent Joss Whedon’s notion of evil is that the Operative is an assassin who works for the Parliament. At one point, he persuades a scientist to commit suicide, for it is “an honorable death” for the purpose of hiding the Alliance’s dirty secret (unknown to T.O. at the time). The Operative believes in the creation of “a world without sin” (a utopia consisting in hegemonic control behind the threat of lethal force) and he even goes as far as killing children in order to achieve this end. Yes, the Operative (and therefore the Alliance are wicked), but they are not incapable of change, as one discovers in the film [i.e., in Christian terms, the possibility of repentance].

JUBAL EARLY, BOUNTY HUNTER

While the crew of Serenity run into a number of criminals (they themselves are no better than fugitives on the run), the most compelling and interesting criminal mind, in my opinion is the bounty hunter Jubal Early. His character reminds me much more like Heath Ledger‘s Joker in the movie The Dark Knight.

JUBAL EARLY, BOUNTY HUNTER

In my subjective Christian opinion, Jubal Early, while not affiliated with the Alliance also represents the face of evil in the FIREFLY universe, for his vision of the world is in direct contradiction to Whedon’s gospel. For Joss Whedon, the human body takes center stage in his work; it is the body that performs gender, race, nationality, and ultimately, human freedom can only be obtained in bodily form. Thus, human liberty is not something left in the abstract (just watch a few episodes of Buffy and Dollhouse, it’s there). Jubal Early, on the other hand, has an utter disregard for the human body. He plays mind games, and would prefer intellectual manipulation than hand-to-hand combat. Take note that in the episode, “Objects in Space,” I do not believe that it was a coincidence that Early is wearing red (as opposed to the Independents’ preference for Brown or the Alliance color blue). In a comical but serious conversation with Simon Tam, Early tells Simon Tam the ship’s doctor, “I don’t think of myself as a lion. You might as well though. I have a mighty roar.” 1st Peter 5:8 gives the image of the evil One as a lion, no? That was the first passage that came to my mind.

Early’s disdain for humanity’s embodiment is revealed in his misogyny. In his interactions with Kaylee the mechanic, he threatens her with rape, as if it were nothing. Through his conversations with Inara the Companion, he makes the following comment, “Man is stronger by far than a woman. Yet only a woman can create a child. Does that seem right to you?” Jubal Early, time and again asks, “Does that seem right to you?” relying on the error of common sense, as if the others know what he is thinking. His egoism (in contrast to the individualism of other members of the crew) is extremely narcissistic. But in the end, River Tam (Simon’s teenage sister) exposes J.E. as a “liar, a a bad liar” whose own mother “saw a darkness” in him”- “Power. Control. Pain.” Early’s blind ambition would be his undoing.

THE REAVERS

With the faces of evil exposed in the FIREFLY universe, I must now turn to the second part of the question of evil: Where does evil come from? Quite simply, evil is a human construct, and the effects of that construction is social in nature.

THE REAVERS. AAAH!

It was the Alliance desire to create a inter-planetary system whereby all human beings would be conformed in the Alliance’s image. To do this, the Alliance sought a way to prevent human persons from fighting back. Their solution was to experiment with a gas that would end human aggression. The Pax gas (pax being Latin for peace, the false peace of empire, i.e., Pax Romana) was used in experiments on the terraformed planet Miranda, on the very outskirts of the Universe. Rather than weeding out aggression, however, it had two affects. First, a large portion of the population on Miranda died for not eating, losing the will to survive. However, the remnant became even far more aggressive to the point of losing their humanity: The Reavers, a cannibalistic nation that would ravage ships. Multiple times in the series and movie, the shipmates of Serenity would try to remind themselves that maybe in another life, the Reavers were human, but now they are monsters. The interesting part about the role of the Reavers is that about half of those living on other planets do not believe in the existence of Reavers (that they should be left to old wives tells) while those that have seen them first hand know how dangerous they are. The legend works to make them larger than life, and in the process, works towards furthering their marginalization and dehumanization.

The monstrosity, however, is not the Reavers’ collectivity, but in fact, the society that gave birth to them: the Alliance is the monster that made the efforts to marginalized these people. The Reavers are the blowback of imperial domination. The source of evil is group of human beings that work against human liberation.

The last five parts of this series will be the crew of Serenity, as Whedon’s anti-colonial religious response to evil.

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8 thoughts on “Firefly & Theology, Part 1: The Alliance and The Reavers

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  2. Would not the “two-by-two, hands of blue” guys also be a good representation of the evilness of the alliance? They had no problem killing anyone who has contact with River Tam, and they had no problem performing brain surgeries on an innocent girl (under the guise of helping her reach her gifted potential) to turn her into a psychic assassin?

    As for Jubal Early, is he really egotistic or narcissistic? There seem to be hints to at least part of the MacDonald Triad of psychopathy (e.g., killing animals in his childhood). And his disregard for other people and other people’s emotions (e.g., his act of threatening Kaylee with rape) suggest psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder. I don’t know that we can say that he is driven by blind ambition. In Zelda Knight’s analysis of narcissistic serial killers, for example, she argues that the narcissistic killer sees what is good in others, and is driven to own it, even if that means destroying it. Early does not seem to care about consuming that which is good in Kaylee, his threats are only instrumental to his goal (even though River sees that he secretly takes a sadistic pleasure in violence, but sadism and narcissism are not the same thing).

    So, is Jubal Early one of the portraits of evil? Yes. But perhaps not so much a portrait of cultural evil as of individual evil. He works autonomously, with his goal being the bounty, not advancing the Alliance’s agenda. Maybe the social message to take from his character is that the Alliance, by paying his bounties, creates the environment in which he can gratify his sadism (assuming he’ll actually get paid for this bounty, as both Jayne and the police officer on Ariel got “stiffed” of their payoff when they tried to cash in on the reward for the Tams).

    • Wow, alot to address, Amanda.

      First, for the “two by two, hands of blue guys,” I was saving them for my last post (On River and Simon), and how the alliance fails in its mission to control River as subject.

      As for Jubal Early, I am not good at understanding personalities; perhaps that is where Chuck can help in his upcoming series. Perhaps my comment about his “blind ambition” is an overstatement. He fits the description of an anti-social. I think he is far more utilitarian though, that people are only a means to an end; but by the same token, in my post on Mal Reynolds, Mal is a good willed/ self-giving utilitarian.

      I would agree that Jubal Early is the picture of individual evil, thus he is more of a “satan” figure if anything. But definitely, he is a creation of the Alliance (who pays his bounty as you pointed out).

      As for Jayne, let’s just say that I have a post in store for him as well.

      In the episode War Stories, Mal and Wash are captured by Adelai Niska, and he says (quoting a philosopher), you truly meet a man when you are torturing him. By the same token, this is what the Alliance (ahem, empire does), trying to know the OTHER through violence and torture. Adelai, and even the villagers from the episode “SAFE” are manifestations of evil, but I will deal with the mostly only the latter in my post on River and Simon.

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