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Liberty and Serenity

Implications of All-Powerful Interstellar Governments


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Filed Under: Television Politics

Battle of Fallujah

Battle of Fallujah I & II: When a modern government really, really wants to defeat you, it can.

Morena Baccarin in Firefly

More Morena Baccarin, please.

Captain Reynolds from Firefly

Malcom Reynolds, outlaw captain of the Firefly-class ship "Serenity," veteran of a great intergalactic civil war where he didn't have a chance.

I'm from the interstellar government, and I'm here to help you.

I'm from the interstellar government, and I'm here to help you.


I went to the planet Miranda to improve humanity, and all I got was this lousy Reaver.

I suppose that, coming from a filmmaker's standpoint, I am generally less enthused by television because the directing, the mise-en-scene, is so typically poor.

In television, it doesn't really matter where the camera is placed or what the composition is; all that matters is pushing the narrative along, and hooking the audience with the "family" depicted in the show so that they will tune in next week. Nearly every successful television show has a "family" of some sort to drive those ratings, whether it's a typical nuclear family like "Happy Days" or an extended family like "Two and a Half Men." Imminently forgettable trash.

Family first, "narrative" (that artificial construct), a close second - and all else be damned. There certainly isn't time for the singular vision of an Orson Welles or an Alfred Hitchcock.

Yes, the hustle and bustle of TV production generally breeds communal, collectivist works with no place for individualism, for greatness. Hell, there's not even much room for good narrative.

The original "Star Trek" and "Twilight Zone" series were both sometimes worthy, but they suffered from severely spotty quality. Some episodes went straight to hell.

"Spock's Brain," I'm looking your way.

So when the television show "Firefly" was first released in 2002, I didn't make the time to watch. Then there was a whole lot of fuss in fandom over the show. So when the movie "Serenity" came out on DVD, I decided to go ahead and watch the series on DVD, then catch the movie.

"Firefly," in its brief existence of 14 episodes, told the story of veterans of a great intergalactic civil war who, after having been defeated, turned to crewing a down-on-its-luck merchant spaceship called "Serenity". It had an old western feel to it, and its themes centered on people struggling to preserve their liberty in a universe overrun by a tyrannical government.

Certainly the show had the all-pervasive television "family" hook and the stress on narrative, but at least both elements were done to great effect. It was also a bit strange from a political standpoint - usually science fiction television tries to avoid politics except in a very metaphorical way, such as Star Trek. Firefly clearly positioned itself as an anti-big-government show, which is singular, as far as I know.

It proclaimed the true nature and quality of what big interstellar governments can turn into (nightmarish tyrannies), and what they can turn decent, hard-working good people into: bandits, black-market thieves, outlaws.

I have a friend who knew the inside story of both battles of Fallujah in Iraq. When push comes to shove and the gloves are taken off, the modern, well-stocked, technologically advanced military can defeat any rag-tag force. If you have the Finger of God, and you are willing to unleash it upon your enemies, you will prevail.

Ask Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.

This should be disheartening to anyone who thinks that, because we have a Second Amendment, it is then possible to protect oneself against the United States, should it ever go uber-tyrannical. A handgun or a machine gun in the cellar won't cut it. I suppose that's why the 1st Amendment is first. Use the power of words to persuade the State, because if/when the cold Civil War goes hot, and it's you against the unlimited military resources of an all-powerful State, you don't really stand a chance.

So Firefly depicts the odds correctly: a big interstellar government with a monopoly on all the dreadnought spaceships is obviously going to win. In the universe of Joss Whedon, there is no fairy-tale "force" to help the rebels destroy the Death Star.

The movie "Serenity" is not a great movie in the sense of a "Vertigo" or Touch of Evil. It was merely an extension of the television series, the final episode, and suffered from lack of a good director. Don't get me wrong - the writing and acting were fantastic, and I consider it very much worth watching, but it ultimately didn't have the singular cinematic vision of a Ridley Scott, or even a Nicholas Meyer. And I'm quite sad about that.

Also it could have used more of Morena Baccarin's character Inara Serra in the film. But that's probably just me.

"Serenity" almost overcomes its cinematic flaws - for me at least - by featuring a singularly interesting plot point. The interstellar government, trying to "improve mankind," releases an experimental gas upon an unsuspecting planetary population. The gas is supposed to make humans less violent and aggressive, but it goes a tad too far, making most subjects lose the will to live. They simply die where they sit. But an alternate side-effect turns a few people into raving, maurauding "reavers" that attack and kill with horrible viciousness, like piranhas or rabid dogs.

Which sounds very much like what many would have our government do today: use the instruments of State to "improve" humanity. Wipe out poverty. Racism. Smoking. Fatty foods. And so on.

Whenever the State is used to do anything other than protect the life, property, and liberty of its citizens, it turns down the road of tyranny. The question is, how to turn it back? And can it be turned back?

Or are we all destined to crew the present-day equivalent of the good ship "Serenity?"

Update 3/6/2011: Powip agrees on the subject of Inara Serra:

Update 3/6/2011: Adam Baldwin, who played the character Jane within the series and film, retweets here.

Update 3/6/2011: Vodka Pundit gives a nod.

Update 3/6/2011: Some confusions on Whedonesque over Libertarianism and Corporate Socialism. But it's all good.

Update 3/7/2011: Rhetorican notes great admiration for Whedon's talent and scriptwriting (which I share).

Update 3/7/2011: Thanks to Ace of Spades HQ for the headline link!

Update 3/7/2011: Thanks to Bryan Preston for the nod!

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