I realize I'm a real latecomer to this, but I finally got around to watching the critically-acclaimed sci-fi western space opera series Firefly and its follow-up movie Serenity. It was created by Joss Whedon, who directed the recent Avengers movie. The series only ran for one season before it was tragically cancelled, but it has since become something of a cult classic. It took me a few episodes to get into it because it's a little goofy, but once you get past the silly elements, it turns out to be a richly textured and inspiring series with a depth and social relevance that is lacking in a lot of popular TV and movies today.
The show is set 500 years in the future. The earth became too polluted and over-populated to sustain human life, so humanity found a new solar system and terraformed hundreds of planets and moons . The powerful and wealthy central planets formed the Alliance and tried to bring all the planets under their control. Some independents fought, and lost, a big war.
The show picks up seven years after the war. A sargeant from the defeated independent army has got himself a ship and a crew. They basically travel around space, taking odd jobs (some legal, some illegal), trying to stay away from the Alliance and hold onto their ragged freedom. The opening song sums up their situation well:
Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell 'em I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found serenity
But you can't take the sky from me
The crew of the ship (called Serenity, after the last battle of the great war) are a fascinating bunch of complex characters. The captain, Malcolm (Mal) Reynolds is a good man forced by circumstances to make moral compromises to survive. Zoe, who fought with Mal in the war, is sort of like a "first mate." Zoe's husband, Wash, is the pilot. Kaylee is a beautiful and skilled mechanic. Jayne is sort of a crude mercenary-type who is mostly in it for the money, but occasionally has flashes of conscience. Inara is basically a high-class prostitute (called a companion). Her and the captain's relationship is full of tension, as they are both good people in shitty circumstances trying to hold onto their humanity. Shepard Book is a holy man with some kind of gnarly past which the show never fully reveals. Simon is a doctor who gave up his fortune to save his genius sister, River, from an Alliance "academy" that was conditioning her into some kind of psychic super-soldier.
River is my favorite character. For most of the series, she is a complete psychological and emotional mess. The Alliance messed with her brain, and so for a long time, she is barely coherent, and occasioanlly violent. I think her situation sums up a main theme of the show, which is trying to find your humanity and purpose after great trauma. Through the love of her brother and the support of the crew, River slowly begins to recover and become not just functional, but actually an extraordinary super-hero.
The thing that I like about River is the idea that trauma and suffering can have a purpose. For a long time, she is a burden to the crew, but ironically, she ends up becoming their salvation. As someone who has experienced psychological/emotional trauma myself, I totally resonated with River--the idea that even horribly painful things can eventually find a good, and true purpose. At her lowest point, she wants to die, to stop her pain. But, eventally that pain allows her to do extraordinarily good and beautiful things.
Another theme is the idea of human freedom. Those who work for the Alliance, the agents and operatives who are always on Serenity's trail, believe they are doing a good thing. They think that, given the innate problems and flaws of humaity, the best solution is strong, powerful, centralized control. Malcolm and his crew take issue with this philosophy, believing that, despite their flaws, humans must be free to be who they are, without conditioning or control. If you give up freedom in the name of safety, there are disastrous consequences.
The crew of Serenity, for all their problems, actually embody, or incarnate, an altenative community to the one the Alliance has created. In their community, people have to trust each other, to work together, to use their gifts for the benefit of each other. They are free, and part of their freedom includes looking out for each other. I also resonated with this idea. I am part of an independent, DIY art colony in my city of Fullerton. For all our intermal problems, we are essentially free. We have to make sacrifices and look out for each other, but ultimately the community we have created is, I think, beautiful.
The real beauty of the series are the characters and their relationships, which is a nice contrast to a lot of sci-fi today, which is so special effects-heavy that human emotion and complexity get watered down (the Transformers franchise is a perfect example of this). Joss Whedon is a good writer, and he knows that ultimately what connects us to stories, even goofy sci-fi western stories, are the human beings who inhabit them.