On suggestion from my co-nerdcore-theologian, I’ve begun re-watching Firefly. Aside from being one of my favorite science fiction series, it may be one of the best space-operas in recent creation, and I don’t make that claim lightly. I love me some Star Trek, Star Wars, and occasionally a Battlestar Galactica every once in a while, but Firefly was something special.
Why, though? It certainly wasn’t the special effects, although for a primetime television show the visuals were quite good. You could attribute it to the style (Star Trek meets Lonesome Dove meets Seven Samurai), but a clever idea does not a show make. Many point to the excellent writing, which is spectacular on its own, but it’s more than that for me. No, I’d have to say what made the show was it’s characters.
In Firefly, the cast of characters felt real. Yes, they were in space, and yes they had some weird gorram slang words peppered all over the rutting place, but the people in the show felt real. Not a one of them was unbelievable, and that’s what everyone wants in a good story. You would have a hard time finding a flat character, as much as some of the characters may want you to believe they are.
What made the characters real for me was that every character had a history, a story to tell, and more often than not it was a pretty grisly one. A common theme of the show was that almost everyone on board Serenity (the ship in question) seems to have fallen from grace, so to speak.
Mal and Zoe, the Captain and First Mate of the ship, fought in a civil war together prior to the show’s official beginning. However, they were on the losing side of that war, and part of the show is about how they are trying to pick up the pieces of that former life. Zoe winds up doing better, marrying the ship’s crack pilot Wash and generally is well adjusted in most areas of life. Her husband may not have the war in his background, but his sense of humor and devotion to his wife despite all the violence surrounding them makes him a compelling character nonetheless. Mal, on the other hand, hardened his exterior, shutting himself off from most people, afraid of losing everything else in his life.
Simon and River Tam are a pair of hyper-intelligent siblings of good breeding. Their story involves River being experimented on by the government, and in order to save her, Simon gives up a rather successful life of being a doctor. While Simon regrets the place they wind up in, he doesn’t regret saving his broken sister for anything.
These are just a few of the characters, but you see where I’m going with this. Everyone has scars, and nobody is living the ideal life. But that doesn’t mean that the life they have isn’t considered good. They take care of one another, for one. For another, as much as their work remains of a dubious and often crime-laden nature, Mal still winds up doing the right thing, turning things around just in time, and wind up Big Damn Heroes for better or worse. They may have fallen, but in sticking together and making things right, they find the grace they may have once lost.
There is a ship chaplain, Shepherd Book, and while his past is never explained thoroughly, the show hints that his past is just as colorful and possibly ethically dubious as much as the rest of the crew. His place on the crew often finds him at odds with the situation, yet he feels called nonetheless to be a part of the Serenity crew. Part of me wishes I could be him, especially since at one point after being shot he remains the non-anxious presence in the room, which is a level of pastoral authority any clergy member could aspire to.
I love the show, because the show made me love the characters. Flawed as they were, they still found grace among the people they love (or at the very least tolerate). If grace is a gift one simply receives and accepts without earning it, there was more than enough in that crew. That the ship was called Serenity is no accident; it’s the one thing the crew seemed to find once they were together. I’m pretty sure that’s the most anyone could really hope for in a messed up world like this one.