Firefly is a Sci-Fi Western AND a Swashbuckler!

This post is part of the Swashathon: a Blogathon of Swashbuckling Adventure, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. Read the rest of the adventurous posts HERE!

The cult TV series Firefly has long been lauded as a brilliant melding of the sci-fi and Western genres. I even wrote about this in one of my first posts for this blog.

I am here to tell you it is also a brilliant melding of the sci-fi and swashbuckling genres.

For those who are sadly unaware, Firefly, which ran only 14 episodes on Fox Network during 2002 – 2003, was created by Joss Whedon and stars Nathan Fillion as the captain of the Serentity, a “Firefly-class” spaceship. Five hundred years into the future, the resources of Earth have long been used up and humanity has settled in another star system, terraforming planets and their moons and holding them together in a centralized government called the Alliance.

Mal Reynolds (Fillion) and Zoe Alleyne (Gina Torres) fought together in the Unification War because they did not want their planet to join the Alliance. When the rebels lost, Mal bought the Serenity and cobbled together a crew including Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary, Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), a self-taught mechanic, and Hoban “Wash” Washburne (Alan Tudyk), a pilot. As the story opens, Zoe and Wash are a married couple who met when the crew was first formed.

As well as their crew, they have passengers, including Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), a “companion” (high-class prostitute) who rents space on the Serenity, Derrial Book (Ron Glass) a “Shepherd” (a kind of priest or monk), and Simon Tam (Sean Maher) a doctor who has smuggled on board his sister River (Summer Glau). Simon and River are being hunted by the Alliance because River is a genius they want to exploit. Their experiments on her brain have made her mentally unstable.

It’s clear that the Unification War is meant to echo the American Civil War, with the rebel “Browncoats,” personified by Mal and Zoe, representing the Confederacy. As some Confederate soldiers did after the war, they effectively drop out of society and turn to outlawry to survive.

The similarity to Westerns is reflected in the costumes, accents of some of the characters, weapons, and the frontier-like settings of many of the outlying planets and moons. So absolutely, no question, Firefly is inspired in many ways by the Western genre.

But it also resembles the swashbuckler, in various ways.

Outlaws in the West didn’t have ships, but pirates did. The crew even occasionally refer to Serenity as a “boat.” While they do commit crimes similar to those of Western outlaws (i.e. robbing a train) they are often hired by someone else to pull the jobs. In other words, they function as privateers. Like pirates and privateers, they are professional smugglers. While guns are the main weapons of choice, there is an episode where Mal is forced to fight a duel with swords.

Mal is a very authoritarian leader, which makes him similar to fictional pirates such as Captain Flint in Black Sails. Yet he loves his crew and they (mostly) love him back. Unlike most Western outlaws and like many swashbuckling heroes, the crew of the Serenity will forgo money and even jeopardize their own safety for a greater good. Initially outraged by Simon smuggling the fugitive River onto the Serenity, they eventually protect both Tam siblings from the Alliance. They defend the workers of a bordello from a rich man determined to take his child away from one of the women. They enrage a gangster because they give medicine they were hired to steal for him to others who desperately need it, which comes back to haunt them in a big way later in the series.

This makes them reminiscent of another famous swashbuckling band, Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Shepherd Book can be seen as a Friar Tuck-like character and Inara as a somewhat tarnished Maid Marion. In an episode called “Jaynestown” the crew is stunned to arrive in a town called Canton and hear a ballad dedicated to the town’s hero, Jayne Cobb. They sing of how he robbed from the rich to help the poor town. (This turns out to be a total misconception on their part, as Jayne is anything but altruistic, though in the end he usually goes along with the crew’s good deeds.)

Like pirates, Mal and his crew have a strong libertarian streak, suspicious of the centralized government and taking to the sky (sea) as a way to maintain their freedom from its laws and influence. Only Inara, who is a legal prostitute and meticulously follows Alliance laws to do with her profession, is the exception. This is yet another way she resembles Maid Marion, as a representative of the ruling class who lives in both spheres. Like Marion, she loves Mal. Like Robin and Marion, a relationship between them seems to have many obstacles.

The theme song for Firefly has a line that says “you can’t take the sky from me.” One can imagine pirates saying the same about the sea, a domain they can wander in, have adventures, dodge authority, and feel free. Whether intended by the creators or not, the crew of the Serenity are a band of sci-fi swashbuckling heroes.

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11 thoughts on “Firefly is a Sci-Fi Western AND a Swashbuckler!

  1. Excellent post. It’s such a shame Fox crapped out on giving the show a fighting chance. Serenity was a fine film to more or less tie up some loose ends, but it still ended up a bit unsatisfying not seeing more of this crew. It’s too bad the online game that was in the works for a few years seems to have stalled out completely despite the involvement of some cast members, but I guess that’s the fate of Firefly to die before its time…

    1. Oh, every time I read over the history of its run on Fox I want to cry. Imagine if it had been on a cable channel or now on a streaming service. It certainly would have had a much longer lifespan. 😦

      1. I can only imagine what HBO, Showtime, or hell, even AMC would have handled things, but as well. I’ve read a few of the comics, but it’s definitely not the same as having that show kicking around for a few more seasons.

  2. The more I read/hear about this series, the more I think I really should check it out. As a rule, sci-fi makes me nervous (long story) but Firefly sounds interesting on many levels – and then there is Nathan Fillion… Your post may well have convinced me to take the plunge. 🙂

  3. What a great analysis. I didn’t get to watch Firefly much, but I enjoyed it. I saw the western influence, but I didn’t think of the swashbuckling. Thanks for sharing with us all.

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