Joss Whedon’s 2005 film Serenity is the sequel to his short-lived 2002 science fiction series Firefly. Even though only 14 episodes of Firefly were shot, and their quality is somewhat uneven, it is one of the best science-fiction series ever and showed enormous promise. Whedon, who also created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dollhouse, is one of tvland’s most versatile and compelling storytellers, effortlessly combining comedy, satire, and farce with extremely moving drama.
Although Firefly has a multiracial cast, the show is quite politically incorrect in other ways, chief among them the fact that the villains are liberal humanists. The back story of this archeofuturistic “space Western” is based on the Confederates who went West after the American Civil War, some of them becoming outlaws. The heroes are Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of his spaceship Serenity. Reynolds is a former Independent or “browncoat” who fought to secede from the centralizing Alliance, which defeated the Independents and drove its survivors into the less-civilized, less-settled “final frontier” of space. Although the crew of Serenity are smugglers and thieves, their individualistic and chivalrous values are treated as natural and noble, as opposed to the meddlesome liberal paternalist technocrats of the Alliance. Firefly is also strongly paleomasculine and gives a serious and dignified treatment to traditional manners and morals and even religion. (I discuss all these matters in greater detail in my review of Firefly.)
Firefly developed a large and passionate following during its brief lifespan, and when Fox canceled it, the fans, who dubbed themselves browncoats, lobbied furiously to have the series relaunched, and their efforts paid off with Serenity, which solves two of the series’ chief mysteries and gives the story a sense of closure. Serenity does not equal Firefly at its best, but at times it comes close.
There are a few jarring discontinuities between series and film. In order to make the film relatively self-contained, a large cast of characters we had come to know over 14 episodes had to be reestablished quite quickly so they did not baffle viewers who had never seen the series. But especially in the case of Mal Reynolds, the effect verges on parody. Also, although only a couple of years passed between the series and the film, the glossy medium of the film dramatically ages some of the characters, particularly Mal Reynolds and Simon Tam. But Wash (Alan Tudyk) looks a bit less like a Muppet, with those flat cheekbones and lifeless goggle eyes.
In Firefly, the most mysterious members of the crew are River and Simon Tam, a brother and sister who are running from the Alliance. Simon is a talented doctor, and River appears to be some sort of autistic savant. It turns out that she has an unusually high IQ, psychic abilities, and extraordinary physical reactions as well. The Alliance had been doing unethical experiments on River, hoping to harness her powers as a weapon. So Simon broke her out of their clutches and went on the lam.
The opening of Serenity shows Simon spiriting River away. (Firefly gives a rather different impression of River’s escape.) The opening also makes clear that the Alliance wants River back not just because she is a valued asset, but also because they fear that her psychic powers tapped into the darkest secrets of the high political leaders to whom she had been exhibited by her overly proud trainer.
One of these secrets concerns the origin of the “Reavers,” a group of savages who roam the margins of Alliance space. Reavers attack ships and settlements, raping, torturing, and eating their victims, then festooning their ships with the remains. Not only are Reavers extremely aggressive, they also seem unconcerned with self-preservation. They mutilate their own bodies, peeling off their skins and piercing their flesh with metal. They fly their ships without nuclear core containment, contaminating their living spaces with radiation. They also ram other ships without hesitation. According to Whedon, the Reavers were modeled on the Apaches as savage, terrifying nomadic bogeymen.
Naturally, the Reavers are feared more than any other force in the cosmos. They appeared only ten years before the story begins, and there are many theories about their origins. The minister on Serenity, Shepherd Book, believed that Reavers had simply gone mad in the vastness of space. They had stared too long into the void.
But hidden in River Tam’s fractured psyche is the truth: the Reavers were somehow connected to a planet called Miranda, which supposedly perished in a terraforming accident. As River and the Serenity are pursued by an Alliance black ops specialist (the “operative”), who methodically kills everyone associated with Serenity, Mal Reynolds is increasingly determined to solve the mystery. So he disguises Serenity as a Reaver vessel and (in an imaginative and surreal sequence) flies through Reaver space to Miranda.
When Serenity arrives at Miranda, the crew see no signs of catastrophic environmental failure. The planet and all its facilities are intact. But its 30 million inhabitants are dead, with no sign of violence. They simply seem to have laid down and died. Then the crew discover a rescue vessel and find a recording which reveals the truth. The Alliance tried a mass social engineering experiment on Miranda. In order to make a better world, they tried to suppress human aggression by introducing a drug, G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate, “Pax” for short. “Pax” is Latin for “peace.” (It is ironic that the movie sets up an opposition between Serenity and Pax.)
The attempt to induce pacifism through chemicals backfired, however. Without aggression, the vast majority of the population simply gave up on life. But the Pax had a very different effect on a tiny minority, intensifying aggression to the point of madness, which gave rise to the Reavers.
I won’t give away any more details of the plot. Suffice it to say that Mal Reynolds and his crew are determined to broadcast the truth far and wide. Mal states his reasons clearly. Unless the secret of Miranda is exposed, the Alliance will someday try “to make people better.” But he rejects that philosophy, saying simply, “I aim to misbehave.”
To me, the most valuable message of Serenity is the idea that aggressive impulses are integral to human health, thus a completely pacified world would also be a dehumanized one. (There’s a difference between suppressing aggression entirely and channeling it in constructive directions.) Since all forms of liberalism aim at creating a world free of conflict, the idea that aggression and conflict are ineluctable human traits is a fundamental rejection of liberalism, even the radical libertarian individualism that the movie seems to promote.
Libertarian individualism is, of course, completely incompatible with White Nationalism, which is a form of racial communitarianism. White Nationalists grant that freedom, individualism, and private property are values. But we believe that racial preservation and progress are higher values, which trump libertarian values whenever conflicts arise.
I also think it is unfortunate that Serenity appeals to reactionary anti-psychiatric, specifically anti-psychopharmacological, attitudes which prevent many people with chemically-based mental illnesses from getting better. (The name “Paxilon” is, of course, meant to remind us of Paxil, a widely-prescribed drug that has helped many thousands of depressed people get their lives back.)
The purpose of every decent government should be to “make people better.” Every decent government should also be paternalistic. When people act like children—as we all do, from time to time—of course they need someone who is empowered to play the role of parent. Forcible medication also makes sense for people with mental problems that prevent them from taking care of themselves, including taking the medicines necessary to get better.
The problem with liberalism is not that it tries to make people better, or that it paternalistically meddles in people’s lives when they act childish, or even that it makes crazy people take their meds. The problem with liberalism is that it does all these things in the service of false values and a false vision of human nature, torturing and mutilating mankind in the process.