Firefly, genre, & values
The short-lived television series Firefly has become the focus of a great deal of speculation, criticism and analysis. Fans find the show's 14 episodes (including three that never aired) engaging and visionary; detractors consider Firefly inconsistent and illogical. Much speculation has ensued regarding the rationale behind the Fox network's decision to cancel the show practically before it broke atmo, and one of the more intriguing of these hypotheses is found in an essay entitled "Just Shove Him In The Engine, or The Role of Chivalry in Firefly" by John C. Wright, in Jane Espenson's anthology of essays, Finding Serenity.
Wright speculates that Firefly failed to find an audience due to an inherent discrepancy between the genres of sci-fi and the western as regards the principle of chivalry. Science fiction, Wright says, is progressive, while westerns are traditional; trying to meld the two is like trying to fuse oil and water. In combining these two genres, he says that Firefly creator Joss Whedon "did not add ... an element of chivalry into this space western", but he posits "(chivalry) is in the marrow of the western". Science fiction must abandon chivalry, but westerns must include chivalry — Wright assumes this Catch-22 doomed Firefly to failure. He concludes by saying today's audiences are "delighted with radical egalitarianism, and disgusted by chivalry".
Can this really be true? Are modern TV viewers actually disgusted by chivalry? And is this heroic ideal from the days of "knights in shining armor" completely absent from the genre of science fiction in general, and from Firefly in particular?
Perhaps an in-depth look at the principles and applications of this often misunderstood concept will lead us to a different understanding about the relationship between Firefly and the code of chivalry.
Wright's assumption rests in part on the premise that chivalry is defined by the obligation of a hero to give shelter and defense to the weak and vulnerable. "Protect the womenfolk and young 'uns", as the cowboys might have said. This, however, is an overly simplistic view of the role of chivalry in both history and drama.
The code of chivalry is a product of the medieval period of Western Europe. Although the principles of chivalry can certainly be found in medieval epics such as the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, these stories have been highly romanticized over the centuries. Chivalry based on nothing but reverence of women (an interpretation that comes largely from the 19th Century Victorian era) would have been quite alien to the knights of the 12th, 13th and 14th Centuries. For a more authentic, down-to-earth understanding of how medieval knights viewed the concept of a code of honor we must turn to another type of source material: manuals of chivalry.
Manuals of chivalry are literally "how to" books on military training and martial doctrine, not guides for falling in love and winning the hearts of the ladies. Perhaps the most famous of these manuals is La livre de chevalerie, written in the mid-14th Century by Geoffroi de Charny, a French knight and one of the most respected warriors of his time.
Is Charny's book all about defending the honor of ladies or rescuing maidens? Actually, of the 42 chapters in Charny's book, only five address the topic of male / female relations. The vast majority of Charny's text is focused on the qualities of a "worthy" warrior. Indicative of the range of subjects addressed in the book are topics like: "The scale of prowess and types of men-at-arms", "How to study the art of war", "The great influence of a valiant lord", and "(How) a good man-at-arms can be pleasing to God".
It's important to remember that real knights, warriors by profession, wrote and read these manuals of chivalry. Courtesy and respectful treatment of ladies was certainly a part of the code of chivalry, but only a part. Books such as Charny's indicate that knights were far more concerned with the notions of loyalty, fortitude, trustworthiness, justice, and courage than they were with championing and winning the hearts of damsels in distress.
From the ideals of chivalry Western culture has taken much of its understanding of the dramatic character of the modern hero — readers and viewers often don't even realize how elemental this medieval code is in today's image of the hero. Because of the basic sense of chivalry that still pervades our culture, today's heroes in all genres resemble King Arthur or Sir Gawain far more than they do Achilles, Odysseus, or Romulus.
An understanding of the authentic values of chivalry is crucial to determining whether or not this code can be found in the realm of Firefly.
What do honor and chivalry have to do with drama? Simply put, acting with honor is easy when things are good; it's what happens to the code of honor when things go bad that makes a story interesting. For the knights of King Arthur's Round Table, there was no challenge in being chivalrous in the luxurious halls of Camelot; what marked them as "great" knights was whether they could maintain their honor when tested in the real world as they set forth on various quests. Having honor in a perfect world is not very difficult — and it doesn't make very interesting stories.
This is why the ideal of chivalry transfers so well to the stories and characters of the Old West. Living in a protected, established society like the antebellum South or the Eastern seaboard, characters like Matt Dillon, Ben Cartwright, or Seth Adams would have had no trouble sticking to the principles of chivalry. What creates interest is what these honorable characters do when confronted with lawlessness, savagery and corruption. And needless to say, not all western heroes proved entirely chivalrous — William Munny, Wyatt Earp, Paladin are reminders that if westerns are marked by the clash of honorable values and an untamed environment, they are equally marked by heroes who fight an inner battle against their own dark, brutal natures. The character of the flawless, white-hatted cowboy rode into the sunset with the 1940s kiddy westerns of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
And if chivalry in a vacuum is a mark of the western, it is just as much (if not more) of a mark of science fiction. Can honor, morality and chivalry stand up to the challenges faced by human beings as they move into the frontiers of the future? This is the premise that creates tension and drama in nearly all science fiction stories.
The claim that chivalry has no place in sci-fi (as Wright states) ignores two of the most influential entries in the science fiction genre in the past 50 years: Star Trek and Star Wars.
Consider Star Trek (the original television series, that is): A cadre of adventurers on an extended quest through unknown, often savage territory. It's a premise that could have come right out of the stories of King Arthur. (In fact, more than a few parallels can be drawn between the crew of the Enterprise and the Knights of the Round Table.) Yet without chivalry, Kirk, Spock, Scotty and all the rest would be indistinguishable from the villains they encounter. But they have a 23rd Century version of the code of chivalry called the Prime Directive that obliges them to protect and respect what they could otherwise simply dominate or assimilate.
Similarly, the world of Star Wars would be radically diminished without the principle of chivalry — after all, many of its main characters are knights. Obi Wan explains, "For over a thousand generations the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice." His words inspire Luke to take on the challenge of rescuing a princess — a quest that any of the Knights of the Round Table would certainly have jumped at. Without chivalry, Luke would have rejected the risks of the hero's journey and simply spent the movie racing T-16s with his adolescent pals through Beggar's Canyon on Tatooine.
Science fiction is about possibilities. If the code of chivalry seems a bit different when represented in a science fiction milieu, it's because audiences are being challenged to see the old code of honor in the light of new possibilities. The protected becomes the protector, technology demolishes social order, science threatens spirituality, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few .... How do such philosophical, theological, and technical suppositions affect the understanding of what it means to be just, honorable, and moral?
The code of chivalry is still present in the utopian and apocalyptic worlds of science fiction for those who can stretch their imaginations enough to see it.
We know what chivalry really is, and we know chivalry and honor are integral elements in some of the greatest western and science fiction stories ever created, so we must now ask: Did Joss Whedon's "western in space" fail because chivalry and Serenity are mutually exclusive?
Malcolm Reynolds (the captain of the ship Serenity and the main character of the Firefly series) may not be as honorable as a Star Fleet officer or as worthy as a Jedi knight, but there's no denying that he has a moral compass, even if its needle wavers from time to time. If Mal was devoid of chivalry he would be nothing but a brutal space pirate, and Firefly would be quite a different show. But Serenity's captain possesses an innate sense of chivalry that cannot be entirely dislodged, even by the horrors of war and the pain of disillusionment.
When given the opportunity to make a quick profit, save his own skin or exploit others' weaknesses, Mal instead fights a duel for a woman's honor, teaches a girl to see herself as more than property, bypasses a payoff to deliver medicine to the suffering, and puts his crew at risk to rescue passengers from kidnappers. At the conclusion of the pilot episode "Serenity", Simon asks Mal if the captain would murder the doctor in cold blood. Mal replies, "If I ever shoot you, you'll be awake, you'll be facing me and you'll be armed." Perhaps a clearer summary of chivalry has never been uttered. Of course, there's no question that Mal's motives in these situations are sometimes cloudy — but in the tradition of internally conflicted western heroes, this is what makes him such an interesting character.
And this brings us to one final aspect of Firefly that, perhaps more than anything else, cements the presence of chivalry within the universe of the show: the concept of ennoblement. Throughout the brief run of the show, the crew of Serenity faces a variety of situations that place them in both physical and moral danger. Without a sense of chivalry and honor, the characters of Firefly would simply take their profits and run, laughing all the while at anyone who would be so naïve as to be hindered by conscience, duty or affection — but that's not the case. What we see is that Serenity's crew struggles toward honorable deeds — sometimes uncertainly and often reluctantly, but in the end they are all changed for the better by a greater awareness of chivalry.
The most vivid example of ennoblement in Firefly involves the show's most ignoble crewmate: Jayne Cobb, the ship's ruthless gun-for-hire. In "Ariel", Jayne is prepared to betray the fugitive passengers, Simon and River, to collect a reward. The greed of a corrupt law-enforcement officer is, in fact, all that prevents Jayne from carrying out his duplicitous plan. When Mal discovers Jayne's betrayal, the captain is furious; Mal puts Jayne in the airlock and is determined to jettison him into the vacuum of space as Serenity leaves the planet. Jayne tries to deny his actions, to apologize and to justify his deception — all craven attempts to save his own skin. The only thing that prevents Jayne's summary execution is his final request for an honorable (if fictional) epitaph: "Make something up. Don't tell the (rest of the crew) what I did."
This is a very different Jayne than the one we see in "Out of Gas" and "Jaynestown", whose fickle loyalty has an obvious (and fairly low) cash value. But as a result of his exposure to honorable people throughout Firefly's story arc, Jayne begins to develop a sense of honor — his concern for his reputation has risen above his concern for his own well being, and this is a tremendous, essential change for such a character.
A tacit understanding of chivalry drives Jayne to transcend his baser nature, just as it does for nearly all of the characters in Firefly. Courage, loyalty, compassion, faith and mercy &mdashthe virtues incorporated into the code of chivalry — can be seen guiding, affecting, and transforming Serenity's crew, turning brutality into strength and avarice into responsibility, despite (or perhaps because of) contact with corrupt Alliance officials, brutal Reaver pirates, untrustworthy petty crime lords and any number of other disreputable desperadoes who populate Firefly's 'verse.
Critics who cannot see chivalry in Firefly have lost sight of the fact that this ancient code of honor is deeply woven into the fabric of the marvelous characters who fly aboard Serenity. Chivalry is as crucial to the structure of Firefly as a foundation is to a skyscraper: both are buried beneath the surface, invisible to the casual observer, but each is an indispensable part of a magnificent creation.
If chivalry played any part in Firefly's failure, it was merely because the concept, as treated by Joss Whedon, may have proved too complex for viewers who could not, or would not rise above stereotypical notions of old-fashioned characters, stories, and motives based on a code of chivalry more suited for bedtime stories and singing cowboys than for a metaphorical drama depicting the challenges of maintaining honor in a void. Viewers who came to Firefly with open minds and discerning intellects, however, discovered a synergistic, genre-bending universe where knights in shining armor sometimes wear brown coats, where an untamed frontier became a proving ground for an ancient code of honor, and where lost shepherds, space hookers and roguish space-freighter captains could discover chivalry by finding Serenity.
© 2006 Scott Farrell