SERENITY (2005, Director Joss Whedon)

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

In written science fiction, stories clearly modeled on Westerns began to appear as early as the 1930s, especially in the space opera subgenre. Indeed, the very term “space opera” was coined partly in reference to the once-popular tendency to refer to Westerns as “horse operas.” In 1952, there was even a short-lived comic book series titled Space Western Comics. Meanwhile, at least since presidential candidate John F. Kennedy envisioned the space program as undertaking the exploration of a “new frontier” during his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic Convention, the parallels between outer space and the old American West have been widely apparent—and have frequently been exploited in American popular culture. Not long after Kennedy’s speech, for example, Gene Roddenberry was famously pitching the original Star Trek television series as being like an outer space version of the popular Western series Wagon Train; when that pitch was successful, the series went on the air with its famous opening voiceover describing “space” as “the final frontier.”

The original Star Trek dramatized this parallel between outer space and the American West byplacing some episodes within the iconography of the Western. In the third-season episode “Spectre of the Gun,” for example, Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, and Chekov all find themselves transported into a simulated version of the Wild West town of 1881 Tombstone, Arizona, where they come into conflict with the notorious Earp clan.[1] And then, of course, there is the presumably utopian Native American imagery of “The Paradise Syndrome,” an episode that draws its problematic stereotyping of Native American culture largely from Westerns[2].

Of all attempts to employ the basic matrix of the Western within the framework of an outer-space adventure, perhaps the most extensive is that which occurs within Joss Whedon’s short-lived television series Firefly, which was originally broadcast on the Fox Network in 2002–2003. The entire history of the series was wrought with difficulties between Whedon and the Fox brass, which included the virtual sabotage of the series in terms of the scheduling of individual episodes and the quick cancellation of the series before it was really able to find an audience. In the years since that cancellation, however, the series has developed a sort of cult following, and many consider it one of the greatest sf series in the history of television. That cult following, together with the premature end of the series, combined to inspire Whedon to make a film version of the series that gave it a somewhat more graceful wrapup. That film is Serenity, a film that has drawn a great deal of critical praise and won a number of awards, including recognition from the British sf magazine SFX as the greatest science fiction film of all time, via a 2007 online fan poll.

The relationship between Firefly and Serenity is more complex than simply that between an original and a sequel. For one thing, as Telotte discusses, Serenity seems to put more emphasis on science fiction and less on the Western than does Firefly, giving it a somewhat different generic character. For example, the film is importantly influenced by the classic sf film Forbidden Planet, an influence not obvious in the television series. Telotte also notes that Serenity places considerable emphasis on technologies of visual representation, something that is common in sf film, but not in the Western.Meanwhile, as Blichert points out in his book-length discussion of Serenity as a cult film, the later work was importantly conditioned by the fandom associated with Firefly, which had itself already achieved cult status, fueled partly by the cult status of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), the important Whedon-created series that was still on the air when Firefly was first broadcast.[3]

Set, like Firefly, in the 26th century, Serenity begins with a quick recap of the background to the basic scenario of both the film and its televisual predecessor. This background is illustrated by on-screen visuals that are accompanied by a soothing female voice that explains what we are seeing:

“Earth that was could no longer sustain our numbers. We found a new solar system: dozens of planets and hundreds of moons, each one terraformed, a process taking decades. To support human life. To be new earths. The central planets formed The Alliance. Ruled by an interplanetary parliament, The Alliance was a beacon on civilization. The savage outer planets were not so enlightened and refused Alliance control. The war was devastating, but The Alliance’s victory over the independents ensured a safer universe. And now everyone can enjoy the comfort and enlightenment of true civilization.”

By the time this last sentence is uttered, we see the speaker on screen and it becomes clear that she is a teacher delivering a history lesson to a group of young students, using the visuals we have just seen as a teaching aid. One of the students, River Tam (Hunter Ansley Wrin), does not seem to be buying this official version of history, however. When the teacher asks why the independents on the outer planets might fight so fiercely to evade Alliance control (when it clearly brings so many benefits), River responds that it is because “We meddle. People don’t like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don’t run. Don’t walk. We’re in their homes and in their heads, and we haven’t the right.” “River,” the teacher calmly responds, “We’re not telling people what do think. We’re just trying to show them how.”

Despite the teacher’s assurances, this scene is carefully constructed to make clear that what is going on in this scene of instruction is more indoctrination than education. This point is then driven home by a sudden cut to the future, where it is revealed that this opening scene was actually a dream/memory on the part of a seventeen-year-old River (played by Summer Glau), who is now in Alliance captivity, where she is being subjected draconian experimentation probing her extensive physical and psychic powers, while attempting to condition her so that these powers, which go well beyond the human norm, can be weaponized.

We already see, then, in this brief opening scene, the basic political and philosophical conflict that underlies both Firefly and Serenity. The Alliance is a sort of soft dystopia, a society that imposes a certain amount of routinization and conformity in return for a life of safety, comfort, and predictability. It can, however, be quite ruthless when necessary to achieve its goals. In short, The Alliance plays essentially the same role in Serenity that capitalist modernization plays in any number of “waning of the West” films, in which encroaching civilization brings an end to the wild days of the Old West, when strong individuals could pursue their agendas virtually unfettered by the constraints of polite civilization. On the other hand, the denizens of the outer planets are fiercely individualistic and resist the demands of civilization, even if it means that they will have much harder material lives. There, a more unruly brand of society reigns, much as in the old West.

Waning of the West films include such central examples as George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), in which the two outlaws of the title find that there is no place for them in a modern West that is being increasingly civilized. They then flee to a presumably wilder South America, only to find that there is no place for their freewheeling brand of banditry there, either. Significantly, the main protagonists of Serenity and Firefly are also outlaws, making a living through their own brand of outer-space banditry, supplemented by the occasional more legitimate business activities. Meanwhile, Mal  is haunted by a sense that the Alliance is closing in and that there will soon come a time when freewheeling adventures like themselves have no place. As Mal himself puts it, “Every year since the war the Alliance pushes further out, fences off another piece of the ’verse. Come a day there won’t be room for naughty men like us to slip about at all.”

Serenity is the name of the “Firefly-class” ship on which this outlaw crew, led by Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a former officer in the rebel independent “Browncoats” who fought a losing battle against Alliance rule. His first mate is Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), who had also been his lieutenant in the civil war against The Alliance. Serenity is piloted by Zoe’s wisecracking husband, Hoban “Wash” Washburne, clearly one of the finest pilots in the galaxy. The ship’s talented mechanic is Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite) a naïve young woman who has a natural affinity with machinery. The central crew is rounded out by Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), a cynical mercenary who is gifted both at hand-to-hand combat and at the use of a variety of weapons. His ruthless, self-serving attitude often puts him at odds with Mal, who can also be ruthless, but who I also motivated by a basic decency, loyalty to his crew and ship, and adherence to a personal code of conduct, much like many anti-establishment characters in Westerns.

This crew is supplemented by a number of characters who are simply passengers on the ship, but who often function essentially as additional crew members, helping out in the crew’s various adventures. These passengers include River Tam, now on the run from the forced of The Alliance, and her brother, Dr. Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a physician who had helped her escape from captivity. Mal and his crew are minor outlaws and thus of little concern to The Alliance on their own; it is only because of River (who has, using her psychic powers, learned a crucial State secret) that they pursue Serenity so vigorously in the film, hoping to recapture or kill River before that secret can be revealed. To that end, they have assigned a nameless Parliamentary Operative (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) to track down and deal with River. The Operative is a crucial figure in the film. In one of several aspects of the film (including River’s powers) that are reminiscent of comic books, he is a superhuman killing machine, a sort of supervillain[4]. As the designation “Operative” suggests, he pursues his goals with cold efficiency, without emotion or malice. He is not evil; he is just inhuman, carrying out the instructions of the Alliance Parliament without question, having been conditioned for total devotion to their goal of solidifying their power throughout the new solar system.

Also aboard is the alluring Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin). Inara is a professional “companion,” billed as an “ambassador,” but really a sort of high-class hooker, thoroughly trained to deliver sensual pleasures. There seems, however, to be relatively little stigma attached to her profession in this future world, where (though some might frown upon it) her work is largely regarded as respectable. Indeed, as is made especially clear in Firefly, she is more respectable than the regular crew members of the ship, and her presence aboard opens certain doors to them where they would not otherwise be welcome. In any case, she largely keeps to herself in a small shuttle, which is docked with Serenity, though the film does include a subplot in which it is made clear that there are romantic sparks between Inara and Mal, even though these sparks are never ignited in the film. Meanwhile, tensions between the two have led to her leaving the ship before the film begins, so that she only rejoins Serenity after Mal rescues her from the Operative, who is holding her hostage in order to lure Mal to him.

In much of Firefly, Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a cleric representing some unspecified, vaguely Christian future religion, is also aboard Serenity, though in the film he plays a fairly minor role and is simply visited by the crew on a planet where he holds forth as a local spiritual leader. Soon afterward, Shepherd Book is visited by the Operative and his minions, who apparently kill everyone on the planet (including Book) as a sort of message to Serenity, hoping to convince Mal to turn River over. This event demonstrates quite clearly just how ruthless the Operative can be—and just how hypocritical the supposedly peace-loving Alliance can be.

At the same time, the Alliance is not unequivocally evil. Like many dystopian regimes, it does not seek to create misery but is instead devoted to preventing misery by any means necessary, including the creation of a population of emotionless drones. In fact, we learn in the course of Serenity that the terrible secret harbored by River involves the attempts of the Alliance to establish peace and tranquility on a remote planet called “Miranda.” Faced with a particularly unruly and aggressive population, the Alliance drugged everyone on the planet by dosing the air supply with “Pax,” the short name for “G-23 Paxilon Hydrochlorate,” a drug designed to create calm and placidity. It works, too—so much so that the thirty million people living on Miranda became so pacified that they saw no reason to do anything at all, literally just dying in place. And this massive tragedy is perhaps not even the worst thing that happened on Miranda. About 0.1% of the population (around 30,000 people) had paradoxical reactions to the drug. Instead of becoming pacified, this group became even more aggressive, so much so that they were turned into murderous, inhuman monsters who have been raping and pillaging their way through the outer rim of the solar system ever since.

These monsters, known as “Reavers,” are ravenous cannibals who prefer to munch on still-living victims. In many ways, they resemble creatures from horror film more than science fiction, especially the “fast” zombies of Danny Boyle’s then-recent 29 Days Later (2002). They are, however, still able to operate complex technological equipment, allowing them to move about the solar system in their hideous spaceships, seeking more victims. They thus constitute a sort of third term, complicating the opposition between The Alliance and the independents. On the surface, in fact, the Reavers are the true polar opposites of The Alliance, and their existence to some extent serves as an argument for the extension of Alliance power in order to provide protection against them. Thus, it would be particularly damaging to the image of The Alliance were it to become public knowledge that The Alliance actually created the Reavers, thus suggesting that they are not producing the kind of civilizing results that they claim.

Given this knowledge, Mal and his crew decide to devote themselves to broadcasting this information throughout the solar system. In order to do so, they seek to employ the help of “Mr. Universe” (David Krumholtz), a sort of super hacker with whom they have been loosely allied in the past. The inclusion of Mr. Universe adds elements of cyberpunk science fiction to the film, while at the same time providing reminders of the extensive points of contact between cyberpunk and the Western. After all, the novel that is usually considered the foundational text of cyberpunk, William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), features a hacker protagonist, Case, who is described as a “console cowboy,” and hackers in general have some of the same individualist outlaw reputation as the outlaws of Westerns.

The inclusion of Mr. Universe, a master of the “signal” that seems to permeate the entire solar system (and that stands as a future version of the Internet) provides some of the most important engagement with media in Serenity. Unfortunately, the Operative kills Mr. Universe and destroys his transmitter before he can help transmit the secret of Miranda, but the hacker manages to upload instructions into his sexbot that allow Mal and his crew to broadcast the message using Mr. Universe’s backup transmitter. It is not clear how much damage this broadcast actually does to The Alliance, but the outlaws have done what they could, meanwhile escaping close shaves with death at the hands of both The Alliance and the Reavers (except for Wash, who is killed while crash landing the ship).

Serenity is a rollicking adventure in the tradition of both the space opera and the Western, combining the energies of both of these genres to produce and effective hybrid, enriched through the contributions of other, secondary, genres, including cyberpunk and horror. It’s a fun film, clearly designed more for entertainment than for enlightenment; though it does seem to be underwritten by a largely unobjectionable, vaguely liberal endorsement of individualism and diversity, though this endorsement sometimes becomes so radically individualistic as to border on the libertarian. Indeed, its political message is a bit half-baked, leading to a number of problematic political gestures that threaten to undermine the entire film.

The series and the film, for example, are highly sympathetic to the Browncoats and their secessionist attitudes, so much so that devoted fans of Firefly came to refer to themselves as “Browncoats” as the series was building its cult repoutation. But the Browncoats are so directly and obviously associated with the American Confederacy that their positive portrayal comes close to an endorsement of the ideals of that Confederacy, which, of course, were built on a rhetoric of freedom but in fact centrally focused on the perpetuation of a system of enslavement. Of course, it is not so much the antebellum South that the film endorses as the post–Civil War Western frontier, to which numerous Confederate soldiers famously fled in order to enjoy a world of unfettered freedom free of the suffocating rule of the Union forces that had just defeated them. Such radically individualist figures, in fact, have often been the protagonists of Westerns—as in the case of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), the deeply flawed protagonist of John Ford’s greatest Western The Searchers (1956)[5].

These protagonists are often outlaws, perhaps the most prominent case being real-world outlaw (and former Quantrill’s Raider) Jesse James, who would ultimately be portrayed (often quite positively) in any number of Western films, from the 1939 classic Jesse James (with Tyrone Power as the title character) to the 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (with Brad Pitt as James). The problem here, of course, is that the real-world James was a noxious figure, not a heroic one. The notorious Confederate guerrilla unit Quantrill’s Raiders were not romantic freedom fighters, though they have sometimes been depicted that way. In fact, they were known for having committed some of the greatest atrocities of the Civil War, especially in a murderous 1863 assault on the anti-slavery town of Lawrence, Kansas, killing nearly 200 citizens and looting and burning the town. James was one of their most ruthless members, and his activities as an outlaw after the war were similarly violent and bloody. If it is very tempting to associate Mal Reynolds with figures such as James, then this is an association that makes Reynolds suddenly less attractive as an individualist hero and apostle of freedom on the frontier[6].

At first glance, the crew of Serenity would seem to convey some of the same spirit as the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series, vaunted in pop cultural history for their diverse multicultural, multiracial makeup. Zoe, for example, is a black woman who very effectively occupies a position of considerable authority responsibility and thus extends the tradition begun by Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols). As I have noted elsewhere, Uhura “served in an important position as the ship’s chief communications officer, a kind of role in which few viewers had ever seen a black woman. Officially hailing from the ‘United States of Africa,’ Uhura was de-coded by many viewers as African American and reportedly served as a role model for numerous African American girls who saw the show” (72). In Firefly and Serenity, Zoe is an admirable figure, offering a similar positive image, but her race seems completely irrelevant within the worlds of the series and the film, offering the utopian suggestion that the culture of this future solar system is genuinely postracial.

Other characters are a bit more problematic, however. Mal, the center of both the series and the film, is clearly meant to be a likeable character, but he has a definite dark streak and can be rather ruthless. River, meanwhile, would seem to be a highly sympathetic figure. Still essentially a child, she is a victim both of her own genetics and of the unscrupulous practices of The Alliance. But these forces have combined to turn her into a superhuman killing machine who cannot necessarily control her own impulses. She is thus a danger to everyone around her, even beyond the fact that she has brought the full force of the Alliance down upon Serenity and its crew. Among other things, River has much in common with Whedon’s most enduring creation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another frail-looking teenage girl who turns out to be a surprisingly formidable and deadly fighter. Buffy is a “Chosen One” who has a special ability to fight and kill vampires, an ability that often saves the day but that also interferes with her own happiness or ability to have a normal life. Indeed, Buffy has a decided dark streak that ultimately alienates her from her human confederates, just as it appears that River is unlikely ever to have normal human relationships, even with her own brother, whom she nearly kills at one point in Serenity. But this whole “Chosen One” motif threatens to undermine the emphasis on individualism, because normal humans cannot do what River can do. It is, in fact, her special abilities that ultimately save the remaining protagonists from being eaten by Reavers, suggesting that ordinary individuals cannot succeed without the help of special individuals such as River (or Buffy), a notion that potentially leads straight to fascism.

Inara is also a largely positive character whose representation is nonetheless problematic. As a respectable companion, she demonstrates, among other things, that sexual attitudes seem to have been liberalized and to have become less hypocritical in the future—though there are also less respectable “whores” in this future world[7]. At the same time, Inara is also essentially presented as an exotic Oriental woman. While the crew members of Serenity seem to be culturally American, with a dash of Chinese thrown in for good measure, Inara (who is shown practicing Buddhist rituals in the film) seems to be culturally more Asian, with a dash of American thrown in for good measure. The Brazilian Baccarin’s exotic beauty reinforces this aspect of the film, which is made more problematic by the long Orientalist tradition of associating Eastern women with exotic sexuality. Star Trek, for example, often falls into this trap, especially in its representation of exotic “Orion slave girls,” essentially sex slaves who are shown in several episodes dancing suggestively to the strains of a song entitled “Arab Hooch Dance.”[8] The positive representation of Inara would seem to be informed by an exoticist fascination that Booker and Daraiseh associate with “consumerist Orientalism,” which is significantly different from the colonialist Orientalism famously discussed by Edward Said.

All in all, Serenity has a number of blind spots and political problems, probably because of its single-minded focus on individualism and on the opposition between individual desire and the demands of a complex, modern society. At the same time, the film is intended as entertainment, not as a political treatise, and its combination of an effective science fiction scenario, an interesting collection of characters, and a high-action plot helps it to succeed quite well in its primary task. As Roger Ebert put it in his contemporary review of the film, “it has the rough edges and brawny energy of a good yarn, and it was made by and for people who can’t get enough of this stuff. You know who you are.”


Blichert, Frederick. Serenity. Wallflower Press, 2017.

Booker, M. Keith. Star Trek: A Cultural History. Rowman and Littlefield, 2018.

Booker, M. Keith, and Isra Daraiseh. Consumerist Orientalism: The Convergence of Arab and American Popular Culture in the Age of Global Capitalism. I. B. Tauris, 2019.

Ebert, Roger. “Serenity.” Roger (September 29, 2005) Accessed September 28, 2019.

Erisman, Fred. “Stagecoach in Space: The Legacy of Firefly.” Extrapolation 47.2 (2006): 249–58.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Vintage-Random House, 1979.

Sturgis, Amy H. “‘Just Get Us a Little Further’: Liberty and the Frontier in Firefly and Serenity.” The Philosophy of Joss Whedon. Eds. Dean A. Kowalski and S. Evan Kreider. University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 24–38.

Szabo, Tait. “Companions, Dolls, and Whores: Joss Whedon on Sex and Prostitution.” The Philosophy of Joss Whedon. Eds. Dean A. Kowalski and S. Evan Kreider. University Press of Kentucky, 2011. 103–16.

Telotte, J. P. “Serenity, Genre, and Cinematization.” Science Fiction Film, Television, and Adaptation: Across the Screens. Eds. J. P. Telotte and Gerald Duchovnay. Routledge, 2012. 127–40.

Wilcox, Rhonda V. “Whedon, Browncoats, and the Big Damn Narrative: The Unified Meta-Myth of Firefly and Serenity.” Science Fiction Double Feature: The Science Fiction Film as Cult Text. Ed. J. P. Telotte and Gerald Duchovny. Liverpool University Press, 2015. 98–114.


[1] This episode is in many ways re-enacted in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “A Fistful of Datas” (November 9, 1992), which, by its very title updates the allusive range of the Trek franchise to include Spaghetti Westerns. Here, Worf, Troi, and Worf’s son Alexander enter a holodeck simulation of the Western mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota—site of the superb later HBO Western series Deadwood (2004–2006). As is often the case, the holodeck malfunctions, and the three adventurers barely manage to survive their visit.

[2] See Booker for a discussion of the problematic nature of the representation of Native American culture in this episode (79–80).

[3] See also Wilcox for an excellent discussion of the role of the cult status of the series in the translation to film.

[4] Whedon is a well-known fan of the comics and has himself written a number of comics, including for the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, which he created as an extension of the cult favorite television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which he will perhaps always be best known, at least in certain circles. Of course, Whedon’s greatest commercial success in popular culture to date was as the writer and director of the Marvel Cinematic Universe film The Avengers (2012).

[5] Several critics have suggested that the Ford film that Firefly and Serenity most resemble is Stagecoach (1939); this film also stars Wayne (as the Ringo Kid), though its former Confederate soldier is another character, played by John Carradine. See Erisman.

[6] For a discussion of the role of freedom and the frontier in Firefly and Serenity, see Sturgis.

[7] On this aspect of Firefly and Serenity, see Szabo.

[8] On the Orientalist tendencies of Star Trek (and how these tendencies fit within larger trends in Amerifan culture), see Booker and Daraiseh.