Sunday, May 16, 2010
But let's look first at the contexts: Star Trek and Firefly exist in very different universes. Star Trek is set in a 23rd and 24th century where faster than light travel is common, and so are planets populated with intelligent alien species. Firefly is set in a 24th century without warp drive and without aliens. At some unspecified time in the past, the Earth got "used up," and spaceships left for a distant solar system. They must have been "generation" ships, where generations of people were born and died before their descendants reached this other star system. Which is a large one, with lots of planets and many moons, and that's where all of Firefly takes place.
The rocket technology looks fairly mechanical, but it has to be far in advance of what we have here now. And those ships brought with them "terraforming" technology, that transformed planets in decades (which according to today's terraforming theory, is very fast, though not the "instant" sort seen in Star Trek II.) But in s/f terms, that lends a certain credibility to the cowboys in space premise, based loosely (Whedon says) on the period after the Civil War. That's in some ways an unappetizing idea--turning the defenders of slavery into freedom fighters, and the suggestion (made anonymously on Wikipedia) that the Reivers are based on American Indians is just disgusting and racist. But otherwise, it's not a bad s/f premise.
In some ways, it's got similar roots to the original Star Trek--both started out partly with the idea of a pioneer anthology, Wagon Train to the Stars. And both apparently discovered in short order that they had great stories in the crew as continuing characters, and in their relationship to the character of the ship itself. (In fact, they both centered on the loyalty the crew members had for each other, even with some internal treachery.) Plus there was something of the cowboy in Kirk, and a lot of the frontier adventures in the original series Star Trek.
But the key difference is the Alliance v. the Federation. Is the Federation impossible? Is it possible for humanity to become "better people" without genetic manipulation and drugs? Some don't believe so--even at least one former Star Trek writer. (Nick Sagan had a character in one of his novels perform such an artificial manipulation in order to get people to get along. When I suggested that wasn't necessary, people could become better on their own, he didn't agree, but did say his father Carl had agreed with me.)
Let's start with placing this question in terms of the two story universes. The discovery of warp drive and the almost simultaneous discovery of intelligent aliens, following years of chaos and war, made a profound difference in Star Trek's 22nd century. That all these immense changes over time could change how humanity sees itself, seems at least credible. After all, some humans already know things that would help humanity get a grip. Moreover, the Vulcans helped guide Earth in its transformation.
In the Star Trek universe, a united humanity could transform Earth with the help of technologies that made eradicating poverty and disease a lot easier than it had ever been. And even the nations of Earth in the Firefly universe unite to go into space--that's why characters who speak English curse in Chinese. The two superpowers merged to form the Alliance.
But beyond the integrity of the concepts in their respective story universes, there is what Star Trek became: which was in important ways the test of an idea: if humanity is to survive, it has to get better. So how can it get better? What would that look like? Star Trek is an exploration of those possibilities.
Technology helped, but Star Trek's Federation also rejected technologies of control that the Alliance embraced: specifically genetic manipulation and drugs that alter mind and behavior. Basically what made the Federation different was that it had learned from the past mistakes of Terran empires, where exploration--often, by the navy-- was just the advance scouting party for exploitation and invasion. That's what the Prime Directive was all about: the right of all species to live, and, as Captain Picard said: "We are not invaders. We are explorers."
It that possible? Can humans modify their behavior by deciding to do so? Well, some would say that's exactly what civilization is for. That's what being a conscious social species entails. And that is what development as a civilization and a species means: that we learn from past mistakes, that we even learn how to judge our own motives and impulses, and decide on the basis of knowledge and principle.
Our nature as humans contains violent impulses, greed, cruelty, anger, lust for power, selfishness. People think of that as human nature, even as animal nature. But humans--and a lot of animals--would not survive without cooperation and nurturing, as well as compassion, loyalty, altruism and empathy. That's human nature, too, and what gets expressed is often a matter of character but also social support, and what the culture approves and honors. Clearly these virtues exist in the Firefly universe--many bind the Firefly crew.
It's a valid observation--and a valid dramatic premise--that humans are prone to go overboard in whatever direction, and so some visionaries delude themselves into a need for perfection, especially in their terms, which leads them to abuses and terrible tyranny--all in the name of their ideal.
But a society that has recognized past mistakes and encourages itself to become better--that's also a valid dramatic premise, and in Star Trek it has proved to be an inspiring one. That Star Trek creates what some people call a Utopia--a perfected society, a definition that's been imposed on the term--is a common charge, alive through repetition more than evidence. There are plenty of problems and problem people in the Federation, according to actual Star Trek stories. It is hardly perfection. It is however a Utopian project in the sense that it attempts to model a better future. And given the pickle we're in, there's not much point in modelling a worse one.
Firefly itself models a future in which some people become better than their worst impulses, with a sense of frontier morality that's as genuine as frontier justice, especially in the courage and loyalty and love that the crew has for each other. Given the probable chaos in our future (which is also part of the Star Trek 21st century future), these are good models, too. In some ways they are contrasting visions, but in other more important ways, not so much.
I don't expect hardcore Browncoats to see it that way. The gun-toting individualist may be attractive but beyond metaphor it's also in danger of being the fetish of the deluded. It's easy to make fun of Star Trek's championing of alternatives to violence, though TV and movie thrills consideration usually dictated otherwise. On the other hand, it was and is courageous, and more practical, more sane.
The dissing of Star Trek by Firefly and its fans itself seems a little shortsighted. The Serenity featurettes have both Whedon (in a more carefully nuanced way) and an unnamed fan exult that Firefly was a cancelled series that became a movie! How amazing! When has that ever happened!