There are a great many things about Firefly that are special. The show is a perfect illustration of Joss Whedon’s belief that “good sci-fi can’t be something you like, it has to be something you love1.” Fans of the show continue to love the Firefly universe over a decade after its one-season run was completed. The thing most of us “browncoats” would likely say we love most, though, is the people. The relationships in Firefly feel authentic. They feel grounded despite the fact that much of what we see happens while flying through space.
No matter if it’s the close sibling bond between Simon and River, the surprisingly sweet marriage of Wash and Zoe, the “everyone’s frenemy” that is Jayne, or the socially complex love between Mal and Inara or Kaylee and Simon, the way these people interact with each other is what we keep coming back for. But of all the relationships on Firefly, the one that is arguably the most significant is the friendship between Zoe and Malcolm.
The relationship between Malcolm and Zoe predates the events of Firefly and is an integral part of the show’s primary themes. It also seems to play to a classic sci-fi convention. He’s the dashing captain who will do what he thinks is right even when it’s a terrible idea, she’s the steely first officer making sure they don’t all get killed in the process; he’s Kirk, she’s Spock. But aside from the depth and thematic significance of the relationship, it’s one of only a few I can recall, especially in mainstream science fiction, where a heterosexual man and woman are friends and partners with no sexual tension or romantic subtext.
Aside from the fact that it makes the show feel more authentic, it demonstrates that sci-fi can push back against some of the tropes it has helped create. The friendship between Malcolm and Zoe demonstrates that a platonic friendship between a man and a woman is just as essential as any other relationship, and yet it’s one we are rarely shown in a sci-fi property, at least not in so prominent a manner.
Many sci-fi stories, including some of our favorites, often portray mixed gender friendships as having either sexual tension or romantic attraction at least as a subtext if not a direct plot element. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, for example, Dr. Bashir and Lt. Dax have a deep and meaningful friendship. It is a friendship, however, that started as an unrequited romance and never entirely abandons that dynamic, eventually shifting narrative focus to Dax’s romantic relationship with Worf and Bashir’s bromance with O’Brien. Star Trek: Enterprise’s T’Pal and Archer also become very close friends and form a real bond, but the relationship begins with sexual and romantic tension which is transferred to Commander Tucker rather than really dealt with or resolved. Even Finn and Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens are not immune to this. While that film does a fantastic job of representing this exact type of relationship, there are more brief moments of romantic and/or sexual tension between Rey and Finn than we ever get with Zoe and Cpt. Reynolds. While the context of those moments works perfectly for TFA, they do also at least seem to preemptively acknowledge that romantic tension is expected from the audience based on the gender of the two primary heroes.
Compared to these other characters though, Mal and Zoe have an incredibly long history. They fought together in the war and are shown through various flashbacks to have engaged in incredibly brutal combat against a much more powerful enemy who ultimately defeated them. They are bound by those experiences and the shared sensation of having fought a losing battle for a righteous cause. They have saved each others’ lives repeatedly and can depend on each other without reservation. After the war, they went into business together as smugglers, naming their ship Serenity after that last battle. They have spent years and years living and working together as partners and equals and they have developed a lifelong bond that is at the very core of Serenity’s shipboard community and Firefly’s narrative dynamic.
That’s a powerful thing to see. Many sci-fi fans are treated to the “and then they fell in love” plot so often that it becomes expected. Don’t get me wrong; sci-fi is at least partly escapism and romantic relationships of all types are something that absolutely should be in those stories—they certainly are in Firefly. But when a platonic relationship between different gendered people is so rare that we can count off examples on one hand, that sends a message that can lead to distorted views of what healthy human relationships actually are. It contributes to a perception that unrelated men and women simply don’t have platonic personal relationships. While we all know that to be untrue, the social more exists and genre tropes help reinforce it.
When Firefly does address the perception that friendships between men and women must always involve sexual tension, it does so perfectly. The episode “War Stories” features Wash becoming distressed at the closeness of his wife Zoe’s relationship with Malcolm. Specifically that she listens to Mal over himself and that they’ve been through things she will never go through with him. Though he may be our favorite leaf on the wind, Wash is presented as being mostly in the wrong here and evinces fragile masculinity. He is shown to be jealous and somewhat irrational while simultaneously demonstrating that the closeness of Mal and Zoe is strong enough that it’s causing marital stress. But when Mal and Wash are kidnapped by Nishka, we are treated to one of the most memorable conversations in the entire series. As they are tortured, Wash and Mal have a massive argument about Zoe and her closeness to Mal. We see them become more and more raw and angry as the torture being inflicted on them gets worse and worse. At one point Wash says “This whole captain thing isn’t Zoe’s problem… it’s the guy she never slept with thing. Hell, Mal, I wish ya had slept with her, then at least she’d be over it.” We see Wash making the assumption that unfulfilled sexual tension is a core component to their relationship and it pisses him off.But we also see the moment where Wash realizes that this whole argument is Mal trying to keep him from breaking; that it no longer has anything to do with them fighting over Zoe and has become entirely focused on Mal trying to keep them both alive. As Mal piles on insinuation and belittlement, we become more aware that he’s just trying to keep them both conscious. When Wash finally sees the look in Mal’s eye as he “argues” through the horror to keep their spirits up, he begins to understand that not all love is about romance; he begins to see what his wife went through with his captain and why it’s so powerful.
When Zoe arrives to buy them back from Nishka, she is forced to choose between her captain and her husband. She chooses her husband in a split second. Once they have returned to Serenity, both Wash and Zoe immediately begin plans to rescue Mal. Wash has gone from seeing the bond between Mal and Zoe as a threat to understanding it and embracing it. He has seen how important their connection is and shared it for a moment, leaving him eager to risk his life to help protect the man he previously considered a rival. Wash “gets it.”
The end of the episode features Mal revisiting Wash’s earlier statement that he wished his wife had slept with Reynolds to create a particularly awkward moment of mock sexual tension between him and Zoe which Wash is able to interrupt. Wash is shown that his fears are groundless and we are shown that Mal and Zoe hooking up would, indeed, be awkward as hell.
This scene often comes to mind when I see talk about excessive “shipping.” There are always fans of geek culture who really want to see certain characters end up together (disclosure: Pricefield forever!!!). That level of commitment to a piece of fiction is fantastic and one that creators and fans both love. But when we focus entirely on romantic matchmaking between our faves, we miss the fact that sometimes they’re better off in a different type of ship all together.
This scene can arguably be taken as a rebuttal to shipping, but I think it ultimately argues that the value of Mal and Zoe’s friendship is significantly greater than anything we could expect from a romantic pairing. By matching a strong independent woman with a strong independent man in a purely platonic yet immensely deep relationship, Firefly really shows us the value of portraying those relationships—in this case that friendship is arguably the bedrock of the entire crew dynamic. When there’s disagreement or anger between Malcolm and Zoe, the entire crew is thrown off. When they’re in perfect sync, the entire crew is better for it.
While many of the events of Firefly (and moreso Serenity) have a grandiose “space opera” quality to them, the humanity of the crew and the relationships they form are as authentic as nearly any sci-fi I can recall. The show has rightly been praised for being inclusive and this area is no exception. But when it comes to a relationship like this, a fairly common one in real life, even other inclusive shows like Star Trek often leave it out.
There has been an overdue reexamination of inclusivity in geek spaces lately. As a result, we have seen more diversity across the board and a simultaneous pushback to that diversity. Firefly is a perfect example of why the product of inclusivity is better content for everyone. It’s a fandom that spans numerous subcultures and often serves as a uniting force. It’s a fandom that features a lifelong platonic friendship between a woman and a man as a pillar of its storytelling. This is done in a way that feels entirely natural… because it is. Not every relationship, in space or on Earth, is based on romantic and/or sexual attraction and geeks of all stripes know that. Hell, even Jayne knows that.
1: Interview with Joss Whedon included on the dvd release of Serenity.