How About No: Why a Firefly Reboot Is Probably a Terrible Idea

There was a bit of a splash last week when it was revealed that Fox might, finally, be interested in revisiting the Firefly property. The word used was “reboot”, not revival or renewal, but the company’s apparent make-or-break factor was that they would only revisit it if Joss Whedon was interested in coming back to run the whole deal. Presumably, eternally optimistic Browncoats everywhere raised a cheer of joy, their hope renewed. But should Firefly come back to the airwaves?

Frankly, I think that’s a terrible idea.

Well, to be clearer, it’s a terrible idea unless they address the various and sundry deeply problematic problems that the original series had. The issue I’m coming up against is this: I suspect that eliminating all of these problems would make a show that barely resembles the beloved-by-many original. The show suffered from a variety of racisms with a strong sexist undercurrent, and these were not so much vague issues as they were built into the worldbuilding of the show, deep down in the foundations. Let’s get digging, shall we?


Luce has unearthed the most ground-level issue with Firefly’s worldbuilding before: despite drawing heavily from Chinese culture to create a ‘verse that is, apparently, a blend of East and West, there are no noteworthy Chinese people—or, really, Asians of any nationality—in the show at all. Ultimately, she points out:

…we’re left with a bunch of mainly white characters who all speak some amount of Mandarin Chinese, use chopsticks, and dress up in Asian-inspired clothes and hairstyles. Without an Asian character in the cast and without Asian values reflected in the storytelling, this little bit of otherwise creative worldbuilding smacks of cultural appropriation.

You Can’t Take The Sky From Me: Racebending the Firefly Universe

Some fans have gone so far as to speculate that the major reason Chinese culture was included at all was that the characters could swear in Mandarin and the censors wouldn’t bleep it. However, while this is a foundational world-building problem, there’s a relatively easy way to fix it, should they reboot the show: they would just need to properly feature and develop Chinese characters within the main cast as well as throughout the Firefly universe. Given the ongoing and various scandals over the whitewashing of Asian roles in today’s Hollywood, I’d like to believe that a reboot would be plagued by similar derision should it attempt to recreate a ‘verse with all the trappings of Chinese culture but none of the people who have lived it.

Moving onto the next issue, Firefly is a sci-fi western, and that’s where the rest of its race problems begin and end. Most notable among these is that Joss has described the conflict between civilized spacefolk and the Reavers as the sci-fi version of “Cowboys and Indians”. So if the people from the Federation are the cowboys…? Yup, that sure as hell makes the Reavers the Native Americans. Let that one sink in. While, yes, the trope of the civilized vs. the barbaric is a major and common theme of westerns, that doesn’t magically make it less racist. As one blogger points out, once you notice them, the similarities between old white settler myths about Natives and the way the show talks about Reavers are chilling and obvious:

The way Reavers turn others into Reavers, reminiscent of narratives about Native Americans stealing white children and raising them as their own; the hit-and-run nature of their assaults, with the mutilated bodies (also more present in White narratives of settlement than in reality, and introduced by White colonizers); particularly, in the film, the way they have to pass through “Reaver country” to get to the outpost. (source)

While we finally learn that the Reavers were created through an adverse reaction to a government chemical intended to pacify populations, it doesn’t do much to humanize the Reavers themselves. We never get a chance to understand them or see the world from their point of view—they remain animalistic killers and we ultimately are meant to cheer as River cuts them down.

In a reboot, there’s no way they could hold onto the unquestioned concept of the Reavers as mindless, chaotic evil beings. Either they would have to cut this aspect of the story entirely, or they would have to devote serious screentime to unpacking and understanding them.

A final race issue is slightly more subtle but still a bit dicey. While we are meant to empathize with Mal’s previous military service in the Browncoats—he was an underdog up against a much bigger and more organized force, and the people love them an underdog—the parallels to the historical (and Hollywood-glorified) Old West force me to draw another historical comparison. What is another group of rural separatists who fought against a more industrialized Union—I mean, a Unification; who lost, but who still in places refuse to fully accept it, and who glorify their symbols despite their defeat at the hands of the unifying army? What gruesome struggle swept the nation shortly before the boom of Western settlement that Firefly’s sci-fi Old West parallels?

Heritage, not hate. (via nerdsonearth)

Heritage, not hate. (via nerdsonearth)

Yes, I am talking about the Civil War. If you think I’m stretching here, it’s noteworthy to point out that Joss himself was first inspired to write Firefly after reading Michael Shaara’s book, Killer Angels, which is about the Battle of Gettysburg. Arguably, he could have been inspired by any tale of the minutiae of soldiers’ lives and relationships, but if your story is about a guy who lost a rebellion and then went out to the frontier, and you tie said story to white Western expansion explicitly in other ways, it’s not exactly a huge leap of logic to tie said rebellion to the Civil War.

While we’re given some justification in siding with Mal here because we later discover that the Federation was doing some bad stuff (see above point), creating a universe where we’re explicitly meant to sympathize with a pretty clear Confederacy parallel is sketchy as hell. If this were going to be rebooted, I at least would need a much clearer and more specific justification for Mal’s beliefs than “I’m a space libertarian” to buy into his rugged anti-government rebelliousness.

Finally, there’s that little issue of misogyny, specifically toward Inara. While Companions are supposedly revered, there is still apparently a culture of distaste toward them, to some extent—they’re okay as lovers, but not as spouses, and even their clients often assume that they have been forced into their lifestyle and need rescuing. Other sex workers, whose jobs don’t have the veneer of respectability that comes from Companion training and licensing and the more spiritual and artistic aspects of Companion life, are subject to even greater derision. This is exemplified in Mal’s behavior toward Inara. We’re meant, presumably, to take his unkindnesses as code for “he’s being mean to her because he liiiiikes her”. He lashes out because he’s jealous, and he’s jealous because he’s unable to intellectually separate her work from her as a person. It’s a tale as old as time, but does such an old trope have a place in a distant-future sci-fi series?

(via fanpop)

tfw the captain’s an asshole. (via fanpop)

If the powers that be were to insist that sexism and anti-sex work attitudes still exist in the same forms centuries into the future, this could stay in a reboot preliminarily, but it would have to be openly addressed and challenged before the close of the show. Heroes’ behavior doesn’t have to be perfect all the time; that would be boring. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be called out when their behavior is shitty and learn from it. There are plenty of other, less sexist ways to put a wrench in the possibility of a happy relationship between Mal and Inara that don’t hinge on him being affronted by her sex work and envious of her clients. By changing this, it would not only address the unpleasant misogyny of the original, but it would become a more sex-positive and sex-work-positive show as a whole.

Now, I’ve based my whole argument on the idea that the term “reboot” means “start over from a fresh slate”. I’m not sure what could be done should the original cast return for a second season a la the X-Files revival. I do know that it would feel almost cringeworthily pandering should they revive rather than reboot. I was never the strongest fan of the original, liking it more for the quippy dialogue than the actual story, and I have less than zero interest in seeing the cast return after fifteen years with some vague excuse given for their age difference in the meantime (not to mention Shepherd Book’s absence; rest in peace, Ron Glass.)

If they were to reboot rather than revive, on the other hand, it still vaguely alarms me that the condition on which this whole thing is predicated is Joss’s involvement. Is Firefly Joss’s creation? Yes, obviously. But looking at the sexist, weirdly Nazi-erasing hot mess that was Joss’s latest big feature outing, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I don’t think that we can fall back on him to deliver this kind of nuanced revision to his original creation—one that, apparently, a large subset of geek culture really loves. Needless to say, while I don’t have high hope of him actually agreeing to come back—even the original news piece I linked mentions that he’s always been ambiguous about maybe doing it if all the appropriate planets aligned—I really think we’re better off leaving Firefly dead. I had to accept that Sirius Black wasn’t coming back, y’all. It’s time to let this one stay in the ground too.

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9 thoughts on “How About No: Why a Firefly Reboot Is Probably a Terrible Idea

  1. Well stated.

    I am not a huge fan of the show, and didn’t see it until relatively recently (around 5 years ago); while I found it interesting and compelling enough to watch all the episodes plus the film, and found some of the ideas in it intriguing and some of the incidents and dialogue amusing, it never quite sat well with me for a huge number of reasons, and you’ve given very good voice to them here, so thanks very much for doing so! 🙂

  2. Firefly was fun, but I think it’s one of the most overhyped (almost to the point of being mythologized, famous in geek culture as this Great Creation Tragically Killed By Evil Networks Before Its Time!) shows I’ve come across. And that’s even without taking into account all the icky stuff you’ve talked about here. And yeah, after AoU, it might be good not to stroke Whedon’s ego any more, because we’ve seen where that can lead things…

  3. This article makes some good points but also misses some, I think.

    1. Chinese. Sure. it would be great if a reboot/revive has some Chinese characters. OTOH calling the use of Mandarin “cultural appropriation” is (like almost every mention of cultural appropriation) misguided. Even if the concept weren’t fatally flawed, it wouldn’t mean we could apply it to every case of somebody speaking a foreign language or eating foreign food. There are plenty of Indian films where characters speak English some of the time, but we don’t call that “cultural appropriation” (actually more of a relic of imperialism, but that’s a whole other topic). What Firefly shows is Chinese being a dominant language in the ‘verse, which is cool, assuming we ignore the fact that all human languages will have mutated beyond recognition that far in the future and just take Chinese to mean “some language that evolved from Chinese” and English to mean “some language that evolved from English.” Again, if we’re going to talk race and SF, we should assume that if we manage to survive long enough to get into space, most people will have very mixed ancestry, so it’s not so much a need for diversity in the current sense as having a lot more racially indistinct actors – space is going to be like Brazil, only more so.

    2. Cowboys and Indians. I don’t think we can infer from Whedon’s throwaway “cowboys and Indians” line that Reavers can be identified with Native Americans. They’re the result of a government experiment, not a tribe. When I watched the show, I was reminded more of pirates. OTOH, the article makes a good point that if you’re going to make a cowboy film, you need to take into account the issues with cowboy films. More generally, if you’re going to draw from any genre, you need to look critically at the tropes of that genre (something Whedon did brilliantly with Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

    3. Civil War. I’m not so sure about this one because I’m European, and the Civil War isn’t a big thing for us – I don’t even remember it being taught in school. Obviously Whedon is no Confederate sympathiser, but I’ve noticed a tendency in American film and TV to romanticise rebels, which means trying to have your Dixie cake and eat it: you have a character who is basically a dashing Johnny Reb, but without all the racism. (Hell on Wheels’ Bohannon is a classic example). So keep the Browncoats, but tread carefully, I guess. At least the coats are brown and not grey.

    4. Sexism. Whedon produces some of the most anti-sexist shows on TV. We have a female soldier/pilot, a female engineer and a female killing machine, and you focus on the courtesan? That aside, I thought it was great to have a prime time TV series where a main character is a sex-worker and is portrayed as strong, intelligent and independent.

    As for reboot vs. revive, I think a reboot would be pointless. The original Firefly wasn’t perfect, but it was still a classic, and there’s no point in remaking it. A sequel set in the same universe would be great, and maybe some of the original cast/characters could feature, though I doubt we’ll see Jayne – I can’t see Whedon working with Baldwin again after Gamergate.

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  5. Well, admittedly the issues weren’t so obvious to me when I first watched the show, but… hindsight really is 20/20. So yes to all this.

    The bit about Inara… there’s the scene in Shindig, where she rips a shred off Mal for punching someone ELSE who insulted her. “I don’t respect your job, he doesn’t respect you.” Clearly there’s a division that makes sense to Mal… but I think that’s the only time his jerkiness is actually addressed outside of the constant sniping between him and Inara. It would have been nice if the show could have addressed and resolved that mess.

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