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What ‘Firefly’ and Sci Fi Can Teach Us about Real-World Issues

Podcast with Dr. Bjorn MercerProgram Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Dr. Shelli Carter, Faculty Member, School of STEM

Science fiction often delves into real-world problems in a way that helps viewers understand those issues in a new light. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU STEM professor Dr. Shelli Carter about the television show “Firefly” and the social and personal issues it explores. Learn more about this series and other works of science fiction that have helped people better understand the world around them.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Shelli Carter, full-time faculty in the School of STEM. And today, we’re talking about the show “Firefly,” part of the series, How Science Fiction Explains Our World. Welcome, Shelli.

Dr. Shelli Carter: Thank you for having me Bjorn. It’s always enjoyable.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. First, I’m going to just jump into the question, can you provide an overview of the show “Firefly?”

Dr. Shelli Carter: Well, I will do my best and I will try to do it without referring to other obscure shows like “Cowboy Bebop.” “Firefly” was a show early 2000s, I suppose, or right before 2000. And it was Josh Whedon’s return to television, if you will, after his success with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the spinoff, “Angel.”

And it was a very different focus. He went with a sort of futuristic Space Cowboys. So, there’s spaceships, there’s colonization of other planets, other systems. But what you see in the show is, despite the technology advances that have allowed humans to enter space, there has similarly been almost a regression of some aspects of society. So, it’s much more similar to what we think of as the Old West. Guns are commonly used, for example, both bullets and laser forms. There are some advanced weapons, but we see that general technology and general life is not even as technologically advanced as we would consider ourselves to be now. For a lot of those societies, you have returned to agricultural. You have returned to dangerous mining throughout some of the episodes.

And all in all it’s a great look, in my opinion, at the human condition, and how the human condition remains the same, regardless of where we find ourselves in the universe, or what we surround ourselves with.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And thank you for that view of “Firefly,” Shelli. I’ve watched “Firefly,” but it’s not a show that I’ve re-watched versus, say, other shows. And I think for most people, when they think of shows, they think of “Star Wars” and they think of “Star Trek.” And since this is part of the series about how science fiction explains our world, when I see “Star Trek,” we think of kind of this idealistic future where technology is really fixing a lot of things. “Star Wars” is a little more realistic where people live in the real world, but technology has helped a lot. And so, “Firefly” is interesting where it doesn’t change the human condition.

And I’m glad you brought up Josh Whedon because I was huge fan of Buffy when it came out and he’s a great storyteller. And throughout all the seasons of Buffy, and even with the old movie back in the day, he really knows how to tell a story. And for you, this is a side question, what really got you in a “Firefly?” Was it Josh Whedon or was it the storytelling of “Firefly?”

Dr. Shelli Carter: That’s an interesting question. So, I was a fan of “Cowboy Bebop,” the anime, which has kind of a very similar feel to “Firefly” prior to “Firefly” coming out. So, I think I was probably attracted to the visual aspect of that particular storyline.

But to your point, I mean, Josh Whedon is an excellent storyteller. I think as this discussion progresses, we’ll get to some of the problems associated with him now, but we can’t deny that he was, in his heyday, an excellent storyteller. And that really is what hooked you in.

It’s really unfortunate that I think that this show, in particular, was hamstrung by many events outside of his control. When it was initially launched, I believe it was on Fox, they didn’t show the episodes in the order he wanted. One of the very early episodes was shown after an extended inning World Series baseball game. So, it was hampered from the get-go. And it ultimately ended up only having one TV series.

But I think it does speak to his power as a storyteller and how people were attracted to that particular show in the grassroots effort that, ultimately, resulted in him being able to kind of close out the series, if you will, with a big-budget production, the movie, “Serenity.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I love that because I remember when I used to watch, and not to regress into Buffy the series, but Buffy had excellent storylines from season to season that went through the entire seasons. Yet, each individual episode was a contained story in itself. So, it was a really good way of storytelling.

And you really see that coming back more recently in, let’s say, “The Mandalorian” where you have the overarching theme from season to season, but each individual episode is also very good. And I can see how, if it was presented on Fox non-sequentially, in the way Josh Whedon wanted it, how could it succeed? It’d be very difficult. On top of automatically competing with “Star Wars” and automatically competing with “Star Trek” in which those two products, those two stories dominate so much of people’s imagination.

Now, going back to “Firefly,” what are some of the real-world issues that are addressed in “Firefly.” And you already talked about it, but can you please expand on that?

Dr. Shelli Carter: Sure. I think the biggest issue that comes about from “Firefly” is the concept of social inequality. So, you have the haves and the have nots no different from what we see in some of today’s society. It’s not necessarily based on skin, if you will, instead, it can be based on proximity to the power center, which is, I forget actually what they called the core planet, it may have just been the core planet. But that planet where the capital is, and the technology is, and the power brokers are from a political sense. The closer you are to that planet, I mean, arguably, I guess it was probably easier to get supplies and get technology, but sort of the more you have the more of what we would consider a technologically advanced life, you might have better medical access and that kind of thing.

And that very much mimics what we see in the world today. If you are in a country like the United States, you have access. We can even consider the ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic. No one in the United States can’t get a vaccination, if they wish and they meet the criteria. But that is not true across the planet. So, if you live in a country that’s further removed from those power centers or the medical centers, you can’t access that.

And so, “Firefly” did a great job, like a lot of science fiction works do, of casting that situation in a remote way where it’s easy to look at, and it’s easy to think about the ramifications of that because it’s not, “Oh, I need to feel guilty because I have these things.” It’s, “Let me look at the inequalities that this is showing me. And let me consider the world in the light of those inequalities. And perhaps I am not able to do that if I just think about myself.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And that’s one of the nice things about science fiction and how it can explain world issues is we don’t have to think of real-world issues.

It makes me remember during the Cold War, I was born in the latter part of the Cold War, and I was raised during the Cold War, so I still remember a lot of that, in which we talked about the first, and the second, and the third world. And, at the time, it was more of just kind of a categorization that at least when I was taught it young, I didn’t think about it: First world, second world, third world.

But now, years later with the Cold War, there is so much that is coupled with that categorization. And besides two super powers “fighting over the world” and having all these horrible proxy wars in which other people died. And then, if you then throw in the fact that a chunk of the third world was colonized by the first world, say the European powers, then there’s a lot of messiness. A lot of real-world issues that get into there.

And science fiction is really a good way of being able to talk about that without having to be too “real,” if that makes sense.

Dr. Shelli Carter: Absolutely. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s an enduring genre, and has fans and especially think of the visual format, be it a television show, or be at a movie. More people I think can connect with those portrayals of science fiction and the human condition than might would be willing to pick up a book. I’m not going to pick up “Dune,” for example, a classic work of science fiction.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: The power structures in “Dune” are extremely important. And it’s a way of telling a story about inequality, and power structures and, well, violence. And so, the next question really is about ethics in “Firefly.” What are some ethical issues that are covered in “Firefly?”

Dr. Shelli Carter: Well, one of them actually, you just alluded to and it’s the idea of violence. What you see very common theme in “Firefly” in sort of the repeat interactions that the core characters have with outer planet people or others that they’re just interacting with, is this idea of might makes right. If you have the strength to take it, you take it. I think that’s sort of most obviously solidified in the characters of the Reavers, they don’t have a very big role in the television series. They’re sort of peripheral and you see them much more in the movie “Serenity” and that sort of core idea. But it’s, if I can take it, I’m going to take it.

The main character, the crew of the ship, “Firefly,” spend a lot of time considering and doing heist, if you will, sometimes flat out theft, but they do face the moral dilemmas. Okay, just because we can take this and it sounds like we’re going to be stealing from the rich kind of that Robin Hood idea. Well, they are then faced with the ramifications on the people immediately in front of them. “Okay, we thought we were stealing from the core. We thought we were stealing from the big, bad government guys. But, in fact, this was going to a town that absolutely needed these supplies. Or absolutely needed this medicine. So maybe we shouldn’t do that.” So, they face those moral situations, and have to face the question of whether or not their might does make it right to take those things? And so, I think that’s a big one throughout “Firefly” and “Serenity.”

The other thing that comes into play, and this is more, again, in the movie “Serenity,” as opposed to the series “Firefly.” And this is, I think, a growing ethical conversation in modern day society. And it’s kind of the idea of bio hacking. I’m assuming we’re a spoiler zone, if you will, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, these have been out so long. But there’s the mystery associated with the character River throughout the series. And she, certainly, displays some very unique and interesting abilities, not the least of which is a demonstration that she perhaps was trained as an assassin. But she has no real memory. She doesn’t really know what’s going on. She has big gaps. So, a lot of the sort of core conflict in the television series revolves around trying to get her help ultimately.

But then what we find out in the movie, “Serenity,” is that she was actually taken by the government because of her demonstrated superior intelligence. And she was experimented on along with a lot of other people, so that her brain did work differently. Her brain could do things. Now, they don’t go into the technology of what exactly they did other than it’s clear from her medical evidence that they did physically alter, and impact, and make changes to her brain.

And I say, this is a discussion of growing concern, not so much with the physical modification of brains. Hopefully, we’ve moved beyond that after our horrible experience with lobotomies. But we certainly have an ongoing discussion about the bioethics associated with genomic engineering and genomic modifications. And when is it right to do these things? When is it not right to do these things? This is actually the focus of one of our discussions in our General Biology, Gen Ed course. So that course is geared towards the non-science major, but people who want to take biology for their general education science credit.

And we talk about genetic modification and we talk about, is it right? In what situations is it right? Is it okay in an adult? Is it okay in a child? Is it okay in an embryo? And who ultimately makes those decisions?

And society as a whole and the scientists as a whole have not actually hashed out that full conversation, but “Serenity” gives us a snapshot into what happens if someone else is making those decisions for a person, or just for their own use. And they do something because, again, might makes right and they could.

And then the last big issue, and I will confess that when I watched “Firefly” and “Serenity,” I did not pick up on this particular piece and I don’t think a lot of people did. And, and I will fully attribute that to my own privileged upbringing, but there is the idea of representation. And this has become sort of a growing critique of “Firefly” in more recent years.

The society, it doesn’t go into what happened but, at some point in time, the Chinese government and some other government, we can assume a European government, banded together and they sort of took over everything. And they’re the central planet, they’re colonizing everything, they’re running everything, that’s the government. Everyone is capable of speaking English and Chinese. And you’ve seen many of the characters swearing in Chinese throughout the movie.

But then what has come up in more recent conversations, especially as we talk about that idea of white privilege, you don’t ever see a person of Asian ancestry in an authority position in “Firefly.” But if the Chinese government was central to that core government, and so central that Chinese is a second language for everyone, why?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And all those are absolutely wonderful comments on ethics in “Firefly.” And I’ll start with the last one and whitewashing is real. And we don’t have to go back decades to find examples, but that’s a great example. When I watched “Firefly” and “Serenity,” it had a somewhat diverse cast. But yeah, you do notice that they are swearing in, I’m assuming it’s Mandarin, but there’s very few people of Asian descent actually in the show. And it’s hard to know, back in the day when they were talking about it, when they were planning it, why wouldn’t they add more people of Asian descent to a show that seems to be completely immersed in, say, a future that is part Asian? And it could be part of whitewashing and that’s something that I think is a fair critique.

And it really makes me think of, and this is not sci fi, but if you watch a current show called The Great or even Bridgerton they do, I believe, colorblind casting. I apologize, I’m not sure what the exact term is. But like in The Great when you watch it, they’re all Russian. Catherine the Great, I believe the 17th century Russia. And although, Russia is a diverse country, most of the people in the power structures around St. Petersburg would have been white. And when you watch the shows they’re everything. The show does a really good cast of doing colorblind casting. And so, more recently, it’s a really good way of really showing representation, even though it’s not historically correct that’s okay.

To go into the other thing with bio hacking, really great, great comments, and with might makes right. And you can really see how in our world today and in the country we live in, the US, and you just go to any other country there’s a lot of ways in which might makes right from an insular perspective, like just us within the country, we take for granted, we’re like, “Well, of course, this is the way it should be.” But it’s also from our perspective versus a different perspective.

And it makes me think of Afghanistan, where Afghanistan was partially colonized a long time ago by the English. And then, got some independence. The Russians invaded, part of the Cold War. And then it, unfortunately, went over to, I believe, Al Qaeda. And then, we invaded. And it’s this horrible situation where the country just wants to exist and all of the powers around it are constantly tinkering, and invading, and killing. And really where are the ethics in that?

And you can see this type of issue then also played out in various science fiction properties. And so, science fiction is really interesting because it is able to explain and talk about things that happen in the real world while not getting too deep into the actual realities of the real world.

And so, one of the other questions is how do you separate the art from the artist? So, recently Josh Whedon has had some controversies, but he also has, through his storytelling, told some great stories, and also had some other ideas that he has brought up, which have been positive. But can you give a little description of him, the man from the myth.

Dr. Shelli Carter: If you think about Buffy, that was the first really strong female heroine character that many of us saw. A good time for a lot of Gen X and maybe some early millennials, but she was the hero and it wasn’t that she needed a man to come in and help her. Yeah, people came in and helped her, but there were a lot of very strong female characters in Buffy. And so, I think he kind of earned that reputation for, perhaps incorrectly, supporting women, and holding women up, and casting them in those lights and saying, “Hey, yeah, a woman can do what she wants to do.”

And some of that was continued in “Angel,” but I know in recent years it has come out a bit that what we maybe idolized in our head in terms of his view on women was, in fact, not what it was. I know there’s been some ongoing controversy of the way he interacted and wrote out the character that Charisma Carpenter played in Angel. And the current understanding is it’s a direct result of the fact that she chose to get pregnant, and that threw off his timetable, and his schedule for what he wanted for the series. So, he just wrote a horrible death for her. And that was it. She was done.

It has become a matter of discourse on whether or not he is, in fact, a performative feminist, not this, “Hey, I’m a solid feminist and I support women,” but it was all for show. And it was all in support of his own narrative. That could be similar to what we were just discussing about representation in “Firefly.” Yes, there were some, we’ll call them, non-white characters for lack of a better term. We think of the first mate, the way we think of Inara who was non-caucasian, but perhaps unclear. But, again, why were there no prominent Asian characters in “Firefly?”

And in facing that question from the artists, Josh Whedon’s not the only example we look at. I mean, we can think of other paragons of science fiction, Orson Scott Card wrote a very moving piece in his Ender’s series, especially “Speaker [for] the Dead” has some, for some people, very questionable political views.

We also can think of the ongoing debate revolving around JK Rowling and her view on feminism and transgender, and what that means. And how do you reconcile that idea with the power, and the impact she had on children growing up and reading Harry Potter, and reading Hermione, who again, was kind of like that Buffy figure. She could do everything. She was the smartest witch. She went on to become Minister of Magic.

I think it just goes to remind us that we tend to put artists on a pedestal but, at the end of the day, they’re human. And in some cases, you can continue to enjoy the art. I still enjoy “Firefly,” I still enjoy Buffy, what have you, knowing that Josh Whedon may not be this paragon of feminism that he cast himself to be.

But I think as we reach adulthood, many of us, there are some pivotal, like this is the person that kind of broke me in terms of the art versus the artist. For me, it was Marion Zimmer Bradley. I know I have friends whose children grew up on Harry Potter. And when some of the recent controversy came out about JK Rowling, they actually chose to burn their Harry Potter books. They were so destroyed by what they viewed as a betrayal and not able to get past that. So, they could no longer separate the artist from the art. But if you do that, you’re really going to lose most great art, I would say.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree. And I really like how you talked about performative feminism because, of course, what is feminism? There’s been decades and decades of feminism. So, which trend of feminism might you be talking about? I always talk about my mom and how she raised me as a second wave feminist. And second wave feminism is decades old by now.

With Harry Potter, and not to get into the details of Harry Potter, should you separate the art from the artist? And as an individual, should you only support people whom align to your ideas? And those ideas can be ethical and they can be moral. Or that would make your world very small, if you only supported that strictly aligned with how you are at this point in time. And I would say that also, because whomever we are right now will change. So, whatever our thoughts and ideas are right now, how have they changed since we were a teenager? How might they change in 10 years? How might they have changed 10 years ago? And I hope that we all grow and we all change, and that’s always a goal of it.

And so, with Josh Whedon and viewing his works as a potentially performative feminism that’s, of course, a critique. Josh did the best he could at the time with Buffy and with “Firefly,” and then with his Marvel properties. And we, as critics, can then critique and hopefully influence people in the future.

Now, from, say, the read of Josh Whedon as performative feminism, how might that help writers today in the art of science fiction they create tomorrow?

Dr. Shelli Carter: That’s an excellent question. And I think it might actually tie back to we had the sidebar conversation about colorblind casting, if you will. What is wrong with casting characters of more diversity, even if they’re not explicitly called out in the text? I don’t know if you would classify him science fiction so much, we’ll just talk about Neil Gaiman and “The Sandman” series. He’s got this wonderful audible audio version of the books with a very diverse acting cast. But if we look at them from a purely color perspective, they’re not necessary. But Netflix is also converting that into a television series. And they have been very mindful about representation in that casting. In fact, in the latest casting announcement they made, they included everyone’s pronouns because at least one of the characters is clearly meant to be transgender. Desire’s all things to all people, male and female. They went to the effort to cast a transgender actor in that particular role. But rather than calling out that actor as transgender by providing their pronouns, when they are making casting announcements they’re providing everyone’s pronouns.

So, there’s that idea of being inclusive. And even if something doesn’t bother you as a person, so pronouns, I match my physical pronouns, I don’t necessarily need to announce them. But by my use of those in a visible form, be it a email signature, or a profile, it makes it perhaps more welcoming for other people to display their pronouns, who might have reason not to.

And so, we can think about that. And we can think about the new writers and the new artist performing their art and thinking through more carefully, “Okay, I need to get out of my limited mindset.” Or, “I need to be more inclusive and welcoming to all people, or more people, if that’s what I wish to do.”

To your point about only supporting artists that align with you. Absolutely, we will all change, even if we think we’ll never change. The problem with only pursuing and enjoying art that aligns with views is you get in that echo chamber. And I think it’s truly impossible to see when you have gone down the wrong path, if you’re always just in the echo chamber.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And previously I’d written a few articles about, do you support the art or the person? From the classical music perspective, one always talks about Richard Wagner. And Wagner wrote some of the most amazing operas of the 19th century. He is known as a pivotal figure of basically before and after Wagner. But today we would easily call him a white supremacist. Now, not to excuse people of late 19th century views, unfortunately, a lot of people were anti-Semitic in the late 19th century. And Wagner was at the forefront of that. And so, today we look at him as a person and his views, they’re quite horrible. And then fast forward, 50 years later after he died, the Nazis loved him, and he became one of truly the templates of being a Nazi.

And so, Wagner’s view today, some people do not listen or support Wagner because of how the Nazis viewed him. Well, we should also look at how Wagner viewed himself and other people. And so, everything’s more complicated than that. And so, Wagner’s a little more straightforward where it’s easier to say Wagner was a bad person, “bad person.” Of course, ethically and morally what does that mean in our views of him today?

But then there’s another one called Anton Bruckner who is a Austrian. And the Nazis also loved him, but he was a mild-mannered man, who had basically no political views. And so, for years after World War II, because the Nazis loved Bruckner people didn’t listen to him. And so, it’s kind of like this false read into history because of association.

It is interesting because Josh Whedon, again, it’s still going on and I’m not one to judge on current issues. It will play out. And we all hope that people change. But it’s also important to step back and to view the person holistically.

Also, just as JK Rowling, and, in my own sense, I’ve tried to understand the controversy and it’s a little complicated. Step back and if you feel like you can’t support an artist just because of their views, that’s your choice. Now, you might change in a few years or you might not, but the most important thing is to not be judgmental. And to really try to understand people for where they’re coming from. At this point, Shelli, do you have any final thoughts, ideas about “Firefly,” or how science-fiction explains our world?

Dr. Shelli Carter: I’m going to make a plug actually for a couple of STEM courses. We have a series of courses that we call the STEM Humanities. These are general education courses, but one of them is actually focused on science fiction, and how science fiction allows us to explore societies and culture. We really run with the idea we started off on this podcast, which is, you can use science fiction, and you can use works of science fiction to examine the human condition. We don’t touch upon technology. The class is actually specifically meant not to focus on technology because it is open to all students at the university and we love diverse students in that class. But it allows us to just think the big what if questions.

For example, a series of books that I enjoy are by Kim Harrison, which is one of her pen names, I can’t remember what her real name is at the moment, but it’s called “The Hollows Series.” And it is a world in which sort of the premise behind the world and where it ends up is, what if instead of entering the space race, we had entered into a bioengineering race? Because the structure of DNA was discovered by Watson and Crick right around that same time that the space race kicked off. So, what is the government had chosen to put their money in bioengineering instead, and how that impacts society.

And actually a sort of pivotal moment in the precursor novel that she just recently came out with is bioengineering gone wrong. And how that changes the face of the planet. And how that has a very negative impact on the human population. But what, ultimately, ends up coming out of the story is that it was never just humans on the planet. And so, you have other creatures, and the interaction of other creatures and other societies, and mythical figures, if you will. Fairies and elves and witches. But it, again, allows us to look at that situation of me versus the other. And what does this tell me about me and the way I look at me versus the way I look at others?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I’m really glad you brought that up, and I’m really glad you talk about that about us versus the others. And so, many unfortunate conflicts that have existed in history and will continue to exist is really just vilifying the other. And if there’s one thing that science fiction can do is try to help us understand that that is an issue that creates violence. And the really the most important thing is to understand each other.

And today, we were speaking with Dr. Shelli Carter about “Firefly” part of the series, how science fiction explains our world. And my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening. For more information about our university, visit us at studyatapu.com. APU. American Public University.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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