A Government Is a Body of People, Usually Notably Ungoverned


Sara Hinson looks for libertarian themes in Joss Whedon's brilliant sci-fi western Firefly, whose premature cancellation suggests the network execs responsible were channeling the bright lights who iced Star Trek after three seasons. Tyler Cowen, on the other hand, detects Burkean conservative themes, as well as offering links to a passel of other libertarian takes on the show.

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  1. Okay. Let’s take the gloves off.

    Firefly vs. Galactica?

    I’ve seen both and I lean toward the latter as maybe THE best show of the last decade. Only “The Wire” (thx to Reason for pointing my HBO-less self to that one) is in the running with it. I think it is that good.

  2. I’m not going to eve attempt that particular Sophie’s Choice, but BSG is certainly the best think *currently* on TV. (I think that’s how the promo spots on sci-fi even refer to it now: The best show on television.) They get extra bonus points for using one of my favorite Glass pieces, “Metamorphosis One,” as incidental music.

  3. Firefly vs. Galactica? I kind of think of them like kids: you don’t have a favorite, you just love both of them. Throw in Farscape and you’ve got the best of American TV sci-fi in maybe 20 years.

  4. Nathan,

    You have to throw out Farscape’s later seasons, if you ask me. Random isn’t the same as good.

  5. I like Firefly way more than Galactica. I don’t pretend to be well-schooled in libertarian theory, but I am a SF geek (somewhere between a blue and a red belt). While Firefly’s future world is a little (ok, a lot) dystopian, it’s not nearly as nihilist as Galactica, and I think the latter loses points simply because of its origins, no matter how brilliant the present version is.

    Besides, it’s Joss.

    And the older I get, the more I think that the original Trek – blessed be the Roddenberry – wasn’t all that great, and the guys who cancelled it should not be faulted for failing to predict its immortality. It’s not like they were predicting the demise of guitar bands.

  6. Jason

    Yeah, I’ll have to agree Farscape got a bit soap-operaish the last couple of seasons, but those first few were just fantastic. Plus, I’d take Farscape at its worst over any of the Stargates at their best any day of the week.

  7. Jason Ligon,

    You may also want to give _Deadwood_ a try, if you’ve already signed up for HBO.

    Season One of _The Wire_ is probably the best crafted TV I’ve ever seen.

    And does no one appreciate the sly political satire that is _Arrested Development_?


  8. “Season One of _The Wire_ is probably the best crafted TV I’ve ever seen.”

    Mark my words, “His name was Snot Boogey?” will go down in the lexicon of great opening lines to great stories. Call McNultey Ishmael.

  9. I’ll second the vote for Arrested Development. There hasn’t been a show that consistently smart, funny and biting since the Larry Sanders Show. Jeffrey Tambor struck gold twice.

    “Hey now!”

  10. I haven’t seen the Wire (nor did I see the Corner… no HBO) but I did love Homicide: Life on the Street by the same creators.

  11. Arrested Development = hilarious

    but I missed the political satire aspect. can you clue me in, Anon? admittedly, I haven’t watched consistently, but I have seen quite a few episodes.

  12. I love Firefly. Got it on DVD. Lend it to whoever I can with the admonishment that I will take their firstborn if it isn’t returned.

    I can’t wait for Serenity to come out next month.

    Brilliant show.

  13. Having just watched ten eps of Firefly in the past four days, I find it hard to choose between it and Galactica.
    My favorite point of Galactica is that while the original show made you go “Ooooh, cool space ships and hot chicks and evil robots and Audrey Landers in a fur bikini,” the new show makes you feel just how much it would suck to be on the run with the fate of the race at stake.
    Firefly illustrates beutifully that highly moral, exceptionally noble people can be utter bastards. It also feels like Mike Resnick’s Santiago books. BTW, “Companions” are not only lisenced, but need “academy training,” which makes me think further seasons would have revealed a Bene Gesserit kinda thing going on.
    That being said, I’d still have to cop out and go with Farscape. It did SF big and freaky, and was the closest we’ve gotten to the tradition of space opera from Olaf Stapleton to Peter Hamilton. Ditto with the new Dr. Who.
    Lastly, with the finer and finer margins for network TV these days, I do not think we will get another quality SF show until HBO tries their hand at one. Galactica made it solely because it got word of mouth buzz through illegal downloading when season 1 aired in UK. I doubt NBC would have thrown such a promo-storm (let alone give the miniseries a second airing on network TV!) without that buzz.
    P.S. The SF shows slated for this fall look like eight flavors of shit.

  14. Jeff, thanks for bringing up the Bene Gesserit. why can’t there be a good movie/ TV adaptation of Dune? is that so much to ask for?

    aside: hey, look everyone, a discussion of sci-fi without mentioning Star Wars (well, until now)

  15. Biologist: I liked the SciFi adaptation of Dune. I also like watching Lynch’s version with the sound down.
    Given how well the SciFi miniseries went, there was talk at one point of a show around Duncan Idaho which would go troll around the Dune universe.
    BTW, Whedon is bridging Firefly and Serenity with a three-issue comicbook miniseries. The first two isues are out now.
    It is sad the the only SF TV that came close to showing us a truly macroscale hitech posthuman future was the singularly unwatchable Andromeda.

  16. aside: hey, look everyone, a discussion of sci-fi without mentioning Star Wars (well, until now)

    Mainly because the last 3 movies were shit (well, I assume they were. The first one was god-awful and I refused to plunk down hard earned cash to see the next two).

    And since the orig. topic was about politics and sci-fi has anyone else read David Brin’s essays on Star Wars? He gave the Lord of the Rings a good boxing about the ears too.

  17. Whedon has been writing Astonishing X-Men and despite committing the sin of brining a dead character back to life (other than Jean Grey), he’s been doing a great job.

  18. I swore off Marvel a while ago. I didn’t watch Firefly when it aired on Fox because I had seen so many wretched Whedon-penned Buffy episodes.
    I work at a Fox and WB duopoly station, so its my job.

  19. Firefly is the best show ever. Glad to see you’re a fellow fan, Julian.

  20. It is sad the the only SF TV that came close to showing us a truly macroscale hitech posthuman future was the singularly unwatchable Andromeda.

    That’s because Kevin Sorbo can’t pronounce words like “macroscale,” “hitech,” “posthuman,” or “showing” for that matter.

  21. ok someone has to say it…

    Firefly is a rip off of cartoon called Cowboy Beebop….anyone want to give a libertarian critic of Cowboy Beebop.

    Hasn’t Whedon been in this kind of plagerism trouble before???

  22. Nathan-
    I read Brin’s LOTR opinions before Fellowship of the Ring came out in theaters. A thoughful counterweight to all the gushy traditionalism orbiting the hype of the film, but I didn’t think it was anything special.

    Agree with Jeff that Scifi’s version of Dune was respectable, though Alicia Witt’s version of Alia in the Lynch film was better. Didn’t think much of Firefly while it was on air. The DVD is coming from Netflix so I’m going to give it another look.

  23. I’ve been writing a Firefly spec recently, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I think it really is some of the best-done moral ambiguity I’ve ever seen on TV – not just tossing in character traits on each side until you reach some kind of balance, not just throwing Kobayashi Marus at the cast, Whedon really created an universe organically laid out in greyscale. Just take Mal – fiercely loyal to the end, big on keeping his word, and absolutely loves to suckerpunch people, and all of these things make perfect sense for who he is. I’m a huge fan.

    Moving on, I second biologist on Whedon’s run on X-Men. Of course, the Piotr thing wasn’t really that shocking. Even setting aside the traditions of the comic book industry, Whedon has proved plenty willing to bring back characters from the beyond – Ripley in Alien: Resurrection, Angel, Buffy, he’s said he would have done Tara but Amber Benson didn’t want to. He’s got a love for resurrecting characters matched only by his love of killing them off.

  24. “Firefly is a rip off of cartoon called Cowboy Beebop….anyone want to give a libertarian critic of Cowboy Beebop.”

    Errrrr… No.

    The only thing that the two series have in common is that they are based around a rickety old cargo ship. That’s where the similarities end.

    Did Whedon rip off the old RPG Traveller as well?

  25. Off the top of my head, the most notable libertarianish aspect of Cowboy Bebop is the weekly bounty hunter show that the crew watches each week before going fugitive hunting.

  26. Joss Whedon, why do you hate Spike Spencer?

    Spike Spiegel, actually.

  27. Scenescent:

    Colossus’ resurrection disappointed me because it seems to have caused Kitty Pryde to revert to infatuated little girl mode, besides the obviously implausible “raising the dead” aspect of the story. Whedon is forgiven because Kitty is back in comics, but I much preferred the Kitty Pryde of the Excalibur series, especially near the end of the run, when she was involved with Peter Wisdom. It seemed that they were finally letting a character grow up, but now that’s all gone.

  28. Correction acknowledged. Sloppy, it’s been a while since I’ve watched.

  29. Biologist –

    Yeah, that’s fair, “teenage girls” do seem to be his wheelhouse (Buffy, Darlene on Roseanne, I remember hearing once that his original Alien: Resurrection script was about Newt), and when he has other female characters he tends to write them as girls, which can throw things off – it really didn’t make sense for Kaylee to be that shy about Simon, for example.

    What I think it really is, though, is that he’s mentioned before that Kitty Pryde was essentially his favorite character in the history of fiction, and she was a big influence on him growing up – I think he’s essentially writing the character as he remembers her from his childhood, and he’s willing to mess with the character or even retcon a little if it means that he gets to tell her coming-of-age his way.

  30. It is sad the the only SF TV that came close to showing us a truly macroscale hitech posthuman future was the singularly unwatchable Andromeda.

    I thought Andromeda was great the first two seasons. Then they decided it was too intelligent, fired the creator, and started dumbing it down – and then killed it. Oops.

  31. It’s not like libertarian leaning shows are a new thing. Just thinking through the shows of my childhood:

    Strong defense of property rights = The A-team (Good lord they would have a whole season of Kelo shows in the can by now)

    The logical conclusion of corrupt local governance = The Dukes of Hazzard

    The flexibility and greater technological savvy of private security contractos = Knight Rider and Airwolf

    Environmental defense through private funding = MacGuyver

    Now sure, none of these shows offer a pure libertarian vision, but as Cowen points out neither does Firefly (despite claims otherwise). Shows like _Bosom Buddies_ raised questions about social liberty (cross-dressing) versus economic liberty (private property housing controls), _Remington Steele_ raised probing questions about immigration law, and _Simon & Simon_ pointed out that…um, uptight people have to loosen up. (If any show would have looser attitude towards drugs and sex, it probably would have been S&S.) And these were mostly sold as family entertainment. I haven’t even gotten to the soaps yet. Or _Soap_, for that matter, which pointed out the follow of transacting with tinpot dictators, if I recall, and eventually demonstrated via _Benson_ that do-gooder government lacked the hands-on know how to get things done.

    And it is only through _Arrested Development, that critique of crony capitalism, that I realized Jeb Bush is actually J.E.B. Bush. Sad, I know.


  32. There was a lot of varied political, trade, “just war,” and social leanings in Babylon 5. But mostly the show was about freedom and identity.

    And then there’s Lexx, which was about people trying to get laid…

  33. and _Simon & Simon_ pointed out that…um, uptight people have to loosen up

    And that it’s perfectly cool to stick wiretaps in other people’s phones, from at least one episode. 🙂

  34. I think Firefly will be back. Sci-Fi isn’t going to make any money from the movie (are they?), so why buy the rights to an 11 episode show that isn’t Gilligan’s Island? I’ve read an interview with Joss that said that Sci-Fi wanted to fund the show but didn’t have the money at the time. My bet is that they have the money now, and are ramping up for a series after the movie comes out.

    As for Firefly vs. BSG, there’s no comparison. BSG has had MUCH more time to develop itself. Think of how it would have been if it only had 11 episodes, and only 8 were aired. “Best show on TV”? I think not.

  35. Jumping from the small screen to the big one:

    Here is a fictionalized, and fricken funny, look at a dozen movies with libertarian themes.

    Oscar Shrugged
    The First Galt’s Gulch Film Festival
    Special report from the First International Libertarian Film Festival

    Must read.

  36. Firefly has as much to do with Cowboy Bebop as the Smurfs have to do with the Keebler Elves.

  37. WSDave: I really really really really hope you’re right.

    I will defer to the Galactica-is-best crowd because my preference for Firefly is based solely on soggy and sentimental emotional fealty to Joss and thus indefensible on aesthetic grounds. I mean, I cried when Wesley died. Which is pathetic. Worse, I knew it was pathetic, and I didn’t care. So obviously my aesthetic judgment has gone to hell. Maybe I’m just too girly to be a true SF geek.

    Jennifer, is that sexist?

  38. Sara Hinson gets several important details about the story wrong. The original crew consisted of a captain, his trusted partner, a pilot, and a mechanic. The prostitute, doctor, and preacher were paying passengers long afterward; and the captain did not want them on his ship for any other reason than the fare, and in the latter two cases wanted them gone ASAP. Serenity’s purpose is to enhance Mal’s freedom, and no one else’s.

    Also, both Hinson and Cowen gloss over the fact that the Serenity’s activities cover not only smuggling but theft, which even a libertarian would have a problem with. But I think the main problem with both analyses is that just because a show portrays a certain group of people, does not mean it approves of the situation they find themselves in. Does Se7en approve of cereal killing? Does Verhoeven’s version of Starship Troopers approve of fascism?

  39. crimethink:

    is cereal killing when you kill FOR a bowl of frosted mini-wheats or when you kill the bowl of frosted mini-wheats itself?:)

  40. Though the instances of theft I can recall seeing seem at least potentially defensible: Theft from a repressive government (Train Job–with the goods returned when it became evident that ordinary people would be harmed); from a war criminal purportedly responsible for wiping out thousands with biological weapons (Trash); scavenging some more Alliance goods from a shipwreck (Serenity); stealing from an Alliance hospital on a core planet they were confident would be restocked before the absence of the drugs caused any medical harm (Ariel)… there may be other instances I’m forgetting, but the pattern shown here shows a group that makes an effort to act as… well, ethical thieves.

  41. Anyone interested in sci-fi novels with a taste of benign dictatorship should read Piers Anthony’s series Bio of a Space Tyrant.

  42. Ever notice how every space show except for Firefly and Space:1999 ended up having a war at some point? Wait, Lost in Space didn’t have a war either, come to think of it. But all the Star Trek versions had at least a cold war, Bab 5 had one, BSG (both versions), Farscape, SG-every1…

  43. I think Firefly edges out Battlestar Galactica, though I like them both. What’s interesting about both series is that they are primarily character-driven, which is supposed to be a no-no in science fiction. I’ve never bought into that idea myself–a space and/or futuristic setting is a perfectly good place to look at people and society. In any case, I hope that Serenity does well enough to get Firefly back on the air. It’s really better suited for TV than for theatrical release.

    P.S. Any show with Animal Mother in it must, by defintion, rule.

  44. WSDave – I hear the Serenity contracts commit the cast to two more pictures if the first one does well, so there’ll be that, but it’s almost a certainty that it’ll never be on as a TV show because now three years on, everyone who worked on it are now busy with other things.

    Even assuming you could get all the actors back together, which was questionable even before they get the exposure and attention from being the stars of a (hopefully successful) major motion picture, the creative team are all gone. Whedon’s doing the Wonder Woman movie and his X-Men series, Minear is helming The Inside, and the rest of the writers are scattered to the winds. Given that these people were Joss’s hand-picked elite crew, most of whom he’d worked with for years on Buffy and Angel, I’m doubtful if he’d let it go back without them.

  45. Not to play spoilsport or anything, but:

    1. I find Arrested Development heavy-handed and unfunny, despite the great cast.

    2. I wasn’t transfixed by the episode and a half I’ve seen of the new BSG. But I’m reserving judgement until I’ve seen more.

    I will say that the new Doctor Who was way better than anyone had a right to expect it to be. Especially the story that made fun of Star Trek and borrowed part of its plot from Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

    I haven’t seen a single episode of Firefly, though Julian has assured me more than once that I’d like it. Someday, I swear, I’ll rent the damn DVD.

  46. Just finished the last two Firefly episodes. It’s really good. A bit of Deadwood (which it predates) and a bit of the pirate crew from Alien Resurection.
    WSDave’s point about war is well taken. I’ve always been dissapointed that so much TV SF is military, which is why Farscape os so dear to me. When Galactica breaks out the armored soldiers I have horrible Starship Trooper/Space: Above & Beyond flashbacks. Fortunately it has the script power to keep it interesting.
    Firefly borrows from a lot of sources. I am heavily reminded of Joshua Calvert from the Night’s Dawn trilogy.
    Also, I hope that this discussion manages to prove that the Trek franchise is finally irrelevant, or soon will be.

  47. Jesse,

    I’ve never figured out to convince someone something is funny. I mean, if someone can’t see that Aqua Teen Hunger Force is genius while Sealab 2021 was so-so at best, what’re you going to do? Debate on merits?

    I will say that I think Arrested Development is heavy-handed and funny, so we don’t disagree completely.

    And do rent the Firely DVD. Netflix will actually bring it to your home, you know.


  48. I just have a few things to add-

    1-Joss Whedon did a bad bad thing with Kitty Pride and Colossus. The two are passable, as long as they are seperated by at least two books at any given time. If they aren’t then the Star-Crossed Lovers Law comes into play, and an ever increasing amount of the book must be dedicated to their pointless and increasingly irritating angst. Whedon ignored the rule, he must be punished. Just that simple. As a result, firefly loses both it’s contest with Battlestar Gallactica and it’s proper noun capitalization.

    2-The first few seasons of Farscape beat both of them, even though both are excellent series in their own right.

    3-Even though I still haven’t forgiven him, I can’t bring myself to believe that an otherwise talented writer would steal ideas from a series like Outlaw Star, which, although not bad, was so reliant on space opera cliches that it could be said to parallel just about anything.

    4-All Adult Swim original programs were and will always be the height of comedy for between 8 and 12 episodes. After that, the writers stop getting stoned and producing random jokes and actually try writing, dooming their attempts. Robot Chicken may beat the curse; their writers seem to derive their inspiration from meth, much harder drug to give up on short notice than pot. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  49. Anyone interested in sci-fi novels with a taste of benign dictatorship should read Piers Anthony’s series Bio of a Space Tyrant.

    I read the first few books in the series: Refugee (which I thought was excellent, and a nice allegorical insight into the plight of refugees from Haiti and like places), Mercenary (which I thought was pretty interesting), and Politician. At this point I lost interest. Anthony’s geo-political allegory (with different celestial bodies standing in for nations on present-day earth) became more and more transparent, and so did his political preaching. The first big warning sign was in Mercenary, when the narrator said that a Saturnian (read: Soviet Union) soldier in a Vietnam/Korea-type proxy conflict was “only defending his own political system, just as we were ours.” I heard that kind of dopey leftish moral equivalency all during the 1980s, and it annoyed me to no end.

    I never read Executive or Statesman.

    From what I could tell, Anthony approved of his tyrant character, who broke the rules in order to do good for people. I got the impression that Anthony’s theme for the series was how easy it was to slander someone who actually did good, by taking things out of context. (Yes, it was literally true that he was guilty of cannibalism and rape, and perhaps incest, but these were in fact justified, or at least understnadable, if you knew the detailed circumstances.)

    Possibly I mistook the character’s attitude’s for the author’s. If Anthony’s theme was that horrible things (like tyranny) can take place because good-intentioned people believe the ends justify the means, that would have been an improvement. But if so, Anthony must not have revealed it until after I quite reading the series.

  50. To tempt your appetite, Jesse, I will tell you that

  51. I agree with Jesse on Arrested Development. One episode was funny. More than that started to strike me as heavy handed and overly self conscious.

  52. Shem,

    You know, Les Claypool does the theme song for Robot Chicken… and where there’s Les Claypool, there’s meth!

  53. Shem: that makes a lot of sense. I’ve noticed the same thing about Adult Swim shows – make me laugh so hard I cry at first, and then get progressively less funny. I thought it was just me.

    Venture Brothers still makes me laugh out loud, though.

    My 3 year old and I both love cartoons, but she won’t watch Futurama and I don’t like Spider Man or the Pink Panther…so we’ve been chilling out with The Life and Times of Juniper Lee (her Watcher/dog is voiced by one of the guys from Reno 911, another favorite).

  54. Stubby and Shem,

    Are either of you Tom Goes to the Mayor fans? I got the Mr. Show and Ben Stiller Show DVDs a little while ago, and it seems that anything Bob Odenkirk touches is freakin comic gold. I was also disappointed that Space Ghost and The Brak Show were dropped – classic as they were. I used to have sleepovers with my friends in 6th grade, watch Army of Darkness and then wait until Space Ghost came on. Aah, memories.

  55. The only thing that the two series have in common is that they are based around a rickety old cargo ship. That’s where the similarities end.

    I think a lot of the character archetypes were lifted from Cowboy Bebop, as well.

    Jet = Jayne
    Eddie = Kaylee/River
    Faye = Inara (if you squint and tilt your head. Inara is way more classy.)

    Plus you have the genre mixture, Cowboy Bebop was a SciFi Noir, Firefly is a SciFi Western.

    This isn’t to disparage Firefly. It’s my favorite show of all time, but I think that the similarities are pretty self-evident. In the end, it might be kind of like the difference between Stephen King’s novel “The Shining” and Stanley Kubrick’s movie version. Same basic concept, vastly different executions, both of them are good.

  56. Oh, and Trek is dead. That twitching you see is just Brannon Braga’s futile attempt to use a defibrillator.

  57. Mediageek,

    Would that mean
    Ein = Simon?

    Cowboy Bebop is quite a show – there were three episodes that really stood out to me. First, the “Teddy Bomber” episode, where the bomber was just looking for attentin; second the “eco-terrorism” one (This was just a particularly strange episode); and third the episode “Brain Scratch” with the Sony PSP-type device that brainwashes people through new-agey stupidity. Very entertaining, compelling stories.

  58. I’ve been watching all forms of Sci-fi all my life, and loved the first parts of Farscape, Dr Who in color (something about the B&W ones just doesn’t draw me in), plus lots of other stuff. I watched about 30 minutes of the first episode of Firefly and about barfed, it just annoyed me so, and I can’t say why. I have watched about 2 episodes of BSG, and while they were ok, I felt like I was missing too much of the story to feel comfortable, and felt like it would take lots of work to get back up to speed on it.

    Plus, BSG just isn’t compelling enough to get me to spend 45 minutes watching it instead of playing World of Warcrack..er Warcraft. That game takes up so much time, but it’s so fun!

  59. Oh, I know Star Wars hasn’t been talked about here, and for good reason. However, I just have to link to this blog entry that has screen shots from mistranslated subtitles for Revenge of the Sith:

    Star Wars: Backstroke of the West

  60. mediageek- I thnk that the only reason CB and firefly seem to have similar characters is because the archetypes in Space Operas are so commonly used that similarites appear everywhere. None of those characters are a terribly good fit for each other, so I tend to think that both were just stolen from an older third source.

    Cowboy Bebop was a great show, I agree. “Jupiter Jazz” and “Speak Like a Child” are both classics, but both pale in comparison to that last episode. I don’t care for the first half, but that ending is spectacular.

    I don’t care for Tom Goes to the Mayor. It just seems like a joke at the expense of the viewers, like; “hey, we got so pissed off over the “Home Movies” debacle, let’s see what happens when we make something that’s like that, only more so, and really piss them off.” But where “Home Movies” was clever and understated, TGttM is just too dry to appeal to me. I dunno, just my opinion.

    But the Brak Show was the greatest hting ever, especially the one where Zorak gets a “beautiful man-voice” and goes on tour. That and “Psychoklahoma” are probably my two favorite episodes of anything ever.

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