The Reavers hang over Firefly and Serenity, like a shadow creeping along a wall. They are described as “campfire stories” come to life, a savage and mysterious entity, made up of nothing but violence, brutality and an overriding need to destroy. Though they only affect two episodes of Firefly – the pilot and, later, “Bushwhacked” – we never actually see one of them, just their ships and the “second generation” victim left behind from one of their raids. And yet, their effect, per the brilliant writing work of Whedon, is out of all proportion to their direct screen time. Despite being an unseen villain, they form a gigantic and important part of the overall mythos of the show, the mystery surrounding them forming a natural central plot arc for Serenity.
In terms of Firefly being a futuristic re-telling of the Wild West in the 19th century, it’s not hard to see where the Reavers lie when it comes to inspirations. The Reavers are the future’s version of “Injuns”, “Redskins” or any other derogatory term you want to use for the Native Americans or “First Peoples”, driven westwards and away from their lands by the manifest destiny of the growing United States. They were easily painted as uncivilised savages, with all manner of atrocities and brutalities attributed to them, not unlike the Reavers of Firefly, who are almost a caricature of the racist perceptions of the earlier age.
The Native Americans were an easy bad guy or background element in the western genre, only rarely being approached with anything like nuance or respect. Firefly jumps over this hole by making the Reavers a racially neutral menace, and one that is no exaggerated tale of propaganda and bigotry: in fact the Alliance goes the other way, insisting that the Reavers are a non-existent myth, until they can’t deny it any more. If the Reavers and the real Native Americans share anything, it’s simply that they are two different groups of innocent people whose nature was changed by the intervention of others, both becoming more warlike and violent than before. But that is a simple analysis, which does a disservice to the complex nature of western and Native American interaction.
But I’m not here to talk about Reavers and Native Americans, I’m here to talk about the building of an antagonist, when the antagonist is never actually seen: how Firefly, in the second half of “Serenity”, introduces the Reavers and, in a masterpiece of suspense, makes it abundantly clear to the audience the threat that they pose and the hideous nature they exhibit.
Before this scene, Whedon has only made a brief reference to the Reaver threat, Mal noting that a, now deceased, former acquaintance was killed when his “town was hit by Reavers”, to which a worried looking Jayne declares that he won’t go anywhere near such a place, as Reavers “ain’t human”. The bit of dialogue is fleeting, and immediately the crew are moving on with their own issues, the Reavers forgotten, the audience left to ponder.
It isn’t until much later, after Kaylee has been shot, River revealed and Mal’s mission to sell his stolen merchandise to Patience on Whitefall elaborated upon, that we come up close with the actual Reaver threat. A ship approaches Serenity in the vastness of space. Mal and Wash are the first to confront it, an old model of vessel that doesn’t even run anymore. Wash notes with grim horror that the ships engines are running “without core containment”, some engineering speak easily explained as being “suicide” for any normal people. Before we catch sight of the Reaver ship in a moment, we’ve already learned much: they are a menace that’s been around for a while, and are made of people – or things – that have precious little regard for their own physical well-being.
And then we see the ship. The contrast with Serenity is deliberately jarring. The Reaver craft is an ugly, mutilated, graffitied thing, covered in spikes and with hideous looking arms that crackle with electricity. Its red glow is imminently threatening. But what really makes the impression is Greg Edmonson’s score, this percussion heavy track of a sort of metal variety, bringing to mind a factory line and clanking machines, something impersonal and inhuman. It’s got a steady beat, like a war march. The audio and the visual merge together seamlessly, as the Reaver ship approaches Serenity like a hunter going after its prey, the music doing the rest. Just a nice addition is Wash’s disconcerting, yet darkly humorous “Oh God. Oh God, oh God, oh God…”
An act break occurs, a brief moment to exhale. A lot has been done without any overt discussion of what the Reavers are or why they are dangerous. We know the Reavers are bad news, we know they are people to fear going by Wash’s reaction and, from the appearance of their ship and the music that comes with them, we know they must have little but ill-intent.
The actual confrontation with the Reavers will come at the end of the episode, and Whedon certainly didn’t have the time, or likely the funds, to have an action sequence in this portion of the episode. Instead, the “action” comes entirely from the tension, the fear that something truly awful is going to happen. And the creation of that tension and that sense of imminent catastrophe, is done throughout the scene that follows, as each member of Serenity’s crew faces the possibility that they are about to be attacked by the kind of menace one can only find out on the edges of space. With the exception of Kaylee and River, both asleep, and Dobson, restrained, the reactions serve both to maximise the fear of the Reavers, and show us a little about the characters we are still getting used to.
Mal stays on the bridge of the ship, in command, where he has to be. His narration over the intercom is painfully nervous: it’s a credit to Fillion that you understand that Mal’s plea for everyone to remain calm is also being said to himself. But, we understand that Mal is not an easily panicked man. He keeps his emotions in check, and gets ready for whatever is coming, asking only that Zoe come join him on the bridge. The plan is just to drift on by, since running would only make the Reavers give chase, cementing their apparent status as a lower form of life, animal-like.
Across the ship, the reactions come. Inara, in her shuttle, opens a box with a syringe and a strange black substance inside, contemplating its use. This was a plot point that was never revisited, and the interpretations are many. The obvious answer is that Inara, rather than face the assault of Reavers, one whose focus will probably be sexual, will choose an easier way out. But Whedon, though no definite plans were made, actually had a much darker direction in mind, which I will not get into. It suffices to say that Inara’s reaction makes clear the kind of threat you can expect from actual Reavers.
Jayne was the first one to talk about the threat of the Reavers, and when the news of their passing comes, he moves to the only thing he can: his very sizable gun collection, part of which he is later seen nervously loading. That’s Jayne: unlike Inara, he will never take the easier way out, and will go down with as many of his enemies as he can take with him.
In the infirmary, Book stands over Kaylee, and River, praying. His part in the scene is wordless, and even fearless, like a man who has seen all of this before, and isn’t all that shocked to be witnessing it again.
Simon and Zoe share some of the only dialogue of the scene, where the threat of the Reavers is made overt, for the only time. Simon demonstrates his own greenness, babbling about how Reavers are just a myth to him, poetically described as men who went mad on the edge of populated space. Zoe is blunt: “They’re not stories”. Her follow-up line, when Simon inquires as to what will happen if they board Serenity, is one of the shows most famous moments:
If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it that order.
Like the viewer, Simon is left gobsmacked and silent by this terrifying vision. Zoe’s utterance is shocking for some many reasons. The imagery is so revolting, and the idea that this is the “lucky” way of things underlines the peril the crew are facing. The Alliance could have imprisoned them, Dobson could have killed them. But the Reavers are something else. The point is powerfully made by Gina Torres’ delivery, which is matter of fact and rehearsed. Some might see this as a negative, but in this instance, I think the opposite: it fits that this is rehearsed, because this is a threat that people like Zoe just have to live with out on the rim. She’s thought about this before, this horrible fear, and so is ready to enunciate it in clear terms. There’s also an element of not wanting to mollycoddle Simon, the coreboy raised so far away from such dangers, to any degree.
Zoe departs to the bridge, where she wraps her hand in Wash’s. Simon goes to look over River, dumbfounded and uncomfortable by his lack of anything to do. Every character the camera has flashed over has gone to something dear to them at this moment, be it a way out, a weapon, a book, or a loved one. We’ve seen a darkness in Inara’s choice, a typical avenue in Jayne’s, an expected one for Book, and a sentimental one for others.
The strained violins keep the audience on the edge as the Reaver ship glides past Serenity, huge in comparisons. Part of me now thinks of the comparison between the Galactica and the Pegasus in Battlestar Galactica, two ships whose design reflected so clearly the inner aspects of their crews. The comparison is even more taut with worry here, as the point is made, visually, that Serenity is an undefended ship, a vessel with no guns, dwarfed by this deadly looking behemoth, shark-like in its design. As Wash trembles at the sight of the “magnetic grappler” the Reaver ship is stocked with, Mal cuts him off, wanting only to know if the Reaver ship alters course, staying on track and refusing to allow any fear to take over.
The tension is drawn out to a torturous degree, but the Reavers do not alter course. Everyone, audience included, breaths, with Mal left to simply ponder that it’s “gettin’ awful crowded in my sky”.
The plot quickly moves on, but the work has been done and the point has been made. The audience does not know everything about the Reavers, beyond the rather wistful explanation of their origins offered by the, it is severely implied, unknowledgeable Simon. But they know enough, enough to realise that the Reavers are a very deadly problem to be faced by Serenity out in the less civilised portions of the universe. In the process, we’ve learned a little bit more about the ship’s crew and how they respond to such situations, what they value most. When the Reavers return for a more traditional showdown at the conclusion of “Serenity”, it will be very different, but the tension of that chase will be the pay-off for the structure of this scene, where the Reavers are able to scare the hell out of the audience.