Back when I first entered college, a few weeks after I’d watched Serenity for the first time, was a difficult period. I spent more than one anxiety-filled evening alone, re-watching the series, and wondering if third-level education was something I was actually cut out for (or, rather, whether living on my own for the first time at age 18 was something I was cut out for). Firefly was a comfort back then, and things did get better faster, not least when I started joining university societies, among them Omega, the science fiction society, wherein I found plenty of like-minded types to share my love for Whedon’s space-western. While signing up for various forums and message boards to do with these societies, I decided that a new username was required for a new period of my life (“crazylegs” had to go). Inspired by an amusing set of Firefly characters in Lego form, I went with my favourite villain. Or, rather, my favourite pair of villains: “HandsOfBlue” (soon, affectionately I hope, abbreviated by others to “HOB”).
What is it about those guys? The two creepy blue-gloved men might have less than five minutes screen time in Firefly totally – the vast bulk of it in “Ariel” – but have imprinted themselves on the imagination of the fandom in ways that Patience, Dobson, Atherton Wing, or even Niska have failed to. Who are they? What are they? And why have fans of the show become so fascinated by them?
Within the confines of the TV show, we can infer only so much about the “Hands of Blue”. They’re clearly affiliated to the Alliance in some fashion, and have some kind of role in “the Academy” that River was part of, insofar as she seems to know them and is aware of them from a distance (and what they are capable of). Indeed, the first draft of the film had them as guards there, before the blue gloves were dropped for some generic suits, probably because of copyright issues. In the scene in the records room, it is they whom the Operative kills so quickly and easily with his sword, a symbolic passing of the torch in terms of being the most eminent antagonist.
Their demeanour, from speech to movement, is restrained and patient at all times, even in the act of killing or pursuing escaping fugitives. They wear prim and proper business suits, with very odd looking blue gloves the only real stand out of their attire. They carry a strange double pronged weapon, which emits some kind of energy that causes massive internal haemorrhaging in those nearby, which soon proves (very painfully) fatal. They eliminate people as a matter of course, without any apparent fear of apprehension or oversight. They fly a fancy looking purple ship and are very interested in the whereabouts of one River Tam.
The continuation comic book “Those Left Behind” adds further details, though I’m sure we are now straying into the realm of “head canon” discussion in some respects. They are described as “independent contractors” working with the Alliance. They are not “operatives”, as Chiwital Ejiofor’s character was. Under their clothes is more blue material. They have screws in their heads, and are very resourceful. And they are revealed, in the end, to be just men, left scorched in the wake of Serenity’s escape from the Sturges battle site, and quickly dismissed and forgotten by their Alliance paymasters.
There are numerous theories about the Hands of Blue, and they are bound to proliferate, seeing as how we never got any clear answers in the actual franchise. Could they be the results of Alliance experimentation, on the same general level as River was headed towards? This could explain their interest in River, their apparent high position in the Alliance hierarchy and their coldness towards other human beings. Could they be some manner of cyborg? This would explain the screws, the overly-calm demeanour and the restrained movements, more Men In Black than standard government agent. Are they some kind of unique bounty hunters like Jubal Early? This would explain the “independent contractors” tag, the way they appear to operate on their own, and the disposable nature of the Alliance attitude towards them.
All fascinating theories to be sure, and I imagine, if Firefly had been given the lifespan it deserved, we might well have found out in time. An amalgamation of all the theories is quite possible – Alliance engineered cyborgs, now operating as collection men – but the true answer remains frustratingly out of reach and always will.
That is part of the reason for the fascination I’m sure. Like a lot of good antagonists who don’t actually appear to do that much – the Hands of Blue actually seem weirdly ineffective in pursuing their primary goal, casually strolling after the escaping fugitives in “Ariel” and not being able to prevent them from fleeing – they create the right impression through other means. The blue gloves are the perfect talking point to make them seem weird and notable in amongst the uniforms of the Alliance federals. The remarkably cold way in which they subject Alliance personnel to painful and bloody deaths makes them very scary, seemingly ruthless and uncaring automatons that can’t be reasoned with, not unlike a Terminator, only without the guns and the occasional quippy statements.
That sense of threat is created very well, and is vital in making the Hands of Blue the memorable roadblocks that they otherwise might not have been. And the lack of details on them – their origin, purpose towards River and make-up – just makes them larger than life, a mystery to be solved and a villain with a really engaging hook. River’s haunting recitation of “Two by two, hands of blue, two by two, hands of blue…” was enough to get it all started, and by the time Jayne, Simon and River are left standing in that hallway listening to the dying screams of the Alliance federals up above, we are suitably impressed and worried about whatever actions these men might take.
That continued all the way up to their end, when they were disposed of – rather hurriedly in my opinion – in “Those Left Behind”, an enigma never to be answered and a villain never to be encountered again. But they remain one of Firefly’s most talked about aspects, a terrible threat that pursues slowly but relentlessly, willing to make you bleed from every orifice in their mission to bring their quarry to heel. They are the precursors of the more fully formed Operative of Serenity, hunters without hesitation.
Plus, they aren’t that hard to cosplay, and that’s always a positive attribute for any fictional character its sci-fi creator is looking to make resonate with an audience.