A disclaimer before we really get into this: I am not a philosopher. I am not a philosophy student. I cannot say that I am able to fully grasp anything beyond the very surface level of most philosophical theories. That being said, I’ll try and talk a little bit about the philosophy present in “Objects In Space” in this post, because it is an episode that cannot be talked about without reference to its philosophical undertones. Perhaps those who have undertaken proper study of these topics will disagree with me. It is probably likely.
Joss Whedon’s expansive and brilliant commentary accompaniment to “Objects In Space”, an episode that he wrote and directed, is well worth checking out, as he discusses his inspiration for the episode and how he tried to adapt thought of his own philosophical experiences into a 44 minute TV episode. Whedon describes the most important book he ever read as being Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, a book about the concept of existentialism. “Objects In Space”, in large parts, finds its inspiration from this book. When I first watched the episode I knew that I had experienced something very profound, away even from the standard emotional connection one might draw from the conclusion of a beloved and special piece of fiction. I found it hard to put some of those feelings and thoughts into words, philosophy always having the ability to turn me into an oaf unable to talk about how I see it (much, perhaps, like River early on in “Objects In Space”). Watching this the first time, I knew that my perception of “objects”, in space or otherwise, as I traditionally saw them, was being challenged. Now, having seen the episode ten times over, I’m finally going to try and put some of these thoughts down into actual words.
I find that it’s very difficult to put the ideas of existentialism into words that can be easily understood, but in the specific context of “Objects In Space” at least, we can say that it is about the purpose of things, the meaning of things, pertaining as to why they exist at all. Whether they are people, ships, branches, or guns, the purpose and meaning of an object is wrapped up in the way that it is perceived by the individual. Sometimes, double-purposes can be seen, that can even be at odds with each other.
“Objects In Space” opens with a potent example, as River wanders into the cargo hold, which she suddenly sees as being covered in flower petals, and picks up a branch. “It’s just an object” she says, “it doesn’t mean what you think.” To her, this branch is a small beautiful thing, its purpose or meaning perhaps being primarily aesthetic.
But she’s isn’t really holding a branch, she’s holding a loaded hand gun, safety off. You could describe the gun as being beautiful if you were into firearms and had an appreciation for their design, but you wouldn’t say that its purpose was to be beautiful, it’s purpose is to shoot bullets. River understands that the gun can do this, but she doesn’t comprehend way this is the only thing that it can do, and gets frustrated at an inability for others to understand this. For her, the gun is resistant to the standard human perception. Later, Jubal Early will have similar thoughts on firearms: he shows Simon his gun and talks about how he views it as “pretty”, how he “likes the weight of it”, before he talks about it as some kind of tool used to propel lead at people for the purposes of hurting or killing them.
Other things, or people, take on the same kind of dimension in the course of “Objects In Space”. Jubal certainly views Kaylee as just an object, something he has a mind to hurt or terrify in order to suit his plans: the sweet young engineer we are familiar with isn’t there for him. Kaylee herself has inadvertently done the same in her descriptions of River, defining her as different to a normal person, perhaps with a purpose or meaning that is alien to the image that she projects. Similarly, Early’s treatment of Book points to this as well. “That ain’t a shepherd” is his only thought, and he deals with Book as quickly and clinically as possible refusing to buy into the nominal “meaning” of Book as an individual.
Another part of this existential thread, that Sartre wrote on and that so inspired Whedon, was identification with objects. Both River and Jubal become deeply connected to objects in different ways, to the extent that they can feel a sort of tangible sensation. Jubal talks about his fondness for his gun, licks part of Serenity, discusses “imbuing” rooms with purpose. River feels a rush of emotions and feeling as she watches Zoe and Wash early on and later comes to identify her own being, her own existence, with that of Serenity itself, as I will talk about another time.
The key difference between the two is the difference between joy and despair. River is a positive force on board Serenity, though it may not be immediately obvious, and when she looks at objects in a different way, many times it is in a positive sense. She sees the gun as a beautiful branch, she sees Serenity as a living entity that wants to protect the people that reside within. Jubal’s own brand of existential philosophy is wrapped up with despair and negativity: with removing the humanity in his perceptions of other people, insofar as it allows him to threaten and employ various categories of violence without any kind of remorse. To use another term from Sartre, Jubal acts in “bad faith” in a philosophical sense, refusing to acknowledge his own personal role in the terror and discord that he causes, denying that he is an inherently sick and violent man.
Lastly, in a larger sense, we can look at “Objects In Space”, Firefly and the entire franchise, as a sort of philosophical exercise, an attempt by Joss Whedon and the people he worked with to create their own world, their own object, that has an inherent purpose and meaning, very different to the real world that we all inhabit, another key idea of Sartre’s musings, or so I understand it. The world we exist in has little meaning in and purpose in so much of the way it works, that it is almost natural that we should turn to and create different worlds, narratives and fictions, where things have deeper meanings, deeper purposes, that we can take comfort in. Firefly itself then, is an object. In space.