The Alliance, throughout the course of Firefly and Serenity, provides a decent cipher for the never-ending “liberty/security” debate, and through this we can also get an insight into the thinking of Joss Whedon on the subject.
It is important, I think, to realise that the governmental system in Firefly/Serenity really is, as the Operative puts it, “not some evil empire”. That is, it is not the equivalent of Palpatine’s tyranny in Star Wars or the Romulans in Trek. It is something much subtler and insidious than that, in the way that it appears much closer to the governments of some nations in the 21st century, than any fantastical antagonist.
What is the Alliance? The Alliance is an oppressive government, yet appears to have some form of democracy behind it. The Alliance has a structured caste-like society that it supports, but is indicated to have a huge amount of backing from the densely populated core worlds. The Alliance is militant, yet can barely keep a semblance of control on the outer rim, and had to fight a war just for that pleasure. This is no evil empire.
Indeed, just take a look at Firefly’s pilot, the first half anyway, and consider what we see of the Alliance up to the reveal of River. They win a war against Mal’s Browncoats, but we don’t know the specifics of why this is a bad thing, other than that Mal lost. They attempt to intervene in an illegal salvaging operation, nothing much wrong with that. They are a police presence on many worlds, one that a ship full of self-acknowledged criminals fears. And they chase Serenity when it becomes clear they have wanted fugitives on-board. These are not the nefarious actions of an evil empire, but they are the standard actions of an over-reaching government. The good that the Alliance can give, through its law and order in areas where it has uncontested dominance, healthcare, education, etc, are obvious, albeit coming with a significant price in terms of personal liberty and the surrender of civil rights.
Their evil is something worse than Death Star antics: refusing to help at Paradiso in “The Train Job” because it isn’t the federals’ job, the manner of the “investigation” into the derelict in “Bushwhacked”, the implicit condoning of duelling culture in “Shindig”, their non-caring about the wounded Book in “Safe”, the indentured servitude system of “Jaynestown”, the corruption evident in “The Message” and the general lack of control and protection offered by the Alliance from things like the Hill People in “Safe”, the Ring pirates in “Our Mrs Reynolds”, the likes of Niska in “War Stories” or Burgess in “Heart Of Gold”. These are not the actions of an evil empire, but they are the actions of a bloated, overstretched government, that wants to look like it’s in charge everywhere without actually taking on the responsibilities that come with such nominal authority.
And much of it comes back to the simple truth that government as big as the Alliance, with authority over so many worlds and moons from the core to the rim, has ceased to view its citizens as people. This is not the mortal sin it has to be – indeed, to some extents it’s understandable and even necessary for governments to strip away emotional attachment to its population in terms of law and order – but the Alliance, bigger and more capable than any government that has come before, takes this detachment to a scary place.
There is a creeping decline in the Alliance’s moral standing in the course of Firefly/Serenity, and especially Serenity. The treatment of River Tam is a horrible act of torture and a human rights violation, but appears to be wrapped up in so much secrecy that only a small part of the Alliance system knows about it, and thus approves of it. The Alliance starts off Serenity as the gleaming beacon of civilisation with the slightly stained underbelly, but then, through the actions of the Operative and the revelation of Miranda, it becomes an altogether uglier thing, eventually so ugly that its most loyal minions turn against it. The Miranda holocaust, and the creation, then ignoring, of the Reaver threat is the very apex of the Alliance’s method of viewing its citizens first as a problem to be solved with their emotions and potential for rebellion, and then second as unknowing test subjects.
“It’s complicated. I would say it’s delicate. You want to tap into it without being cheesy about it, without necessarily coming to a conclusion. We knew before any of the [NSA] stuff that we were basically dealing with [upbeat tone] a young individualistic ragtag group of [drops voice to sound menacing] faceless bureaucrats who know everything about you! And that was going to be part of the tension…but it’s not an argument you ever want to finish. Personally, the NSA collecting data on me freaks me out. It totally freaks me out. And yet I’m from the generation that wants to put a GPS in their kids so I always know where they are. So I understand both sides of what that is. So, you know, it’s one of the things, one of the pebbles we’ll turn over in our hands to examine over and over.”
That’s Joss Whedon speaking. It’s from an interview about the pilot episode of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D that he directed, but obviously speaks to a bit more than that. Whedon is certainly a man who is not a fan of big government, the surveillance state and the surrender of some liberty in return for greater security. In Firefly and Serenity, as other, more intelligent, writers have enunciated, the battle between that security-focused life and a liberty-focused existence, finds its key debatable point in the Alliance, and in a divide between Hobbesian and Lockean philosophies.
Thomas Hobbes, famous for his declaration in Leviathan on the nature of a place where there is no law and order, stated the following:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently, not culture of the earth, no navigation, nor the use of commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth, no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Such a description could easily fit the verse’s border and rim worlds, as depicted so vividly in the prologue of Serenity: isolated places prone to lawlessness, banditry, diseases and death. Without a common ruling entity, such things appear inevitable.
But, in keeping with Lockean beliefs, creating that common power and then letting it do as it pleases is a worse eventuality. The Alliance, an unchecked authority with little to stand in its way, is a Hobbesian ideal, but Whedon definitively portrays this, eventually, as an evil: such things will lead to abuse of power, the dehumanisation of populations, and actions like Miranda and the Academy, in the pursuit of making “better worlds”: better for the Alliance and those that control it, worlds where the possibility of revolt and dissent have been excised completely. With Locke, and Whedon, people have certain rights – unalienable rights – like life, liberty and the ability to pursue happiness, the denial of which is a justification for revolt, for the breaking of the “social contract” between those chosen to lead and those willing to be led. Serenity is a depiction of such thing, with Mal’s declaration “I aim to misbehave” as potent a breaking of that contract – one that he barely bought into in the first place, if ever – as you can get.
Mal and the people he gathers on Serenity are seeking their own way of life – you may dub it a “social contract” – free from Alliance control. As Mal says upon first introducing Zoe to the ship in “Out Of Gas”:
I tell ya, Zoe, we find ourselves a mechanic, get her running again. Hire a good pilot. Maybe even a cook. Live like real people. Small crew, them as feel the need to be free. Take jobs as they come – and we’ll never be under the heel of nobody ever again.
But it is interesting to consider how, if Serenity is a micro version of a social contract, with Mal at the head and the crew the governed, how tyrannical Mal becomes throughout the course of the film, to the point of threatening to kill his crew members if they get in his way. In effect, is he not trying to alter their behaviour to better suit his needs, via force? Perhaps this is too hypercritical, but I feel it is an interesting question to ponder. One man leading seven others is a hero. One government leading billions is a villain. Or, as Whedon himself said, a man freaking out about government surveillance might still want a GPS tracker in his kid.
Still, the series and the film are obvious examples of Whedon’s world view, if his actual utterances on such things were not proof enough. The Alliance, like the worst kinds of out of control government, is “meddlesome”, inside people’s homes and head, without the right to be there. Hobbes might have approved – to a point – but Locke certainly would not have, and neither does Whedon, who writes, depicts and advocates “acts of disobedience against the illiberal state”, acts that serve as a notice of sorts to powers like the USA and China, the combination of which Whedon envisions as the worst of both worlds.