Monday, 26 October 2009

Malcolm and Meursault – Existentialism in Space

Some might argue that the reason to watch Firefly is the substantial amount of eye-candy that Joss has kindly put in tightpants on screen for us. Others would assert that it is not so much the tight pants as the tight dialogue which is the real attraction. Or the pretty spaceship, or the great plotting.

I’d like to suggest that it is in fact two other p’s - the politics and the philosophy.

Back in the late 1970’s Terry Nation – the genius behind the best bits of Dr Who - pitched a new idea to the BBC – the Dirty Dozen in space. Bad (or at least morally ambiguous) men (and a few women, mainly in high-heeled boots), predominantly in black leather, on a mission. Blake’s 7 was born. The world’s most beautiful spaceship – the tri-hulled Liberator glided across our screens and our heroes – pretty big damn heroes if you ask me – set forth to free the universe from the tyranny of the totalitarian, mind-controlling Federation.

The eponymous Blake was no socialist revolutionary – more of a radical left democrat – but he was prepared to use whatever means necessary to unite the rebel planets and destroy the powers of evil. Hooray! Oh and he was brutal, potentially self-destructive and willing to sacrifice everything and everyone for his aims.

And like all great heroes – he had a side-kick, alter-ego, anti-hero along for the ride. Avon has an enduring appeal – from geeky tech-nerd in the second episode of the series, to gun-toting sex symbol in thigh high leather boots by the end of the four season run. It’s a Cinderella story of bad guy turned badder.

But what, you ask, has all this sci-fi nostalgia got to do with Captain Mal?

Well may you ask.

Because the first thing I thought as I watched my very first Firefly episode – was “OMG Joss is a B7 fan.” Now I cannot confirm this rumour – but I think the evidence is piling up.

There’s the real pretty boat, the real pretty girls – who range from competent to expert in the ability to kick your ass category, and the real pretty guys in tight pants. Ahhh, the tight pants.

But perhaps less superficially – there’s the bitter but committed bloke against the forces of evil in the ‘verse; the conspiracy theories; the constant running from totalitarian forces and the bleak humour.

Mal’s also no revolutionary socialist – he’s a freedom fighter, a rebel – he ends up taking the Alliance on not because of huge principles but because it becomes totally personal. Not so different from any number of contemporary national liberation struggles. And not so different from Blake.

So that’s the politics and the truly obscure references to 1980s pop culture dealt with – at least for now - but what about the philosophy? You were promised existentialism – where is the existentialism?

Never fear, the myth of Sisyphus is here.

Now I’m not going to argue that Malcolm is Meursault – that would be silly. Were Joss really channelling Camus, Mal would have been at it with Inara before the contract was even signed on the shuttle lease – Meursault was never a man for delayed gratification.

But if we consider the first line of The Outsider for a moment and imagine it in Joss’s world…and we consider the first episode of Firefly – the real first episode – Serenity – in a sense, a metaphorical one – it begins “The Browncoats died today.” Or maybe “His faith died today.” Too sentimental? Perhaps…

But there’s more. Meursault spends his last months in a tiny cell, waiting each morning for the executioner to arrive. His main pleasure, the tiny square of blue he can see through the high window. Can’t you hear him? “You can’t take the sky from me.”

Then there’s his final realisation that he was indeed happy – and what’s happiness if its not finding Serenity?

But this is pulling at straws. We all know where I’m really headed. The purposelessness of life, its lack of meaning, meaning achieved only temporarily and through the act of living and accepting the meaninglessness. Not just that, but the fact that we are indeed all islands, untouched by others except in the most superficial of ways, that we all do die alone.


  1. Love the post... got me interested in Firefly now. Altho that last para is a little too cynical, surely. Am wondering... is that you as philosopher or you in existential crisis speaking? Or would you reply that the two are rarely counterposed.

  2. Haha! Like Camus, I deny being an existentialist - but like him - I may be lying...