Prior to Firefly (2002–2003), creator Joss Whedon had written demons (in the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer), mutants (in the Astonishing X-Men comic series), and aliens (with the script for the film Alien Resurrection). Across the collective worlds of Firefly and Serenity (2005), known as “the ’Verse,” the most monstrous aspects of all three of these species are distilled into the Reavers: a cannibalistic, self-mutilating, pirate race of humans from the outlying planet Miranda.
The Reavers operate on the edge of “civilized” space, that is, space brought under the regime of the Alliance. Whereas the Alliance are shown within the series to be sterile, strict, and conservative, the Reavers represent the other extreme of the spectrum, breaking all human taboos and corrupting all they come into contact with. As Zoe explains it, the Reavers are not afraid to inflict brutal violence on others with little regard for other living beings.
Firefly is a science-fiction Western with an overlaid analogy to the American Civil War from the perspective of the losing side. As such, with the crew of the Serenity occupying a compromised middle territory, both geographically and morally, the Alliance and their authoritarian doctrines can appear to be almost as alien and disruptive to their way of life as the Reavers. Therefore, the ’Verse, being subjectively presented from the viewpoint of a small crew, is constantly reoriented for the viewer. On a broad level, the liberal use of Mandarin within a contemporary American dialect—itself indicative of a more enmeshed social understanding between superpowers in the speculative future—may also present itself as an alien, cultural barrier to viewers of the U.S.-made show.
Within the ’Verse itself, these same knowledge gaps are also critical in the unpacking and comprehension of narrative events. In “Safe” and “Objects in Space,” for example, when people are discussing the skills that River has acquired through cutting-edge Alliance research, she is ignorantly branded a witch rather than a psychic, with Kaylee also offering that “nobody can shoot like that, that’s a person” (“Objects in Space,” Firefly).
The Reavers occupy that same critical terrain of being considered nonhuman or alien…
The full 1,000 word version of this article is published in Aliens in Popular Culture, edited by Michael M. Levy and Farah Mendlesohn, published by Greenwood, 2019.