How Firefly Put A Sci-Fi Twist On A John Wayne Classic

"Firefly" holds a special place in the hearts of sci-fi fans. Whatever issues have come up in terms of creator Joss Whedon, the story itself was endlessly compelling. Nine people from different backgrounds travel together on a firefly class spaceship, through an uncertain territory, trying to get to where they're going (and doing crime along the way). It's a Western set in space, in a future where people are settling new planets because Earth is no longer viable. Sort of like how people settled in the Old West. 

In the book "Joss Whedon: The Biography" from author Amy Pascale (via Gizmodo), we learn in the "Firefly" chapter that there was a reason Whedon decided to use the specific number of people traveling in the ship together, and that a classic John Ford movie starring John Wayne gave him the idea. This was not only for the headcount, but the archetypes they represented. That movie was 1939's "Stagecoach." 

The book explains that literature professor Fred Erisman pointed out the parallels between the characters from the film and the series. He talks about how Buck, the driver (Andy Devine) in "Stagecoach," became Wash (Alan Tudyk). Both characters are comic relief. Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) from the film became surgeon Simon Tam (Sean Maher), though Doc is a drinker, and Simon has a bit of a stick up his butt. (My words, not Erisman's.) Dallas the sex worker (Claire Trevor) is now Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), the Companion, who is a sex worker, but one that is trained at a school and has a high social position in society. 

Nine characters traveling through the frontier

Other members of the crew are Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion); Zoe (Gina Torres), a fellow soldier who served with Malcolm in the war; Kaylee (Jewel Staite), a mechanic; Book (Ron Glass), a preacher with a past; Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a mercenary; and River (Summer Glau), the younger sister of Simon who has been experimented on. Although the book doesn't mention it, there are parallels between Mal and John Wayne's Ringo Kid, a criminal who wants a better life.

It's not a one-to-one comparison, but it's a group of people sort of thrown together by circumstances. As the book explains, in "Stagecoach," the group encounters the Apache tribe as a threat — and the way the 1939 film depicts Native Americans isn't comfortable to watch or appropriate in any way — while the "Firefly" crew must deal with the Reavers, a group of people so consumed with rage they attack anyone in the most awful of ways (it's explained in the film "Serenity," which served as a second season of sorts for the canceled show). 

At a WonderCon panel in 2005 for "Serenity" (written up by Sam Arroyo for Comic Book Resources, article now archived), Whedon said: "Every story needs a monster. In the stories of the Old West, it was the Apaches." Whedon's version of a frontier threat took a population pacification drug called Pax, which had the opposite effect on some people who took it. They went mad, attacking and destroying anything in their paths.

'We have done the impossible and that makes us mighty'

Living in the United States as I do, it's easy sometimes to forget exactly what sorts of hardships those settling the Old West went through. Danger from bandits, the lack of roads, animal attacks, food shortages, being unprepared for the journey, illness, fouled water, scam artists promising land where there wasn't any, weather ... maybe it's just because I've watched "1883" recently, but it's harrowing to think about. 

I think in a way, in addition to the waves of charisma exuded by the crew, the appeal of "Firefly" is the idea of revisiting a time in history (by reliving it in the future) where a group of bandits could operate on the edges of society, fight a great wrong, and interact in a way outside the norm. It's the appeal of Westerns in general, I think. Adventure, doing what you must to survive, and finding out who you are along the way, both from what you do and how you're reflected in the eyes of your fellow travelers. 

"Stagecoach" is currently streaming on Apple TV+, and "Firefly" is streaming on Hulu.