The family she made, the strength of her love for them, it’s what kept them together. When you live with that kind of strength, you get tied to it. You can’t break away, and you never want to.
Inara, Heart of Gold, Firefly
*** Mild spoilers about Firefly ahead. ***
I recently watched Firefly again. One of the thoughts that I wondered a few different times was why everyone stays on that ship. Sure, they have backstories that brought them together and shady pasts that due to the cancelation of the show are not explored on screen. (Personally, I think Shepard Book meant to say there is a special place in hell for child molesters, those who talk at the theatre, and Fox producers that cancel a Joss show.) Just as I was really contemplating why the crew stays together through all of the conflict, Joss does one of the many things he is great at: he answers the question going through my mind. See quote above.
There have been many commentaries on leadership in Joss’ work, particularly women in leadership roles (he recently spoke about a desire to see his trend of strong female heroines on TV move to the big screen). Once or twice there has even been a reference to Mal and leadership. What I’d like to spend a moment exploring is how sic-fi creates spaces where leadership can be explored.
Difficult scenarios exist in most drama. That is part of what makes it entertaining. Another episode of Firefly, War Stories, brings this up explicitly when Shepard Book is quoting the “warrior poet”:
“live with a man 40 years,
share his house, his meals, speak on
every subject. Then tie him up and
hold him over the volcano’s edge.
And on that day you will finally meet
Simon replies: “Sadistic crap legitimized by florid prose.” Which honestly is a significant amount of what Joss, and many other great dramatic writers, does. What seperates sci-fi from other dramatic writing in this regard is often how close to the volcano’s edge we are able to get. In the episode Out of Gas we see Mal literally moments away from dying because he demonstrated his willingness to go down for his crew. His crew defied his orders and in doing so not only saves Mal but saves the ship and possibly themselves. But Mal had to show how far he was willing to go for his crew for them to all come back together.
There are many great dramatic stories that allow us to see people on the brink. Sometimes these stories are even based on real life. I think TV is a better vehicle to discuss leadership than movies because leadership isn’t a one-time thing. It is habits, daily decisions, being presented with similar situations and learning from the last one.
In Buffy, ST:TNG (ok, First Contact, which yes, is a movie, is my favorite example of this…but the serial rule still applies), ST:V, and BSG, we see characters who are leaders become people we don’t like. They become irritable, they let us down, they put personal priorities in front of the needs of their team, such as Captain Janeway’s willingness to sacrifice her crew for a cup of good coffee. And then they get called out on it and pull themselves together.
Sci-fi has consistently shown us diversity in leadership before other genres were willing to go there. The circumstances that allow this to happen are similar to what allows sci-fi to discuss leadership more broadly. Separating the story from an imposed need to “make it accurate” or “real” gives the writers the freedom to focus on a story that often ends up being more truthful than “real” stories.