“Two by two, hands of blue.”
So I have no complaints about Ariel.
This is surprisingly rare for me – usually there’s at least one plot element per Firefly episode that gets on my nerves intensely enough to wind up here. But Ariel is a tightly-plotted, slick, eminently watchable piece of SF. It sees Simon, desperate to learn what happened to River in the government facility where she was held, offering to help the crew of Serenity to steal a fortune in hospital drugs if they can help him get to the diagnostic centre of an Alliance-held hospital.
A recent commenter on my review of Out of Gas (@TheWolfy, do it please ya) suggested that Firefly should be read as a collection of folk tales or fairy stories. This certainly explains a lot, about the series in general and about Ariel in particular: the episode is done in very broad strokes, the warm light of Serenity and her crew against the sterile whites and blues of the hospital, referred to as an “Alliance facility”; Mal’s support of his crew against the Alliance scientists’ murder of their colleagues. There are, in fact, several direct shout-outs within the episode to the world of fairytale and myth: the title itself, of course, as well as River’s childhood rhyme to describe the Evil Government Scientists (“two by two, hands of blue”) and Jayne’s reference to Mal’s plan to sell the medicine they steal to needy outer planets as essentially a Robin Hood act: stealing from the rich to sell to the poor. The implications are, I think, clear – Ariel is only superficially an SF story; what it is at root is an archetypal legend, a fairy story. Despite their technological trappings, the Evil Government Scientists (with their needless bit of unpleasant murder – why shoot someone when a brain-exploding machine will do the trick?) are just like Edward Scissorhands, or the witch from Hansel and Gretel, or any one of the host of fairytale villains who have terrified children since time began. The hospital is like any dragon’s cave, filled with secret treasure, which ever appeared in legend.
And that means, of course, that Serenity‘s crew is like any other band of fabled outlaws: like Robin Hood and his merry men, or the Magnificent Seven.
The upshot of all of this is that Ariel in particular, and perhaps Firefly in general, is effectively timeless and contextless. It doesn’t rely, for its basic plot, on any of its SFnal trappings; they’re just cultural stuff overlaying a much more basic (more primal?) tale. Possibly this says something about Joss Whedon’s concept of the human: culture and context don’t matter much, and in the end we simply end up telling the same stories. Robin Hood and the Western and science fiction are all just so much wallpaper: our archetypes are common across humanity.
This is, of course, a reductive message, and Ariel is a reductive story. But its emotional palette is set by River, whose damaged amygdala means that her reactions to emotion are also reductive and immediate, and perhaps on some level that’s Whedon’s point: eventually, we all react to stories reductively, which is why Ariel, River’s narrative, is such a satisfying one. Steal from the rich, give to the poor: it’s a story that works, in Merrie England and in the Wild West and in the blackest depths of space, because ultimately our values change, our culture shifts, but our emotion is still biologically constituted and still the same. Wherever and whenever we are, we fear the dragon and the monster in the dark, and we lust after the thought of treasure.
The episode does, interestingly enough, register the fairy tale as essentially a genre based in capitalism: the crew’s main motivation for going into the hospital is all the cash they’re going to earn from flogging the drugs there, and Jayne’s betrayal is led on by hope of financial reward. It recognises that basically all of our archetypal stories are, eventually, about money. So perhaps this is a story about how we deal with capitalism, a force which apparently we’re going to drag with us for the next 500 years or whatever. How we make folk heroes out of capitalists (and this is calling to Jaynestown now). For Whedon, capitalism is an inescapable constant, burned into the fabric of the human condition. And, perhaps, this is what lies at the root of Firefly: a need to make money work for us, and not the other way around.