From the man-made evil of the Reavers to the ominous derelict ship, the Firefly episode ‘Bushwhacked’ scans like a horror movie.
As a self-confessed TV addict, there’s nothing I love more than a holiday special – but, in the world of sci-fi, it’s hard to find a Halloween or Christmas episode. Usually because, y’know, most of human civilization has given up on such antiquated traditions all those years in the future (and presumably the good people of Stargate SG-1 are too busy working to stop and go trick-or-treating).
So, what’s a gal to do? Well, thankfully, it seems Firefly has the answer (much like it always has the answer).
Despite being no longer than a single season and a movie, each and every single episode of Joss Whedon’s iconic series tackles a different genre. We’ve got the Reconstruction romance in ‘Shindig’ (S1, Ep6), the comedic stylings of ‘The Train Job’ (S1, Ep1), and the classic heist movie in ‘Ariel’ (S1, Ep8). ‘Objects in Space’ (S1, Ep10) is the psychological thriller, ‘Out of Gas’ (S1, Ep8) the cerebral drama, and… well, I could go on and on. And I usually would, but time is against us, and All Hallows’ Eve is just around the corner.
So, which of Firefly’s brilliant installments is the one you want for Halloween? Why, it’s ‘Bushwhacked’ (S1, Ep2). Obviously.
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‘Bushwhacked’ is a Condensed Horror Movie
Hitting all the beats of classic science fiction horror (I’m thinking Alien, in particular), ‘Bushwhacked’ begins with two stark little words from Nathan Fillion’s Mal Reynolds: “We’re dead.”
He’s sweaty, he looks defeated, and he’s in the middle of a seemingly violent skirmish. It has all the makings of a deeply unsettling moment – save for the fact this is your classic horror film’s misdirect. This isn’t life or death; it’s basketball. And it offers up a rare moment of lighthearted fun for our hardworking crew, who laugh together like… well, not like a family, but more like the high school kids at the beginning of your favorite teen horror.
Think about it; having Serenity’s crew lean into their game allows Whedon to make the same clever moves Wes Craven does at the beginning of any Scream film. Through play, bonds are established, crushes are made apparent, and outsiders are identified. A lot happens in a few short minutes – including the sort of fleeting moments that usually go unnoticed by viewers; I’m thinking once again of the oh-so-subtle Kaylee (Jewel Staite), Jayne (Adam Baldwin), and Simon (Sean Maher) love triangle. As in, yes, the very same one which explains Jayne’s bullying behavior towards Simon later in this same episode.
It’s the perfect setup because it shakes viewers up, then sets them at ease, and then – you guessed it – shakes them up again when they discover the derelict ship floating in close proximity to theirs. Who is on board? What happened to them? And why in the ‘Verse isn’t there a distress beacon blaring out a call for help?
It’s deeply, deeply ominous. And the sense of dread that’s conjured up by the sight of that small transport ship silently spinning in place? Well, it’s a wholly rational reaction – because, as Firefly fans know all too well, something terrifying lies in wait for our crew when, driven by greed and/or the hope of rescuing any survivors, they decide to call time on their basketball game and go exploring.
“We wanted to make something scary,” explains writer and director Tim Minear in Firefly: A Celebration (2012). “It’s about homesteaders and regular people trying to get by. It’s about the savagery of being too far away from civilization.”
Thanks to the very first episode of Firefly, we know that there are frightening things to be found in the black. One word. One word that conjures up all manner of discomfort and distress.
One little word, whisper it:
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‘Bushwhacked’ Is about Human Monsters
Yes, I’m talking about the very same Reavers who are initially dismissed as “campfire stories” by Simon, until he gets the following lesson from a stony-faced Zoe (Gina Torres):
“They’re not stories… if they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing – and if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.”
Hearing about Reavers, however, is not the same as seeing them firsthand. Much like Simon, it’s easy to file them away in our brains as spooks and ghouls; as yarns spun by storytellers in a bid to frighten the children gathered around them when the sun has gone down. Or, on the flip side, one might assume a Reaver is a terrifying beast; as far removed from humanity as can possibly be. Something with fangs, with claws, with scales even. Something other.
That’s why ‘Bushwhacked’ is so very clever. Because it establishes a far more frightening truth: these are not monsters. Rather, to paraphrase Stephen King’s The Shining (1977), sometimes human beings become inhuman monsters – because Reavers, despite Jayne’s claims otherwise, are very much ordinary people. Ordinary people “too long removed from civilization, perhaps”, notes Ron Glass’s Shepard Book, but ordinary people nonetheless.
As Team Serenity explores the derelict ship, it quickly becomes apparent that something very bad happened – and not all that long ago. Food is left set and rotting on a table, still ready to be eaten. A ship sat empty and in perfect mechanical order. Personal treasures and belongings left behind. It’s almost as if everyone simply disappeared one day. As if the team has unwittingly boarded a ship of ghosts.
Before too long, though, Mal realizes (with a little help from Summer Glau’s River) that the ship’s crew is still very much present. Their bloodless and mangled bodies are strung up from the ceiling, flesh torn open, and their eyes blankly staring forward in horror.
It’s all too apparent that this is the work of Reavers. Who else, after all, would transgress against humanity in ways that violate our most viscerally abhorred taboos? As it turns out, any single one of us would – because one man has been left aboard this empty ship alive.
Why did the Reavers spare him and not the others? That much is never made clear; perhaps he hid from them, or perhaps they had simply had eaten their fill when they came across him. Perhaps they preferred to leave behind a witness to spread further stories about them.
Whatever the reason, this ordinary man might have been left alive – but he’s no survivor. Remember: the Reavers are an exaggerated version of human psychology following long-term isolation, and this man has been left aboard a broken-down spaceship for weeks, months even, with nowt but the bodies of his fallen friends for company. The same friends he watched being torn apart, sexually assaulted, and eaten alive. The same friends whose bodies were drained chained to the ceiling, left to rot and decay before his very eyes.
“They made him watch,” says Mal. “He probably tried to turn away – they wouldn’t let him. You call him a survivor? He’s not. A man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it.”
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True Horror Lies Closer to Home
Mal knows all too well that there’s no bringing this man back from the brink. He senses, long before anyone else does, what evils this shaking and shivering man will wind up committing. Because Mal (oh captain, my captain) fought in the war against unification. He’s seen men and women commit terrible evils against one another. He knows the Reavers are a living reminder that all humans have the propensity for evil. And he knows they are not monsters; rather; they are the anthropomorphization of all of our worst faults.
“He’s following the only course that’s left to him,” Mal continues. “First he’ll try to make himself look like one… cut on himself, desecrate his own flesh. Then he’ll start acting like one.”
Cue a shot of our survivor being worked on by Alliance medics – all of whom are so intent on saving this man that they fail to notice his hand snake up and grab a sharp, shining surgical tool from beside the operating table he’s laid upon…
And it’s at this point that the character who is referred to throughout the script as “The Survivor” takes on a new name: “The Killer.”
The Science of Evil
It’s a deftly woven episode, filled to the brim with jump scares and nail-biting tension – not to mention laugh-out-loud moments (Firefly is part of the Whedonverse, after all). But it’s this, this deeply unsettling idea that every single one of us has the potential to become a monster, that makes it stand out as a truly smart addition to the sci-fi horror genre.
“I think it is an underrated episode,” Whedon himself admits in Firefly: A Celebration. “It was really an attempt to show how creepy it could get out there [in space], just how bad it was. And to show exactly where [the Serenity crew] were – caught between the most terrifying savages and the most antiseptic and annoying bureaucracy.”
For much of the series, it’s the former that’s held up as the show’s primary villain: the human monsters hiding in the shadows, committing nightmarish deeds and destroying the lives of everyone they come across. Strangely enough, though, it’s the latter whom we should all be most afraid of.
Yes, the Alliance might seek to maintain order in the ‘verse, but they do so at the expense of real people. They do so by experimenting upon and psychologically torturing the likes of River – and even worse still, as we later find out in the feature-length movie. Is it any wonder that such transgressions led to the creation of the Reavers?
In this universe, the Alliance is Frankenstein, and the Reavers are its monster. A Reaver is not born but made. And while the concept of evil is largely treated as incomprehensible in the horror genre – a topic that cannot be dealt with because the scale of it is so great – Whedon’s Firefly seeks to look into the science of evil. Instead of addressing its symptoms (“this man sliced up the surgeon operating on him because he is evil”), it looks at the causes of evil. What makes someone capable of causing extreme hurt to another person?
Writing in The New York Times, Simon Baron-Cohen explains that it is the “erosion of empathy” that causes humans to commit acts of evil,
“When our empathy is switched off, we are solely in the ‘I’ mode,” he writes in his article, The Science of Evil (2011).
“In such a state we relate only to things or to people as if they were just things. Most of us are capable of doing this occasionally. We might be quite capable of focusing on our work without sparing a thought for the homeless person on the street outside our office. But whether we are in this state transiently or permanently, there is no ‘thou’ visible – at least, not a thou with different thoughts and feelings.
“Treating other people as if they were just objects is one of the worst things you can do to another human being, to ignore their subjectivity, their thoughts, and feelings.”
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So, Who Is the True Monster?
Bushwhacked offers up two monsters for us to consider; the Reavers, and the Alliance. Both have one thing in common: they treat other people as though they were just objects.
As such, this episode of Firefly offers up a complex theory – that every person has the raw material to become a “Reaver from Hell.” That evil exists in all of us. That Reavers are made, not born.
Indeed, as Whedon himself puts it, “anyone… can become a monster.” And, while Commander Harken (Doug Savant) learns this lesson the hard way – and works hard to rebuild his own empathic supplies, Bushwhacked makes it all too clear that Team Serenity is surrounded by those who would do them harm. Either for the sake of themselves (in the case of the Reavers), or the sake of their ideals (as per the Alliance).
It’s a frightening episode on so many levels, essentially. And it’s ideal viewing for Halloween, no matter what scares you because there’s something here to get under each and every single person’s skin. To make them look harder at themselves when the lights are switched off and the world around them is quiet. To really consider what they might do to another human being, in the right (or should that be wrong) circumstances.
To consider and confront the monster, the evil, lurking within their own selves. You can’t get much scarier than that!
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Kayleigh Dray has somehow managed to balance her severe sci-fi addiction with a pretty full-on career as a working writer for going on 10 years now. During the week, you can find her hunched over her laptop and tapping away furiously. On a weekend, though, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of hot chocolate, rewatching Stargate for the millionth time, and/or playing Dungeons & Dragons with her friends.