[Opinion] - Does Firefly Exist Within The Alien Universe


Last week, with the release of Prometheus on DVD and blu-ray, the above screenshot caught people's attention. It apparently, in the course of a paragraph, merges the Prometheus (and Alien) franchises into the same universe as Blade Runner. This has since been revealed to be not true, and just a little bit of fun the producer was having with the sort of detail obsessed fans that blow up the text on computer screens to see if it gives anything away.

But it made me remember a thought I had after I saw Prometheus earlier this year. Aside from all the other thoughts I had about Prometheus earlier this year. The Alien franchise, for all it's space and ET adventures, isn't actually all that sprawling. The first three films all take place within fifty years, the first two on the same planet, or at least the same sector of space. Small character groups, few confirmed details about the larger universe. Pretty much anything could be happening elsewhere, and we'd never know it. So...

What if Firefly/Serenity took place within the Alien universe?

This isn't as crazy as it sounds (certainly no crazier then Blade Runner), as I will outline after the jump.

Right off the jump, lets explain away the majority of the evidence I'm about to present: Joss Whedon is a huge Alien fan. References to it pop up in most of his works. He has put both Sigourney Weaver and Harry Dean Stanton in cameo roles in both of his recent films. He wrote the fourth film of the franchise (however he, or the rest of us feel about that), which accounts for the majority of the similarities. Before the release of the Avengers, he said this of Aliens director James Cameron:
"You know, for me Cameron is the leader and the teacher and the Yoda, because I don’t know anybody who delineates action as well as he does and it’s always about he shows you the parameters, he shows you the problem, and then he shows you the attempt at the solution and he makes the problem worse. It’s a real understanding of cinematic space in his movies and for me it’s kind of dazzling."
So, it would be logical that Whedon's first truly science fiction series would share a passing resemblance to the world Ridley Scott built. But it's still worth examining the possibility, starting with the timeline.

2023 - Peter Wayland TED Talk
2093 - Prometheus
2122 - Alien
2179 - Aliens/Alien 3
2381 - Alien Resurrection
2517 - Firefly
2518 - Serenity

Those last two dates are conjecture, taken from supplementary material relating to Serenity, but never actually mentioned on screen. But Joss has stated numerous times he envisioned Firefly as taking place five hundred years in the future, so it's a close enough guess. And, it establishes enough time between the Alien films and the Firefly series to account for cultural differences, which we'll come to.

Weyland-Yutani


Lets get this one out of the way first, because it is by far most obvious. The screenshot above is from the opening sequence to Serenity, the pilot episode of the Firefly series. During the Battle of Serenity Valley, Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a gun turret, and shoots down an alliance ship as it passes over. And in the dead centre of the top of the screen is the distinctive Weyland-Yutani logo.

But, if Firefly happens two hundred years after Alien Resurrection, Weyland-Yutani wouldn't exist anymore. It's specifically mentioned to having been bought out by Wal-mart. As tongue-in-cheek as that declaration may have been, it does establish two reasonable explanations. The first, sometimes if a company specialised in a particular area (in this case, weapons manufacturing), they might be bought, and kept as an ongoing subsidiary, much like the various companies owned by modern day megacorporations (Disney, GE, etc). The second option is corporate identity. Sometimes, a company has brand recognition that a purchasing company knows is too good to give up. While Weyland-Yutani might not exist as a company, the name and the logo might continue to be used as a way to entice purchasers familiar with the brand.

Building Better Worlds


Not much about Weyland-Yutani is revealed in Scott's original film, referred to on screen only as "The Company." It was only in the sequel that Cameron really explored the corporate world of the future, most memorably with the slogan "Building Better Worlds." As I said above, just because Weyland-Yutani doesn't exist as a company any more, doesn't mean that it has been wiped entirely from memory. And like the best slogans, it might have embedded itself into the public consciousness, becoming something of a mantra. The Operative, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, repeats this slogan nearly word for word a couple times during the course of Serenity. By then, and from his mouth, they've taken on a much more twisted meaning (much like our own modern "where's the beef"). Less about physically building worlds, as the Company was, but more the shaping of a culture into a sin free utopia.

Space Ship Design


On the left are the Prometheus and the Nostromo, the ships of the Alien universe. On the the right are Serenity and the IAV Dortmunder, from Firefly. It was the Prometheus' very Firefly-like design that first got me thinking about this. And in universe, it stands to reason. In Prometheus, the ship is a new design. Experimental, and expensive. Over time, as production becomes cheaper, the same design would be scaled down, the unneeded elements eliminated (Prometheus is an FTL ship, while Serenity is sublight only, thus the removal of two engines). And, Serenity is well established as being an old, out of date design.

The design of the Alliance ships is another obvious reference to the Alien films, but in universe, it would simply be the same as above. Utilising an effective design for a range of purposes. The major difference being, the Nostromo is a commercial vessel, basically a flying mineral refinery, while the Dortmunder is a flying city. But it all works off the same "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" policy. The same logic is used by modern day car companies, designing and redesigning cars to improve performance, or handling, or speed, all the while attempting to retain the basic physical shape of some deeply loved former model.

In Alien Resurrection, both of the principle ships have similar designs to a ship that would later appear in Serenity. The USM Auriga has a similar structure (if not internal layout) to the Operative's Command ship during the final battle with the Reavers. And the Betty shares external similarities with a Reaver ship, and internal similarities with the Serenity (especially the cockpit).

Human Experimentation


The military in both films obviously have no compunction with human experimentation. The commander that resurrects Ripley doesn't even care about her, referring to her as a "meat bi-product." The same general attitude is held in Serenity, where it is clear that any negative effects their experiments have on River are a secondary concern. The ends, in both cases, far outweigh the means. To the extent that the moral aspects of the means aren't even considered. Going even further back, the original Alien film makes it quite clear that the Company is ready and willing to kill or sacrifice every person on board the Nostromo, if it means getting a xenomorph back to Earth.

The same tact is repeated in both of the sequels, with human life meaning nothing in comparison to achieving their goals. An entire human colony is purposefully exposed, just for the chance of retrieving one specimen. This act is repeated in Serenity, where an entire world is exposed to a drug, without the effects of the drug being known. Despite any honest intentions, like the military purpose in capturing a xenomorph being explicitly stated to plunder the species to develop new vaccines and alloys, the government or military does not care about how many people die, while they are trying to help humanity. Like Mal says, "They'll try it again. Maybe in a year, maybe in ten years on this very world wiped clean."

Earth

"Earth-that-was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many." Thus begins Serenity, as dozens of ships escape a brown and grey, desolate looking Earth. It is well established through the series that Earth is no longer part of the human experience, having moved practically into the realm of legend, the way they talk about it with glossy eyes and a selective cultural memory. Much like we glorify Ancient Athens, or Rome. The above screenshot is taken from a deleted scene (or the Director's Cut) of Alien Resurrection. However, even in the theatrical cut, the idea of returning to Earth is not appealing. Ron Perlman directly refers to it as a "shit hole." Clearly, by that point in Ripley's history, Earth was no longer the place to be, the implication being that Wayland-Yutani's efforts to build better worlds were successful in providing humanity safe haven elsewhere in the universe.

The Government/The 'Verse


We, as viewers, only experience the Alien films through the perspective of specific Company or military events. We have no reference as to how powerful the Company actually is, or how sprawling the culture of this future humanity is. In fact, there is very little evidence of culture at all in the Alien films, other then corporate culture. Firefly very clearly showcases the mixed heritage of humanity, with some worlds being more America-influenced, while others being very Asian-influenced. And while it may not seem on the surface that this sort of cultural blending is present, even in an early form, in the Alien films, but you have to remember the name of the Company: Weyland-Yutani. Western, and Eastern names, merged together.

By the time of Alien Resurrection, the perspective shifts to the United Systems Military, whose name implies Earth has become largely uninhabitable, and the human population has moved to off world colonies. There is mention of a Congress giving the military it's orders. But we still are exposed to very little of the larger culture of the United Systems, other then the existence of space pirates. Skip ahead two hundred years, to the time of Serenity. The military is the strong arm of the Union of Allied Planets, or the Alliance. Again, we never really know anything specific about the Alliance, as the stories are told from the perspective of hostile outsiders. The Alliance is governed by a Parliament, which were the victors in a war between the highly developed Inner Systems, and the rugged, underdeveloped Outer Worlds.

Is two hundred years enough time for one franchise to become the other? Well, from the few details the films and series actually give us, it's more then possible. The biggest difference is the name of the Government. Ask African nations today, how long does it take for a government to change it's name, or structure? Or Europe, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Or the United States, just over two hundred years ago. In three years, during the Revolution, France went from being an absolute monarchy to a republic. Add another hundred years, and it went from a dictatorship, to a democracy. Granted, all of those were the result of a massive cultural or political upheaval. But the British Empire fell apart, and was replaced by the Commonwealth, because it could no longer sustain itself financially. Who's to say something similar didn't occur that forced the United Systems to redevelop itself into the Alliance. Perhaps the United Systems were spread out over too much of the galaxy, and the push to consolidate resulted in the change.

The Crews


Not really a fair piece of evidence, I'll admit. The crew of the Betty, in both appearance, number, and attitude, are clearly a prototype Serenity crew, one fashioned for an R-rated world. In universe, it could be a sign that space piracy has not changed much in centuries, possibly an effect of deeply held space-fairing tradition, much like historical pirates.

The Differences


What about the acid blooded elephant in the room, then? Firefly gives no indications of non-human life on any of the planets they visit. But neither does the Alien franchise. The xenomorphs can all be directly linked back to LV426 (or the Prometheus planet). A line in Resurrection confirms this, saying of the aliens that "Nothing like this we've ever seen on any world before." And that "Ellen Ripley died trying to wipe these things from existence." It's clear that alien life is rare even in the Alien universe, and non-existent within Firefly, or at least the small sections of universe these franchises cover.

What about FTL flight? Firefly takes place within a single solar system (at least), requiring only sublight engines on their ships. Trips between various moons and planets takes days, or weeks, implying that the ship are still hurtling through space at enormous velocities. Within the Alien universe, FTL flights are long journeys, taking months, or years, to reach destinations, requiring the crews to enter hibernation for the long hauls, suggesting that the FTL was only barely light speed or better, far from the near instantaneous warp drives of other franchises. One of the reasons the British Empire fell was that it was too big, and took too long to reach the various corners of the empire. News was long to arrive to colonies, which eventually favoured self governance to an unseen hand. Might this have been the ultimate cause of the collapse of the United Systems, in favour of a closer knit Alliance?

What about synthetics, possibly the biggest element of one franchise that gets no mention in the other? Two things. First, within the course of the Alien franchise, the synthetics went from being secret, corporate-owned entities, to being relatively common and trusted, to being recalled by the government and practically non existent. By the era of Resurrection, the implication is there are very few synthetics lefts. And those that are, live in secret, and in constant fear of being discovered. Second, remember that Firefly only lasted 13 episodes, and a film. Considering that they had already introduced the concept of a psychic, and how much Whedon adores the Alien films, who's to say he wouldn't have introduced the idea of AI at some point down the line? In fact, at the next comic-con, someone ask him that, I'm genuinely interested.


What if he already had introduced a synthetic? Crazy? In researching this article, I came across a fan theory that Inara was a robot of some kind. A theory I never would have considered. But, as proof to back this up, the fan theory referenced the strange reaction and needle she retrieves during the pilot episode Reaver encounter. The mysterious circumstances that led to her leaving the pleasure house; the caginess she displays when she has to go to a technologically advanced inner system planet for a "medical check up"; the off hand remark in Heart of Gold that she hasn't aged; the reluctance to allow the doctor to examine her after she is drugged in Our Mrs. Reynolds; and the fact that she is one of the few that isn't injured at all during the Reaver attack at the end of Serenity (we never see her bleed) are all presented as evidence of her less-then-human nature. She is certainly the most compassionate crew member, which calls to mind the comment in Resurrection directed at Call that "no human could be that humane." The synthetics of the Alien films look perfectly human, and only get better at mimicry with each generation. Why wouldn't, after two hundred additional years of evolution, synthetics reach a stage where they are virtually identical to humans?

In the end, this is all conjecture. But isn't everything, really?
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

7 comments :

  1. Interesting read - but I'd like to add about the last bit that it has been widely speculated and all but confirmed by Whedon and Minear that Inara was terminally ill (hence the "medical exams" and unwillingness to be seen to by Simon); and in the Browncoats Unite special that aired on the Science Channel last fall, Minear actually confirmed that the syringe she carried was meant to contain a chemical which would poison anyone who had sex with her - if, for example, Reavers boarded the ship and raped her, they'd be killed by the toxin.

    Aside from that, some interesting speculation. The similarities in ship designs in particular seem undoubtedly related.

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    1. Oh absolutely. As you say, the purposes of the needle and Inara's condition are well speculated and all but confirmed via "Word of God." Happily, for the purposes of my wanton speculation, nothing was verified in series. Plus, I needed a connection to synthetics, and as she appears on screen, Inara fit best as an evolution of the Call-type skin job.

      Of course, River fits better as a Terminator-style killing machine. But too much was revealed about her to consider her anything but just a really messed up human.

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    2. I wonder if it would bear mentioning that Book has a cybernetic eye? I think that the Lawman from the pilot was also shown in the comics to have some integrated cybernetic parts as a result of the injuries he sustained from Mal.

      So, at least the Powers that Be have confirmed that bionic technology exists in the Firefly universe.

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    3. Brilliant, I'd completely forgotten about that. I didn't use much (any) material from the comics, just focusing on “screen canon” of both franchises. But, if synthetic life forms had evolved to the point where they are indistinguishable from humans, then the ability to create bionics based on that technology makes a certain sense.

      Thanks for the addition.

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  2. There are similarities between the betty ans serenity as well. two center mounted engines that work in not only propulsion but steering as well that would, in theory, all the betty to pull a "crazy Ivan". (Tip of the proverbial het to the hunt for the red October there). Rear cargo, steps leading down. although on the betty we never see where the crew quarters are located or how they were situated, but the layout is both logical and suggestive.

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  3. Here's a more satisfying theory: same universe, but separate and disconnected. "The earth that was could no longer sustain our numbers" implies that many humans left earth, but not all of them.

    Firefly shows what happened to the humans who left Earth permanently 500+ years ago, and Alien documents certain adventures of those who stayed behind.

    I think Firefly implies they've been in the 'verse for 500 or so years, and it would've taken more than a few years to get there. Maybe it took 20+ in cryo-sleep / generation ships. This distance would effectively sever the 'verse from the Earth sphere. The exodus could have happened anywhere in the Alien timeline, but say it happened around 2100; everything after this would be parallel and unconnected, but still in the same universe: A (relatively) healthy and thriving 'verse in Firefly with a Weyland-Yutani subsidiary, and a decaying Alien-infested dystopia with the primary Weyland-Yutani.

    Also, who says Weyland-Yutani didn't subsidize and coordinate the exodus in Firefly? And maybe once the system was settled, they fell out of favor and the Alliance became the dominant, non-corporate form of governance. Meanwhile in Alien, Weyland-Yutani wields more power than most governments.

    With this scenario I think most inconsistencies can be waived away, two branches of humanity, two very different outcomes.

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    ReplyDelete