Firefly begins in the aftermath of a galactic civil war. The winning side was a great Alliance of highly developed planets, where much of the power and wealth was concentrated. The losing side was a loose confederation of Independent planets along the outer rim, where people struggled to get enough food.
Malcolm Reynolds was a Sergeant in the Independent Army. Once his side lost, he became a scavanger, a drifter, a pirate. Buying a Firefly class transport named Serenity, he assembled a crew to take whatever jobs they could find.
In the opening pilot episode, 'Serenity', the job is picking clean a derelict spaceship full of food. However, salvaging from derelict spaceships is illegal. His team is spotted by local Alliance cruisers and an alert is sent out for Firefly class transport.
Once he inspects the scavenge, he sees government imprints on the stolen food and knows that'll make it harder to fence. But he has to sell it, because otherwise they weren't going to be able to fuel the ship. To make some extra money, they take on passengers in the form of Doctor Tam and his little sister River.
River Tam is wanted by the alliance, and the Doctor pays for their passage by being the medic for the crew. In the fourth episode, 'Safe,' the Doctor and his little sister are on a rustic backwoods border moon that barely has running water and electricity, let alone a doctor. The locals kidnapped them, only to discover River is a little bit psychic. But the locals think she's a witch, so they decide to burn both of them at the stake. Malcolm Reynolds finds them and pulls out a shotgun, saying to the mob, "She's our which. Cut her the hell down."
The initial inspiration for the show was a book called 'The Killer Angels,' about Confederate soldiers after the Civil War and the struggles along the frontier, trying to rebuild their lives after having lost. My ancestors fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, so we were the descendants of a losing side.
I remember visiting Gettysburg as a boy. My dad took us on a big walk to visit Robert E. Lee's statue. It was such a reverent moment at the time, visiting the battlefield where the Confederate Army was broken. We were taught to revere and love the United States. But also there was this romanticism for a country that we never knew, the Confederate States of America.
Because people look for a story to define who they are. We inserted ourselves into that identity, as descendants of the Confederacy onto the grander narrative of who we were as Americans. Outside of my family, some people used that identity as an escape from who they were, but they brought a racial element to it.
In grade school, my friends truck driver father thought the Klu Klux Klan was cool, and encouraged us to say things that ten year olds shouldn't. My parents thought the Klan was a place where unsuccessful people go, because they have a lot of problems elsewhere. That element of being a Son of the South was there for some, for many. But our family didn't take it to that extreme because we were taught that slavery was a great evil. But we wanted to be proud of where we came from. So there was a lot of divorcing the slavery aspect from our ancestors.
We wanted a story of who we were that was comforting, that could make being working class easier. An identity that was better than just based on money, because in America a lot of your identity is based on money. No one thinks about money more than those that have none, and if you're identity is tied to money and you have none, what does that make you? There were points where we didn't need to go to the food bank, when things were stable and we could help out the others. I had cousins who came to live with us for a few months because their parents were in and out of shelters. Other cousins needed our help with lunch money, so my parents would cover the tab.
But when watching Firefly, I learned that you didn't have to be defined by your socioeconomic background. I didn't have to define myself by a war that somebody lost 120 years before I was born. That I could make my own identity. I could chart my own course have an adventure and be a hero. That's what Firefly meant to me.