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This was an assignment for one of my graduate classes this semester. We got to practice ethnographic coding and analysis on any source we chose. Naturally, being the fangirl that I am, I picked Science Fiction movies.

(I broke up some of the block text so it's in a slightly different format than how I turned it in)

“For the Greater Good”: Themes of Life and Death in Science Fiction

“They'll swing back to the belief that they can make people... better.” --Captain Malcolm Reynolds, Serenity.

“You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you've created.” --Commander William Adama, Battlestar Galactica.

The first source in this analysis is the movie Serenity, created and written by Joss Whedon. This movie is a sequel to a short-lived television series called Firefly and continues the story, elaborating on plot points and character relationships. The overall storyline follows the main cast as they get drawn into conflict with the government - the Alliance - embodied by the Operative, who is pursuing them from the beginning of the movie. The plot centers around a teenage girl named River Tam who was experimented on by the Alliance in a secret government program and subsequently rescued by her brother, Simon.

They, along with the crew of Serenity, are on the run to keep River safe and away from a government intent on killing her in order to destroy the secrets she doesn't know she carries. Along the way, the crew discovers one of the government’s biggest secrets that was meant to stay hidden: an experiment that was meant to make humans less violent failed and, in the process, created the Reavers - highly violent and cannibalistic humans who mindlessly attack anyone in their path.

The second source is the movie length pilot for the television show Battlestar Galactica, created and produced by Ronald D. Moore, which is a reboot of the original series and ran for four seasons. This plot revolves around the human created Cylons: a robotic race made to serve humanity. The Cylons quickly turned on the masters who created them, started a war, and then disappeared for 40 years only to return more terrifying and powerful than before.

The Cylons’ new advantage was that they look completely human and could easily infiltrate locations and defense systems in their plan to destroy the entirety of the human race. The few humans who survived this initial attack are on the run, relentlessly pursued by the Cylons as they flee to the unknown safety and dubious existence of Earth.

From first glance, there are obvious themes in both sources, one of those being relationships: friends, family, and coworkers, among others. Another important set of themes are actions which include misdirection, threats, war, disasters, experiments, violence, crime, and execution of justice. A third theme is social organization with government, enemy, military, political, veterans, medical, religious, and prisoners.

In addition, some codes for social organization are specific to the source, such as Reavers and the Alliance for Serenity and Cylons and the Colonials for Battlestar Galactica; these are categorized together as enemy and government, respectively. Minor themes coded for but not focused on were: color, travel and transportation. These themes did not appear as frequently in relation to the main themes in the source material and had less impact than relationship, action, and social organization.

The overall uniting theme seen in both of these sources is, most notably, life and death. These themes are labeled as living and alive, dead and dying, funeral, mourning, injury, cannibalism, mental health, murder and killing, and suicide. These were coded alongside themes for relationships, actions, and social organization for both sources and are separated into discussions of life and death relating to relationships followed by life and death relating to actions.

Throughout both of these sections will be the addition of social organization themes; since they are so intertwined with the source material, it will be easier to analyze them over a backdrop of another set of themes. Finally, there is a section about themes shared by both sources and possible themes to analyze in the future.

Life and Death: Relationships

In Serenity, familial relationships are most closely related to mental health, in this case, River Tam is considered a “psychic” or a “reader” and is referred to this way by her brother and the crew of Serenity. On the surface, the crew can be labelled as co-workers although they are more accurately represented as family with Serenity as their home. These labels change throughout; when the crew is working a crime job, they are co-workers, when the question of loyalty arises, they are family. The theme of family plays a big part here, especially considering the story only begins when River’s brother Simon rescues her from imprisonment by the government.

After some conflict, the crew accepts the siblings into their family as well, which directly leads to injury, death, and personal sacrifice to the extent that the plot would not be as successful if the crew were merely co-workers after all. However, since the crew accepted the Tams as family, this has led to familial protection and loyalty and a willingness to risk everything and sacrifice their lives for the truth

With regard to mental health, it is a major plot point that River “gleaned” the government's secrets so when the characters are relaying concerns about her mental health, it is usually in conjunction with discussions of the Alliance. Other themes related to River’s mental health are her own references to suicide and suggestions of mercy killing by other characters who think she is dangerous. This is not without reason since she is the cause of violence herself, through the fault of the Alliance.

There are also references to the government killing innocents for the “greater good”, the “greater good” in this case being the creation of “better worlds” and the discussion of how far someone is willing to go for a cause they believe in. In both sources, this is related to how much someone will sacrifice for family. For example in Battlestar Galactica, members of the military are seen to sacrifice a few for the good of the many in multiple instances where the order is passed down from the top.

There are also many military and family relationships that have been destroyed by the Cylon force, for instance, the commander of Galactica has two sons in the military; one of them was killed while piloting leaving the relationship with the second son to be strained, a relationship which negatively affects their military hierarchy. In addition, there are some references to mental health in this source when a man, who inadvertently helped his Cylon girlfriend tamper with the defense systems, thinks he is hallucinating and has entire conversations with her. It is never entirely clear whether she is actually communicating with him or if she is only a hallucination brought about by guilt.

Life and Death: Actions

Many of the plot-driving actions in Serenity are related to war, experimentation, and execution of justice - all the fault of the Alliance. The government Operative is seen to take any action, no matter the cost, in order to capture River and Simon Tam. He does this through violent threats that turn deadly, in this case, killing innocents and friends and family of the crew. The Operative relies heavily on his unquestioned orders and beliefs in order to execute justice.

Another interesting point about the Alliance in Serenity is that, for the main characters, the government is the enemy, even more so than the Reavers. The Alliance created the Reavers and, even if they hadn’t, one of the characters states that they would do this experiment again on someone else; this is the motivating factor for the crew. So even though Reavers are labelled as the enemy, they attack indiscriminately and so the Alliance has, in effect, created their own enemies. River is also a government-created enemy in that she carries this secret about the Reavers and the Alliance wants to kill her before it gets discovered.

This is very similar to Battlestar Galactica where humanity created the beings who destroyed them in large numbers. In both sources, when experimentation is used as a way to improve humanity, it always backfires and the creators end up being killed, injured, or threatened by the people and beings they created. Whenever cylons appear in the source material, they are immediately followed by death, destruction, war, and violence. They bring it these themes with them, even ignoring surrender, until they can reach their goal of complete destruction of humanity.

This is considered execution of justice, or a “cleansing”, as a way to save humanity from itself. Even when the Colonials have accepted the fact that they have lost the war before it had barely begun and flee to protect the last survivors, they are still relentlessly pursued by the cylons who have nothing to lose in death since their consciousness is transferred to another body when they die.

However, there are implications that one Cylon has gotten attached to a human although her actions toward him revolve around subtle misdirection until he’s not sure whether to trust her or not. The cylons themselves embody misdirection which is closely related to their ability to “blend in” with humans who, for a short time, have no reason to suspect that cylons could be living among them.

When both sources are analyzed together, there are multiple mentions of actions being taken “for the greater good”. In Serenity, this involves the Alliance stopping at nothing to kill a teen girl, their attempt to “fix” humanity, and the belief that killing someone is the price to pay for keeping secrets. For the cylons, the “greater good” is the complete destruction of a race in order to save them from themselves and, for the Colonials, it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice a few lives in order to save them all. In the attempt to create perfection, “better worlds”, and to free humanity from sin, it inevitably leads to violence and death in both sources.

It would be interesting to see how frequently color is associated with the enemy. Just from preliminary coding the color red shows up when the enemies are around - the signature color for one cylon is red clothing and Reavers are associated with red through blood. A linguistic coding analysis could also prove interesting since English and Chinese are the main languages spoken in Serenity with a colorful collection of swearing and slang while Battlestar Galactica relies on technical speech and slang.

There are also many religious references in both sources, too many to highlight in this analysis. The themes of life and death relating to religion include the discussion of belief, a mix of mono and polytheism, Christianity, and Buddhism with frequent references to “playing god” and “a world without sin”. If there was more time for further analysis, this would be the next topic to analyze: reliance on belief between the protagonists and their enemies.

In the end, both sources close with funerals and time to mourn the dead. Crews repair the things they've lost and relay a message of hope as a sign of, if not closure, then the movement from one stage of life into the next. The crew of Serenity repairs their ship - their home - in order to keep flying and the last of humanity sets off in Galactica to find a new home where they can live in peace.

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