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A 'Verse of Make-Believe

First aired: The Signal: Season 6, Episode 15
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton
Oh, I think you might wanna reconsider that last part. See, I married me a powerful ugly creature.
How can you say that? How can you shame me in front of new people?
If I could make you prettier, I would.
You're not the man I met a year ago.

How long has it been since you pretended to be someone else? Leaving amateur dramatics aside, I expect for many of us it has been a long time since we indulged in a spot of make-believe. For the characters of Firefly, however, pretending to be someone else is something which happens rather often in their day-to-day lives.

The pilot episode Serenity gives us a taste of what is to come throughout the series. Laurence Dobson comes aboard Serenity and at first glance is a mild-mannered, bumbling sort of man, who bows his head to join in with Shepherd Book’s silent prayer at dinner. Before long we realise nothing could be further from the truth as he reveals himself to be a trigger-happy federal officer with a vicious streak.

Dobson is not alone in assuming a role which is somehow the opposite to his true character. In his case, the effect of this is to increase our surprise when the truth is revealed. Another example of this is Saffron, who appears at first to be the very definition of meek and submissive, but turns out to be a conniving trickster. As viewers, we discover the true natures of these characters at the same time as Serenity’s crew and share their surprise as the twists in the plot come to light.

When Mal and his crew pretend to be people other than themselves, we see more of this trend of characters playing their opposites. However, since we already know the true personalities of the crew, the effect this time is not to create a dramatic twist, but a great deal of comedy. Unlike the intended audience for the play-acting, we the viewers are in on the joke:

And Zoe... what would your husband say if he knew you were here?
I was weak.
So I take it they ain't newlyweds?
Hardly. Malcolm's my indentured man. With three years left on his debt. I imagine we'll have to add another six months after this little adventure.

In The Train Job, Zoe the warrior woman pretends to be a weakling and Mal, for whom freedom is everything, gets the role of an indentured man. Another example is found in the episode Ariel, when Mal, Zoe, Jayne and Wash – the renegade smugglers – become clean-cut Alliance hospital staff. On Canton, Jayne – the member of Serenity’s crew least likely to show charity towards strangers – gets to play the beloved folk hero. And Simon, who is usually so prim and proper, gets to play a buyer of… mud:

The management here don't take too kindly to sightseers, which is why we're… posing as buyers. And there ain’t a one of us looks more the part than the good Doctor. I mean, the pretty fits, soft hands, definitely a moneyed individual, all rich and lily-white and pasty all over—
All right. Fine. I'll go. Just, stop describing me.

Kaylee, normally seen wearing jumpsuits and engine grease, becomes the belle of the ball in Shindig and, of course, gets to dress appropriately for the occasion:

These girls have the most beautiful dresses. And so do I, how 'bout that!
Well, well just be careful. We cheated Badger outta good money to buy that frippery. You're s'posed to make me look respectable.
Yes sir, Captain Tightpants.

Although Kaylee has a new look in Shindig, underneath all the ruffles she is still the same Kaylee, at her happiest when discussing extenders and engines with some of the male attendees at the ball. Mal is likewise still the same behind the respectable façade and it doesn’t take too long before he finds himself throwing a punch at Atherton Wing.

Sometimes the play-acting has a more serious purpose. At the start of Serenity the BDM, Simon pretends to be an Alliance inspector in order to get access to River and rescue her. Later in the film, Serenity herself also dresses up, as a reaver ship. As is often the case with the human characters, Serenity plays her opposite. The ship with the peaceful name and no guns gets a cannon mounted on top and is “decorated” with corpses and red paint. Another poignant example of make-believe occurs in The Message, when Tracey pretends to be a corpse, but then inadvertently sets off a chain of events which ends up with him being a corpse for real.

A lot of the play-acting in Firefly is wrapped up in schemes of deception which are clearly placed on the wrong side of the law, but for Inara, acting is a regular part of her legitimate business as she deals with her clients:

My work's illegal, but at least it's honest.
While this... the lie of it... that man parading you around on his arm as if he actually won you, as if he loves you, and everyone here going along with it.

Inara sometimes also puts on an act even when she is not with a client, as, for example, when she encounters Mal after his night with Nandi in Heart of Gold. In fact, without knowing why Inara left Sihnon and what secrets may lie in her past, we cannot be sure just how much of what we see of her is an act. The same is of course also true of Shepherd Book. To what extent are we seeing an act when he is on screen?

The prize for the most audacious and extreme example of make-believe in Firefly should probably go to River:

I'm not on the ship. I'm in the ship. I am the ship.
River's gone.
Then who exactly are we talking to?
You're talking to Serenity.

Even when she is not pretending to be “incorporeally possessing a spaceship”, it is not always clear whether River is acting a role or being her true self:

Who we gonna find in there when she wakes up? The girl? Or the weapon?

It seems likely that due to the damage done to her mind by the Alliance’s experiments, River herself is not even always aware of the difference. Her “reality matrix” has been fragmented and the difference between the real world and the world of make-believe is blurred.

Playing at make-believe is a minor thread in the Firefly ‘verse, but it is woven into many stories in different ways and adds yet another layer to the richness of the characters and the created world they live in.

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