On shows created by Joss Whedon
By Ed Connor
In the Buffyverse, the bad guys are arch-demons and their minions. Their most potent and fearsome weapon is magic. In the Firefly ’verse, the bad guys are Alliance government higher-ups (“key members of parliament”) and their operatives. What is their most powerful and frightening weapon? It’s not military–armed conflict is fairly conventional, the unsuccessful war for independence is over, and the government maintains only an occasional military presence near the border planets. It’s not information technology–Captain Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity fly beneath the government’s radar and neatly elude detection at every turn. It’s not genetics or cybernetics–Joss’s vision of the future is refreshingly free of aliens, mutants, and robots (all the characters are very recognizably human). Instead, the really scary stuff in the series Firefly and the movie Serenity, the homologue to magic, the most insidious weapon, is neuroscience.
The two central mysteries that drive the larger story arc are the madness of a young girl on the run from Alliance agents (River) and the existence of the savage, demonic “Reavers” on the outskirts of known space. As it turns out, both of these story elements arise from abuse of neuroscience by the government. Neuroscientific manipulation is the most devastating form of personal mutilation (River) and the most destructive source of mass mayhem (Reavers). Like magic, it can also be used for good, but with unpredictable and mixed results, as exemplified by River’s largely unsuccessful treatment by her physician brother Simon, using neuroactive drugs and neuroimaging.
By adopting neuroscience …