Serenity, Firefly's feature film continuation (and, possibly, conclusion), expanded on this theme of freedom and choice. The film pits Serenity's crew against the forces of the Alliance, who seek to regain control of River and prevent the dissemination of the truth about their actions on the planet Miranda. The Alliance, the film tells us, had sought to extend its control over its citizens by using mind-altering drugs in order to weed out aggression and criminal tendencies. It's an approach to governance that we would consider monstrous even without being told of its disastrous results--tens of millions dead, further millions transformed into mindless cannibals, and an untold number of victims who have suffered terribly at the hands of these newly-made monsters. The Alliance's crime, we are told by Mal in his St. Crispin's Day speech, is the belief that people can be forced into a new shape, a new form incapable of sin.
Sin is a topic that Serenity returns to often, and one clearly on the minds of its villains. The Operative seeks to bring about a world free of it, and believes that his actions--protecting the Alliance by any means necessary--are the best way to go about achieving this goal. Whedon, in his witty and informative commentary to the film, says (big, huge thanks to commenter D. for tracking down the quote)
...it's about the right to be wrong. It's about the idea that you cannot impose your way of thinking on people, even if your way of thinking is more enlightened and better than theirs. It's just simply not how human beings are. And you take that further and you say the idea of sin is in fact outmoded, is in fact more archaic than anything that Mal believes in. When he says, 'I'm a fan of all seven,' [cut vis effects blather] he's saying that sin is just what people are; it's been codified, it's been given a name, but all of those things we take as faults are also the source of pleasure and decency, and we should perhaps rethink it.The Alliance's error, then, according to Whedon, is in clinging to a black and white approach to human behavior. By promoting a rigid, near-perfect concept of goodness, the Alliance classifies all citizens incapable of achieving this level of perfection, or unwilling to conform to it, as evil and undesirable. Rather than embracing the broad and ultimately uncontrollable range of human diversity, the Alliance fears it and seeks to limit it. Serenity's crew, in contrast, are a celebration of imperfect, flawed humanity, and through their dangerous choice at the film's end they bring an extra measure of freedom to their entire society.
On its face, Whedon's philosophy seems hard to object to, but there's a flip side to it that neither he nor his characters seem to acknowledge. The plain truth is that sin is not an outmoded concept. Sin exists, and it blights the lives of all of us who wish to live safely and happily. Murder is a sin. Rape is a sin. The strong preying on the weak is a sin, and it is precisely that sin that we would tend to see in a society that was completely free and without control. Civilized society, in its idealized form, exists to protect its weaker members from being preyed upon by the strong. Laws exist to prevent sin and to assure that those who commit it are cast out of the community.
Society is control, and the difference between free and predatory societies is not in the existence of that control but in the ways in which that control is exercised and governed. In a free society, citizens have the right to define, and change the definition of, sin (although it's worth noting that, when left to their own devices, supposedly free societies have defined mixed-race marriages and homosexuality as sins, and failed to recognize the sin of slavery), and to affect the form that punishment for sin takes. In a predatory society, such as the Alliance, citizens have no input into, and very little information about, the actions of their government, which may spy on them, treat them all as criminals or, as we see in Serenity, drug them into submission. It is this dangerous use of control that Mal and his crew rebel against, but they don't seem to recognize the need for another sort of control in order to maintain social order.
The Alliance's failure in the Firefly universe isn't in seeking to act against sin, but in their method and approach to this task. The Alliance sought to make its task easier and, more importantly, finite. They failed to realize that the task of protecting society from the worst impulses of human nature is a neverending one--the watchmen of civilization are never permitted to leave their posts, nor can they allow themselves to act in a sinful manner, lest they become the creatures they were set to watch against (Whedon's earlier television show, Angel, has a similar theme--one that the main character was forced to relearn again and again). As in all human societies, the Firefly universe's attempt at this ideal form is flawed, probably beyond repair. The Alliance needs to be brought down, but something else needs to come in its place in order to exercise, with wisdom and with the consent of its citizens, the kind of control that the Alliance has been abusing.
I'm not at all certain that Whedon understands this half of the equation. I'm absolutely certain that Mal doesn't understand it. Mal's notion of social order largely revolves around a quasi-libertarian fantasy of powerful, moral individuals--such as himself--who help the weak and disenfranchised fight against the strong (and it's worth noting that Mal seems happiest when those predators are in positions of power--it is simpler, after all, to be the plucky underdog). It's an approach reminiscent of the one that soon-to-be-ex PM Harriet Jones accused the Tenth Doctor of in the recent Doctor Who special, "The Christmas Invasion". In the face of his rage at her actions in defense of Earth (actions which may or may not have been moral), Jones reminded the Doctor that Earth couldn't continue to depend on his protection. "You're not always here," she told him, and it does seem to me that the Doctor would rather think of humanity as a relatively helpless species under his protection than as actors in their own right. Similarly, I think Mal would prefer to live in a universe full of heroes and villains rather than in one governed by a system of law.
But the truth is that a just society does much more than simply protect its citizens. It teaches them to think like civilized people. Justice, freedom, equality--these are all fantasies, a blanket pulled over our collective heads to protect us from the nightmare of our feral nature. Living in a society ruled by law teaches us to believe in these lies. They become ingrained in us, and hopefully, when we find ourselves in a situation in which the institutions of society can no longer protect us, that ingrained knowledge will keep us from descending into predatory behavior--as we've seen happen, in third-world countries and in inner cities, when people cease to believe in the possibility of justice. On Serenity, characters like Simon and Inara represent the core planets and the unthinking belief in these lies of justice. Firefly and Serenity show us these characters, particularly Simon, struggling with a world in which their unthinking assumptions no longer hold. They suggest that in order to survive, Simon must shed some of his gentility, learn to fend for himself, and eventually act against the institutions he had been taught to respect, but throughout this journey, Simon refuses to completely let go of his upbringing. Although Kaylee chides him for being prim and proper, Simon clings to the forms of proper etiquette because they mean something to him--a reminder that he is a civilized man. It is the same, hopefully, with the concept of justice. Mal Reynolds believes in justice, or rather he believes that it should exist and is constantly infuriated by its absence, but he has yet to realize that justice is created by people, by teaching them to think justly, and that only a society governed by law can teach them to do so.
There are many, many reasons to wish for a sequel to Serenity (for one thing, I want me some Mal/Inara smoochies), but right now I'd desperately like to see Mal confronted with the inadequacy of his approach to social justice. In a way, Serenity wrapped up the storyline that would probably have made up Firefly's first season--in a compressed, louder, more effects-heavy, less afraid of character death form. At the end of this story, Mal has fought against the Alliance and won, and I think it would have been interesting to see him discover that the peace is so much more dangerous and complicated than the war (I'd also like to see the effect that living outside of constant danger has on the cohesion of Serenity's crew). Mal would be the first to admit that he's an unlikely hero, but I wonder if he's enough of a hero to assume a far more challenging and dangerous mantle--that of a man of law.