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Set 500 years in the future, humans have colonized and terraformed a planetary system of unknown location. The system contains "core" planets (comparable to the settled eastern United States) and "border" planets (comparable to the western territories of the United States and the Frontier). As a general rule, the farther out one travels, the less "civilized" society becomes. The core planets eventually allied under a single government, The Alliance, and declared war upon those planets that wished to maintain their independence (The Independent Faction, often referred to as "Browncoats"). This series of events is recalled as the Unification War. The Alliance was victorious, and those surviving independents migrated toward the outer planets.
Relatively little is known of the war itself. Planets and moons in the inner - or core - region of the show's liveable space had concentrated their power sufficiently that they felt entitled to expand it to the outer societies that had also been planted, but which had had less contact with other worlds since their orbits left them farther away and more isolated. Images of space combat are seen in the feature film Serenity and of the floating aftermath in the 3-issue comic book series Serenity: Those Left Behind.
One of the bloodiest battles of the war was the Battle of Sturges which, according to Badger (in Those Left Behind), was fought over a hoard of money. That unclaimed cash prize eventually lures Mal Reynolds and his crew to an ambush.
It is known that the Battle of Sturges took place at least partly in space, as substantial images of the wreckage are shown in the comic book. Badger suggests that the Battle of Sturges was particularly short ("All those lives... snuffed in a blink"), and describes it as the bloodiest battle of the war, only for Mal to declare it "a distant second".
In the Unification War the Independents did put aside their own differences to join militaries in the armed forces (including the space ship fleet). The technological and numerical superiority in the war was definitely on the side of the Alliance and the core worlds. Their own undeveloped and isolated pasts were long behind them since they had long ago developed into technologically advanced societies.
Other conflicts mentioned in the series are the Battle of Du-Khang in 2510 (featured in "The Message") and a long winter campaign in New Kashmir. One of the last and most grisly major battles in the war was the Battle of Serenity Valley, in which Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Alleyne fought (see below).
Battle of Serenity Valley Edit
The Battle of Serenity Valley is considered the final decisive battle in the Unification War. The battle that began in May 2511, while not the final battle of the war, was certainly the end of the line for the Independents, who had sixteen brigades and twenty air-tank squads in position. Taking place on Planet Hera, the battle lasted seven weeks before Independent High Command officially surrendered to Alliance forces. The Alliance won because of superior numbers and a brilliant deep-flank strategy by General Richard Wilkins (a reference to the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Overall troop casualty rate was 68%. A deleted scene from the film Serenity claims the Independents' command actually surrendered after five weeks of combat, but the soldiers fought on for an additional two before finally giving up. The same is also mentioned in the novelization of the feature film "Serenity" written by Keith DeCandido.
The exact details of the battle are not known, but it is hinted that the Alliance troops advanced into Serenity Valley expecting to face minimal opposition (as Mal says in the pilot episode, "The Alliance said they were going to waltz through Serenity Valley. Well, we choked them with those words"), and instead were surprised by heavy resistance from entrenched Independent troops that turned the battle into a bloody stalemate.
While the ground battle may have been deadlocked, it appears that the Alliance gained the advantage in air and space, leaving the Independent ground troops helpless against airborne assaults. As a result, the Independents soon began losing the battle of attrition. The final blow came after the Independent air and space forces, flanked and shredded, retreated entirely from battle and dozens of Alliance heavy cruisers began the equivalent of carpet bombing the planet from space. (This is memorably seen in a scene from the Firefly pilot, where Mal had believed that the sound of the Alliance engines was his own air support, only to turn and see the start of the bombing). This forced the surrender of the Independent High Command.
Even though the shooting stopped, the battle was not over. For a week, while the Alliance and Independents sorted out the surrender, Browncoat and Purplebelly (a slang term for Independent and Alliance soldiers, respectively) alike were left hungry, wounded, bloody and dying on the field of battle with no relief in sight. By the time rescue ships arrived, there were about 150 left of the 2,000 Mal led (many officers were killed early on, so Mal, only a sergeant, had a huge number of soldiers to command). He and Corporal Zoe Alleyne were the only two survivors of their original platoon of 30.
When Malcolm Reynolds bought his ship (of which Zoe became second in command), he named it Serenity after this particular battle, which led Zoe to comment in a deleted scene from the show that "No one leaves Serenity, you just learn to live there", a testament to how it changed the lives of all those who lived through it. The Battle of Serenity Valley is quite a sensitive issue for both Mal and Zoe, who saw both their cause shattered and their friends die there. When crew member Jayne Cobb insults Mal's leadership abilities by mentioning how Mal got all his men killed at Serenity Valley, Zoe openly threatens Jayne with death if he doesn't leave the room immediately, which Jayne quickly does.
The Independent Faction Edit
"The Independent Faction" was the name of a group that fought the Alliance during the war. The group was nicknamed Browncoats, due to the brown colored trench coats they wore. (Alliance troops were nicknamed "purple bellies" due to the coloring of their own armor.)
One of the reasons they were formed was to attempt and prevent the Alliance from controlling all of the worlds. They did not believe in having all of the planets controlled by a singular government and instead believed in each world's freedom, as they viewed the Alliance as an authoritarian gentleman's club dominated by the Core Worlds.
The faction was created when the core worlds formed the Alliance and declared war on any planets that resisted their efforts to unify the rest of the planets (thus the name Unification War). After the war ended, surviving faction members tended to migrate toward the outer planets, where Alliance control is more tenuous and more of the freedom they fought to defend was preserved.
Notable Browncoats include:
Serenity crew involvement Edit
Throughout the run of the series Firefly, it is revealed what some of the crew members of the ship Serenity did during the Unification War:
- Mal and Zoe served as Independent Faction soldiers in the same platoon, the 57th Overlanders (Serenity). Additionally, Zoe was career military whilst Mal was a volunteer.
- During the commentary for "War Stories", Alan Tudyk speculated that Wash was a pilot, although whether he was Alliance, Independent, or freelance is unknown. He also said he thought Wash was shot down and captured on his first flight of the war and spent most of it as a POW. Tudyk added that he probably spent that time entertaining the other POWs with shadow puppets.
- Jayne did not serve in the war, although what he did do during the war has yet to be shown. It was revealed in the (non-canonical) novelization of the movie that he did not fight because neither side was willing to pay enough.
- Simon and River were growing up on Osiris during the war. The episode "Safe" starts with a flashback to Simon and River's childhood, where the two were pretending they were Alliance soldiers cut off from their platoon by dinosaur-mounted Independents. By the date of this flashback and that of the flashback in "Serenity", it can be established that the Unification War lasted at least five years.
- Kaylee was adolescent at the time of the war; her history before joining Serenity is unknown.
- Inara mentioned on meeting Mal (in a flashback in "Out of Gas") that she had supported Unification.
- Episode #5 "Safe" demonstrates that Derrial Book has held a position of importance with the Alliance when he is wounded and given fast, efficient, and very courteous medical assistance from the Alliance after his ID is scanned, but what he did during the war is unknown.