Welcome to the first full post of the Firefly re-watch, where we get into the real red-colored molded-protein. Just some administrivia: This will be a full spoiler commentary. Now, I won’t get too super-spoilery as that would leave me with nothing to talk about by the time we get to “Objects in Space”, but no-holds barred in the comments afterwards. Second, our Robot Overlords have made us a right shiny archive page. Now then, let’s rabbit.
In the middle of the Battle of Serenity Valley, Sgt Malcolm Reynolds is desperately trying to rally his soldiers just long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Despite a stirring speech and daring raid on a 50 caliber anti-air cannon to down an Alliance skiff, his command has decided the battle is a loss and that they are to lay down arms. Mal stands to look out and see a fleet of Alliance dropships descending onto the field. To seal the deal, the soldier he had been pep talking moments before is shot dead as they all stare dumbstruck at the fleet.
Six years later, Mal and Zoe are on a salvage mission. We quickly find out that this is hardly a legal endeavor as their pilot, Wash, has his special dinosaur time interrupted by the arrival of the alliance cruiser Dortmunder. Mal orders his ship, Serenity, to power down in an effort to hide, but the cruiser detects them anyway. The crew quickly grabs the cargo and runs, using a decoy distress signal to cover their escape.
In the cargo hold, we see the goods, which appear to be bars of some metal stamped with the Alliance emblem. Mal keeps this to himself and curtly sets the crew on their way to Persephone. There, he intends to offload the goods to their employer, Badger, and then set a course for Boros with a ship full of honest passengers.
Wash and Zoe have a moment alone on the bridge, and Wash starts to complain about how Zoe still treats Mal like a superior officer and puts Wash, her husband, second. Mal appears on the bridge, interrupting the discussion, and asks after “the ambassador”. Wash says she hasn’t checked in yet, and Mal declines to call her, stating that “somebody on this boat has to make an honest living.” We then cut to Inara, who is in the middle of performing her duties as a geisha-like Companion with a young man.
On Persephone, Mal informs the crew they will only be staying a short while, and assigns the engineer, Kaylee, to find passengers while Wash resupplies. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne head off to meet Badger and negotiate the handover of the goods.
Badger is instantly hostile towards Mal. The crime lord at first dissembles but then reveals that he just doesn’t like how Mal holds himself above the other thieves just because he was in the war. So, Badger, in that wonderful cockney accent, informs them that he would rather just leave him to the Alliance. He sends Mal off then with a suggestion he check out the border planets and a strong hint that he had best get off Persephone in a hurry.
Meanwhile, Kaylee has been working at attracting passengers, and, well, being attractive. OK, full disclosure, I am also an unabashed Kaylee fan. Just had to get it out there. Anyway, she lures in Shepherd Book by noting that he was only interested in ships, not destinations. Book seems to appreciate her insight and offers to pay his way both in cash and with What’s-In-The-Box.
Mal, Zoe, and Jayne discuss their options on the walk back, and Mal comes to the conclusion they need to go see an old contact, Patience, despite Zoe’s protests that she shot Mal the last time they met. Patience is, he argues, the only person they know who can afford the goods, and they cannot afford to just dump them and run. They return to the ship just as the other two passengers are boarding and Wash is returning. One of the passengers is Dobson, a clumsy looking, honest enough fellow, and the other is Simon Tam, the villainous, finely dressed young man with strange glasses and a mysterious, big box. (What is it with these people and mysterious boxes?) Zoe expresses concern for having civilians and stolen cargo at the same time as they get ready for take off. Mal tries to put her at ease, but his reasoning is lacking, so he gives her an alternate set of orders.
MAL: If anyone gets nosy, just, you know, shoot them.
ZOE: Shoot them?
Inara returns, and the ship takes off. Once they are well underway, Mal gives the passengers an introduction to the ship in the galley. He appears irritated at having Book on board when he finds out he is a Shepherd but quickly recomposes himself. He then announces that they have to make a detour to Whitefall, the fourth moon of Athens, because the Alliance has ordered them to drop off medical supplies. Simon starts asking questions, and Zoe covers when Mal doesn’t answer quickly. Mal then allows the passengers to retrieve anything they need from the cargo hold since it is supposed to be off limits during the voyage. There, Book gives Kaylee his What’s-In-The-Box and a bag full of something, and Inara comes out of her shuttle, inquiring after the new faces. Mal takes sadistic pleasure as he introduces her as “The Ambassador” to Book, who thinks it is a literal title. As Mal starts breaking up laughing, Inara starts to explain, but Mal blurts out “she’s a whore.” Kaylee jumps to Inara’s defense, and Inara gracefully chooses to leave.
In the kitchen, we find out that Book’s box has strawberries in, and Kaylee teaches the audience exactly how to eat one. The crew and passengers then have a wonderful dinner of fresh food, a rare delicacy in a world where the standard fare is “protein in all the colors of the rainbow.” At the dinner table, Kaylee starts getting flirty with Simon, asking him about his job as a doctor, and Jayne makes a rather crass joke at Kaylee’s expense. Mal quickly calls Jayne down, and when Jayne argues over it, Mal forces him to leave. Back in the shuttle, Inara is enjoying a sponge bath, and Book comes in, offering her a plate of food and a sort of peace offering. They then discuss Mal, who both remark is a walking contradiction in his gruffness, as he is also very protective of his crew.
Later, Wash calls Mal up to the bridge. A signal from somewhere on the ship just hailed the nearest Alliance cruiser, and while Wash scrambled it, there is no way to know what it said. Mal suspects Simon and proceeds to beat the tar out of him, but he quickly finds out the Alliance mole was Dobson, who was after Simon, not Mal. Mal instantly tries to pawn Simon off—“Is there a reward?”—but Dobson thinks the ship is harboring Simon. People start yelling, and Dobson gets spooked and shoots Kaylee in the gut as she comes through the door behind him. Book quickly subdues Dobson with some fancy kung-fu(!?), and Simon barters Kaylee’s life for Mal not handing him over to the feds. Mal reluctantly agrees, and Simon removes the bullet and sews Kaylee back up. After the operation, Mal decides to find out what Simon is hiding in the box, and we find out it is Simon’s sister, River.
Simon sedates River and leaves her in the infirmary, then explains how he saved her from a clandestine government program to experiment on super-smart children. Mal has no sympathy for Simon’s plight, but decides their only course of action at present is to continue on to Whitefall, where they will offload Simon and River, unless of course Kaylee dies, in which case he’ll just kill Simon.
Mal has Jayne interrogate Dobson, and after Jayne surmises the Alliance doesn’t know anything about Serenity, Dobson offers to let Jayne split the reward money, which he says is enough to buy Jayne his own, better ship. Jayne asks if that means he has to betray Mal, and seems almost pleased when Dobson says it does.
On the way to Whitefall, Serenity starts to pass another ship. Mal and Wash quickly deduce that it is reavers, and Mal announces to the crew that they are going to just try and just pass it by. They can’t run or fight, so it is their only option. Luckily, the reavers appear to not be interested in them. Or, as Wash puts it, must not have been hungry.
Kaylee wakes up, and begs for Mal to not hurt Simon because of what happened. Mal, in turn, pulls a prank on Simon by telling him that Kaylee had just died. Simon, winded from his sprint to the infirmary, proclaims, “That man’s psychotic!”
They near Whitefall, and Patience finally gets back in touch with them and agrees to buy the goods. Mal instantly sees that she is intending on shooting him again, but decides to go through with the deal anyway seeing as they need the money. Meanwhile, Dobson is sawing himself free of his restraints.
On Whitefall, Mal sends Jayne out to counter the trap Patience has laid then he and Zoe go down to make the deal. Things go smooth to begin with, and we find out the goods aren’t metal at all, but condensed foodstuffs, each bar able to feed a family for a month. Patience hands over the money, but when Mal asks her to leave first, she reveals that she plans on killing him. He gives the money back, but she still doesn’t back down. So, Jayne fires the first shot, and a firefight ensues. Mal and crew come out on top, but he does not kill Patience, instead only pinning her under her dead horse and taking his money. His parting words emphasize that he was there for business and that he only did business.
Back on the ship, Dobson has gotten free, bludgeoned Book, and takes River hostage. Kaylee informs the bridge, and Simon runs to stop him. Wash starts to go help, but the helm starts to beep at him, informing him that the reavers have followed them after all. Simon jumps from a catwalk and lands on Dobson as he is trying to walk outside, fazing both of them. Fortunately, Simon recovers first and holds Dobson at gunpoint.
Jayne, Zoe, and Mal are informed of the incoming reavers by Wash and hurry back to the ship. As they start to open the cargo door, it distracts Simon, and Dobson gets his gun and takes River hostage again, threatening to shoot her. Mal unceremoniously shoots Dobson as he enters, and he and Jayne dump the body overboard as the ship takes off.
In the air, Inara takes River and Simon to her shuttle in case they need to make a quick getaway. Everyone else—even wounded Kaylee—work to get away from the reavers, performing a Crazy Ivan then an In-Atmo Full-Burn, damaging the reaver ship and effecting their escape.
Once in space, Book goes to talk to Inara and confesses to his moral dilemma of having gotten on Serenity, and Inara suggests that he is exactly where he should be. On the bridge, Mal accuses Jayne of letting Dobson go. Jayne does not deny that Dobson tried to bribe him, but said the money wasn’t good enough. When Mal asks what will happen when the money is good enough, Jayne only says that it will be an interesting day. He leaves, and Simon enters. Mal offers Simon a place on the crew as the ship surgeon and promises that should he ever intend to kill him, it will be to Simon’s face and with both of them armed. This, he says, because he is having a good day. Simon wonders at how Mal can say he had a good day, listing all the horrible things that have happened.
MAL: Well, still flying
SIMON: That’s not much.
MAL: It’s enough.
Wow, where to start. OK. First, let me talk about this as a pilot, and perhaps put myself on the chopping block to start. See, I can see where this might not be considered the best of pilots. The pacing works, but it is very much like a western. Action at the beginning and the end, and then lots of talking in the middle. See, I also honestly think that “Serenity” makes a better movie than Serenity. No, it doesn’t have a “big bad” in it, but plenty of good movies don’t. This was just a movie about a group of interesting people getting through a pickle. For the most part, this is Character vs. Society, with the Alliance, some minor Character vs Character in Badger, Patience, and Dobson, and then a walloping Character vs Supernatural with the reavers. Yes, it leaves lots open, but plenty of good movies do that too. Least it wasn’t a Lady or the Tiger. But I digress.
As I said, there is a lot of talking, and by that I mean talking heads. Exposition, they call it in some parts. Now, the exposition is delivered amazingly. I could listen to Simon’s explanation of River over and over again and still feel my chest tighten. You can feel the sibling love of his story, even if it is being told instead of shown. And then Zoe’s explanation of the reavers really imparts the fear of them and adds to the tension. But, it is still talking, and while us spec-fic geeks love hearing about this stuff, the average viewer typically does not until they are invested in the characters, thus why expositional episodes are usually saved for later. So yeah, I love this pilot, but I am not going to go into the realm of speculative historian and say the series would have survived had it aired first. It could have just as easily died even sooner from having lost even more of the initial viewing audience.
OK, so now that ya’ll are going to hunt me down and keel-haul me, I’ll get the rest out. Characters. This episode is really just about introducing us to the main nine. So here’s what I say to each in turn.
Mal is wonderfully convincing. The Knight in Sour Armor is pulled off wonderfully with him, especially as it can be questionable with just how much good really is still in him. Yes, he is a man of honor in a den of thieves, but he nonchalantly killed Dobson and dumped the body simply because he did not have time to deal with it. Not the sign of exactly a moral person that has just given up on ideals.
Zoe is actually pretty flat in the pilot. She is the stalwart second in command from her first moment on screen and sticks to it the entire time. You get a little depth on her with her interactions with Wash, but those are really far more building for him than her.
Which brings us to Wash and three words: Witty Comic Relief. When a man’s opening scene is with plastic dinosaurs at a spaceship’s helm, you might think he is there for pure silly, but he manages to throw in enough snark to be witty instead. I also love his husbandly concern, both in pleading with Zoe to stand up to Mal and when he is talking to Simon. Wash is a person, and that is all there is to it, perhaps the most balanced and “normally relatable” on the ship.
Jayne, on the other hand, is the crass, silly comic relief. Yes he has his dangerous, redneck moments, but, especially in the pilot, he is there to be the dumb, funny, gun-totting hick. He serves as a foil to Mal, and does so faithfully well. I love him later in the series, but here, he is really just a secondary.
Kaylee. Nuff said. OK, not really, but I will give even more full disclosure and say that if I was a fourteen year old boy, there would be a huge poster of Jewel Staite in my bedroom. Now that we are past the creepy, Kaylee is the female counterpart to Wash on the ship. She is centered and relatable, and she serves as the Earth Mother. She is open and honest and sees through to the real side of people (except for Dobson, I guess, but no one is perfect). And she’s a hot girl who’s a grease monkey. There’s that too.
Inara, I imagine, is who most boys have on their walls, despite their ages. I will admit, she plays the courtesan-geisha amazingly well, with both her role as ship’s counselor (even the preacher goes to her for benediction) and moral compass. I also enjoyed that, on a network television show, we had a main character who was able to show sexuality as something positive and wholesome, and on Fox at that. Her mild romantic tension with Mal is already well established here, and I am sure the shippers rejoice at something to ship over. I, for one, enjoy the dynamic it adds to both of them.
Book is very quickly made into a mystery for us. He goes from slightly awkward preacher to ninja in point-three-five seconds flat, and then back to a somewhat unsuspecting preacher. I know that, with the movie, some have speculated that he was once an Operative, but thus far, nothing is solidly canon, so we can only guess. His moral conundrum was delivered quite well, though.
Simon’s mislead as the villain was actually really good, ’cause it got me the first time I watched this, and I had seen the movie (albeit I couldn’t remember anything beyond River killing everything). His stiffness is well played for the rich kid who doesn’t really know how to be a fugitive, and bumbling Dobson had completely thrown me off too. Later, once Simon starts to open up to the crew, he really does an amazing job of being the protective big brother that gladly and willingly gave up everything for his sister. Still, he never completely shrugs off that dangerous aura about him, and we as the view can just tell there is more to him than meets the eye. After all, he did jump off a catwalk to save River.
And then there’s River. River is really just a Mac Guffin in this episode. She’s damaged goods, hysterical, and who knows what she’s going to amount to. So for now, Hi River, Bye River.
OK, so only a few more things, then I’ll wind down, honest. One, the World. I don’t think any of us are deluded enough to think that Firefly holds up to any rigorous thought of how such worlds would work with the magical Terraforming technology and many of the worlds being moons. Still, Firefly was not meant to be about hard science fiction. It was a meant to be fun story examining interesting characters, and it is, so we forgive Joss. I willingly suspend disbelief if it lets me have horse drawn wagons and spaceships. I will go ahead and voice the common question, though: if this is a ’verse of half USA/half China, where are all the Asians? We saw some in rather fanciful costumes at the Eavesdown docks, but aside from that, the ’verse is rather lacking. Just had to say it.
And the last thing comes from the commentary on the DVD, which is that in the scene where Mal, Zoe, and Jayne are considering what to do after Badger bailed on them, you can see a “Blue Sun” logo behind Mal. Joss explained how he never really did figure out what he was going to do with Blue Sun aside from knowing that it was going to be the “Coca-cola slash Microsoft” of the world and that the characters would have to slowly start learning about it as the series progressed. And that is one of the things I love and hate about television shows. The writers are always putting in foreshadowing, but they don’t always know what they are foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is awesome, but this kind can eventually lead to, as one commenter put it in the introduction thread, a series jumping the shark.
Originally aired: 20 December 2002
Original position: Episode 11
Richard’s favorite line: “That Man’s Psychotic!”
Fun goof: In the scene following the escape from the reavers, Alan Tudyk, aka Wash, is holding his hand out to steer the ship, but is holding nothing. They had to move his chair back to fit him into the shot, and no one caught the goof in the framing until it was too late.
So yeah, that’s it for this week. Thanks for bearing with me. See you next week with “The Train Job.” Until then, keep flying.
Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and more of a Kaylee fan than he is a Badger fan. More of his rambling about storytelling and some of his short stories can be found at http://RichardFife.com.