Alright, some a-hole, who will likely share this and identify himself in the process, has asked me to review all of the episodes of Firefly. Since one of the episodes made it into my personal top 10, and because I love this series, I’m going to grant this request. I’m going by the DVD episode order, not the production order or airing order. If you have a problem with that, take it up with the rest of the internet, there are plenty of people who will care. However, you can freely yell at me over what I will put at the end, as I rank the episodes using the time-honored “Serenity Scale” to create a solid determination of what is the best and worst of this series. While most of you might think that “Objects in Space” is already my number 1, that is on an objective basis, while this ranking will be on how well I think the episode is representative of what is good about the series, so that might change. I can tell you it won’t be at the bottom, however.
This’ll be the longest review, because this episode is the length of a movie, and because it’s our intro to the world of Firefly.
The beginning of this episode is in the middle of the Unification War. Specifically, at the Battle of Serenity Valley. For a show that doesn’t really rely too heavily on battle scenes (though they do appear), this starts literally mid-explosion, filled with open-air action and chaos. It really stands as a contrast to how much of the show is spent in a small spaceship. Granted, that’s because this was originally a much different scene to the series, but Fox wanted it to be more “action packed.” Despite that, it’s really a solid hook.
Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Alleyne (later Washburne) (Gina Torres) are in the middle of the fight, trying to hold off the Alliance forces. This traditional struggling hero image is immediately undercut as the two find out that their air support has abandoned them after claiming that it’s too risky to come in. The camera holds on Fillion as he realizes that the battle is lost, and the war is as well. We’re now 5 minutes into this show, and we’ve already established two of our main protagonists, as well as their general character traits: Zoe is a stoic badass, Mal is a wisecracking rogue who is clearly in charge because he can turn some great phrases (“We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty”).
It then cuts to six years later and it immediately shows our cast floating in space trying to salvage a wreck. As is typical in a pilot episode, we get little intros to each of the characters who crew the ship Serenity (a Firefly-Class transport ship). As is typical in a good pilot episode, these intros are mostly done without exposition. Wash (Alan Tudyk), the pilot, is introduced to us childishly playing with plastic dinosaurs, giving us the unforgettable and over-meme’d line “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.” Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is the engineer who comes off as a bit of a farmgirl. Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is the muscle, working with Mal and Zoe on the salvage. An alert goes off that an Alliance ship is near, resulting in them having to deploy a fake distress call so that they can get away. Despite Jayne’s optimism about the bounty, Mal is clearly unhappy with the current situation.
Then, we’re introduced to the theme song, and few shows have ever nailed a theme song like this. Okay, that’s a lie, a ton of shows have epic theme songs that perfectly represent the show, but this one does convey the show’s status as a “space western” by having the lyrics imply freedom is found in the sky, but doing so in a western-style ballad with a mix of blues brought by Sonny Rhodes’s performance.
After a brief fight between Wash and Zoe to establish that they’re married and Wash isn’t happy that Zoe has so much loyalty towards Mal, we’re introduced to Inara (Morena Baccarin). Given what we’ll learn about Mal’s opinion of Inara’s profession in the future, Mal describing her as earning “an honest living” really drives home how dissatisfied Mal is right now. Inara is then shown having sex with a client, because Whedon wants you to understand irony. However, we later learn that she’s a “companion,” which is like a geisha mixed with a psychologist, a philosopher, and a legal prostitute. While her position is considered to be honorable, the client offends her before leaving, which leads to Inara expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo similar to Mal, before leaving in her shuttle to rendezvous with Serenity.
Mal and the crew go to sell their salvaged parts to Badger (Mark Sheppard), who breaks the deal he made with them and refuses to buy after delivering a series of put-downs on Mal. This forces Mal to try to sell the goods to Patience (Bonnie “I’m married to Mr. Feeny” Bartlett), a crimelord who shot Mal the last time she saw him. At the same time, Book (Ron Glass), a Shepherd, which is the preacher of tomorrow, joins the crew as a passenger. Following him are Dobson (Carlos Jacott), a man with no obvious personality traits whatsoever, and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), an aristocratic doctor with a large cargo crate in tow.
During the introductory dinner, we get a bunch of one-liners and quick asides to establish Mal’s dislike of religion, Kaylee’s crush on Simon, that Mal is defensive of his crew (even if it’s Jayne being a dick), and that Book is not a conventional Shepherd, but more tolerant.
In the middle of the flight, Wash discovers that someone has sent a coded message to the Alliance. Mal immediately assumes it’s Simon, but it turns out to be Dobson, who is not after Mal, but Simon. Mal offers to help turn Simon in, but Dobson, stupidly, states that he is going to take in everyone on the ship. The situation escalates until Dobson accidentally shoots Kaylee when she enters, before being skillfully disarmed and knocked-out by Book, who then prevents Jayne from killing Dobson. Kaylee is brought to sick bay, but Simon refuses to treat her unless Mal refuses to hand him over to the Alliance.
After Simon stabilizes Kaylee, Mal opens Simon’s crate, which contains a young woman in stasis. The woman wakes up panicked and speaking nonsense. She’s revealed to be Simon’s sister, River Tam (Summer Glau). Simon tells the crew that River is an unmatched prodigy, but she was sent to an Alliance academy where she was experimented on. She got a message to him, but it took him more than 2 years to get her out. Oddly, his account says that she was rescued by others who snuck her out in cryo-sleep, which contradicts the events we’re shown in the movie Serenity. But, only an asshole would point that out. Like the kind of asshole that points out that a few lines from Scotty’s appearance in Star Trek: TNG makes the opening sequence and plot of the movie Star Trek: Generations nonsensical without some bullshit ret-con (teleportation disorientation, my ass). Basically, nerds.
Mal decides to dump the Tams, and Inara says that she’ll leave if he does. Simon asks Mal why he’s so afraid of the Alliance, then calls Mal out, resulting in Mal punching him. Jayne interrogates Dobson skillfully (immediately knowing the truth behind Dobson’s lies, which upsets Jayne, who wanted to torture him). Dobson offers Jayne money to help him.
Wash and Mal discover a non-Alliance ship nearby which is operating without radiation shielding (essentially guaranteeing a slow, poisonous death to everyone onboard). This means Reavers. Reavers aren’t explained at this point, except that Zoe tells Simon “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very, very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” Which, for the record, is one of the scariest f*cking descriptions in history, perhaps second only to “Nobody f*cks with the Jesus” from The Big Lebowski. Fortunately, the Reavers don’t attack.
Mal contacts Patience to deliver the goods, but immediately suspects that Patience is planning on double crossing them. He sets up a counter-ambush. Meanwhile, Book goes to talk to Dobson, who knocks him unconscious and fairly brutally keeps attacking him. Dobson captures River, while Mal and Zoe get into a firefight with Patience and her henchmen, with Jayne providing cover fire. Mal ends up taking his money, but declines to kill Patience, telling her “I do the job. I get paid.”
Unfortunately, the Reavers have followed them, apparently now hungry enough to attack. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne head back to the ship, only to find Dobson holding River hostage. Mal shoots Dobson dead without a second thought and they take off, the Reavers now in hot pursuit. The crew manages to escape by igniting the atmosphere behind them with the main engine. Mal asks Jayne why he didn’t turn on him, and Jayne says that “the money wasn’t good enough.” Mal then offers Simon and River a position on the ship. When Simon asks how he knows Mal won’t kill him in his sleep, Mal says “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.” He then decides it was a good day, because they’re still flying, and that’s enough.
Alright, so, this is the intro to the Firefly universe (or at least it SHOULD HAVE BEEN, FOX!!!), there’s a lot to unpack here.
I’ve decided to split up some of the signature effects, universe rules, and themes (Government v. Freedom, lack of sound in space, Chinese language, lack of FTL travel, Reavers, etc.) within the show into other episode reviews so that this particular entry isn’t another 10 pages. So, I’ll stick to the things that really stood out within this episode in particular.
First, Whedon loves repetition on his jokes. The ones that I most remember within this episode are: When people call Book “grandpa,” he responds “I never married;” people repeatedly asking Mal “didn’t she shoot you?” in reference to Patience; and calling Mal “psychotic.” There probably were others. What’s interesting is that the number of times the gag is repeated is inconsistent, which is something most writers don’t do. For example, in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films, almost every repeated gag is going to be done according to the “rule of three.” That’s just Gunn’s level of adherence to the comedy guidelines. Whedon, not so much. Having re-watched the show, this appears to be the episode with the most repeated lines for joke purposes. Other times in the series, repetition is used for more serious lines, such as Jubal Early’s “Does that seem right to you?”
Second, the pettiness of the Alliance is a little more over-the-top here than it is in other episodes. Usually, within the series, the Alliance is the ultimate in overreaching government with shadowy qualities, but, in this episode, the “petty and bureaucratic” aspect seems played up. I think the main contrast here is between Dobson and the Operative from the Serenity movie or the blue-gloved men. While the Operative is ruthless and efficient, while the men are mysterious and amoral, befitting a shadowy government, Dobson is mostly incompetent and irrational. Most notably, when Book comes to warn him, he not only knocks Book unconscious, but then kicks him several times out of, apparently, anger over Book punching him earlier, despite the fact that Book was also the thing keeping Jayne from killing him. Oh, and HE’S A PREACHER. Generally, kicking an unconscious holy man is frowned upon.
Third, I do appreciate the real-ish physics they use in this episode with Serenity’s flight. The “Crazy Ivan” that Wash pulls in the movie is actually a real technique, named for a hard u-turn by a Soviet submarine that enables the sub to clear its baffles (the area directly behind a submarine that cannot usually be detected), then put itself in firing position on a following ship. Essentially, you reverse one of the two engines, which allows for a very quick turn, often so quick it wrecks everything inside the ship. Since Serenity doesn’t have weapons, instead of firing on the Reaver ship, Wash pilots Serenity under the other ship, then they activate the main engine to ignite the atmosphere behind them. Since Serenity’s main engine appears to be driven by high-energy emissions (though not exactly radiation emissions, since apparently that was what they used for Firefly Series 1 engines, and Serenity is Series 3), it makes sense that these could be concentrated to burn up the atmosphere. This energy emission drive might be relatively useless in gravity, but in 0 g, this basically allows for infinite acceleration when you have their mystical engine core through conservation of momentum.
Last, Mal and Inara. At the beginning of the episode, both of them seem to have a higher level of dissatisfaction with their lifestyles than they do for the rest of the series. If I had to guess, it’s because they’ve lost a sense of purpose, and appear to just be trying to keep going. When Inara threatens to leave if Mal doesn’t help Simon and, later, when Mal welcomes Simon onto the ship, this actually provides them with the level of purpose: They’re rebelling again. Mal against the Alliance, and Inara against the expectations of her position. While Mal was a criminal at the beginning, he wasn’t really fighting the Alliance anymore. He was just running from the law. Now, he’s actively working against them by sheltering the Tams. It gives him back his spirit.
Alright, that’s one episode down. We’ve met the characters, and, unlike most pilots, they’re pretty consistent with their characterizations for the rest of the series. Inara has a few scenes that are awkward, but that’s probably because those scenes were re-shoots from the original scenes with Inara’s first actress Rebecca Gayheart. Fortunately, Whedon was smart enough to shoot those scenes in singles, allowing them to be more easily re-shot, and even these scenes don’t really detract from the character in any noticeable way. Solid start.
Score: 3.5 Fireflies (or 1 Badger’s Hat)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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