Fifth episode to air, seventh in production order, and the first to air after Fox actually ordered 3 additional episodes based on the success of the show, bringing the expected season up to 16 episodes.
This episode starts in medias res and flashes back for most of the story, so I’m gonna summarize it the way it’s presented. Besides, Dan Harmon’s opinions notwithstanding, the structure has worked since The Odyssey.
The episode begins with the ship empty, except for a very wounded Malcolm Reynolds struggling through her. As he looks around, he flashes back to when he first bought Serenity, which the salesman, now seemingly more-accurately, says will be with him the rest of his life. When Zoe first sees the ship, she believes that it’s a waste, but Mal says the ship’s not the point: The point is that it gives them freedom.
No matter how long the arm of the Alliance might get, we’ll just get ourselves a little further.
Mal grabs an engine part and continues to make his way through the ship as he flashes back to how they got in this situation.
The crew is at dinner while Wash sets a course that takes them to their destination without running into any Alliance patrols. He points out that it actually makes it unlikely they’ll run into anyone and what should take a day is now taking a week, but Mal seems content. Since this is space, I assume this means Wash searched for “almost anywhere.” Space is big, kids.
Kaylee then comes in to surprise Simon with a cake for his birthday. River naturally points out that there can’t be a birthday because there are no days in space, but nobody else seems to mind. Surprisingly, there’s not really any issues with time dilation in the show, since Serenity’s top speed is never shown, but probably wouldn’t be faster than 100,000 meters/second (just spitballing based on the ship’s range of 400 AU and travel times), so, even accounting for orbital velocities, my usual complaint about sci-fi birthdays is averted because the ship’s just not fast enough. Bless you, Joss Whedon.
However, as Simon blows out the candle, the ship’s power dims. As Kaylee goes to check on it, a huge explosion occurs, sending a wall of flame hurtling down the corridor towards the room. Zoe pushes Kaylee out of the way and is blown backwards by the force of the fireball, severely injuring her. They seal off the ship to contain the fire then vent it into space.
As Simon looks after Zoe, Kaylee looks after Serenity. Mal forces Wash, who wants to stay by Zoe’s side, to go to the bridge, angering him.
We flashback within the flashback to see when Wash first came on the boat, wearing a mustache, flat hair, and a Hawaiian shirt. Normally, I’d make a pedophile comment, but it’s Wash, so I will abstain. Wash, who is apparently a very sought-after pilot, decides he likes the ship. Zoe, however, says that she doesn’t particularly care for Wash, because of course that’s how they started, have you met them? After Mal states that he’s going to take Wash if Wash will take the job, they run into the “genius” mechanic, Bester (Dax Griffin), who apparently is getting Serenity ready to fly.
Back at the main flashback, Zoe is not doing well, mostly because Gina Torres was filming something else at the time. Simon gives her an adrenaline shot to keep her going. In the present, Mal gives himself one to keep going despite the pain and bloodloss. In the flashback, Mal takes Kaylee to the engine room to figure out what’s wrong, and the answer is the catalyzer in the port compression coil blew. What’s both great, and tragic, about this is that Kaylee had, in two separate earlier episodes, pointed out that the compression coil needed to be replaced. In fact, in the pilot, Kaylee said that if the coil busts, they’re drifting. The reality, it seems, is actually worse: when the coil exploded, it destroyed the back-up life support. I assume this is based on CO2 scrubbers like in current space shuttles, which wouldn’t really help with the “we vented a ton of the oxygen into the void and probably shouldn’t be able to get enough O2 into our lungs with each breath” problem, but I guess there was enough for everyone to breathe until they get to the next planet if the life support worked, and maybe they had a mechanism that reduced the volume of the inside of the ship to keep the pressure from dropping rapidly and giving everyone some super case of the bends.
As the crew contemplates their apparently inevitable suffocation, River and Book talk briefly, with River saying that his Bible says “Don’t be afraid.” I consider this to be one of the best commentaries on the benefits of faith in film. River then comforts Book by telling him that they won’t suffocate… because they’ll freeze to death first. This one I haven’t actually figured out, since most spaceships, now, can withstand being powerless in space for hours at a time without it causing the inside temperature to change that much. Granted, they’re much smaller and heat dissipation is a matter of surface area, but still, spaceships usually have to be pretty well thermally insulated to deal with re-entry (and the vacuum of space), something that Serenity does regularly. My best guess is that the sheer amount of heat that the engine power source produces might need to be regularly vented out all around the ship, so maybe ships in the future are actually built to constantly be dispersing heat by design, including mechanical dispersal that still operates without power. Or maybe it’s an error based on speculative writing. I assume that River Tam is correct, though, because she’s River Tam.
Mal and Wash manage to set up a beacon broadcasting a help request. In another flashback, we’re shown that Kaylee’s entrance to the ship was less professional than Wash’s. Kaylee was sleeping with Bester, the former mechanic, because engines “get her hot.” When Bester tells Mal about the problems on the ship, Kaylee quickly fixes it while demonstrating a natural aptitude towards understanding machines. Mal offers her a job and kicks Bester out. In the main flashback, Kaylee tells Mal that the ship is broken beyond even her skills and, without a new catalyzer, just can’t fly. In the present, it’s revealed that the engine part Mal is carrying is a new catalyzer, he attempts to put it back in the engines, but slips.
In the flashback, Mal sends the crew off in the shuttles, one in each direction, while he stays on the ship. Wash, optimistically, sets up a mechanism to recall the shuttles once the beacon gets someone’s attention. Mal and Inara share a moment as he sends her off in the shuttle with Book, Jayne, and Kaylee. It then flashes back to when Inara first arrived on the ship. Mal tries to feign disinterest in having her on board, but Inara quickly points out that he needs her more than she needs them, because she gives him “respectability” and the ability to deal with the Alliance. She negotiates a lower price and a set of rules for conduct (which Mal has regularly broken since), before telling him that she will never call him “whore” again, because easy dramatic irony is easy and dramatic. In the main flashback, Inara asks Mal to come with her, but he refuses, saying he’s going to stay with his ship. Mal and Wash part, with Mal telling him to go to his wife, and then Jayne and Mal part in a humorous sequence consisting of Jayne basically walking off to avoid any emotional contact. Mal, alone, goes to the bridge and sits, waiting for someone. Eventually, with Mal almost out of oxygen, a ship finds him.
The captain of the other ship, hesitant to trust Mal, coincidentally has a spare catalyzer on board. Unfortunately, they’ve decided that the price of the part will be everything on board Serenity and ambush Mal. This causes Mal to flash back to when he first met Jayne, who had once similarly ambushed him and Zoe along with two other bandits. Impressed by Jayne’s skills at tracking, Mal negotiates for Jayne to switch sides after promising him a bigger cut and his own bunk, because Jayne is a simple man with simple needs. Back at the more-recent ambush, the captain of the other ship shoots Mal, who grabs a hidden gun and forces the other men off his ship, putting us at the start of the episode.
The computer klaxon keeps blaring, warning about the low oxygen levels, which, honestly, makes no sense, since the ship just got a huge influx of oxygen a few minutes ago when the other ship docked with them, and the other ship’s atmo-scrubber should have reduced the CO2 levels for the time the ships were connected, which, while not too long, was at least long enough to search the ship. Dammit, stop thinking about this. Mal finally manages to get the catalyzer installed but passes out from his injuries before he can recall the shuttles.
Mal wakes up a few hours later, in the infirmary, having found out that everyone in the crew is now back. When Zoe awoke, she demanded that they return, resulting in them finding out that Mal had fixed it. Wash donates some blood to Mal, and everything seems back to normal. As Mal passes out again, we’re treated to one last flashback where Mal first sees Serenity, despite the salesman talking to him about another ship. It’s clearly love at first sight.
Alright, so, this episode has two purposes. First, it gives us the backstories for all the characters we didn’t have yet.
We find out Kaylee has no formal schooling in engines, she just has a natural aptitude, something that seems extremely ridiculous for a modern spaceship, but makes sense when you realize that, for her, a spaceship is no more complicated than a car is now. Some people can just visualize the entire structure and make it work. We also learn that Kaylee’s a little more sexually free than we had previously been shown, but, let’s be honest, we all kinda guessed that. We find out that Zoe originally didn’t care for Wash, which, I imagine, was because of the mustache. Grow a beard or don’t grow anything, man. Wash, meanwhile, has always been unusual, which is probably why he took a job on Serenity in the first place, despite having so many better offers. Zoe, too, is even colder in the flashbacks than she is in the present, something that speaks to how her marriage has been good for her. The fact that they’re the cutest couple ever in the future is all the better for having this inauspicious start.
Jayne’s backstory is especially interesting, since Jayne is shown swapping loyalties for money, though in the present day it seems he would never consider betraying Mal, at least in his own mind, for any amount of money. It makes his earlier refusal in the Pilot seem a bit more meaningful, and later actions a little more tragic.
Mal and Inara’s first encounter is also noteworthy, because the smooth-talking Mal is pretty much completely outmaneuvered by Inara’s bargaining chips. It’s also revealed that Inara supported the Alliance, something that Mal naturally is more than a little irked by. It also shows that they did, at one point, have some formalities in their relationship.
Mal’s interaction with Serenity speaks to Mal’s character. Rather than the ship he came to see, Mal’s attention is drawn to the beat-up Firefly. He sees in the ship a desire to prove herself still worth something despite how the rest of the world has treated her. So, basically, he sees himself.
The second point of the story is to show the reality of how risky space travel really is. When something goes wrong in space, as Mal says, you can’t just go get another part, and every part matters. It’s almost comical when Mal explains that the entire problem is a broken catalyzer and the other captain says “that’s a nothing part.” It’s also true that the catalyzer probably shouldn’t have been such a big issue, except that the compression coil really need to be replaced, as Kaylee said. I’m speculating here, but I’d have to wager that anything called a “compression coil,” probably compresses something, and that a catalyzer probably is something that catalyzes, or greatly accelerates a chemical process.
Now, we don’t currently have the capacity to do this in an energy-efficient way, but you can create a nuclear fusion reaction through a combination of compressing the atoms close enough together while forcing surrounding materials to “shoot” the atoms closer together through rapid chemical processes emitting heat and particles, resulting in a fusion reaction of the original atoms and a massive energy, and particle, release which could be directed to create acceleration in 0 gravity (or essentially 0 gravity). In fact, you can do this currently for about $5,000 if you’re interested, but it won’t create more energy than the reaction requires. However, if the surrounding reactions were stopped, then just compressing the atoms together will not be enough to invoke the strong and weak nuclear forces, meaning that fusion won’t occur and you don’t have an engine. What you do have is a highly compressed material (probably deuterium), that’s now not being fused… and likely going to explode when you try to use it to move the ship if the compression coil isn’t capable of expanding rapidly to avoid it. “Nothing part” my ass, out of which I just pulled that explanation.
Then, once you have a problem, you run into the second really risky aspect of space travel we already discussed: The void wants to kill you. Nature abhors a vacuum, but a vacuum also abhors nature, and you’re nature. Any interaction with the outside of the ship is prone to killing humans. And, without oxygen scrubbers and the ability to produce clean water, the inside of the ship isn’t going to be any better. It’s fairly comparable to being on a regular seafaring ship: If there’s a hole in the bottom, and you can’t patch it, you die. If you’re stuck in the middle of the ocean with no propulsion, you’re either going to get found, or you die. However, when you’re in space, there’s a lot more volume for people to search without them seeing you, so you’re even more likely to be screwed. Space is big, kids.
This also shows exactly how hard it is to keep Serenity flying. She was already beaten to hell when she started with Mal, and since then Kaylee’s used every jury-rig that she can thing of to keep the ship flying. At this point, she’s likely more string and duct tape than she is metal, which makes sense when you consider how expensive spaceship parts likely are, especially for a ship like Serenity which isn’t even the most recent model of Firefly, and there were only 28,000 of them made. We don’t know anything about standardized parts in the future, but I’m wagering that there isn’t a huge amount of backwards-compatibility in the engines. The Allied Spacecraft company likely doesn’t have a huge amount of sympathy towards the poor space-pilot who can’t afford to replace their models and I’m sure Mal doesn’t have insurance. Mal may say the ship represents “freedom,” but oh how fleeting is freedom when you’re choking to death in it.
This episode is the highest-rated episode of Firefly on IMDB. It’s not my favorite, but it’s definitely a top-tier episode, and it’s easy to see why: It’s got a lot of great moments in the flashbacks, the episode really makes great use of the show’s space setting, the framing device of Mal painfully struggling through the ship is both wonderfully shot and extremely tense, a lot of solid dialogue that is too fast and clever to really have stand-out lines (this isn’t a bad thing), and it manages to flesh out essentially all of the characters in a short amount of time. Very impressive.
Score: 4.5 Fireflies (or 1 Spare Catalyzer)
See you next Friday, Browncoats.
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