As is famous now, Firefly was utterly shat on by Fox; in this specific case, the network rejected the pilot and ordered another one, and Joss Whedon and Tim Minear were forced to knock up a new script over the course of a weekend. I came to the show years late on DVD with no knowledge of that, so I have no idea how it reads as a first episode, but I feel perfectly comfortable saying it makes a great second episode of the show. Structurally speaking, Firefly fits comfortably in the post-Buffy (duh) pre-Lost era of genre shows; episodes are mostly self-contained Job Of The Week plots, connected by both the forward-looking development of characters and their relationships, and the backward-looking development of the world and the mysteries within (e.g. “what’s the deal with River?”). The pilot showed a Day In The Life of Malcolm Reynolds, and turned it all upside down by throwing in Simon, River, and Shepard Book; this episode works as our new normal, a Day In The New Life.
“Well, they tell ya, ‘Never hit a man with a closed fist,’ but it is, on occasion, hilarious.”
You can sense the rush job done on this script, not just in the cliche genre elements (my three favourite things: trains, heists, and train heists) but in the fact that the script is made out of simple gestures; it’s impressive that it comes off not as basic or boring but as elegant. Firefly‘s characters are already drawn richly enough that Team Whedon know pretty much what they’d do, and we can be shocked but not that shocked that Mal would go around to Alliance-friendly bars to pick fights (and that Zoe would immediately back him up while it would take Jayne a while), and the world is drawn richly enough that they can throw a cliche at us and twist it – there have been many barfights in many Westerns, but very few of them are settled via spaceship.
The crew get back on Serenity, where Mal can get an update/exposition on River’s status; he walks out to find Shepard Book, who tries to engage him as to why he’s taken on the siblings at all, considering the risk, and Mal flippantly dismisses him as he looks around the ship for Kaylee (another simple, elegant device intended to teach us the layout of Serenity). He finds her with Inara in her shuttle, who teaches us about her relationship with Kaylee by teaching her about Companions. Mal wanders in, makes fun of Companions, and tells Kaylee to get back to work. He also warns Inara: he’s picked up a job with a dangerous guy, and he thinks she’d be safer not getting off the ship when they head in.
“Got us some crime to be done.”
With all this tablesetting done, we kick into the plot, and Mal, Zoe, and Jayne meet with crime boss Niska. From a writing perspective, Whedon and Minear have a simple problem: they need to establish that Niska is dangerous and failure will bring him down on their heads. They accomplish this by having him personally show the crew that he’s dangerous via a man he’s torturing, and openly saying he’ll do that to them if they fail. It works for me entirely because of the performances; Michael Fairman as Niska is impressed with his own showmanship (I love the way he tries to get cute with “From your reputation?”), and Mal is the perfect mix of terrified and unimpressed – he doesn’t take Niska seriously, but he does take the threat he represents seriously.
From there, we have a pretty straightforward heist plot, and in fact even by heist-plot standards it’s very, very simple: Mal and Zoe get on the train, Serenity flies over it, they pull the roof off, and lift the cargo out. There are three important beats within it though: firstly, we learn what the plan is via Simon poking his head in and asking Kaylee what’s going on. Obviously, this pushes their burgeoning relationship forward, but I also like it as an example of how uncomfortable he is on Serenity (“Crime! Good! Okay… Crime.”); he’s a delicate, law-abiding citizen, and away from his sister he has no idea what to do. Secondly, the first thing to go wrong is that the train has a carriage full of Alliance soldiers, and not only does this not phase Mal one bit, he’s delighted to get one over on the Alliance.
“Hell, this job I would pull for free.”
“Then can I have your share?”
“If you die can I have your share?”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Inara and Book have a conversation on the ship. We’ve talked before about diversions in stories; I find they work best in otherwise relentless plots, where they act as a one-off bit of relief, and what makes Firefly special is that it has so many characters that it can have an A-plot and a B-plot and still have enough spare characters that we can see them just hanging out (the equivalent to seeing Shane and Dutch at the monster truck rally). Book wants to do some good, and Inara is too experienced to believe he can do much but can see where he’s coming from.
The plan goes off with a giant hitch: an Alliance soldier catches them, and while they get away, Jayne gets shot and Mal and Zoe now have suspicion over their heads. What does and doesn’t happen next is an important bit of both character and worldbuilding: the cargo they stole was medicine for the locals, and the Alliance doesn’t give two shits about the stolen cargo and leaves the locals to clean up the mess. Mal and Zoe pose as a newlywed couple looking for work, and the real danger over their heads is Sheriff Bourne (Gregg Henry), who tells them about the problems of colonial life – specifically, that this particular planet gives people something called Bowden’s Syndrome. Now, we’ll never see this again, and likely never would have even if the show ran for six seasons and a movie, but it works, because it shades in the border planets in general – we’ll know going forward how hard life can be on these planets.
“You mind telling me, uh, when it was you last spoke to Joey Bloggs?”
“Never did, myself.”
“Right. Your uncle. And it was indicated to you that, uh, Joey had an opening?”
“Any job would do.”
“It’s funny your Uncle never went to mentioning the Bowden’s problem. Or that Joey Bloggs ate his own gun ’bout eight months back.”
“Yep. Blew the back of his head right off.”
“So… would his job be open?”
(That joke isn’t just funny, it indicates why Mal is the captain and Zoe isn’t. She’s smart, but she’s nowhere near as good a liar as Mal is.)
Meanwhile, chaos reigns on the ship. Jayne is persistent about delivering the goods to Niska, but Wash doesn’t want to leave his wife behind and Shepard Book, surprisingly, advises caution in dealing with Niska, and this is our first big hint that there’s something funny about the preacher. My chief complaint with The Lodger was that the film held back the protagonist’s true motivations for so long that it muddied the suspense; this is different, because we know perfectly well what Books’ morality is right now, and at this moment we learn he has a unique set of skills we weren’t aware of, and what’s being held back is an explanation for those skills (and, partially, an explanation for that morality, though already we can ascertain some kind of redemption thing going on).
After Simon deals with Jayne by doping him (if you like, revealing his value to the crew socially speaking), the crew decides to save Mal and Zoe; we then get a torrent of Inara-style ownage when she waltzes in, uses her respectability to bullshit Mal and Zoe out, and they flee. Of course, that’s when Mal reveals his character: he’d rather lose face with Niska than take these people’s medicine. Unfortunately, he has to tell this to Crow in-person, because he’s rocked up to find out why they’re so late; a fight breaks out. On the commentary, Whedon observes that he hates writing action and loves shooting it, and I think you can really feel that, because structurally speaking it’s boring and completely lacking in suspense, but it’s full of great individual gags, especially the one it ends on: Jayne’s ownage when he shoots Crow in the leg (“I was aimin’ for his head!”).
Mal and co drop the medicine back on the edge of town, where they’re caught by Bourne and his people.
“You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job. He might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours… well… then he has a choice.”
“I don’t believe he does.”
Bourne seems to respect that, and lets Mal go without incident. Mal returns to the ship and offers Crow a choice: take the money back, and the Serenity crew will stay out of his way. Crow stands, spits on the deal, and tells Mal he’ll follow him wherever he goes in vengeance. Mal shrugs and kicks him into the jet engine; mixing genre subversion with ownage surely being the fastest way to a nerd’s heart. I knew of a guy who really hated Mal for that moment and considered him totally unsympathetic; presumably he wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long at the whole “smuggler/pirate/transport” thing as Mal has.
We finish with Simon patching up Mal and discussing the day’s events, and we look over to River, muttering something she said earlier in the episode: “Two by two, hands of blue.” We jump to the Alliance dude we met before, and two men in suits with blue hands ask him for information on River. As far as establishing a mystery goes, it’s fast, cheap, easy, and effective.
“He’s not the first psycho to hire us. Nor the last. You think that’s a commentary on us?”
- I know there’s a comic that shows Book’s backstory, but I never read it. Once you know Book was SPOILERS an Operative END SPOILERS the rest seems kind of redundant.
- I grew up around both colonial late-1800s Australian buildings, and buildings that were constructed by hand (my grandfather built his house when I was a toddler, and several of my uncles built and later expanded houses on the same property over the course of my life); Serenity‘s construction always reminded me of that, and I assume that’s the emotion the set designers brought to her. For example, the medical bay has a different construction to the rest of the ship – bluer, more metallic and sterile, which of course signifies it as more Alliance-like and thus “Simon’s part of the ship”, but also makes it feel like the medical bay was something built or added later.
- The site’s “Related posts” function has decided The Shield is related to Firefly. Make of that what you will.