I have decided to watch Firefly again for the umpteenth time and to also write about my thoughts on all fourteen episodes and the film in blog-form. I chose Firefly for this experiment in consistent blogging (I will be aiming for one episode write-up a week) for one reason: it is short. If I get bored or frustrated, my obligation will be minimal, whereas shows that actually received proper runs, would require a more arduous undertaking on my part. I also really like Firefly and I have learned that one way to get a nerd, like myself, excited is to talk about it, so I hope that you, my very modest readership, will enjoy hearing my pretty standard opinions on this space-western staple.
The first episode (chronologically, not in terms of the date it aired) of Firefly is titled “Serenity” and is the setup episode for both the series’ premise and its characters; so the logic behind Fox airing this episode last continues to mystify. The episode is double length, and around half of that time is spent meeting all of the characters and defining their roles and relationships, while the other half involves a typical Firefly plot: do a job, get screwed, and adapt. This episode is both directed and written by series creator Joss Whedon, best known at this time for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and more recently known for writing and directing The Avengers.
Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) was a war hero on the losing side of the war against the Alliance, the governmental body that rules the system of terraformed planets and moons that humanity has come to inhabit. His ship, named Serenity after a bloody battle in which he fought, houses himself and his crew, a band of people with both pasts and skill-sets not conducive to stable living. Salvaging and smuggling, they live paycheck to paycheck while travelling from planet to planet, and all the while they attempt to stay off the radar of the Alliance.
His crew includes Zoe (Gina Torres), a fellow soldier as his second in command. Wash (Alan Tudyk) is the Serenity‘s pilot, and is also the husband of Zoe. Jayne Cobb (Alan Baldwin, a non-Baldwin-Brother Baldwin) is a mercenary that provides the ship the extra muscle it so often needs. Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is a young woman and genius mechanic that keeps the ship flying when it reasonably should not. One of the passenger shuttles is occupied by Inara (Morena Baccarin), a companion (essentially, a very high-class courtesan) that left the comfort of her home planet to see the universe.
This initial episode sees the Serenity gain three new residents: Shepherd Book, Simon Tam, and his sister River. Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) is a religious man and a pacifist, but possesses a mysterious past that was more than likely quite violent. Simon Tam (Sean Maher) was a young trauma surgeon with a promising future until he abandoned his home and fortune to rescue his younger sister River (Summer Glau), a prodigious intellect cruelly experimented on by the alliance. Each of these three comes to accept the ship as a sanctuary, if not a home, despite contentious relationships with the captain.
The main plot involves the crew trying to unload salvaged goods (nutrient-rich food) before the Alliance catches up with them. After dealing with Badger (Mark Sheppard), a gang-leader, the crew must deal with Patience, a woman whose last dealings with the crew ended with Mal being shot. The crew also chooses to take on passengers for both the cash and the implied legitimacy. But an encounter with Reavers, men turned mad and vicious in the vast emptiness of space, and the presence of an Alliance mole threaten their safety and their payday.
“Serenity” accomplishes everything a pilot should, it establishes the character’s motivations and relationships with each other, and it sets up an ongoing arc involving River and just what the Alliance was doing to her. The two cases of frustrating sexual tension in Firefly are also introduced in this episode, with Kaylee developing a crush on Simon, and the smoldering looks between Mal and Inara when they weren’t at each other’s throats. Unlike many pilots, “Serenity” chose to develop its characters through conversation rather than to introduce them with wiz-bang action sequences (though there are a couple of those as well), this is especially true in the cases of Mal, Inara, Simon, and Shepherd Book.
This is one of my favorite episodes of the short-lived series, primarily because of the interactions between the characters and the fact that the extended running time means that none of the characters play a minor role, which is inevitable with a typical running time of forty minutes. Whedon is known mainly for his dialogue, and his skills are on full display here, but what he is even better at is creating a cast of interesting characters that seem well-developed from the moment they are on the screen. There is a reason he was chosen to helm The Avengers: the man knows how to work an ensemble. He gets good performances out of all of his actors, particularly Nathan Fillion, Adam Baldwin, and Morena Baccarin.
The episode has one legitimately surprising moment, and a few twists that are easy enough to see coming, even if that surprising moment is pulled straight from a space-western anime called Outlaw Star (it isn’t bad, but Firefly is better). But the fact that this episode isn’t chock-full of surprises is fine, as this episode is all about setting up the characters and the primary arc of the show, plus the action scenes are done well enough that their outcomes don’t need to shock (or awe).
This is the most western heavy space-western I have ever seen (Trigun comes the closest), and I like it. The big shootout near the end literally has people using horses as cover, and if that doesn’t indicate a western, I don’t know what does. Many of the characters also fit rather neatly into common archetypes of the genre: Mal is the former soldier looking for a cause, Inara is the hooker with a heart of gold, Book is the preacher with a violent past, and it goes on. The flavoring of the English language with Mandarin words and phrases works well in establishing the world these characters live in, and doesn’t seem that unnatural given where our world is currently heading; it’s also a clever way of giving the show’s dialogue its own unique feel.
The special effects are excellent and hold up well, this episode even won an Emmy for them, especially for a decade old television episode. One aspect I really appreciated with this show is that when something is shown in space, there is not any noise. There is no sound in a vacuum, so I love it when something demonstrates that without the pew-pews and the vroom-vrooms so common in most space-set science-fiction (cough Star wars cough).
“Serenity” is a good episode and, while it may lack the innovative nature of some of the other episodes, it is a great introduction to Firefly and its world. The fact that every character in the ensemble received adequate screen-time and gets some development differentiates this from most television pilots. I definitely enjoyed it again, even on my fifth (or so) watch of the episode. Return next week for my review of episode 2.