I’m not quite sure how to describe Firefly. As a SciFi/Fantasy fan, I’ve been hearing about this series for quite a few years now. Everyone from Sheldon (TBBT) to my cousin have recommended this show to me, and it wasn’t until this month, when I’d finally gotten back into my love of reading, that I decided to give this a try. Even then, I gotta tell you, it was a close call between watching Firefly and doing a rerun of LOST.
The pilot begins with a battle. The cold open is completely confusing and made me think for a minute that I’d started off on the wrong episode. First impressions were not great. The filmography is very 1980s and the dialog seemed to be even worse (“gorram” instead of “goddamn” — seriously?). In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that I was determined to watch this episode and then review it, I probably would’ve tuned out halfway through the cold open. Having not really looked into the background of the show much before watching it, two things surprised me in this sequence:
Anyway, the Captain is very optimistic even in the face of impending demise, and after the aforementioned cheesy dialog and an equally cheesy scene of him kissing of a cross, he seems to be shell shocked to learn that their foot soldiers have been defeated by a large army ships.
And then we cut to 6 years later.
The captain is hanging out in space, with Gina Torres’ Zoe right there beside him, helping him steal something from a big ship we know nothing about. But, uh-oh! An alliance ship is out to get them! They run back to their mothership with the stolen cargo and take off into space!
Wait, wait, wait… You’re probably saying by now. Confused? Let me back up.
Firefly takes place in the year 2517 in a Galaxy that does not seem to include Earth. Humans have emigrated from Earth — referred in the show as “the Earth that was” — and have settled on other planets and moons after terraforming them. The battle shown in the cold open is a civil war in 2511 between the Browncoats and Alliance (a union between the two superpowers of the old Earth: America and China). Seargent Mal and his Corporal Zoe Alleyne are fighting for the Browncoats, who lose the war, leaving them all to fend for themselves.
So 6 years down the road, in 2517, we find out that Mal is now Captaining his own ship and Zoe is his second in command. After being defeated by the Alliance, the two have been running an illegal smuggling business (their way of getting back the Alliance? Or perhaps this is their only way of survival after being defeated? The show doesn’t clarify). They travel through the universe on Serenity, a firefly-class ship (hence the name of the show). Their companions are: Walsh, the pilot and Zoe’s husband; Kaylee, the ship engineer, and Jayne Cobb, the gun-for-hire (or sell-sword, if we’re using GoT terminology. Yes, I am into that).
When we see them, they are in the midst of a heist job and are spotted by a government (aka Alliance) vessel, which IDs them as a “firefly-class” vessel and sends out word to Interpol about their stolen goods.
Of course, this comes back to bite them in the ass when they go to Persephone (a core planet) to deliver the stolen goods to gang-leader Badger, who backs out of the deal due to the Interpol broadcast about their vessel. Determined not to let a day’s worth of work go to waste, Mal sets off to one of the outer ring planets, Whitefall, to sell his illegal cargo and get some money for fuel. They are joined by Sheppard Book, a preacher; a random guy named Dobson; a seemingly wealthy and stuck up doctor named Simon Tam; and Inara, a “companion” (escort), who rents a shuttle of the ship and usually travels with them (unless she has business elsewhere). Everyone, with the exception of Inara, are travellers taken on to generate extra income for the ship.
There are a few of things I noticed at this point in the show:
So back to the storyline, Kaylee seems to like Simon, who responds in the like, though more reservedly. Jayne is jealous and acts like an ass. Mal and Inara obviously have a thing for each other, and while the latter prefers to show it by following the ship around everywhere, Mal in true fashion, treats her like crap and then seems to be willing to give up his life to defend her. Like we haven’t seen that before. Still, it’s an interesting dynamic, and the actors certainly have chemistry. She has a calmness to her that balances out Mal’s instability. He — as he likes to say — is “constantly moving”.
As they’re travelling through space, first incident of alarm is raised when Walsh intercepts a message going to the Alliance from the ship. There’s a mole, and due to his shady behaviour, Mal (and us viewers) jump directly to Simon! And he’s looking quite guilty too because Mal catches him red-handed in the cargo bay, locking something up. Punches are thrown and Mal demands to know what he has told the Alliance. For his part, Simon seems genuinely lost, and just as he’s about to protest, preacher guy jumps out dramatically and announces to Mal that he’s got the “wrong man!”. Wait, it’s the preacher?! you say in disbelief, but even before you finish that thought you are disproven because then jumps out Dobson the nondescript, pointing a gun right at them!
Turns out, Simon is shady, but he’s not a fed, he’s a wanted criminal. Dobson is the federal agent, and he’s called Alliance to inform them of finding him. And of course, he’s going to bring the rest of the crew in as accomplices. This causes a loud, disorienting argument that results in Kaylee being shot. As a doctor, Simon has the tools to save her, but he demands that the ship be turned around, away from the Alliance or he won’t help Kaylee and she’ll die. It’s a tense moment before Mal relents. And then he goes straight to the crate Simon had just locked up, and despite the latter’s loud protests, kicks it open to find… A naked hibernating girl inside.
Turns out, Simon’s not a killer, he’s just a “gifted” rich doctor, with an even more gifted sister, River, who was sent to a special government school in her teens and then disappeared. Simon went to Persephone to rescue her and hid her in the cargo bay because he didn’t want the feds finding out he’d sneaked her out. That story melts about everyone’s but Mal and Jayne’s hearts, who agree that the two need to be disposed of along with the illegal cargo on Whitefall because they’re a liability. Inara steps up, telling Mal that if he gets rid of them, he’ll be getting rid of her too, and being the jerk that he is
sometimes, he just shrugs. He’s very much of a “my way or the high way” kinda guy.
Anyway, seems he is not completely off the mark about them being a liability because a tied up Dobson tells Jayne that River is a “very valuable commodity” and offers him a great sum of money to betray his Captain and help the fed escape with River. It is unclear whether he takes the offer.
But there’s no time to worry about that because soon, they spot a Reaver ship in their path. Reavers, Zoe explains to a confused Simon, are animalistic humans who live on the fringes of civilized space and ransack wherever they go. Her words are the most chilling in the entire episode: “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.” Think Ramsay Bolton multiplied. Thankfully, they are spared the experience as the Reaver ship passes by without incident.
When they finally arrive on Whitefall, Mal deduces that Patience (the woman they are trading with) is planning on double-crossing and killing them. He sends Jayne out to take out her snipers and get ready for attack. As predicted, a shoot-out ensues after the cargo (which turns out to be food supplies) is handed over. Mal and company defeat Patience, but let her live, taking only the money for the job.
While all of this is going on, Dobson has somehow got a knife to free himself. He gets out of his cell, injuring Book on the way and then kidnaps River, intending to take her off the ship. He’s stopped by Simon just as he is about to leave. They struggle and Simon gets the upper hand, but Dobson tries to manipulate him into putting down his weapon. He almost succeeds, but is shot down by a returning Mal, who has no more time for his bullshit.
The ship is in emergency mode as Walsh has just spotted the aforementioned Reaver ship headed directly towards them. Jayne and Mal throw Dobson’s body overboard right before the doors close. Mal notes that Dobson couldn’t have gotten out of the cell without help and asks Jayne why he didn’t make a deal with Dobson. He replies that the money wasn’t good enough. This time. I guess that’s something to watch out for in the later episodes.
A partially recovered Kaylee is brought into the engine room and gets Book, who has an interest in ships, to help her. A tense chase ensues, but they are finally able to get away from the Reavers by performing a Crazy Ivan (a wronski fient, for you HP fans). And they’re clear once again! Hurrah!
Simon puts River to bed, promising to find them someplace safe to stay and then goes to talk to Mal. He expects to be booted off ship at the next stop, but is surprised when Mal invites him to stay, noting that the ship can use a medic. Simon asks how he can be sure that they won’t kill him in his sleep? Mal replies: “If I ever kill you, you’ll be awake, you’ll be facing me, and you’ll be armed.”
“Are you always this poetic?” a sarcastic Simon asks in return.
“I’ve had a good day,” smirks Mal.
And off they go!
“Western space soap-opera with a twist”
These are the words that best describe Firefly as a series. The style is very distinct, and the only other similar work that comes to mind is Aliens and Cowboys, though it’s a much more recent movie. Everything from the cowboy hats and boots to the language screams Western. The twist comes in many ways. First, of course, it’s a science fiction story that takes place mainly in space. That’s definitely a unique element of this show. Even more unique is the fact that it integrates Eastern culture into the “every day” lives of the characters. Many of the characters are seen casually speaking in Mandarin with each other. Kaylee is seen wearing a Chinese style top, and all of Inara’s clothes are heavily influenced by Chinese and Indian fashions. Mal is even seen eating his dinner with chopsticks as if it’s nothing out of place.
The integration of these little details adds to the Alliance back-story and shows the influence both American and Chinese culture have had on this society.
One of the biggest themes of this episode was the disillusionment with God. Mal, who believes so fervently in God’s power during the civil war, is seen to be jaded and disillusioned with religion in present day. His hardships have made him more cynical and less naive to the realities of the world. We can see his attitude come across in his interactions with Book.
At dinner, Book asks him: “Mind if I say Grace?”
“Only if you say it out loud,” Mal replies.
His using Inara to unsettle Book also shows that he doesn’t believe in moral judgment and mocks it to some degree. This makes sense, as his profession is not very savoury, either. In fact, he goes as far as to describe Inara as the only person on the ship who makes an “honest living”. I guess the fact that he is also in love with her helps.
The troubled hero
Mal struggles with his inner demons, his failures during the civil war, his profession and his contempt for the reality he lives in. He is rude on principle to almost every one, but is very protective of his crew, who seem to be his surrogate family. In fact, we don’t hear anything of his biological family, so as far as this episode is concerned, these people are the closest he’s got, and he is fierce in defending him. It is one of his redeeming qualities.
He also comes across as very proud, looking down on those around him. His disposition is often stubborn, even to the point where he hurts his own interests. He is not afraid to admit when he is wrong, and that’s a great strength in a leader.
The oppressor, the oppressed, and the savages
I didn’t include soap opera in my description for nothing! The Serenity crew is like a band of outlaws in a Western movie that’s about the outlaws (which means, they are very likely to survive till the end). The Alliance is the oppressive government, who rules omnipresently. Dobson says: “There’s nowhere you can go that they won’t find you.”
Their reach seems limitless and it makes one wonder how this crew has been hiding from them for so long. They also seem to be hiding the unsavoury details of the universe from the common folk. Simon mentions that he’d heard stories about Reavers when he was younger, but was told that they were just stories. So, if they’re lying about this, what else are they lying about? Propaganda!
Then, there at the savages. We don’t know much about them at this stage, but they certainly seem like rebels or thieves who went a little too far and then just kept going.
A human drama
I think one of the reasons that Whedon employs concepts like God, oppressor vs oppressed, human jealousy and nature in this pilot is to show that no matter how much technology has progressed and how much the world has changed, the basic politics of our species will not change. This is a human story, with all the human faults that come with it. People struggle with their emotions, their purpose, their beliefs as they navigate an increasingly politicized world. All lost souls still search for a place to call home and a family of their own. Mal and the crew love each other like a family, and Simon sacrifices everything to save his sister. At its core, this series is a human drama. There’s a big personal crises going on in each of the main characters, and I hope the rest of the series explores that.
All in all, I thought it was a good pilot episode. It started off weak, but it kept building and the constant action, character and story-building in the second part of the episode made me forget that I even disliked it at the beginning. I thought the characters started off well. The dialog wasn’t too cheesy after a while and there was a good amount of humour and sarcasm (mostly from Mal), which kept things lively.
I give this pilot a B, and look forward to watching the next episode!