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Firefly: Serenity Ep. 1 October 24, 2007

Posted by Chris in Firefly.
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Firefly:  Cheeziness, “Betrayal” and Redemption Through Humor

This is the show that “brought me back” to science fiction TV after a long hiatus. Not only had we banished the TV to a box in the basement, but in the years previous it seemed that there hadn’t been any good science fiction TV shows — perhaps since the last few seasons of Deep Space Nine. Thanks to my wife’s impeccable taste and likewise understanding of mine (she bought me the Firefly DVD set as a birthday present), I started skeptically watching the series soon after it was issued on DVD, thinking I was probably headed for disappointment. But just as Mal finds disappointment at Serenity Valley and redemption in his post-war life as captain of the ship called Serenity, the embryonic beginnings of the show are redeemed through the introduction of the main characters and their evolving story together. 

The first few scenes of the pilot (“Serenity”) did not encourage me. I found the battle scene to be unrealistic, if I can say that about science fiction — a genre that is pretty much the furthest thing from realistic storytelling that we can find. It’s not terrible — it just looks like it was filmed on a sound stage. They could’ve done better than this.  And why don’t Zoe or Mal wear uniforms or helmets like the rest of their comrades in arms? I know these are little, nit-picky items, but first impressions are built on things such as these.  In science fiction, where plausibility is essential, the details count.

Then, the cut to six years later and the “salvage job” is underway.  Our soon-to-be heroes have obviously been living at the margins of life since the war.  The first shot of this scene showing Mal upside-down after the disappointment of Serenity Valley suggests he’s not quite right with the world — a hint of what’s to come.  Mal’s use of “the sticky” to corrode the lock of the ship’s hatch is a nice little touch.  I watched with more interest.  Then, Wash’s “Everything looks good from here…yes, yes this is a fertile land and we will thrive…”, speech with the dinosaurs turned it all around for me. The first sign of the strength in writing. I was sold. “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

The details kept adding up:  the common, contemporary-looking cargo boxes on the salvage ship, the signs of wear and corrosion on Serenity that give it that lived-in feel. The “cry baby” distress signal Serenity uses to distract the Alliance cruiser while they make their escape. Even the actions and dialogue of the Alliance captain show great promise, as they choose to “…go help these people,” they think are sending the distress signal instead of chasing after the “low-life vultures” on Serenity. In just a few quick lines we see the ambiguity of life in Joss Whedon’s “‘verse”, with the supposedly evil Alliance (we know this because of the vaguely Nazi-looking cut of their uniforms)doing its best to help people in need and our heroes using this good-nature to get away with their nefarious business.  As Wash says in the following scene to Zoe, “Sweety, we’re crooks…if everything were right, we’d be in jail.” With this we’re asked to be active participants in the story, looking for clues and judging for ourselves whether the main characters are worthy of our affections.

The scene introducing Inara and her career as a companion shows a similar complexity. Her skillful handling of her young client, trying to let him down easy from his initial crush on her, is rewarded with his exiting comment that reminds everyone that she’s paid to play a role — a role that is motivated not by true kindness and love, but by money. Her inability to retort this jab shows her discomfort with the nature of her business, despite all the apparent stature her society gives to companions.

Zoe: “Sir, we don’t want to deal with Patience again.”

Mal: “Why not?”

Zoe: “Sir, she shot you.”

Mal: “Well, yeah she did, a bit, still…”

Great stuff. Brilliant use of humor to give a little background.

Nice introduction of Simon and the Alliance agent as they board the ship as passengers. The seeds of ambiguity are sewn here again, as Simon is the suspicious-looking character while the agent just looks to be an innocent — a trait that proves out as we see later that he’s a bit of a novice when it comes to undercover work.

Simon to Mal about Jayne: “What DO you pay him for?”

Mal: “What?”

Simon:  “I was just wondering what his job is…on the ship.”

Mal: “Public relations.”

I don’t really have anything to say here…I just love this dialogue.

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Oh, please… 

Oh, oh! Then fear and loathing. What a scare I got from the next, cheesy, gratuitous, pandering scene of Inara taking a sponge-bath.  I know this was probably meant to set-up the embarrassment of Book as he enters her shuttle, but this scene is so obviously put in to titillate the 13-year old male viewers that it made me question the motives of the writers as well.  “Hey,” I thought “are they in this just for the money, too?” This brand of ambiguity I did not need and it made me question for a moment whether we were starting a downhill slide. It reminded me of a similar bathing scene with the Vulcan character in the Enterprise pilot episode. That was all it took to turn me off of that show completely — never watched it again. Maybe this show wasn’t going to work out after all. Thankfully, the discussion between Book and Inara that follows does a good job of revealing their characters’ motivations and Mal’s — the show’s apperant concessions to the network’s ideas (I assume) of what will sell to the teen sci-fi fan set are redeemed through its depth of character.

On the use of the everyday stuff:  I love this, and on watching the show again now — the post-Galactica remake era where this use of contemporary or even dated technology for props looks natural — I have to remind myself of how strange and thrilling this was when I first saw Firefly. The use of guns instead of high-tech lasers/blasters, the airline food compartments in Serenity’s kitchen, the mix of western historical with space-faring technologies — these all looked strange and discordant at first, but helped sell the ‘verse to us as a unique vision. I, for one, quickly bought into it and accepted the use of the commonplace as commonplace.  And

Mal: “I believe that woman’s planning to shoot me again.” Snappy dialogue. Whedon’s flair for bringing out the humorous side of a dramatic build-up gives us reason to love these characters despite the dirty business they’re in.

One of the things that bugs me about this episode is the way they wrote the Fed’s character. As I said before, he’s obviously a novice and a bit of a hot-head — not exactly the type of person you want to send out looking for what we soon find out is the killing-machine that is River. Compared to The Operative that comes after River and Serenity in the movie, we have to ask ourselves whether the Alliance is really all that menacing if they can’t figure out the right agent to send until roughly a year later. A friend and fellow fan has suggested that the Alliance was simply sending the nearest available agent when they realized River had been taken.  I like this explanation, not only because it rings true, but also because it suggests that the writers intentionally showed the Alliances as a fallible and “human” entity, capable of evil acts, sure, but essentially like the rest of us — just muddling through.  So, the Alliance — just like the other characters in Firefly — have depth and complexity.  Their flaws are redeemed.

Mal’s shooting the horse to bring down Patience and then his quick shot that brings down the Fed both show the dubious side of his character. He’s apparently willing to sacrifice the innocent (the horse) or put them at risk (shooting past River to hit the Fed) to achieve his aims, so while we cheer him on, we’re also shaking our heads in tune with Book’s later questions about Mal’s actions.

Seems like it’s Zoe’s job to state the obvious for viewers who may not be keeping up with what’s going on:  “Ain’t no way they can come around and follow us now,” and earlier when Mal’s telling the others about his lie to Simon that Kaylee had died, “…and Kaylee’s really OK?”, seem out of place among the otherwise crisp, tight dialog. Reminds me of what I once heard Nichelle Nichols say about her role as Uhura on the original Start Trek: she was just there to explain what had already just been shown. Hmmm…two African-American characters in two sci-fi shows roughly 30 years apart, but playing the same functional roles with regard to plot exposition…gives me pause. And before I let go of this race thread, I need to ask: with all the references to Chinese culture and the back-story surrounding the Alliance between China and the U.S., where are the Chinese characters in this show? Where are the Asians (except as exotic background extras)?  Okay, okay, I can make excuses for Whedon et al. by blaming the Hollywood system and it’s treatment of non-Europeans over the years, but on a great show like this where African Americans — including Zoe’s character — are written with depth and nuance, why couldn’t they go the last mile and avoided these pitfalls?

Even with these criticisms, I love this show!  Time and time again, it manages to redeem itself through the effective use of humor, intelligence, intriguing stories and excellent character development.  Even with it’s hokey elements, the pilot always manages to pull me back in — to make up for its minor transgressions.

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Comments»

1. Kym - October 26, 2007

This is the show that brought me back to science fiction, too. I love everything from the subtle Blue Sun logo clues that are seen in the very first episode (mystery, yes!) to the Macho man who can’t quite get his feelings out for the beautiful girl (Romance, too?) to the pitty pat of combat boots (comedy, even) and then gunfights (Western on top of all the other forms of storytelling?) all genres stirred into a glorious mixture and then laced with great writing. Out of Gas is the most amazing piece of storytelling I have ever seen on tv.

I never even contemplated being a fan before this show but now I write for Big Damn Zine and even blog about my new passion.

Thanks for sharing your Firefly love. I especially enjoyed this after I noted that you, too, don’t have tv.

2. cferrell - October 27, 2007

Kym said: “This is the show that brought me back to science fiction, too.”

Very cool! Thanks for checking out the site…I’d resigned myself to writing for myself, not thinking anyone would find my blog unless I somehow went out and promoted it (I’m obviously a neophyte at this). But, it looks like you found my site through a WordPress summary of blog posts.

Out of Gas is a great episode, I agree. I look forward to blogging that one soon.

No TV! Great. Boxing that thing has turned my life around in a lot of ways…most of them mundane, but meaningful.

I’ll check out Big Damn Zine and your blog…

3. Kym - October 27, 2007

I found this site by tag surfing Firefly. Not enough blogs on one of my favorite subjectsl

No tv means I have time to blog and to play with my other passions. Sometimes I miss the History channel and, of course, the sci fi channel but I love not sitting for hours channel surfing.

4. Kym - January 7, 2008

Chris, I still love this piece.

The thing that I notice about the episode that you didn’t mention is:
Whedon’s brilliant use of symbolism ie. the fade from the betrayed Mal the believer to the upside down Mal in a spacesuit now an unbeliever. As an English major, I just eat that stuff up.

My take on the bumbling agent was that he was the one closest. I mean we are talking planetary travel so River gets free, the Alliance sends their closest agent who was probably not their favorite choice.


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