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Firefly, A Retrospective — Part 1

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014 | Posted by Jon Sprunk

Firefly wallpaper-smallWhen I think of the TV show Firefly, I often compare it in my mind to the original Star Trek series. I wonder if all the Star Trek movies and spin-offs through the decades would have ever occurred if that original show had only run a single season. Yes, I think Firefly is (was) that good. And over the next few weeks, I’m going to be re-watching the episodes and sharing with you because I think this show still has a lot to teach us.

For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it was a “western space opera” created by Joss Whedon, which aired in 2002. The series is set five-hundred years in the future, after Earth has become uninhabitable and mankind went out to find a new star system to call home.

The western vibe comes from the planets on the frontier, which are not so civilized and fancy as the high-tech core worlds. There was a war a few years before the show begins between the system government, the Alliance, and a handful of Independent worlds who wanted autonomy. The Alliance won. The comparisons to the American Civil War are many.

The show’s cast are the crew of a transport starship called Serenity, trying to scratch out a living on the edge of space.

The first episode, or pilot, came in two parts. Titled “Serenity,” it actually didn’t air until the very end of the season. Because this episode sets up so much of the story world and the relationships of its primary characters, I find this criminal. I’ve heard that Fox didn’t think this episode was suitable to open the series, and for that they should be flogged in public. I always insist on watching the episodes in the order they were originally intended. So here goes.

“Serenity” – Episode 1

Firefly cast-smallThe episode begins with the Battle of Serenity Valley, where the major arc of the primary characters — Malcolm Reynolds and Zoe Washburne — really begins.

Mal and Zoe fight for the Independents. In this, the final battle, the Independents are on their last legs. They are pinned down with no air support, but Mal encourages his troops to keep fighting. There’s even a brief shot of Mal kissing a crucifix before charging back into the fight, which plays a role later.

They fight bravely, but in the end the Independents lose. The last shot of this sequence is, I think, very good as Mal watches the Alliance reinforcements landing, his mouth hanging open in shock. He can’t believe this cause for which he has bled and killed is finished.

This opening tells us so much about Mal and Zoe, what they went through and what their freedom means to them.

Flash-forward six years. Mal and Zoe are part of an illegal salvage operation in deep space. We get to see their ship, Serenity. Their crew consists of Jayne (the “muscle”), Wash (their pilot and Zoe’s husband), and Kaylee (ship’s mechanic). We get a hilarious introduction to Wash as he plays with his toy dinosaurs when he is supposed to be watching for trouble. And trouble finds them as an Alliance cruiser approaches the wreck they are robbing. The crew hightails it back to the Serenity and escapes.

This scene sets up the duality of Capt. Malcolm Reynolds. We understand his desire to live free, but he’s also a criminal so we can empathize with the Alliance’s desire to crack down on him. It’s this type of storytelling which digs deeper than your typical “good guys vs. bad guys” entertainment.

Firefly Serenity-smallSerenity heads to the planet of Persephone to unload their illicit cargo. One of my favorite things about this show is that it takes the time to let the relationships breathe. The flight to Persephone is one of those times.

We get to see some dialogue between the various members and learn that Kaylee is ever-cheerful; Jayne is a lunk with authority issues; and Wash and Zoe are having some marital issues revolving around Zoe’s absolute loyalty to Mal, which bugs Wash because he doesn’t feel like he’s the main man in her life. That’s a ton of great character building in just a couple minutes!

There’s a short scene introducing us to Inara, the Companion (legal escort) who rents one of Serenity’s two shuttles as her home and place of business. In this future, Companions are respectable members of the elite society. I like Inara because she’s a combination of elegance, wit, and intelligence, and she’s also one of the few people who can go tit-for-tat with Mal’s strong personality. She’s on Persephone with a client, and then flies back when Serenity lands at the docks.

On Persephone, we see the diverse mix of people that make up Whedon’s universe. It’s mainly a combination of American Old West and traditional Chinese, but we also see elements of other cultures. It’s a very cool blend once you get accustomed to it, with the characters often peppering their speech with old-homestead phrases and Chinese idioms in the same breath.

Firefly crewWhile Mal, Zoe, and Jayne go to meet their client, Kaylee looks for passengers. This is another place where I feel we really needed to see this episode first. On the one hand, you have Mal dealing with the underworld boss Badger (with his fancy hat), and on the other there is the origin of how Shepherd (preacher) Book and Dr. Simon Tam come to be sailing on Serenity.

Book is just looking for an interesting journey, while Simon is running from the feds. The good doctor brings a suspiciously large metal crate onboard with him. Another man also takes passage, but I don’t think we ever learn his name.

Back at Badger’s place, the crime boss is angry because the Serenity got flagged by the Alliance. Also, their cargo is traceable by the feds. So he backs out of the deal, leaving Mal strapped for cash and with a hard-to-sell illegal cargo on his ship. They can’t afford to just ditch the goods, so Mal decides to try the border planets, where people are less picky about their unlawful goods.

So Serenity heads to the moon of Whitefall, which is run by an old acquaintance. The crew has reservations because this woman (Patience) once shot Mal over a dispute, but Mal doesn’t see what the fuss is about. More importantly, their money is running out and Patience is their last chance to get paid for these goods.

As they sail, we see that Mal is uncomfortable around the Shepherd. In fact, he’s downright anti-religious. As you’ll remember, Mal seemed rather pious at the Battle of Serenity Valley, so we assume that crushing defeat led to him losing his faith. Book is a reminder of his former self. Mal also likes to tease Inara about her profession (even though she has a lot more social status than he does); of course, in her case, Mal is just trying to hide his true feelings. When Inara comes out of her shuttle, Mal gets the chance to embarrass both her and Shepherd by introducing them, whore to pastor.

Firefly-Zoe-smallWhile the crew feasts on the fresh produce brought onboard by the Shepherd, they discuss the setting a little. We get to understand that Mal still holds a powerful grudge against the Alliance, which forms the basis of his actions to be a freelancer (still an Independent at heart). We also learn about the differences between the wealthy core worlds and the frontier planets, which are dangerous places.

We also see more of the group dynamic as Jayne teases Kaylee about her lack of male suitors in a vulgar way and Mal exiles him from the dinner table. This is more than a crew. They are a family and Jayne plays the ornery black sheep perfectly. Jayne’s brusque mannerisms also supply a consistent and not-so-subtle layer of tension.

Next, we get a little gratuitous semi-nudity as Inara takes a sponge-bath in her shuttle. What makes it extra spicy is that she gets a visitor, the Shepherd, who has brought her some dinner. They begin to form a friendship based not on sexual tension and misdirection (like her and Mal), but of genuine respect. It’s unexpected that these two should bond so quickly, but they understand each other from the start and neither presumes to judge. Just another in a long line of deft character decisions in this series.

Getting back to the plot, someone on board has signaled an Alliance cruiser. Mal jumps to conclusions when he finds Simon alone in the ship’s hold, checking on his crate. Mal punches the good doctor, but it wasn’t him as we learn right away when the unnamed passenger appears with a gun. This is my only major problem with the story of this episode, that there is no search for the culprit. He just appears and explains his role. Then again, we’re running up against time constraints and this double episode is packing a lot of stuff into a tight space.

Inara Firefly-smallAnyway, the unnamed dude is an Alliance agent tracking Simon. At first, Mal is just fine with that, but then the fed makes the mistake of accusing everyone onboard with the same criminal brush, and Mal gets protective of his crew. Words are exchanged, and the jittery fed shoots Kaylee on accident.

Shepherd Book knocks out the fed, but then defends him from Jayne, who wants to kill him out of hand. An Alliance ship arrives, demanding that Serenity prepare to be boarded, and Simon makes a play: he demands that Mal turn the ship around and run, or he won’t help Kaylee. This is a tense standoff until Mal finally gives in. They run and Simon operates on Kaylee.

After Kaylee is out of the woods, Mal goes into the hold and opens Simon’s precious crate. The whole crew is shocked to find a young woman inside, naked and apparently in suspended animation.

Mal assumes that Simon is a human trafficker until the doctor explains this is his sister. Simon explains that his sister, River, was sent to an Alliance academy, where scientists did experiments on her brain. Simon spent his family’s fortune to break her out and now they are on the run.

Mal is pissed that Simon brought this heap of trouble down on his ship. The crew starts arguing about what to do, with Mal threatening to throw Simon out the airlock. Simon retorts with the implication that Mal is an Alliance stooge and gets another punch in the mouth for his trouble. (There should a lot more broken hands and jaws in this show….)

Mal lets Jayne interrogate the federal agent, who tries to bribe Jayne by mentioning the huge reward out for Simon and River.

Firefly Frozen River-smallBefore anything gets decided, another ship approaches. It’s a Reaver vessel. Reavers are insane space barbarians who rape their victims and then eat them and wear their skin. Don’t ask me how that type of psycho has the wherewithal to drive a spaceship around or how they refrain from killing each other off, but we’re going with this because it sounds cool. Anyway, the Reaver cruiser just passes on by. This is odd, but the crew of Serenity is justifiably relieved.

Kaylee wakes up. She tries to appeal to Mal’s better nature because she likes Simon, but then she passes out. Mal confronts Simon and tells the doctor that his time is up; Kaylee is dead. Simon runs in slow-mo down to the infirmary, only to find Kaylee wide awake and talking. Mal and the crew share a good laugh, relieving some of the ship’s tension.

This is another deft move by Whedon. We’ve got all these things happening with the fed and the Reavers, but he still takes a moment to show us these characters are human.

They arrive at Whitefall and set up the deal. The crew suspects Patience is planning to rob them, so they prepare for the worst. Mal and Zoe go to meet her, while Jayne takes out the snipers they suspect she’ll have in position. Back on the ship, the fed escapes, gets a couple guns from his luggage, and grabs River. Simon jumps him.

Patience, of course, tries to double-cross Mal. A gun fight erupts. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne win and get their money, but then the Reavers show up. Evidently, that ship followed them here, which I suppose explains why the Reavers didn’t just destroy them in space. They were being sneaky!

Firefly JayneOn Serenity, the fed grabs River again and holds her hostage. As he’s making demands, Mal boards the ship and just shoots him in the head. They toss the body out the door and take off. The Reavers follow them. Wash does some fancy flying, and they escape (although that means they leave Whitefall to the Reavers’ tender mercies, but thems the breaks.)

As they sail away, Shepherd Book doubts his place on this ship. He is comforted by Inara. Simon comforts River after her ordeal and they share a loving moment. Jayne complains to Mal about River still being on the ship. Mal guesses that the fed tried to bribe him. Jayne says the money wasn’t good enough (yet), which is a nice bit of foreshadowing for later in the season. Mal offers Simon the job of ship’s medic to wrap it up.

That’s the first (double) episode. It’s packed with worldbuilding, character development, and lots of scifi homages. (I almost expected someone to describe the frontier as a wretched hive of scum and villainy.)

Firefly only lasted one season, which to my mind is a rutting shame. The effects were decent for TV at that time. The set design was sparse, but it held a certain rustic/spacey vibe that grew on you. For me, the major selling point was the cast. They had a special spark, a liveliness and verve that comes around very rarely on television.

I’ll repeat that the studio decision not to begin the season with this episode hurt the series. I remember watching the show when it first came out and not being able to get into it as much as I wanted. I liked the vibe and the characters, the setting and all that, but it felt like vital information was missing. Now we know why.

If you haven’t watched Firefly, obviously I think you show check it out. For the fans out there, I hope you enjoyed my breakdown. Next week, I’ll be looking at the next two episodes as the series starts to get into a groove.

Read our complete Firefly Retrospective series:

Part 1 – Pilot
Part 2 – “Train Job” and “Bushwhacked”
Part 3 – “Shindig” and “Safe”
Part 4 – “Our Mrs. Reynolds” and “Jaynestown”
Part 5 – “Out of Gas” and “Ariel”
Part 6 – “War Stories” and “Trash”
Part 7 – “The Message,” “Heart of Gold,” and “Objects in Space”
Part 8 – Serenity, the Movie


Jon Sprunk is the author of the Shadow Saga (Shadow’s Son, Shadow’s Lure, and Shadow’s Master) and a mentor at the Seton Hill University fiction writing program. His next epic fantasy series begins in March 2014 with Blood and Iron.

22 Comments »

  1. Great synopsis! I didn’t get into the show until after the movie came out on DVD! It was a great show and a shame it didn’t last! However, I think that maybe that makes it that much more special!

    Comment by brewdus - February 12, 2014 10:33 pm

  2. Criminal indeed. I’d throw in a string of Chinese profanities for reference if I knew any (Chinese, that is, I’m fairly well acquainted with profanity). Dark Horse comics did publish a short run after the series ended–4 issues, maybe–and I had hoped that the show might be able to continue in that medium, but I don’t think anything came out after that, and it’s hard to know if the writing would have held up in any case. Still, it was shiny while it lasted (there’s that reference).

    I’m looking forward to you future posts on the series. Will you be writing on the movie, Serenity, as well?

    Comment by Jason T - February 13, 2014 9:17 am

  3. I too didn’t see the show until it was gone. It seems to be an iron law of TV that shows either die too soon (Firefly) or stay way too long (The X-Files).

    Comment by emcgargle - February 13, 2014 10:15 am

  4. Thanks, Jon.

    I recently read two SF novels that had the characters, in universe, lovingly and fondly remember Firefly (one two centuries on)

    Will its impact last THAT long? I dunno. I do think that the pilot SHOULD have come first, I agree with you on that.

    Comment by Princejvstin - February 13, 2014 10:25 am

  5. Nice timing. This past weekend, I moderated a panel at Capricon (where John also was) on the continued popularity of Firefly, pointing out that recently it saw the release of a card game, a board game (and supplement), the start of a new comic book series, and the imminent release of an RPG (the second) and an on-line game.

    We decided part of the appeal was the characters and also that it never had time to jump the shark and felt unfinished.

    Comment by shsilver - February 13, 2014 12:59 pm

  6. Im’ also in the camp that didn’t discover it until long after its demise on prime-time television, so was able to watch the whole series — and the movie — in a week-long marathon.

    This is the best way to watch shows like these (I also experienced Buffy, Angel, Battlestar Galactica in this way, without the pressures of delayed gratification — which, incidentally, is part of what seems to be killing Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. right now).

    Unfortunately, you run into the same problem with monthly comics vs. collected graphic novels: many people enjoy getting the story in larger chunks, so they wait for the collected volumes, but if too many people do that and don’t buy the monthly run, the series can’t generate enough income to survive. That’s an interesting parallel that just occurred to me.

    Perhaps these new hit series that are being made on demand by the likes of Netflix are the solution to that conundrum.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - February 13, 2014 1:20 pm

  7. Jason, I will indeed!

    Nick, that’s a good point. I think it also applies to novels. Some people like to wait until a series is all published before buying, but if enough people do that the series will never be finished…

    Comment by Jon Sprunk - February 13, 2014 2:20 pm

  8. I’m *not* of the contingent that discovered it after the movie. I actually watched the first episode when it first aired, but was disappointed and didn’t watch the rest (purportedly, it may have had something to do with the order in which the network aired the episodes).

    I should have trusted Whedon, especially since Buffy was (and still is) my all-time favorite series. That is something I learned with Dollhouse, where I quit watching halfway through the first episode. But the TV Guide critic said it got better, so I started watching again the next week, and Dollhouse indeed became a fantastic series.

    Comment by awsnyde - February 13, 2014 8:33 pm

  9. Thanks for this Jon. I watched the show as it originally aired and thought it was brilliant then. Watching the episodes in order only confirmed my feeling.
    I think Mal has something of the noir hero to him, in that he’s obviously flawed (not a conventional “good guy”) and doesn’t think of himself as a hero, but his personal standards are higher than those of the society around him.
    In preparation for my upcoming trip to visit the family in Spain, I’m watching Firefly in Spanish. I’ll let you know if it loses anything in the translation.

    Comment by Violette Malan - February 14, 2014 7:45 am

  10. I thought this was the best series of sci-fi ever. Each character was distinct and interesting; filled with flaws, and a strange match together. It was sneered at because it wasn’t another Azimov or Harlan Ellison high brow material and dubbed a “space western”. Actually I think the term was “Amish in space”. I’ve evangelized the series and brought a string of followers. If this becomes a series again it will have enough followers to gain support. I don’t see the original cast ever coming back. I think it could be done with a new crew and new characters though.

    Comment by Wild Ape - February 14, 2014 8:31 am

  11. Great review of a great episode of a great series. Shiny!
    I can hardly wait to see what you have to say about “Jaynestown” and “The Message”. They, along with the pilot, are my favorite episodes.

    Comment by AmyFarmer - February 14, 2014 3:24 pm

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