TV Timewarp: FIREFLY Episodes 1-3 “SERENITY” Parts One and Two, “THE TRAIN JOB”
Welcome to our first TV Timewarp, in which we spend Wednesdays revisiting each episode of a late, beloved series. We’re starting out with Joss Whedon’s short-lived space western Firefly, which aired on Fox in 2002-2003. Devin, Meredith and FYA’s Erin will cover three episodes every week, and we’d love for you to follow along with us! You can stream Firefly for free on Netflix or Amazon Instant Watch.
We’re following the order of episodes Joss intended - the order of the DVD set or Netflix - which is different from the order the episodes aired on FOX and are listed on IMDB. Be sure to join the conversation in the comments!
I’m going to come right out and say it: Fox was right to not want to air “Serenity” as the first episode of Firefly. The episode is, frankly, not very good. The first half drags and drags, the tone is off and, worst of all, Malcolm Reynolds is just a dick for most of the episode. Not a charming rogue because there’s very little charming about him. He’s just a sort of mean, haunted dick. I don’t want to watch a show starring that guy.
It seems to me that Joss Whedon was trying very much to make something that was not ‘Joss Whedony,’ and he overcompensated with the pilot. The pacing is too slow (and features essentially three prologues - the Battle of Serenity Valley, the confrontation with the Alliance cruiser during the salvage operation and finally the events planetside where the characters finally come together) and the tone is relentlessly dour. Nobody likes anybody else onboard The Serenity, which is terrible and off-putting. Rewatching the episode I was amazed at how much Mal seemed irritated and disgusted by his own crew. I really found myself disliking him for about ¾ of the show’s running time.
The episode gets better at the finale, but by then I would have tuned out, had this been the actual pilot airing. There’s little snap to the dialogue in the first hour of “Serenity,” and no sense of why I would want to spend an hour a week in the ship with these characters.
Now, “The Train Job” - here’s an episode I can begin to get behind. The opening of the episode, with Zoe, Jayne and Mal playing a game in a bar before getting into a fight over Unification Day, is better in every way than the first thirty minutes of “Serenity.” We see the rapport between the characters, we learn that there was a war and Mal and Zoe were on the losing side (without having to actually watch a confusing and sort of shoddy battle sequence), we see Jayne’s relationship to them and we get a sense of the show’s setting. But most of all this opening is FUN, something truly lacking in “Serenity” until Jayne starts sniping the bad guys.
The rest of the episode is pretty good as well, and the dilemma of the job - stealing medical supplies that should be helping sick colonists - nicely summarizes who our leads are. They’re crooks, but they’re not bad guys, and that’s a crucial distinction that takes too long to be made in “Serenity.”
Finally, Mal’s treatment of the prisoners at the end is much better than how Mal deals with the Fed in “Serenity” - it’s funnier, more shocking and plays better than the quick bullet to the head in the pilot. It’s charming, which is a weird thing to say about kicking a guy into an engine, but that’s what it is. Oddly shooting a man in the head feels more brutal than this almost Loony Tunes moment.
A question for you guys, who like the show better than I ever did: Why are there no Chinese people to be seen? There is Chinese culture everywhere, everybody speaks Chinese, the clothing often has a Chinese flavor, but outside of (possibly) background actors, nobody on the show is Chinese. What’s up with that? I did a little Wiki’ing around and couldn’t find a good in-universe explanation for the utter lack of Chinese folk.
Man, Devin, that’s a good question that has always bothered me too. I think I remember reading once, during the show’s original run, that Chinese actors didn’t “play well” for sample focus groups. (Which, considering the only focus group I’ve ever sat on was because I couldn’t run away fast enough from the guy with the clipboard standing in front of the mall’s Cinnabon, and I was the only person in the focus group for whom this activity was not a weekly occurrence, does not exactly surprise me.) But surely at least the Tams should have been played by Chinese actors? I was always surprised that Sean Maher was cast as Simon Tam especially, partly because he’s lily-white, but mostly because he seemed positively gleeful about ramping Simon’s general obnoxiousness levels all the way up to 11.
I can’t agree with you about the original order of the series, though. I like “Serenity” Part I’s slow and deliberate pacing and Part II’s introduction to the ongoing battle between Alliance and Rebel forces. I felt that the series, as aired, lacked focus and a solidness to it when Fox decided to dump the two-part introduction. I can’t give an unbiased view of this, because of course I had seen the pilot long before Fox had aired “The Train Job” and worked myself up to a fangirl frenzy over the whole scandal, but I do remember several people telling me at the time that they found “The Train Job” too confusing to follow. True, I am likely to go soft on pilot episodes, but I don’t think it has as many flaws as you claim.
I’ll grant that Mal, Jayne and Simon are all fairly unlikable throughout “Serenity” Part I and Part II (but mostly Simon. Simon is forever in blue jeans, but by “blue jeans” I actually mean “awful.”), but the climax of Part I hinges on the fact that Kaylee is adorable and no one wants to see her get hurt, and I think the show plays that well. Wash is the funny guy, Kaylee’s everyone’s little sister, Zoe is the ass-kicker and Book and Inara are the mystery. That’s how they’re presented in the pilot and it’s how they remain. (River’s just the girl who keeps inadvertently fucking shit up with her very presence. There again, she ends as she begins.) Mal gets the space to expand as he comes to realize that he’s this ragtag family’s father, and I don’t actually care if Jayne is unlikable, because his arms are really big.
My main issue with “Serenity” Part I and II is more personal than anything else - I really wish there’d been more flashbacks of the war. I get that the point of a pilot episode is to look forward, not back, and that the point of the show is to tell the story of Reconstruction, not war, but I’d like to have had a little more meat to the war part. I’d like to know if I, as a person, would have been a Browncoat. I’d like to know if I, as a person, would have felt at all conflicted about being a Browncoat, because maybe the Alliance aren’t all that bad (brain modification and boring wardrobe choices aside). But I never got to know that, since the show chose not to focus on it.
I actually feel like “The Train Job” is one of the weakest episodes of the bunch. I’m not a huge fan of two of the main characters being cordoned off for half the episode so early on in the series; I felt like Mal and Zoe’s escape was lazy and unearned (really? Companions have so much lean that they can just waltz into town, make up a story, steal two persons of interest and everyone believes them?) and the conflict between Niska and Mal is too much talky and not enough punchy for what was aired as a pilot episode on FOX. Also, “The Train Job”’s big mystery moment is the scene at the end with the two Alliance guys looking at the picture of River, and I’m sorry, but blue latex gloves are located way below “crazy fringe space-dwellers who’ll rape you to death and wear your skin” on the Hierarchy of Shit That Scares Your Pants Off But Makes You Come Back For More.
The thing is, we’re three different people with three different feelings about this show. But we can all agree that Simon sucks, right?
You’ll get no disagreement from me there, Erin. I am no fan of Simon Tam’s. I’ve always wondered about the lack of Chinese characters on the show, but it never occurred to me that the Tams might have been originally written as Chinese. It’s gross to think that after such a significant portion of the show was written to include Chinese culture, Firefly was whitewashed because an entire nationality of people didn’t test well with the Cinnabon crowd.
While I agree with Devin that “The Train Job” is a better episode than “Serenity,” I still think “Serenity” should have aired first - but perhaps as an hour-long episode rather than the overlong two-parter. Erin, I get where you’re coming from that the history of the war is interesting and while I’d like to see it examined further, the budget is so egregiously lacking in the battle scenes that they’re hard to watch. And I think they’re ultimately unnecessary - it’s not the actual battle that’s interesting so much as the politics behind it. There’s a lot of fat that could be trimmed off “Serenity” to make it a better pilot, but I still think it’s a strong episode.
Sure, our protagonist is unlikable in the pilot - a complaint many people have with Girls, for instance. But I like a character with plenty of room to grow, so long as the potential for growth is indicated by the end of the first episode. “Serenity” does a great job of that: Mal’s initial gruffness is made more interesting when contrasted with the tenderness he feels for Kaylee and even the big laugh he shares with Zoe, Wash and Jayne after he (albeit cruelly) tricks Simon into thinking Kaylee’s dead.
I think all of the characters are introduced well in “Serenity,” actually. Zoe and Wash’s relationship and Zoe’s ties to Mal are tidily established, as is the intriguing dynamic between Inara and Mal. Everyone adores Kaylee, distrusts Simon, feels baffled by River and happily detests Jayne, which is just as it should be. We get to meet the delightful Badger who handily defines Mal as “a man of honor in a den of thieves" - thanks for summing up the show's theme for us, Badger! And I truly love the great scene shared by Book and Inara at the end of the episode, when she tells him that he might be exactly where he belongs, shepherding this scattered flock.
But while “Serenity” is an industrious episode that works hard to inaugurate a complicated universe, “The Train Job” is a fun episode that effortlessly draws in the audience. I also love the opening scene in the Alliance-friendly bar, Devin. It’s fun, well-directed and makes real a lot of the intangible politics hinted at in “Serenity.”
But I actually watched, uninitiated, “The Train Job” when it premiered as the Fox-aired pilot - after months of being hypnotized by the promo alliteration of “Firefly Fridays Fox Fall!” - and I had a bit of trouble following. I mean, I understood what was happening, but I didn’t understand why I should care. Confession time, folks: I am the reason Firefly was canceled. I gave up on the show after the first episode. I came to Buffy later and knew nothing about Joss Whedon. I didn’t get cable until college. I didn’t know that I should care! Don’t hate me.
I really like the resolution of “The Train Job” - the fact that Mal doesn’t hesitate to return the medical supplies after he discovers the need of them, and then the fact that Sheriff Bourne lets him go without further question. “But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well, then he has a choice.” “I don’t believe he does.” Pretty great stuff. But what’s even greater is that this episode pairs up Slither co-stars Nathan Fillion and Gregg Henry and therefore makes this particular Slither fan very happy every time she watches it.
And I actually believe the blue latexed gentlemen are totally creepy. Sure, they’re not Reavers-terrifying, but shadowy government conspiracy is a more nuanced threat than literal monsters.
Erin, Devin - I’ve long thought that Firefly should have aired on the Sy-Fy (at the time, Sci-Fi) Network. Joss would have had more creative control, the show would have aired in the order he intended, the network would have supported it through advertising and agreeable timeslots and, hell, it would probably still be on the air. And I can’t imagine the budget could be much smaller than what Fox gave it. I thought the same thing about Dollhouse, actually. Is Joss’ ego just too big for Sy-Fy? Fox seems to only ever do him wrong.
Joss has no place on major network television. At least not at his best. What he creates are properties that will never be huge hits, and major network television lives on huge hits. You have to be very popular to exist in that world, and Joss’ niche creations would lose all their flavor if he tried to make them more popular. I’ve always respected that his ethos is to make things he’d like to see - I identify with that, and with the idea that this is not the easy path to success.
Going back to Erin - I agree that Simon is the worst. I think it’s the actor - he comes across like someone who dissects women for pleasure. But I’m not fan of River, either. I’m interested in going along on this viewing to see if my opinions on her change, but I always found her to be a hollow, dull character.
As to which episode should have aired first: What probably should have happened is that Firefly should have pulled a Star Trek. Gene Roddenberry went back and reshot his entire pilot, changing Captains and all sorts of concepts. History was made. And it would have been appropriate; like Firefly, Star Trek was conceived as a sci-fi western. The show was pitched as “Wagontrain To The Stars.”
“Wagontrain To The Stars” sounds like a musical composed by Asleep at the Wheel and choreographed by Twyla Tharp.
I agree with you, Devin, that Joss has no place on a major network. Partly because, as you say, his creations are never commercial in scope (The Avengers, obviously, is the notable and sole exception), but partly because his ego is just too damn big. Joss enjoys proving people - particularly network suits - wrong, because he thinks he knows more about making television than they do. And he does, of course, from an art perspective. But TV is a business, and if Joss were working at an engineering company like mine? He’d be out on his ass the first time he pitched a fit that people weren’t respecting his vision.
And that’s why, I think, he didn’t reshoot “Serenity” Parts I and II when Fox came back with their notes. If Fox wasn’t going to respect his vision, then he was just going to write something else entirely. And the series suffered for it, as all of his series do when ego gets in the way. The Fox network executives are always going to be stuffed shirts who, after crushing young dreams and kicking small puppies, retire to their lair to go swimming in their vault of gold coins, but sometimes we still have to listen to them, because they’re the boss. I love Joss Whedon - I think he is a smart, insightful guy with a big heart and a great voice - but there have been several times, and never so much as with Firefly, that I came away thinking he was acting like a toddler who didn’t want to go down for his nap.
And re: Simon and, more specifically, Sean Maher. I’ve never thought of it quite that way but you are so right. He constantly looks like he’s three scalpels and a cocked-head-quizzical-expression away from clipping a lady’s ear off and sending it to the police, just for jolly.
What’s really interesting to me isn’t that Fox didn’t air the episodes in Joss’ intended order, but that they aired “Serenity” Parts I and II so much later - eleven episodes into the season. I guess they billed it as sort of a flashback intro to the characters, but I really can’t imagine how that made narrative sense to a first time audience.
Questions to leave you with, dear readers:
Zoe: total badass or total badass?
Simon: the worst or the absolute worst?
Captain Mal: major dick or charming rogue?
“Serenity” or “The Train Job”: which is the better episode?
This IMDB profile pic of Ron Glass: the greatest thing you’ve ever seen, right? If not, please post a link to the greatest thing you’ve ever seen in the comments, because I am vastly curious to know what could trump Book’s bangin’ style.
Some comment etiquette: many people are visiting Firefly for the first time with us, so please mark all series-spoilery comments appropriately.
NEXT WEEK: join us next Wednesday as we Timewarp the following episodes: “Bushwhacked,” “Shindig” and “Safe.”