Welcome back to TV Timewarp, in which we spend Wednesdays (usually!) 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.
Let it be known that this column is late because of Meredith, and Meredith alone.
Just kidding! It’s all my fault. Sorry if you were waiting to chat up the next three episodes of Firefly, but now we can get to it. And let’s get to it by saying that I liked these three.
Weirdly, the one I liked the most was the one that had the most River in it. "Ariel" is the first time the show’s larger mythology feels interesting to me. It helps that the episode is structured as a fun heist. It also helps that the show finally figures out it doesn’t need to stuff every single character into an episode - leaving out Inara and Book streamlines things.
Unfortunately "Ariel" is a good example of the really dismal set design and production value of the show. Everything that isn’t on Serenity looks awful, and when the crew first gets to the hospital it is, for some unknown reason, only lit from outside the windows. It’s like there’s been a blackout (was there a blackout? I may have missed that bit of the plan if that’s the case). But even beyond that the show is filled with indistinguishable corridors and big empty rooms. I haven’t watched Dollhouse, but out of the Whedon series I have seen, Firefly is certainly the skimpiest looking.
But production value doesn’t matter when it comes to character stuff, and I liked the way Jayne sold out River and Simon. I do wish that this element of Jayne’s personality hadn’t been dealt with quite so soon, as I like having him as a wild card. Then again, the show only has like five more episodes, so it was now or never.
The next two episodes continue the winning streak; again, the show finally begins allowing itself to sideline characters and to focus on people who are interesting. The Wash/Zoe/Mal story in "War Stories" is great and plays out beautifully. The focus on Mal and Saffron in "Trash" saves a slightly-plotted heist (so soon after "Ariel" you would hope they could have come up with an equally interesting plot).
The torture in "War Stories" is fittingly brutal, and it leads up to the nice moment when everybody volunteers to take up arms to save Mal. The pilot set up this scenario where the characters would be rubbing each other the wrong way, but you know that Whedon and crew never had the heart for that. They like big happy families (because they like testing those bonds later), so it’s no surprise that the crew acts like this when the time comes, but it’s still nice. Too bad the action scenes are absolute shit, though.
Maybe this is the heart of my problem with Firefly, and the heart of the rabid fanbase: the show overreaches from the start, and is never able to fulfill its plans for itself. As a result the whole thing looks like people running around in an office building in North Hollywood. For me that’s unbearably cheap and crummy, but for the die-hards that overreach comes across as bold promise.
I agree with you, Devin, that the show looks unbearably cheap upon rewatch. Part of that is just technology limitations - it’s so cute that they use a 3-inch thick tablet to go over specs 200 years from now - but I can’t deny that the setting for the core planet Ariel just doesn’t match up. This is the best hospital in the system? The patients don’t even get to score semi-private rooms, damn! It looks like they filmed in an airplane hanger and just positioned a few gurneys around.
That said, "Ariel" is definitely the best iteration of the Big Bad storyline in the entire series (and, for that matter, the movie as well), precisely because of the heist factor that you mention. It’s nice to see Simon finally offer something of value to the group and the preparations for the heist, with the classic bungling of basic medical terms, is something I still get a kick out of.
There are two parts of "Ariel" that feel thin to me, however. The first is the actual purpose of the heist - Simon gets River into the Machine of Hologram Wonders and then... just kind of stares at her brain for a while. It’s supposed to be this big revelatory moment for him - although why he is so shocked that the people who kept her captive for years also lobotomized her is beyond me - but for the viewer it just falls flat. Okay, so they cut into her brain. Let’s move on and figure out why, you know?
The other part of the episode that doesn’t work for me is the ending. I enjoy seeing Mal as a hardass willing to scare the treachery out of Jayne, but I’d have preferred for Jayne’s double-cross to stay under the radar throughout the life of the series. I, as a viewer, want to be on edge with him around. I feel like the last scene in "Ariel" just solidified that Jayne would be a team player from here on out, and that’s boring.
"War Stories" is actually one of my least favorite episodes, although it should rank among the highest. I love Wash and his little quips and would be interested to know about that fry cook opportunity in his past, but his mostly out-of-nowhere jealousy of Zoe and Mal just makes him look stupid. It makes him look stupid and petty, and it makes Mal look stupid and petty for engaging him, and it makes Zoe look even more stupid for putting up with this bullshit from either of them. The whole scenario just doesn’t feel organic to the characters as we know them, almost as if Whedon and Co. ran out of ideas and decided to pull out this jealousy storyline because they remembered they had a married couple and a handsome single captain in their cast of characters.
That said, there are some bright, shiny moments to the episode, none better than when Zoe immediately chooses Wash to save. “I’m sorry, you were going to ask me to choose, right? Do you want to finish?” River and Simon’s scene together is one of the few times I really buy their relationship and ache for this poor fractured girl, though any sympathy ends during the scene in which she’s shooting Niska’s guards, mostly because no other emotion can break through the full-body cringe that occurs upon seeing Summer Glau mishandle a gun. And while the sub-plot of Inara and her female client is stupid, titillating crap, Jayne’s reaction still gets a legitimate laugh out of me every time.
The storyline of "Trash" is weak - possibly one of the weakest of the bunch - but I love YoSaffBridge so much that I just tune out of the actual story. And this, I think, is an even better episode for Christina Hendricks than "Our Mrs. Reynolds" as she’s allowed to play a greater range of manipulator. But oh, how I wish that the confrontation at the end between Inara and Saffron were better styled. I just can’t take someone dressed in the Party City Genie Halloween Costume seriously.
This is six great episodes in a row, for those of you playing at home, which means that it’s time for all of us to start being sad that this show is almost over already. Sure, Firefly is really chintzy, but that doesn’t bother me too much. There are certain scenes where I cringe, but overall a puny budget shouldn’t affect a show so badly - even a sci-fi western show. What bothers me about the look of Firefly is that the set designer wasn’t more inventive. There may not be much money, but use your imagination. Allow us to use our imagination. Everything looks chintzy in the exact same way here, and that’s the heart of the problem.
I really dig the heist angle of “Ariel,” not least because I love heist stories in general and this one has all the markings of a good one: a hologram map of security specs, individual teammate responsibilities, disguises, dialogue practice, a rogue partner - all in the name of doing something heartwarming: “Stealing from the rich and selling to the poor.”
Like everyone else, I wish that Jayne’s duplicity were left in question a little longer, but we have to imagine that by now Joss and Co. understood that time was waning, so it makes sense to resolve it here. It’s smart to reveal that if Jayne turns in River and Simon, he won’t get a reward and will get arrested anyway, because that’s the only way I can believe he’d leave them alone after River slashes his chest. (Ugh, her delivery of “He looks good in red,” a line that should be chilling, is so weak. It drives me nuts.)
And I believe this allows Jayne to remain a wild card - sure, he’s on board with Mal and the others after the events of “Ariel,” but only because he almost got arrested or killed and the Alliance agent would have claimed his reward. Under more profitable circumstances, I still believe Jayne would sell out the others, and that makes me happy. This way I can just enjoy that great last scene with Jayne and Mal unburdened by thoughts of Jayne’s tedious redemption.
“War Stories” is another terrific episode, structured very effectively. I don’t mind Wash’s jealousy here. I actually don’t think it’s out of nowhere; he’s alluded to it a few times in the past, and honestly, I don’t think his jealousy is out of line. Mal’s a handsome dude, he and Zoe have history, they all live together in a tiny ship with no opportunity for boundaries and they’re forced to do everything Mal says. That’s a reasonable recipe for some occasional resentfulness, and I don’t think it makes Wash less of a man to feel that way. It’s actually nice to see this relentlessly jovial character show some other emotions for a change, much as I adore Wash’s joviality.
And I also don’t think the subplot of Inara and the Counselor is stupidity for the sake of titillation. I appreciate the matter-of-fact presentation of lesbianism factored into the Companion system. Inara’s an equal opportunity Companion, and I like her for that. I also like any plot that creates a platform for one of the show’s best-repeated lines: “I”ll be in my bunk.” (Someone from the audience actually shouted that out as Devin removed his Kirk shirt in order to get tattooed at the Khan show.)
But mostly I appreciate the dynamic between Zoe, Wash and Mal here. It’s nice that Wash appreciates Mal more (and understands Zoe’s loyalty better) after seeing his strength under fire. I think Mal respects Wash more now, too. And nothing could possibly mend a jealous heart like Zoe’s split-second choice of Wash over Mal. Of course, there’s a good chance she made that decision without hesitation partly because she knows Mal can survive the torture until he’s rescued, but I never fail to tear up at that part. Zoe is a good woman. And Mal and Wash are good men. And dammit, when the whole crew - even little Kaylee - strap up to save him, I become filled with warmth. I love these guys!
“Trash” is a fun, if slight, episode, mostly because Christina Hendricks is amazing in everything. I don’t generally enjoy when an episode starts at the end and then does the “72 Hours Earlier” title card, but I certainly don’t mind seeing Nathan Fillion naked twice in one episode.
Hilarious inside scoop! At the “TV Fantasy Goes Mainstream” panel at ATX Fest last week, Ben Edlund and Jose Molina talked about their various projects. Molina said, while working on “Trash,” that he and Fillion had a little joke planned. Before they started shooting the naked scene, Fillion disrobed, and he and Molina had arranged for a picture of Joss Whedon’s face to hang in front of Fillion’s penis. So that happened! Edlund mostly talked about Supernatural, which was plenty entertaining but has no place here and anyway, includes no stories of Jensen Ackles covering his manhood with a picture of Eric Kripke’s face.
Did anybody talk about Fillion’s weird little hip tattoo?
I feel bad attacking Firefly for being cheap when I love shows like Star Trek and Lost In Space that are hyper-cheap looking. But there’s a chintzy charm to how those shows try to cover things up with imaginative decorations. There’s a bit in "Trash" where it really looks like Mal and Saffron are in the hallways of Mutant Enemy’s office building.
Because of my trip to Austin last week I had to watch all three of these episodes back to back, and I quite liked the way the story flowed between them when watched like that. The show has always had slight connections between episodes - the cattle acquired in one episode get unloaded at the beginning of the next - but the way the character arcs subtly spread between episodes can only come from a crew who has worked on a bunch of other successful semi-serialized shows in the past. To me this is the perfect balance: individual stories with small connections that add up to a bigger picture.
Are we done after the next round? Do we move on to the Serenity movie after that?
Oh, Fillion’s tattoo. It’s a hieroglyph that means, I think, “peace.” It was apparently a drunken college decision that he now regrets. And I in no way remember this piece of trivia from when the episode first aired and I paused my VCR in incremental frames to study his anatomy, because that would be sad and a little gross.
While we’re talking about weird little moments - every time I watch "Ariel," I’m struck how Simon holds a syringe with his teeth while defib’ing a patient and rattling off footnotes from Physician’s Desk Reference vol 912. I mean, come on, Simon. This is a hospital. You’re a doctor. It’s nice to know that even on Core Planets way in the future, Simon Fucking Tam is determined to kill a few people with MRSA, just for jollies.
I say we talk Serenity! It’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie, but I seem to remember liking Simon in it, so it definitely warrants investigation.
Oh, drunken college decisions. They happen to the best of us, Fillion.
Yes, I think the show suffered most from Fox's interference by losing out on the subtle but strong developments between the properly ordered episodes. These writers know what they're doing, and they have a plan. With a little latitude, they can be quite successful. They just didn't get that latitude.
Questions to leave you with, dear readers:
1. How great was it when Zoe punched YoSaffBridge?
2. Do you find the cheap design of Firefly impossible to ignore, or are you not bothered by it?
3. Is Jayne fully redeemed after "Ariel," or would he sell these guys out in a minute if he had the chance?
4. Is Wash's jealousy understandable here, or is he being a jerk?
We will definitely cover Serenity after next week's post, in which we'll discuss the final three episodes of Firefly (sniff): "The Message," "Heart of Gold," and "Objects in Space." Join us next Wednesday, and join the conversation in the comments below!
Some comment etiquette: many people are visiting Firefly for the first time with us, so please mark all series-spoilery comments appropriately.