The following is the first installment in a series on the television show Firefly This review will be quite long because of all the exposition, but subsequent entries will be shorter and expand more on the philosophy and theory behind the characters from the point of view of a woman. Now, I am not going to go all feminist on you. It is just a fact that I am, indeed, a woman. I am also a friend, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, and a fangirl. I hope that some of my insight will ring true to those other fangirls out there who long for well-written scripts, beautiful cinematography, strong female (and male) characters, and most importantly, relevance.
Serial Serenity: A Chick’s Guide to Firefly – Serenity Part 1
Original Air Date: 12-20-02
Written and Directed by Joss Whedon
Previously: Serial Serenity – Introduction
You may be asking yourself - If Firefly was in the fall lineup in 2002, why in the world is she starting with an episode that aired in December? I have a good reason: because Joss Whedon said so. Serenity Parts 1 & 2, shot as the pilot for the series, was apparently too slow for them fast-thinkers at Fox (but I’m not bitter, says the girl wearing the Sunnydale High School t-shirt). To their credit, they were still interested in the idea of Firefly, but wanted it to start smack-bang in the middle of some action that did not need a ton of exposition. Joss and Tim Minear scrambled to write and shoot The Train Job, which made it to the airwaves first. Serenity Parts 1 & 2 finally aired at the end of the run as a farewell to the fans.
Before we get into the episode synopsis (complete with bits of trivia!), a few notes on the structure of the Firefly universe:
1. Culture: In Joss’ future, Earth is a part of very ancient history. It is actually referred to as “Earth That Was.” We don’t know what happened, but it was bad. The main powers that survived were America and China, and those cultures have a strong presence in Firefly. The Old West has merged with Buddhism, and very seamlessly, I might add. That is something to look for in each viewing. Even the most poor and destitute know Mandarin fluently. Oh, and by the way, no aliens.
2. Location: Humans have spread out to the far reaches of space, colonizing and terraforming what they could. There are “core” and “border” planets with several moons in-between. The further out you go from the core, the less civilized things get.
3. The Unification War: Wanting to have a single government over the universe, core planets united themselves and formed The Alliance. A handful of free planets fought back under the banner of The Independents. The Alliance won and those who were sympathetic to the rebel “Browncoat” drifted to the border planets, an outer rim where the Alliance left them alone – sometimes.
4. Filming a Sci-Fi Western: Firefly employed some very unique camera work, embraced now by the likes of Battlestar Galactica. Things normally seen as mistakes (lens flares, rack focus, un-steady steady cams, etc) are used to make the viewer feel a part of the action. Also, staying true to actual science, scenes that take place in the blackness of space are done in completely silence. Apparently, the movie poster for Alien taught us some scientific truth: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
Serenity Part 1 opens near the end of the Battle of Serenity Valley in the Unification War. Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), Corporal Zoë Alleyne (Gina Torres), and a handful of other rebel Independents soldiers (both male and female), are pinned down waiting for air support. After a very “Once more into the breach, dear friends” speech, and kissing the cross hanging around his neck, Sgt. Reynolds captures an Alliance surface-to-air gun and shoots down an Alliance ship.
With adrenaline pumping, Mal is sure this act will rally the troops. He knows as soon as the air support gets there, the battle (and maybe even the war) will be over. A quick radio message shatters all hope: The Independents are pulling out, no air support is coming, and the soldiers left on the ground are to lay down arms. In slow motion, Mal watches his world, and his faith, fall apart.
Six years later, on an abandoned spacecraft, Mal, Zoë, and Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin… no relation) place explosives on an exterior door in the silence of space. Hoban “Wash” Washburn (Alan Tudyk), the pilot of the 03-K64 Firefly-class transport ship Serenity, monitors their progress from the bridge while playing with toy dinosaurs. It is interesting to note that Alan lovingly referred to the character of Wash as “Space Xander.”
As the door on the derelict ship blows, an alarm goes off onboard Serenity: an Alliance cruiser, the Dortmunder, (named for the main character in the heist series by Donald Westlake) is closing in. Cursing in Mandarin, Wash notifies the others of the situation, sending Kaywinnit Lee “Kaylee” Frye (Jewel Staite), the ship’s mechanic, to the engine room to shut down everything but life-support in hopes that the cruiser won’t notice Serenity.
The crew cautiously loads the stolen cargo onto Serenity and escape, but not before the cruiser posts an INTERPOL bulletin on a Firefly class transport ship that may have stolen goods aboard. Thinking they have escaped the long arm of the law yet again, the crew heads to the planet Persephone to sell the stolen cargo. By the way, Andy Umberger who played D’Hoffryn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer plays the Captain of the Dortmunder.
Crew Plus One
Safely on Serenity, Mal checks the stolen cargo and he realizes that the copper-looking bars are marked. Keeping this bad news to himself, he and Jayne stow the cargo Millennium Falcon style (in a secret compartment). Kaylee’s cheerful demeanor and playful rapport with Mal reveals her character as the real soul of the crew.
On the bridge, Zoë and Wash, who are married, talk of what they will do with their share of the money from the stolen goods. Wash talks about the need for the two of them to have some alone time. Zoë, career soldier that she is, keeps bringing up the Captain. Wash points out that Zoë will do what ever Mal says, but not what Wash says because he’s “just the husband.” During the discussion, Mal walks in asking if The Ambassador has made contact yet. According to him, she is the only person on the crew making an honest living.
Cut to Inara (Morena Baccarin) hard at work in bed with a client. Inara is a Companion: a licensed high-society courtesan. An hourglass near the bed confirms that time is almost up. During a brief conversation with her client about her youth, we see the first of an editing style that is used to help the audience read between the lines a bit. Watch for shots of Inara looking silently conflicted while the voice-over speaks of her home planet. Her client leaves and Inara contacts Wash to establish their next rendezvous point.
Den of Thieves
Inara’s shuttle flies away to meet up with Serenity (look for a Star Wars Imperial Shuttle in the background as she lifts off). We see Eavesdown Docks, a cultural melting pot on the planet Persephone. When Serenity lands, Mal gives parting instructions to Kaylee as he, Jayne, and Zoë prepare to take the stolen goods to Badger (Mark Sheppard of Battlestar Galactica and The X-Files fame). Kaylee mentions that they need a compression coil for the engine, which the Captain ignores. This will come back to haunt him in a future episode.
A preacher wanders the space dock area, looking for passage somewhere. When approached by a captain and called grandpa, he simply replies: “I never married.”
Mal, Zoë, and Jayne arrive at Badgers’ establishment and immediately know something is wrong. Badger, a very Artful Dodger sort of person, shows Mal the bulletin put out by the Dortmunder. Even though Badger gave the Serenity crew the salvage job, he won’t touch the cargo because he knows it’s marked. After an exchange of name-calling and the brandishing of several guns, Badger insults Mal’s service in the war and says Mal thinks he is “a man of honor in a den of thieves.” Mal insists he just does business and then gets paid. Badger suggests they try to unload the goods on one of the border planets and threatens to turn them into the Alliance if they don’t leave.
A Boatful of Citizens
The preacher wanders in front of Kaylee who is waiting in a lawn chair with an umbrella for paying passengers. She knows he is going to be a passenger on Serenity: he is just looking at the ship, not the destination. Kaylee asks Shepherd Book (Ron Glass) if he had ever ridden on a firefly class ship, and the mystery of Book begins: He had sailed in a firefly long ago. There is a lot we don’t know about Book that, unfortunately, never gets answered.
Walking back to Serenity, Mal, Zoë, and Jayne try to decide how to unload the marked government goods and get paid. If the crew is not paid, they will have no money for fuel. They go through a list of possibilities and we hear the first reference to a Reaver, or savage human. It is decided that the safest thing to do is try and old nemesis on the moon Whitefall named Patience who shot Mal the last time they saw each other. Look for the Blue Sun advertisement on a wall behind Mal on their walk back to Serenity. These advertisements are hidden everywhere throughout the series).
As Kaylee welcomes paying passengers aboard, Wash helps with luggage and cargo. First aboard is Mr. Dobson (Carlos Jacott – don’t trust him – he’s played a badguy on both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel!) followed by Simon Tam (Sean Maher). The passengers settle in as Zoë expresses her concern to the Mal regarding the situation. She has a bad feeling about the whole thing. With Inara’s shuttle safely docked and a full house of passengers, Serenity lifts off for Whitefall.
Mal gives instructions to the passengers and informs them that they have been ordered by the Alliance to make a drop of medical supplies on Whitefall. There is an awkward moment when Mal meets Book. He is not comfortable having a religions person onboard. To make Book as uncomfortable as he is, he introduces Inara as a whore.
As payment for his passage, Book gives Kaylee Strawberries and other fresh food. They make a fine dinner and share it with all the passengers. During dinner, Book asks Mal if he would mind if they say grace to which Mal responds, “Only if you say it out loud.”
Dinner discussion drifts from politics to occupations. It is revealed that Simon is a doctor. Jayne makes a comment about how Kaylee wishes he were a gynecologist. Ever protective of Kaylee, Mal reprimands Jayne and kicks him out of the dining hall. Simon asks what Jayne’s job is. The answer? Public Relations.
Inara is bathing in her shuttle when Book comes in to bring her food. He says the gesture was a suggestion of Mal’s to which Inara replies that Mal is more interested in making Book uncomfortable than herself. Book confesses that it was unjust of Mal to call her a whore, and a friendship is born.
Mole on Board
While taking a break in his bunk, Mal is suddenly called to the bridge. Someone went on line and hailed the nearest Alliance cruiser. Wash was able to cut the signal, but didn’t know how much got out. Mal instantly assumes the mole is Simon, finds him in the cargo bay, punches him in the face, and draws his gun. Confused and in pain, Simon tries to reason with Mal. Book enters declaring that the captain has the wrong man, indicating Dobson with a gun trained on them all (I told you not to trust him!).
Mal, thinking the gig is up and raising his hands in defeat, is shocked when Dobson starts reading Simon his rights. Dobson, a bit twitchy, starts yelling at everyone, threatening them all with prison. Kaylee walks in, surprising Dobson, and he shoots her. Chaos reigns as all rush to either help Kaylee or beat Dobson. Wash announces from the bridge that they are being hailed by an Alliance Cruiser and are to prepare for boarding. Simon, seeing his chance, says that he will only help Kaylee if they run from the cruiser. So run, they do.
Kaylee is taken to the infirmary in very critical condition, and Dobson is tied up and locked in his bunk. Serenity does not have many medical supplies, so the surgery is a bit meatball ala M.A.S.H. The surgery sequence is quite beautiful, though, with no dialogue and sweeping music. Jayne, showing more concern for Kaylee than he did at dinner, holds vigil by watching the surgery through a window. My favorite shot almost looks like a mistake: it is a shot of a teddy bear on Kaylee’s pants with those working on her slightly out of frame
Worth Killing For
After Kaylee’s surgery, Mal goes straight to the cargo bay and the strange crate Simon brought on board the ship. He opens the box to reveal, to his surprise, a naked teenager in cryogenic sleep. The girl wakes up, in shock, and Simon rushes to her. She is his sister, River (Summer Glau).
Other bits of trivia to look for:
1. The Firefly theme song, “Ballad of Serenity,” was written by Joss Whedon and performed by Sonny Rhodes. (The other music in Firefly is beautiful. A sort of East meets Old West.)
2. During the Battle of Serenity Valley, the gun Mal commandeers has the Weyland-Yutani company logo on the top center of the screen. Weyland-Yutani is the corporation in the Alien movies.
Firefly – The Complete Series, Fireflyfans.net, Internet Movie Database, Serenity Official Visual Companion, You Can’t Take the Sky: A Firefly Site
Rachel Bishop, originally from Oregon and currently living in Arizona, is a grant writer and consultant for non-profit arts organizations. She hopes to one day renovate an old theatre somewhere and turn it into an art house cinema joint. Rachel has a BA in Theatre and Media Arts and an MFA in Arts Administration. She enjoys movies, writing, using her label-maker, guacamole, and the Oxford Comma. She has been married to a self-proclaimed Zombie Cinema expert for 6 years, and has been the mother to a self-proclaimed 2-year-old for, you guessed it, 2 years. You can visit Rachel at her MySpace page.