'Firefly' Rewind - Episode 1: 'Serenity'
Beginning our look back at the adventures of Captain Tightpants and his crew.
Okay, as discussed previously, one of the shows we're going to be revisiting each week this summer is "Firefly," which Fox aired intermittently (and out of order, which we'll get to) in the fall of 2002. We'll be following the intended air order (i.e., the way the episodes are presented on the DVDs), which means we start out with a look back at the show's two-hour pilot episode, "Serenity," coming up just as soon as we vote on the whole murdering issue...
"Don't think it's a good spot, sir. She still has the advantage over us." -Zoe
"Everyone always does. That's what makes us special." -Mal
Joss Whedon series tend to grow in fits and starts. "Buffy" didn't really come into its own until the start of its second season, "Angel" not until the end of its second, "Dollhouse" not really until Fox canceled it and Whedon had the freedom of not worrying about that show's future. And Joss will cop to all of this without apology.
"Firefly," on the other hand? That was the show Joss understood from the start, even if Fox didn't.
Fox ordered "Firefly" based on the two-hour "Serenity" pilot, then panicked and elected not to run it first... or second... or fifth... or at all until they were basically done with the show and could throw it on the air the Friday before Christmas as a gift "for the fans."
To this day, the decision baffles me. It'd be one thing if Fox decided they didn't want to air a two-hour pilot, but you can always split those things up over two weeks. (That's how ABC aired the "Lost" pilot, even though that was designed to air as a two-hour event.) But "Serenity" does such a thorough job of introducing the world Whedon had created, and the small group of characters we'd follow through it, and how they related to one another - all while featuring plenty of action and suspense and humor - that it makes no sense not to lead off the series with it.
By opening instead with "The Train Job" - which we'll discuss next week, but which trades very much off the things we learned about these people in the pilot - Fox more or less crippled the series before it started. And "Firefly" was not a show that could afford to come out of the gate hobbled. It's a sci-fi show, and sci-fi shows (particularly pure space operas like this one) have had a lousy track record on the networks in recent years. And it's a Western, which have had no kind of track record on the networks for decades and decades. "Firefly" was already debuting with a "Please Don't Watch" sign hung off the ship's port engine. While I doubt the show could have succeeded even if the episodes had all aired in order, starting out this way sent out danger signals even to the serious Whedonites.
Because the show ran out of sequence, it often came across as disjointed. By the time "Serenity" aired at the end of the show's network run, for instance, everybody knew that Simon and Book were good guys, so the attempt to make Simon appear sinister (black suit, black sunglasses) and to cast doubt about who the government mole on the ship was just feels like wasted time, as does the exposition about the Reavers and everything else.
Watch the series in order, though (and then watch the feature film that followed, also called "Serenity"), and you see that it came out of the gate fully-formed. The characters, the world, the style and tone were all presented in "Serenity" exactly as they'd be throughout the brief run, and with such confidence and heart that it improbably vaulted past "Buffy" and "Angel" to become the most beloved Whedon show (at least among most of the Joss fans I've encountered).
The opening scene in Serenity Valley not only prepares you for the way that Whedon is going to be mining all kinds of classic movie iconography for this series (it's a pretty pure last-stand sequence from war films of many eras), but sets us up with the fundamental idea behind Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the series. Mal is a man who believed deeply in a cause, believed that others cared as much about it as he did, was betrayed to learn he was wrong, and now believes in no one and nothing but himself and his crew. He runs the good ship Serenity to stay away from the hated government he was rebelling against, and to create a very small world for himself where he has as much control as possible over protecting the lives of the people on board.
Fillion was previously best-known for a run on the sitcom "Two Guys and a Girl" (without the pizza place), and of course he's gone on to much bigger success playing the obnoxious hero on "Castle," and this role certainly calls on his dry, funny side at times. But it also calls on him to evoke a kind of Hollywood leading man machismo from a bygone era - a little bit Han Solo, but even more Steve McQueen. He's wonderful, and helps me buy into the sci-fi/Western mash-up more than I otherwise might have(*), and lends weight to the value of the other characters.
(*) Specifically, I never loved how literal most of the show's Western elements were. I get the idea that the border moons all have fewer resources and lamer technology than the Alliance-affiliated worlds, and that it therefore makes sense that we'd see horses and older guns and whatnot. But the idea that so many people five hundred years in the future would adopt the clothing and colloquialisms of 19th century America always struck me as a false note - like Joss wanted to be absolutely sure we understood that the show was a parable for the South of the Reconstruction era. I think he could have gotten the point across without putting Mal in a duster (though he does look good in it), showing us lots of prairie women in gingham dresses, etc.
I was lucky enough to see a very rough cut of this episode the summer before "Firefly" debuted, so I came into the show the way Whedon intended. And the moment I knew I was in with this show for good came during the climax, when Dobson is holding a gun on River, and Mal - frustrated from how things went with Patience and eager to get the ship off the ground before the Reavers show up - walks up, shoots him between the eyes, and keeps on moving like it's nothing, because there just isn't time for negotiation or recrimination. That is the kind of man Malcolm Reynolds is, and the kind of world he has to live in, and it's dark and thrilling and kind of funny.
"Serenity" introduces us to all our major players (I'll have more to say about everybody else in the bullet points), as well as larger universe elements like the Alliance, the Reavers, Badger, companion culture, the mingling of Chinese and American culture, etc., and usually does it within the context of an exciting and/or comic set piece (like everyone bracing themselves for a possible Reaver attack, or the standoff in Badger's office). It's a pretty damn swell 90 minutes of entertainment.
So why, again, did Fox not want to show it first?
Anyway, some other thoughts:
- There aren't a lot of completely functional couples in the Whedon-verse, but he gives us one here in Mal's loyal, badass sidekick Zoe (Gina Torres) and the ship's goofy pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk). Torres is great at the strong-but-silent thing, and Tudyk comes closest of all of the Whedon surrogate characters (Xander, Topher, etc.) of talking very much like his creator.
- Along with the overtness of some of the Western stuff, the other element of the show I never totally loved was the idea of companions as revered figures in this new culture. I'm not saying that social mores couldn't have transformed that much over the course of 500 years that prostitution would become a respected, highly-cultured profession. But as the show itself admits, both with the behavior of Inara's first client and then with the ugly way Mal so often speaks of her job, sex-as-commodity isn't something that humans will just innately accept. There will still be plenty of jealousy and hang-ups and misplaced feelings, and I would think that would still be widespread enough to make the companion culture something that's tolerated or accepted, but not something that would make them be considered among society's elites. And yes, I know there is historical precedent for this, like the courtesans of the Renaissance. But enough people react to Inara in some variation of how Mal does that it always bugged me. And, for that matter, the sheer hostility Mal has for her job - even if much of it comes from jealousy - always got in the way of the Unresolved Sexual Tension between these two for me. Your mileage may vary.
- There are a couple of little pop culture references in this one - Wash and Mal quote a few lines from The Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry," the Alliance ship is named after Dortmunder (the thief hero of Donald Westlake's comic caper novels), and Wash and Kaylee talk about doing a Crazy Ivan (which is an actual submarine maneuver, but was made widely-known by "The Hunt For Red October") - and when I asked Whedon about them at the press conference the summer before the show premiere, he actually looked a bit sheepish and said that wasn't something he wanted to do a lot of going forward. "Buffy" had been defined in part by all the references to Scooby-Doo and whatnot, and he wanted this world to be a cleaner break, and for any references to be more about homage than about characters namechecking old movies and songs.
- Along those lines, Shepherd Book's line to Kaylee about wanting to walk the world for a while sounded very much like something out of David Carradine's "Kung Fu," and we see in the first showdown with Dobson that Book is a far more capable fighter than your average pastor. I loved "Barney Miller" as a kid, am always happy to see Ron Glass and enjoyed the unlikely flavor that he provided to this show.
- Adam Baldwin had been wandering around Hollywood for 20 years before this show, finding steady but often unremarkable work because of his size and screen presence. The role of Jayne Cobb - stupid and ugly and untrustworthy, but also capable and funny and surprisingly loyal in spots (check out how he peeks in from outside the infirmary to make sure Kaylee's okay) - reinvented his career, turning him from That Big Guy Who Isn't Really A Baldwin Brother into a cult hero. I think it's fair to assume the "Chuck" writers had watched themselves an episode or 12 of "Firefly" before they began writing the role of John Casey for him. My favorite Jayne moment from the pilot: Mal reminds Jayne that he's just supposed to scare Dobson, and Jayne shrugs and says, "Pain is scary." The push-pull between those two characters will be an ongoing source of dramatic and comic tension throughout the series.
- It's been a few years since I watched the show, and I had almost forgotten how ridiculously charming Jewel Staite was as Kaylee, whether she's delightedly eating a strawberry, reassuring Mal that her getting shot was nobody's fault, or contentedly patting her engines after the Crazy Ivan maneuver saves them from the Reavers. Question: how closely does Kaylee fit the definition of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl?
- Along with Fillion and Baldwin, Summer Glau has probably generated the most fan love of any of the actors on this show, but she doesn't get to do a whole lot in the pilot, since River is in a box for the first half and coming in and out of sedation for the second. With Sean Maher's Simon, meanwhile, Whedon is trying to set up a kind of relationship between him and Mal like the one Jimmy Stewart's civilized lawyer had with John Wayne's unapologetic gunslinger in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." And Maher (who was coming off two other short-lived Fox dramas in "Ryan Caulfield: Year One" and "The $treet") is okay in the role, but not really as capable of going toe-to-toe with Fillion as I think Whedon might have wanted.
Okay, so that's a lot on "Serenity," and I'm sure you will have many more things to discuss in the comments. The one thing I will ask is that we try to be respectful of the people who are coming to the series for the first time with these reviews. You can allude to developments that happen later in the series (or the movie), but don't get too specific or spoil anything big, okay?
Back next Tuesday with "The Train Job," and keeping in mind the spoiler thing, what did everybody else think?
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