Once again, we're spending Tuesdays this summer revisiting episodes of Joss Whedon's "Firefly." (You can find last week's review here.) This week, it's time for "The Train Job," with spoilers coming up just as soon as my story has an odor to it...

"Time for some thrilling heroics." -Jayne

There's a school of thought in the TV business - and Joss Whedon says in the DVD commentary for this episode that he belongs to it - that after you make your pilot episode, you do variations on it five or six times in a row to get people used to your show, and to create an easier entry point for anyone who might have missed your premiere and checked in later. I'm not a fan of that philosophy, as it tends to lead to a bunch of really boring episodes that often scare away the people who were watching from the beginning before the show ever gets out of repetition mode and gets to the good stuff.

"The Train Job," though, is an unusual case of this. As discussed last week, Fox executives decided they didn't want to lead off with "Serenity," and they gave Whedon and Tim Minear a two-day weekend to write an entirely new script for an episode that could function as the series debut.

Hence, "The Train Job," in which every major character beat and piece of backstory has to be replayed or explained in exhausting detail.

So we open with Mal, Zoe and Jayne at a bar to again explain about the civil war with the Alliance, and to try to again establish the show's mix of Western, Eastern and sci-fi. We get another scene of Inara complaining that Mal enters her shuttle unannounced, as well as more awkward flirting between Kaylee and Simon. And we get exposition ladled on top of exposition ladled on top of exposition, so that viewers would understand why this outlaw ship is also home to a hooker, a preacher, a doctor and his crazy but brilliant sister. Etc.

And on top of all that, Whedon and Minear's script has to actually tell a story, as we see the crew of the Serenity tackle an old Western trope (the train heist) in a sci-fi manner (flying the ship overhead to steal the cargo).

It's kind of a no-win scenario. I had already seen most of "Serenity" before I watched this, and I know some of you first watched the series in the DVD order, so all the exposition and repetition sticks out like a sore thumb. And for those who came to "The Train Job" first back in the fall of '02, the backstory of, say, Simon and River isn't nearly as emotionally compelling as recounted by Shepherd Book as it was when we saw Simon take River out of the box in "Serenity."

Short of pretending "Serenity" didn't exist and starting from scratch - which may not have been a possibility (that pilot was a very expensive sunk cost that Fox intended to air at some point) - I don't know what else Whedon and Minear could have done. But the parts of "The Train Job" that are good - and there are a bunch of those parts - come whenever the episode gets away from having to make lemonade out of lemons and can just tell the story of Mal, Niska, Crow, Sheriff Bourne and a planet full of sick people.

Michael Fairman is marvelously creepy as Niska, playing him like a Jewish immigrant movie studio chief like Jack Warner, only if Warner were really a sadistic gangster. The introductory scene with Niska and Crow nicely establishes the jeopardy Mal is risking by going to work for the man, as well as the desperate state of the Serenity that he would find it necessary. Mal and Zoe's arrest creates some good conflict among the rest of the crew about who runs things when mom and dad are away (and lets Adam Baldwin do a great stoned pratfall as Jayne), and when the cargo turns out to be badly-needed medicine, we see that even our thief has some lines he won't cross.

That's all fun stuff, highlighted by the actual heist sequence, with Jayne and his silly earflap hat hanging down from the ship to grab the goods(*), and then by the hilarious, macabre punchline to Crow's threat to hunt down and kill Mal. In your run-of-the-mill TV adventure series, that threat is followed by our hero boasting that the bad guy is certainly welcome to try. On this show, in this world, with this man, it's followed instead by a good swift kick into Serenity's engine, followed immediately (and even more hilariously) by Mal making the same offer to the next goon, who understandably agrees to shut up and take the money back to Niska.

(*) It's so well-put-together that even chatterboxes Whedon and Minear essentially shut up during that portion of the commentary so they can just watch it.  

With the extra burden of having to explain a pilot nobody saw out of the way, later episodes will be able to spend more time on the missions, and on seeing the interactions deepen among the crew and passengers. Still, given the absurd limitations "The Train Job" had to work with, it's not a bad start.

Some other thoughts:

  • Shepherd Book seems to bear a particularly heavy load of the exposition, and I don't know whether that's because Ron Glass is a good talker, or because (as even he admits with the "I do feel awfully useless" line) he's the character without an obvious plot function. (The crew members have their respective jobs, Simon patches up the wounded, Inara smooths over certain diplomatic issues, and River is leading the Alliance to chase Serenity.) But we do get yet another hint that Book wasn't always a preacher, as he's heard of Niska before and has some sense of how the man's mind works.
  • Whedon and Minear were also under pressure to make Mal and the show a bit more jovial than in "Serenity" (though Mal kicking Crow into the engine is just as dark in its comedy as Mal shooting Dobson in the face), and so there's even more Whedon-brand banter than before. Most of it's of the quality you'd expect from these guys, but I always cringe at Mal's "I'm thinking we'll rise again" joke right before Serenity rises (get it?) up from below the ridge. Too corny and on-the-nose.
  • On the other hand, Zoe's, "Sir, I think you have a problem with your brain being missing" is perfect in every way, from the word choice and order to Gina Torres' dry delivery of it.
  • "Two by two, hands of blue." So River not only know everything (like the make and model of Serenity), but has some kind of psychic abilities as well. Hmmm...

Up next: More fun and excitement with the Reavers in "Bushwhacked."

What did everybody else think?