Friday, May 1, 2009

"Firefly" Review: Episode 1 - "Serenity"

(This is part one of my episode-by-episode review of the TV series “Firefly”. Check back each Friday for a new episode review.)

Unlike literary science fiction and fantasy, I have continued to watch most of the SF/F shows and movies that land in my general vicinity. One that slipped by is “Firefly.” Ever since it went off the air, I had heard how good it was. I knew about the movie sequel, “Serenity” (2005) of course but vowed to watch it only after I watched the series. My local library has the DVD collection and I checked it out once…and never watched an episode. What got me off the fence was the new TV show “Castle,” Nathan Fillion’s new vehicle. He’s such a charmer in that show that I finally decided to go back and watch “Firefly.” The cool thing is: my wife’s watching Firefly with me.

As a fun way for me to chronicle my Firefly journey and for you Firefly veterans to relive the experience of seeing it for the first time, I thought I’d blog about each episode. Request to all who have seen the entire series: don’t spoil it for me or anyone else out there reading this blog who hasn’t seen the show. I’m only as far as episode 2 right now. Thanks. Oh, and for those of you who want to watch Firefly, all episodes are available at Hulu.

Episode 1, “Serenity,” is 90 minutes long. According to the source of All Things True—Wikipedia—the FOX network didn’t like this pilot episode and made creator Joss Whedon write a second pilot. That show became episode 2 but that’s for another blog post.

“Serenity” The Episode starts at the closing days of a civil war. Nathan Fillion’s Malcolm Reynolds, Gina Torres’s Zoe Washburne, and others from their army squadron are fighting for their lives. Malcolm keeps his troops calm with the promise of reinforcements, reinforcements that never arrive. Their side surrenders and Malcolm’s soldiers are left out in the cold. The last image we see is of Malcolm’s face as he watches the enemy ships descend and destroy that for which he had fought.

Cut to six years later and Malcolm’s leading a small band of pirates eking out an existence on the outer fringes of known space. They all live and fly in a Firefly-class spaceship called “Serenity.” To earn money, they take jobs, usually from ne’er do wells and other criminal elements along the frontier. The good news is that Serenity and her crew largely stays away from Alliance-controlled space. The bad news is that everyone’s usually out for their own interests and double-crossings can be common.

Throughout the first episode, all the major characters are introduced. Malcolm is the enigmatic captain, part Han Solo rouge, part Picard in his privacy, and he’s not without some sort of Ahab-like crusade (having seen episode 2, is that he’s out to stick it to the Alliance any chance he can get). Fillion is a gem of an actor. In his lighter moments, Malcolm is the fun big brother who plays practical jokes on newcomers. In his darker moments, Malcolm is a cauldron of seething hatred born by betrayal. In between, he’s just an honorable businessman whose job just happens to be thieving. Oh, and he’s a crack shot.

The rest of the crew is the kind of mix you’d expect in an ensemble show. The second officer, Zoe, a veteran of the lost civil war with Malcolm, goes wherever her captain leads, including gunfights. She’s married to the ship’s pilot, “Wash,” who is always nervous when his wife gets into harm’s way. Adam Baldwin’s Jayne Cobb is your quintessential hired gun, a person you can count on in a skirmish but only until he has a better offer. Inara is a Companion, basically a classy call-girl. Evidently in this future century, these folks are legal and licensed. The choice of “Scotty” for Firefly is a unique one. Kaylee is a young woman who seems to jury-rig the ship to do what she needs it to do. Her ebullience throughout the episode makes her a fun counterpart to your usual engineer type. There’s a priest on board and he looks an awful lot like that guy from “Barney Miller.” Seriously, though, having this Shepherd on board to contrast with the captain’s obvious lack (or loss) of faith will be intriguing to watch. Lastly, we have a brother-and-sister team which you know will last past the first episode considering they are on the DVD menu page. Simon is a doctor and he’s brilliant but his sister, River, seems to be even more brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that Alliance doctors had been conducting various tests on her before Simon absconded with her. Now, they are on the run on board a ship full of criminals.

Let the fun begin…

As a writer, I’m always told “show don’t tell.” Malcolm is clearly the central focus of the show and, yet, his thoughts are always kept from us. Certain crew members talk about the captain and, with the introduction of the three new members of the crew—Shepherd, Simon, and River—writer Whedon has a vehicle to tell us viewers little tidbits about Malcolm and his past. Since Malcolm never gives you a soliloquy about his thought, you have to take his actions as gospel.

The second half of the show involves Malcolm and his team delivering some stolen goods to an outer planet. As a viewer, you think it’s gold or something. Turns out to be something different. There’s a gun fight, of course—this is a space western after all—and what Malcolm does and doesn’t do reveals a lot. More than a few times during this pilot episode we see Malcolm in a quiet moment, along with his thoughts. We wonder what he’s thinking about and we’re given clues as to what his thought. I’m looking forward to learning more as the series progresses.

Towards the end of the episode, there's a bit of dialogue that stands out as one of the best takeaway lines from the first episode. Malcolm's talking with Simon the doctor. Simon has just rattled off all the balls Malcolm has to keep juggling just to survive and out of Alliance hands. It's an impressive and sobering list.
Malcolm: We're still flying.
Simon: That's not much.
Malcolm: It's enough
One science fictional aspect of the show I like so far is the Alliance ship. The craft looks like a city floating in space, all ‘skyscrapers’ and such. What I like about it—and why I liked the Borg ship in Star Trek—is that it doesn’t look like your typical spaceship. Almost all ships we see in TV and the movies looks like it could sail on water. Even the ship Serenity does. But this Alliance vessel doesn’t…because it doesn’t have to. It was built in the vacuum of space to be sailed (a term people use in this show but one, I suspect, would have gone by the wayside in a true 26th century world) in the vacuum of space. It doesn’t need to be ‘aerodynamically’ streamlined. And it isn’t.

At this stage of my viewing, I’ll admit that the western-themed story line seems a bit contrived at first. That’s not to say I don’t like it. I do. It just seems rather interesting that folks in the 26th century look and act a lot like folks in the 19th. Having said that, however, I’d like to commend Joss Whedon for an SF trope that I happen to agree with: no matter what century in which a human lives, said human will move, talk, and act pretty much like we do now. It’s human nature, after all, to act human. Humans have been doing the same things over and over again for centuries. Technology changes only the scale.

Come back next Friday and read my review of Episode 2, “The Train Job.”

Links: seems to be a good source for all things Firefly related (and it's where I got the picture at the top of this page). I'll be checking there often.

The Firefly and Serendity Database is also a good place to visit and get lost in.

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