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Firefly: Serenity

Zoe: "I know something ain't right."
Wash: "Sweetie, we're crooks. If everything were right, we'd be in jail."

This pilot established the basic blueprint of the show. Captain Malcolm Reynolds, who was a sergeant on the losing side in the war six years ago, is now something of a space pirate who makes money any way he can in order to keep his ship in the air. Space. He has a crew of four: second in command Zoe, pilot Wash, engineer Kaylee, and... well, I'm not sure what Jayne is. Serenity takes on a group of new passengers that includes two fugitives and a fed. A job goes very wrong, and nearly everyone gets shot. And we get the impression that this is not an atypical day.

Joss Whedon loves to mix genres. Firefly is a specific, well-defined science fiction universe: a disintegrating society of humans on numerous terraformed worlds, an evil government, subhuman space pirate monsters. There's a bit of Star Wars, with the Alliance as the evil Empire and our heroes cast as rebels. It's also very much a western where it is high noon every day. Everyone is the enemy, even the people Mal does business with. In this setting, there is no law but Mal.

What I came away from this pilot with was mostly how much I loved Mal. He's an extraordinary leading man. He cuts right through the bull, every time. He has total control over his ship and crew, which includes the violent wild card which is Jayne. Deeply cynical and disillusioned, Mal has decided that all he wants out of life is to keep going on his own terms, to be as free as he can. He has found serenity. Named after the final battle in Serenity Valley, Serenity represents freedom to Mal; by taking to space, he has refused to surrender. And the ship itself is oddly big, full of wide open spaces and hidey holes. If it felt cramped like a submarine, it wouldn't feel like freedom.

Just as in the Buffyverse, Whedon's characters don't speak like we do. Some of the dialogue reminded me of the old West. There were bits of Chinese; Whedon has obviously seen Blade Runner. And just like other sci-fi shows that can't use actual profanity because they air on network television, Whedon also invented his own swear words: gorram, rutting, humped.

Character bits:

-- Mal (Nathan Fillion) is very protective of his crew, and doesn't care what other people think. He has no religious faith now, although he did in the six-years-ago flashback. He constantly does the unexpected, like shooting Dobson, and Patience's horse, like deciding to take in Simon and River. His manner indicates that he cares deeply for Inara while at the same time he treats her in a cutting manner. He is probably angry about what she does for a living. Or maybe he is just angry with himself for caring what she does for a living.

-- Zoe (Gina Torres) is extremely competent, and extremely loyal to Mal. (Mal: "Ready?" Zoe: "Always.") She was at his side six years ago, and she's at his side now. She calls him "sir" and gives him everything she has to give. And yet, she is married to Wash (Alan Tudyk), a very talented pilot who is also the comic relief. Obviously in love, the two are a mismatch who somehow fit together anyway.

-- Zoe, Wash, and Kaylee are deeply loyal to Mal, but Jayne (Adam Baldwin) is not. Jayne is rude; Mal disciplines him twice in this episode. Jayne is also very useful and good at what he does (like overcoming that sniper on Whitefall). Jayne and Mal have an interesting exchange near the end of the episode:

Mal: "How come you didn't turn on me, Jayne?"
Jayne: "Money wasn't good enough."
Mal: "What happens when it is?"
Jayne: "Well, that'll be an interesting day."

-- Inara (Morena Baccarin) is a highly talented and well paid "companion", i.e. prostitute. Her clients constantly fall in love with her and try to take her away from "all this." She is a calming presence; people confide in her. She cares about Mal. She and Kaylee are close friends.

-- Kaylee (Jewel Staite) is happy and cheerful, and appears to like Simon. The parasol she carries during the Persephone scenes is like her: cute, charming, useful, but fragile. The parasol even has a rip in it, just as Kaylee does when she is shot in a later scene. Jayne is nasty to her at first, but later seems upset when she is shot.

-- Simon Tam (Sean Maher) was a trauma surgeon in Capital City, on Osiris. He was in the top 3% of his class in medical school. He is a good doctor. And he would kill for his sister.

-- River Tam (Summer Glau) is sixteen or seventeen. Simon says she is incredibly gifted and more intelligent than he is, but something is very wrong with her because of what happened during her two plus years at the "Academy." She is extremely valuable to the Alliance, which has to be a set-up for plotlines in future episodes.

-- Book (Ron Glass) is all about the journey. His character is like the audience: an outside observer of what's going on. He says twice that he never married, which I think establishes that "shepherds" (missionaries) do indeed marry. He just spent a long time "out of the world" in Southdown Abbey.

Bits and pieces:

-- The credit sequence is a mournful masterpiece. The music beautifully reflects the core and mood of the story ("You can't take the sky from me"). Each cast member's facial expression in their credit shot says something important about their character; only Kaylee, the eternally cheerful one, is actually smiling. And the sequence ends with a shot of wild horses, which is symbolic of what they are.

-- The first shot of the series is an explosion. It starts with a bang.

-- These are humans. There is mention of "Earth-that-was," and there are many familiar cultural references.

-- I think Mal is still wearing his old uniform: khaki pants, boots, brown shirt and coat. Love the suspenders.

-- Food is extremely valuable. The fresh vegetables Book brings aboard are treated like delicacies and Kaylee nearly has an orgasm eating a fresh strawberry. The concentrated food bars are valuable contraband. And people on Persephone are eating dog.

-- Patience (involuntarily) pays Mal in platinum.

-- Life is much harder on the outer planets; plagues and famines are mentioned.

-- Along with the Chinese phrases, there is also an Asian influence in some of the clothing and in the furnishings of Inara's shuttle.

-- The Alliance officer on the I.A.V. Dortmunder is played by Andy Umberger, who also played D'Hoffryn on Buffy and the ooky detachable surgeon on Angel. The actors who play Dobson and Badger are also Buffyverse alumni.

-- A complement of nine people appears to constitute a "full house" on Serenity.

-- The song "Cry baby cry" is by the Beatles.

-- This week's planets: Persephone and Whitefall, which is the fourth moon of Athens. They never did make it to Boros. Inara was born on Sihnon. Simon and River are from Osiris.

Quotes:

Mal: "We've done the impossible, and that makes us mighty."

Wash, playing with plastic dinosaurs: "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" I thought this was a hint that Jayne would betray Mal, but no.

Mal: "Jayne, your mouth is talkin'. You might wanna look to that."

Simon: "What happens if they board us?"
Zoe: "If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our flesh, and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order." Reavers. Not unlike the Bush Administration.

Zoe: "She still has the advantage over us."
Mal: "Everyone always does. That's what makes us special."

Mal: "I realize certain words were exchanged. Also, certain bullets."

Zoe: "Sir? I'd like you to take the helm, please. I need this man to tear all my clothes off."
Wash: "Work, work, work."

I don't often rate pilots because they're usually not typical of a show. But this is a very strong pilot. It's a shame the network didn't air it as one,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

9 comments:

  1. And you guys thought you were rid of me for a while! :-)

    So, I've taken Billie's and Josie's advice and decided to watch "Firefly". As a long time Nathan Fillion fan, I'm not sure why I never watched this. If it's possible, I'm an even bigger fan now. I loved this pilot.

    Thank God the world has someone like Joss Whedon in it. Where else could you watch your hero shoot a cop in the head and cheer him on? Where else could you see a prostitute giving absolution to a priest? Whedon's ability to turn stereotypes on their heads makes anything he does worth watching.

    Josie -- I read your review of the 'Castle' pilot. I can't comment there, but I just wanted to tell you that your review was spot on. However, I am such an NF fan that I have stuck with the show. In my opinion, he raises an otherwise run-of-the-mill cop/romance into something worth watching. Unfortunately, the sharks are circling that one...

    But, now I have Malcolm Reynolds and Serenity to keep me going.

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  2. Wow, I hadn't thought of that Castle review in ages...

    I got into the show in the middle of last season at Billie's urging. I skip some of the "serious" episodes, but I do like the humorous ones.

    Nathan Fillion vs. Sharks: Captain Mal would totally win.

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  3. Josie -- I couldn't agree with you more. I'm sure I will stick with 'Castle' mainly because I want to see how they wind it up. But, it has moved from my 'watch as soon as I can possibly download it' list to 'I'll watch it when I get to it' list.

    Never a good sign...

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  4. Hi. I found Firefly in January 2012, and I'm totally hooked. As you know, this pilot episode was shown LAST in the USA by Fox, after their various saboutage efforts to kill it (which are well known); and we never even had the opportunity to see it in the UK, as it was never televised at all.
    This pilot, had it been shown first, as Joss Whedon wanted, would have, I'm sure set up a very successful TV series, way beyond the two thirds f the episodes which they aired.
    The free to access DVD, 'Done The Impossible', tells the incredible story of how a cancelled TV show was turned into a major film/movie.
    I recommend all Firefly fans to see it, it's totally inspirational.

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  5. Paste and glue.

    Epic.
    Cult.
    Brilliant.
    Unforgettable.

    And I could go on and on.

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  6. Is it me, or do the passageway openings aboard Serenity look like conestoga wagon openings?

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  7. This is a lovely review, Billie. I must have read it before, but it's been a long time since I rewatched this series. I think I've only seen most of the episodes once.

    Watching this pilot, I was amazed at how current it felt. The slow build, the emphasis on character, the sense of a history among people--this could easily be a pilot for a present-day prestige show. I guess Joss (and Tim Minear) were just too far ahead of their time.

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  8. Badger is Mark Sheppard from supernatural :):)

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  9. I’m rewatching Firefly! Hurray! I haven’t seen this show in probably ten years but I’ve rewatched it so much if feels like coming home to an old friend. I watched it first in college, a few years after it aired when it was well on its way to become a cult favorite. My evil, evil roommate introduced me to it.

    Anyway I love this show. I remember it all so well, the quips, the world building, the characterization. Serenity herself!

    I will say some of if not all of the Inara moments made me uncomfy. Like in the commentary, if I’m recalling correctly, Joss laughs about having to film the sponge bath scene twice when honestly it was unnecessary in the first place. Mal’s attitude toward Inara too is like...not okay. I know it was meant to be like a boy pulling the pigtails of the girl he likes on the playground but in 2020 that’s not how it comes across.

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