“You have the Alliance on you; criminals and savages. Half the people on this ship have been shot or wounded,including yourself… and you’re harboring known fugitives.”
“We’re still flying.”
“That’s not a lot.”
500 years in the future, Earth has become so overpopulated that humanity has left in search of a new one. Eventually they found a new galaxy of new planets and moons that they terraformed and colonized. The planets in the Inner Rim, known as the Alliance, are rich, prosperous, and thrive on advanced technology, while the planets on the Outer Rim, known as the Independents, barely get by and live like pilgrims. The Outer Rim planets eventually declare independence, sparking a massive civil war against the monolithic Alliance. Long story short, the Alliance crushed them. Years later, Malcolm Reynolds, a veteran from the losing side, has been able to notch a place for himself in the galaxy as a jack of all trades for hire, traveling across the stars in a rundown transport ship Serenity, doing various jobs (mostly the illegal kind), making just enough to keep the crew fed and the ship running, moving on to the next job, and keeping out of the Alliance’s sight.
That is the premise of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, the greatest show that was was canceled too soon.
The pilot introduces us to the Serenity crew. Leading the herd is Mal (Nathan Fillion), the crew’s captain. A taciturn man with a heart of gold, Mal prefers to stay out of the spotlight, but won’t hesitate to shoot if things get hairy. Although he comes off as a stoic hard-ass, he is a man of honor and compassion, but won’t hesitate to give orders and has zero tolerance for insubordination. His second in command, Zoe (Gina Torres), is an old ally from the Unification War. Because they fought and watched friends die together, Zoe and Mal have a mutual bond that can only be forged from fighting together in a war. They’re joined by Wash (Alan Tudyk), the ship’s pilot and Zoe’s husband, Jayne (Adam Baldwin), a muscle-headed mercenary, Kaylee (Jewel Staite), their cheerful mechanic, and Inara (Morena Baccarin), their ambassador and a high class prostitute who rents one of their shuttles for her workspace.
The episode opens with a flashback to the Unification War, particularly the war’s turning point at the battle of Serenity Valley (which is what the ship was named after). We see that Mal and Zoe were among the only surviving browncoats from that battle and has left Mal devastated, leading him to become more callous. Cut to six years later and we find them salvaging goods from a wrecked airship in the middle of space. After finding supplies, they take it to a port town in order to refuel and sell their stolen goods. Badger, the gang leader who hired them to steal the goods, refuses to pay them since they were nearly caught by the Alliance. So in order to make some extra cash, they pick up a few passengers: a traveling preacher named Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), a shifty man named Dobson (Carlos Jacott), and a wealthy doctor named Simon (Sean Maher), who is carrying some suspicious cargo. Wash finds out that one of these passengers has contacted the Alliance. Mal immediately assumes it’s Simon, but later finds out that the mole is actually Dobson, and that Simon is the one he’s after, not Mal. We then get a look inside Simon’s crate and find a naked girl (Summer Glau) in cryogenic stasis. The girl is Simon’s sister River, a gifted prodigy who was experimented on by the Alliance, and that Simon risked life, limb, and career to rescue her.
What I like best about this episode is that it does what every good pilot should do: establish the show and give the audience a taste for what it has in store. Right out of the gate we have a good feel about the show’s world, its characters, their relationships with one another. By the 20 minute mark you’ll know each character well enough to know how they think, feel, and react to any situation you put them in. We get that Mal is a hard-ass with a heart of gold, that Zoe is loyal and tough, Wash is the comic relief, Jayne is the macho man, Kaylee is a sweetheart, Inara is respectable despite her profession, Book is a gentle man with a mysterious past, River is a little cuckoo and Simon loves her despite it all, but we also understand that there’s more to these characters beyond these tropes. The tropes the show plays with are familiar and have been used a million times before, but they’re done in a fresh new way that keep things interesting, which I wish I could say for other shows.
The other thing it does exceedingly well is world building. Firefly‘s world is a big and complex one. Not as complex as the worlds of Doctor Who or Game of Thrones, but it has all of those layers and a rich history that would make for a rewarding viewing experience. In the pilot we learn all the basic things about this universe, particularly when establishing that this is not a typical sci-fi show. The truth is this is actually a western in sci-fi clothing. If you took away all of the spaceships and high tech this could very well be a stand alone western like Bonanza or Gunsmoke, especially since most of the planets visited are deserts. In fact, a lot of the sci-fi elements are dialed back here. Sure you got spaceships, intergalactic travel, and laser guns (which are rarely ever seen), but most of that stuff mostly sits on the back burner, and are rarely a big deal. Hell, the Serenity is thought by everyone who sees it as the spaceship equivalent of a hoopty. It even defies the genre’s romanticized idea of space travel. Mal and his crew aren’t badass adventurers boldly going where no man has gone before, they’re risking their necks just to barely make enough to not starve. This is not a bad thing, though, as it leaves room for the show to focus on important stuff like characters and plot.
It should also be noted that even though this is technically the pilot, this wasn’t the first episode to air. In fact, it was the last. “Serenity” was a two-parter, and Fox wasn’t willing to put two hours aside for the pilot of a show they were planning on giving the ax anyway. I’ll get to how I feel about the pilot they went with next week, but this was just the first in a multitude of issues that lead to Firefly‘s cancellation, mainly that it caused a lot of continuity rifts. This was only one of many parts of Fox’s sudden but inevitable betrayal, but one that was ultimately resolved.
Overall I give this episode a 5/5. It does a much better job of introducing and establishing the show than the pilot Fox went with, and even though Firefly is one of those shows you can generally watch out of order, I’d say you should start off with this one just so you at least have an idea of what’s what.
– “Yes, this is a fertile land and we will thrive. We will rule over all this land and we shall call it… This Land.”
“I think we should call it your grave.”
“Oh, curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal.”
– Some people think that Kaylee eating a strawberry was only there for fan service, but I think it holds more significance since fresh fruit is probably really hard to come by in Firefly‘s verse. Besides, that looked like a really good strawberry.
– “You only gotta scare him.”
“Pain is scary.”
“Just do it proper.”
– I think Mal’s entire character can be summed up in this quote:
“You don’t know me, son, so let me explain this to you once. If I ever kill you, you will be awake, you will be facing me, and you will be armed.”