Firefly Fridays: Part One

 

Episodes I, titled Serenity

We’ll be covering every episode of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series over the next 14 weeks every Friday. One new episode per week. If you have Netflix, the entire show is available for Instant Queue. Our three authors are Alex, found at @alexwhale on Twitter, Lora found at @theinsomniakid and Corissa found at @corissapoley. Enjoy!

Alex

It’s a sci-fi show.  It’s a western.  It’s a cult classic with a streak of libertarian manifesto.  What exactly happened with Firefly, Joss Whedon’s single-season Fox television show that aired in the Fall of 2002?  About a year after its debut and subsequent cancellation, as a college freshman I stumbled upon the series thanks to my friend Tom and immediately fell for it – hard.  It had everything I could possibly hope for in a show, combining my fascination with space, my love of the western genre inherited from my grandfather, and the signature wit and intricate character personalities that define Whedon’s style.  Believe me when I say that if I was forced to watch only one solitary television franchise for the rest of my life, I would not hesitate for one goddamn second to choose Firefly.
Which brings us to the first episode, the genesis, the pilot.  First of all, thanks to Fox, it was not the first episode to air.  This is a sizable problem for a series with such a rich backstory, one that is serious about character development.  Had the pilot aired first, viewers would have been treated to Whedon setting the stage for his opus in near-cinematic form.  The personalities of the characters, especially Malcolm Reynolds, are fleshed out strongly in the 90-minute opener. It’s obvious from the start that Whedon already knows these people intimately.  They possess individual worldviews, principles, fears and hopes.  The universe of the future Whedon crafts feels disturbingly real.  It is hinted that humankind has destroyed Earth and set out to colonize space, something that we will actually have to do to survive one day.  The dominant languages are English and Mandarin.  There are no aliens lumbering in the background or playing any space flutes.  It’s just people like us, alone in the unfathomable void of space dealing with the mistakes they’ve made and preparing for the new ones to come.
Perhaps my reaction was partly influenced by my previous familiarity with the show (I’ve seen it start to finish more times than I can remember), but the drama inherent in running from the law, the mystery of so many of the characters and the numerous threats of failure and death resulted in a gripping viewing experience.  The pilot never feels like it starts to drag.  That’s not to say that the episode is perfect. Some bizarre editing decisions can be jarring at times, particularly during the first “companion” scene. Some of the CGI seems a bit dated, but it’s still not bad for a television show budget.  As a starting point the pilot does its job well. Fox should have used this episode as an introduction to the series.
Favorite moment from the pilot:  Mal walking onto Serenity after the deal with Patience and shooting Dobson, who is holding River hostage, without hesitation.

Corissa

How does one re-visit a classic show like Firefly? It’s not easy, as there are numerous elements in every episode that could each be discussed in a 200 page dissertation. Joss Whedon, the show’s writer and director skillfully draws in his audience almost immediately. When Firefly unfolds it presents the viewer with many interesting people- but most importantly in this episode, Mal.

Malcolm Reynolds is something of a curiosity. He’s a unique kind of leader and certainly not your typical hero. There’s something earthy and real about Mal as the captain. We’re introduced to a man who has a cause- a cause that’s very important to him. The story begins with a battle for freedom- a battle against a controlling government that is attempting to forcibly unite hundreds of planets under one name. While this may seem cliche, it’s not presented as such. Whedeon does a good job avoiding that.

Mal is anything but cliche. He is a man with a cause, yes. This makes him seem like a typical hero but as the story continues forward, we discover that Mal’s cause seems lost. He still believes in his heart of hearts in the free world, and so he seeks that out on his own when his first cause becomes temporarily unwinnable. A cast of characters is collected as the story begins. Whedon throws the audience right in with no opportunity for learning about any of the crew. That comes later. Serenity as the most important element becomes not only a ship full of lovable and frustrated characters but a symbol of something Mal believes in and seeks after. The ship is his freedom, though it is named after a battle he lost. He finds freedom in an Alliance ruled universe; Serenity stretches out into the stars far away from their control. Firefly is about Serenity- in obvious ways of course but also in not-so-obvious ways. As a line in the song says, “You can’t take the sky from me,” which fits Malcolm Reynolds.

 

Lora

Before I get started talking about this episode I feel it’s important I make something abundantly clear to my audience: I’ve been a devoted fangirl of all things created by Joss Whedon since I was twelve years old, and his style and writing have inspired me in my own writing career. This heavily colours my perception of Firefly as a show, so as you read my thoughts on each episode over the next fourteen weeks, it’s important to know that this show has a special place in my heart.
Anyway, first episode. This two-parter accomplishes more in ninety minutes than most modern television attempts in a whole season. By the time the end credits of this episode roll, we have a detailed picture of the ship Serenity’s crew, with each character standing out as a memorable person. This is something most ensemble cast shows have trouble with, usually starting off with a focal point of two or three characters and then branching out slowly as the first few seasons go by. In Firefly, you can’t confuse one character for the other; each has notable defining personality traits: Kaylee’s cheerfulness, Jayne’s trigger-happy attitude and Wash’s sense of humor come to mind as examples.
That’s not where it stops. It’s difficult to create distinct characteristics for a character in television without portraying them as nothing more than a vehicle for plot. The desired portrayal is a truly dynamic, interacting-in-a-real-world human being. As well as unique traits, the nine principle characters display more meaningful attitudes than a single two-dimensional defining characteristic. Mal not only has a detailed back-story that hints at his motivations for less than savory lines of work and a loss of religiosity, but is also the Captain. Zoe and Wash establish in a single short scene that they’re in love, married, and mostly happy; yet they also have a point of contention involving Zoe’s submissive attitudes towards Mal’s authority. This fleshes them out into real people with real problems and lays the groundwork for episodes to come (see episode 10: War Stories). Even characters like Shepherd Book feel dynamic, though in this first episode his deeper motivations are a mystery. There’s nothing wrong with mystery; real people have secrets too after all.

It’s the perfect way to set up a series. Each character is given some introduction, a snapshot of what kind of person they are and their defining characteristics. But their interactions with each other and their world are far from static. In ninety minutes, we’re given a group of very different but believably human characters. This lays the groundwork for their relationships and adventures for the rest of the series.

Now if only they’d bothered to air the damned episodes in order.
More on that next week.