Saturday, June 2, 2007

Firefly – Episode 1 recap “Serenity”

Very little in the world of entertainment has saddened me like the untimely cancellation of this amazing show; Michael Hutchence’s strange suicide was another, and the recent cancellation of Veronica Mars rounds out the trifecta. So many story-telling opportunities wasted - feature film notwithstanding. I never saw Firefly when it was actually on TV. (and by “actually” I mean “briefly”), but it was love at first sight on DVD. I’m going to attempt to write these recaps as though I’m meeting Mal et al., for the first time. I hope you’ll forgive me, however, if my fangirl fondness creeps in every now and then.

We open with war: ground forces and space ships. Our hero, Malcolm Reynolds, in raggedy revolutionary garb, is pinned down with his team; they seem to be insurgents of some sort, fighting against much better equipped troops, the “Alliance.” In rapid succession Mal demonstrates that he is resourceful (shooting down an enemy fighter ship with his second in command, Zoë), inspiring (rallying his soldiers against the odds) and devout (kissing the crucifix around his neck and waxing nearly poetic: “We are just too pretty for God to let us die.”). But as everyone dies around them, Zoë tells Mal that their command has ordered surrender, their battle is lost. He watches the Alliance forces descend and the light dies in his eyes.

Six Years Later. Mal, Zoë and Jayne are in spacesuits, breaking into a derelict ship’s cargo hold. There are some great no-gravity/floaty effects here. On board Mal’s ship, Wash, the pilot, plays with some plastic dinosaurs as he waits for the away team to collect the booty. An alarm sounds; Wash swears unintelligibly in Chinese, and calls to Kaylee, the ship’s mechanic. A huge Alliance ship is cruising by and they discover Mal’s ship, Serenity, “lowlife vultures picking the flesh off the dead.” Wash launches a decoy and Serenity and her crew escape to twangy music. Serenity is really pretty. The Alliance ship declines to give chase, but notifies the authorities that a Firefly-class ship is out and about scavenging wrecks. Although his crew has gotten away with the goods, Mal seems a bit more bitter than he did when we first met him.

As the crew stows the goods, Mal notices an official-looking imprint on the bars; he doesn’t show the others. We learn that Serenity and her crew are poor and that they’ll need to pick up paying passengers to afford fuel, food and repairs. We also learn that Zoë and Wash are married, and that there is some tension about her role as regards her husband vs. her captain. The crew plans to rendezvous on Persephone as soon as possible to find such passengers and to pick up the “ambassador,” Inara. Wash wonders if they should tell Inara to hurry; Mal mutters, “No, somebody on this boat has to make an honest living.” Cut to Inara: she’s a prostitute of some sort, beautiful, cultured, refined, and her shuttle – where she makes her living – is full of opulent Asian textiles and furnishings.

Serenity lands in the docks, which look to be a combination of Chinatown and the Old West. Wash takes off to collect supplies; Mal, Zoë and Jayne head to the local fence, Badger, to talk about payment for their cargo. Kaylee is sent to find passengers: she meets Shepherd Book, a traveling preacher and former cop on Barney Miller. Their conversation is very cute. Mal, Zoë and Jayne meet with Badger; it doesn’t take long for Jayne to get everyone’s guns drawn. Badger and Mal negotiate: Mal just wants to get paid for the job he’s done, but Badger refuses to pay for “imprinted Alliance goods.” Zoë glares at Mal when she hears the goods are marked. Badger dismisses them and suggests Mal try to sell the goods on an outer planet where folks are more desperate. Mal, Zoë and Jayne head back to Serenity. Jayne points out that he gets a share of whatever the ship’s take is: “10% of nothing is …carry the one …” I love Jayne. Rumors of Reavers hitting the outer planets give them cause for concern (“Them people ain’t human,” says Jayne) but Mal and Zoë decide to sell the goods to a contact on Whitefall: her name is Patience and she shot Mal the last time they met. As they get aboard the ship, Mal says, “Pray there ain’t no more surprises” and we cut to prissy-looking Simon overseeing the loading of his big metal box into the cargo hold. Now, I’ve seen a Joss Whedon show once or twice before (ha!) and I’m pretty sure Mal shouldn’t have said that.

In the ship’s kitchen (galley?), the crew reviews the rules with the new passengers [Shepherd Book, Simon and Dobson – you know, that guy who’s already been in both BTVS and Angel]. Mal mentions that they will be making a slight detour to Whitefall to – ahem - deliver some Alliance medical supplies. Simon is a surgeon and wants to know what kind of supplies; Zoë thinks on her feet and fends off his inquiries. Inara arrives on board and Mal takes great delight in trying to make both her and Shepherd Book uncomfortable about her profession. At dinner, everyone feasts on the fresh vegetables Book has donated, but Mal is testy when the preacher wants to say grace. The crew supplies the passengers (and the audience) with some background exposition about how the Alliance settled the outer planets. Luckily, just as we’re getting bored, Jayne makes a crass comment about Kaylee getting “lubed up” over Simon and “wishing that [he] was a gynecologist.” Kaylee is mortified, and Mal sends Jayne from the table. Simon wants to know what Jayne’s role on the ship is; Mal deadpans: “public relations.” I love Mal. And Jayne.

Oops! Wash discovers that one of the passengers has contacted the Alliance; he scrambles the signal, but not before some gets through. Mal assumes that Simon is the Alliance mole and starts to pound on him. To his credit, Simon is taking the beating pretty well. Book comes up: “Captain, you’ve got the wrong man.” Mal looks up to see Dobson holding a gun on them. It seems that the feds are after Simon – for a moment, Mal is hopeful about a reward, that opportunist! Lots of guns are drawn, and as the rest of the crew rush in to see what all the ruckus is about, Dobson gets nervous and shoots Kaylee. Mal, Simon and Inara rush to her while Book disarms Dobson, Jayne ties the fed up, and Zoë regains control of the situation. Simon refuses to treat Kaylee until Serenity turns around and flees from the approaching Alliance. I didn’t think Mal could glower more than he was, but yes, yes he can. They run from the Alliance and Simon, appeased, operates on Kaylee. There is a wonderful shot of Jayne hunched down, arms wrapped around himself, watching the surgery through the window. After Kaylee is resting in the infirmary, Mal decides that he wants to know just what is so important that Simon would risk all their lives to escape the Alliance. They all go to the cargo bay and Mal, over Simon’s frantic protests, opens the big metal box and looks inside. “Huh,” says Mal.

What’s inside? It’s a crazy naked screaming girl, of course. Her name is River, and she is Simon’s off-the-charts genius little sister, taken and experimented on by the Alliance. Simon rescued her and he is determined to protect her. Everyone is pretty riled up – worried about harboring fugitives, about River’s possible insanity, about the federal agent they’ve got tied up – and Mal ends up punching Simon again. Oh, why not? Mal leaves Jayne find out what Dobson knows. Did I mention I love Jayne? The fed spills what he knows before Jayne can get down to it, but he also plays on Jayne’s mercenary appetite, and tries to bribe him. “Does helping you mean turning on the captain?” asks Jayne, with a smirk.

On the bridge, Wash sees another ship approaching them: he and Mal realize it’s a Reaver ship. “Oh god oh god,” breathes Wash. Mal gets on the intercom and tells everyone what’s approaching; Book prays; Jayne pulls a number of large guns from behind his bed; Inara pulls out a syringe filled with a suicide dose and sits on her bed, waiting. Simon catches Zoë outside the infirmary. He hasn’t really heard about Reavers so she explains: Men who are more animals than men, living on the edge of space, and if they board Serenity, “they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” Simon is visibly shaken and backs away. They hold their collective breaths as Serenity and the scary pointy Reaver ship pass each other; the Reavers do not alter course – they must not be hungry.

Mal goes to check on Kaylee. They are clearly fond of each other, although he tries to be tough (he calls her “mei mei” which, I believe, is “little sister” in Chinese). She smiles at him and falls unconscious. On his way back to the bridge, Mal runs into Simon. He tells the doctor that his time has run out: Kaylee is dead. Simon, stricken, races to the infirmary … where he finds Kaylee awake and chatting happily with Book. Simon shakes his head, “The man is psychotic.” Cut to the bridge where Mal, Zoë, Wash and Jayne are in hysterics. “You’re psychotic!” giggles Wash. Mal grins and admits that it looks like Simon is a pretty good doctor. They call Patience; she’s tough and cagey, but agrees to pay his price for the goods. Mal looks at his crew: “I believe that woman is fixin’ to shoot me again.” Jayne asks, “Why don’t we shoot her first?” and Wash agrees, “It is her turn.” Back in his room, Dobson (remember him?) is cutting through his bonds with a knife that Jayne apparently left for him.

On Whitefall, Jayne hides the goods and takes position to cover Mal and Zoë in case of an ambush. Zoë doesn’t like the site and thinks it’s a trap. Patience arrives on horseback with a bunch of her own men. As Zoë suspected, it’s a double-cross and soon erupts into a full scale Wild West shoot out. Serenity’s crew shoots most all of Patience’s men; they leave her alive and collect their money. Back on the ship, Dobson has escaped, bludgeoning Book viciously and grabbing River. River’s hair is gross! Simon chases Dobson to the cargo bay and does some jumping from the catwalk-fu. Wash sounds the alarm – again: the Reavers are back! Mal, Zoë and Jayne rush back to the ship on borrowed horses (Adam Baldwin = not so good a rider). Mal takes in the tableau of Simon and Dobson as he strides onto his ship; he shoots Dobson in the head, almost nonchalantly, ending the standoff.

Chase scene! The CGI is really quite good for a TV show (I guess I already said that, but it is). Jayne and Book take Kaylee into the engine room and she walks them through the adjustments necessary for Wash to perform some funky flying, enabling them to escape the Reaver ship. As Inara tends to Book’s injuries, he tells her he is troubled: he thinks he may have gotten on the wrong ship, what with all the criminals and fugitives and killing. She is very gentle as she says, “Maybe you’re exactly where you ought to be.” Simon tucks River (who has finally washed her hair) into bed and promises to take care of her. Mal, who has deduced that Jayne may have had something to do with Dobson’s escape, asks the big guy why he didn’t turn on him when he had the chance. Jayne admits that the money wasn’t quite good enough and, when the money is good enough, they will have an interesting day. Simon approaches Mal to ask when he and River will be put off the ship. With no trace of rancor, but with no particular amity either, Mal offers Simon a job as ship’s doctor until something better [for Simon and River] comes along. Simon wants to know how he can trust Mal not to shoot him in the back while he’s sleeping. Mal says, “The day I kill you, you’ll be awake, facing me and armed.” Simon: “Are you always this sentimental?” And Mal just smiles, clearly happy. He had a good day.

If the episodes had aired in their intended order, this series would have made a lot more sense. We would have been introduced to the Serenity crew with this double episode, and by the end of it, we would have known that Mal is wounded goods, and that his crew, his ship and his freedom are more important than anything to him; that Wash is a great pilot, goofy and riddled with insecurities; that Zoë is loyal but not blind, and that her relationships with the two men in her life are complicated; that Kaylee is a talented tomboy mechanic, yet girlish and sweet - everyone’s little sister. We would know that every person on board Serenity is human and layered, laden with secrets and conflict, and we would look forward to having all the stories spun out over time. Yeah – not so much.

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