'Firefly': "Serenity"

While I think that the idea of a space western is actually quite germane, I'm not thrilled with Joss' execution. Outer space is a very appropriate setting for a western, which is a genre that explores the effects of men having a lot of space. Instead of relying on really stylized production design, I would rather Joss focus on common themes of westerns to make Firefly seem westerny, such as civilization encroaching on wilderness, morally ambiguous justice in the absence of law, and the subordination of nature and the original inhabitants of the frontier. While the more primitive, seemingly more agrarian conditions on the outer planets make antiquated lifestyles and simpler, homemade styles of dress practical, most of the western dress and props feels stylishly "retro" and ridiculously over-the-top so that the audience knows IT'S A SPACE WESTERN. A WESTERN THAT'S IN SPACE, GEDDIT? Greg Edmonson's score and Joss' terrible theme song also try too hard to be folksy. I don't so much mind the western dialogue, when it's done well, because it isn't pervasive: it's used to differentiate class and implies greater association with the outer rim rather than the central planets.

The production design also fails to sell the integration of American and Chinese cultures. Sticking some chopsticks and a paper umbrella into frame suggests that someone made a run on World Market rather than two cultures have blended. I also wish that the Chinese dialogue had been used less as creative cursing and more to create a language like Tex-Mex in its beginning stages. I think the meimeis and dong mas are on the right track.

The episode begins with a flashback to the Unification War, showing Zoe and Mal fighting on the losing side. Joss thinks that flashbacks are a lot cooler than they really are, and he overuses them, especially on Angel. In this case, I find this scene poorly executed. It would be one thing if the flashback revealed how different Mal was before the war and leave the cause of his change in disposition a mystery to uncover in the series. But instead the flashback shows why Mal lost his faith and became (sorry) a malcontent, leaving little to reveal later on. I could convince myself to legitimate its inclusion if it hinted at why the Independents are fighting the Alliance or what exactly the Alliance is, but the scene accomplishes neither. I would rather the little bits of information this scene offers be doled out gradually throughout the series.

Another something that I wish Joss would stop doing is writing all these crazy people: first Tara, et. al. on season five of Buffy, then Fred on Angel, and now River on Firefly. No babbling crazies on Dollhouse yet, thankfully. Again, they are not as cool as you think, Joss. Mostly they are just irritating. I think that Summer Glau does a good job with the material she is given, but having a character that doesn't make sense most of the time becomes tiresome.

This episode also sets up the romantic tension amongst the characters, namely Mal and Inara and Kaylee and Simon. But I never saw much sexual tension between either of the pairings. Sean Maher does a really good job playing Simon as kind of sexless, completely focused on protecting his sister and interested in little else. And I always thought Simon would turn out to be gay. Similarly, I thought that Inara and Kaylee might end up being love interests from their little "Hey you" exchange in this episode until the scene between Inara and Mal in her shuttle made it clear that they were the intended pairing. Though they make good sparring partners, Morena Baccarin and Nathan Fillion don't have much romantic chemistry, and I would rather see Inara be with someone who doesn't belittle her or try to dominate her. So if Inara and Kaylee hooked up, then Simon could be Mal's love interest, I guess. They do often argue very intensely.

Joss includes some ridiculous shots of Inara and River because they're artsy or some shit, but I really like the shot of the Alliance ship reflected in the visor of Mal's space suit. It's a really nice effects shot and makes the spaceship seem very commonplace in this 'verse. I also like Kaylee eating the strawberry, the fuss over the fresh vegetables, and Mal selling food supplements on the black market, which give the audience a bit of a glimpse of what the lives of people "on the edge" are like.

The script has a few weak spots:
  • Mal's comment about not interrupting Inara so that someone can make an honest living seems very out of character for him. Usually he speaks with nothing but vitriol in regards to her profession. That line should have been given to Wash or Zoe instead.
  • The first scene between Inara and Book in her shuttle mostly repeats what the previous scene in the galley conveyed, that Mal is protective of his crew and doesn't much care if people like him. They also say that Mal is "a mystery" to which I say, huh? Mal is conflicted, sure, but mysterious? Not so much. He's a cynic with the heart of an idealist, but aren't they all.
  • I can't reason why Book is involved in the discussion about River in the galley. He is hardly part of the crew at this point but acts like he is.
  • Dobson looks like the most incompetent federal agent ever.
  • I'm also not convinced that Mal would think it's worth the risk keeping Simon and River aboard his ship at this point.
Mal's annoying, patriarchal attitude that persists throughout the series is abundantly evident here. He tells Inara not "to tell [him] what to do" on his ship and dismisses everyone's opinions about whether Simon and River should be killed. He even takes away their efficacy, telling his crew that they "don't vote on [his] ship." Mal systemically belittles Inara because of her legal profession in effort to control the only woman on board who doesn't follow his orders. His continuing invasions of Inara's personal space also assert his authority and degrade her sense of empowerment.

Looking at "Serenity" as Firefly's pilot, this episode functions a hell of a lot better than "The Train Job," which aired as the first episode. All of the characters, as well as The Alliance, border planets, and Reavers, receive a proper introduction without too much exposition. Sure, this episode feels self-indulgent on Joss Whedon's part and a little padded, but most of the filler is pretty interesting so overall "Serenity" succeeds.
Does Summer Glau only choose shows in which she's naked in the pilot?