Firefly Friday: Ep 3 Bushwacked

Oh, this was very good. There’s a definite spark here and the claustrophobic sets and cast dynamic works together to make a great bit of science fiction television.

If you haven’t watched Firefly then start here. OK, that might not work but this is episode shows the show working much better. For example, the clever cutting of the interrogation scenes where each of the crew (aside from Simon & River) are interviewed by the Alliance ship does two things. The crew all get to show aspects of who they are and the crew as a whole gets to demonstrate how they work together. Neatly done and even though most of them don’t do very much for the rest of the episode, it is an excellent way of using an ensemble cast economically.

Back to the plot. Serenity finds a ghost ship and when they investigate they discover the crew have been massacred by Reavers. Now I know from what I remember of the movie that there’s a back story to the Reavers but given the whole 2000’s Ron Paul newsletter vibe of the show so far, the inclusion of an irrationally violent mob worried me a bit in the pilot episode.

There is though, one surviving passenger on the ship who is psychologically unstable. It turns out that he is turning into a reaver by a process that goes unexplained. The lack of explanation really adds to the horror of the episode. In the presence of this irrational horror, the basic conflict of Browncoat v Alliance is undermined. There is a monster in space and it is a monster that transcends the defining conflict of the show.

I don’t like horror, except that I love horror. I’m just not very good with horror because it scares me and that makes me the perfect audience for horror because it is pointless if it doesn’t scare you. This is Doctor Who grade horror but with more pragmatic cynicism and no easy resolution. The survivor goes mad and kills lots of people. We don’t know why but it is a thing that happens in space.

This was close to perfect as a piece of sci-fi TV of its time. It made use of the setting and monetary & physical limitations to tell a tense story while giving the whole cast a moment to make an impression. If the rest of the episodes match this on average then I get why Firefly has devoted fans.

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15 responses to “Firefly Friday: Ep 3 Bushwacked”

  1. I think when I first saw this one, I was a bit annoyed by the lazy psychology regarding the Reavers – first the idea is that they’re the result of some special freakout effect of contemplating the emptiness of space too much, or at least that’s the popular theory, but then it seems that if you go through a massive trauma of watching them kill everyone, you will turn into a monster of the same kind. Given the massive human history of people witnessing horrific atrocities and getting only the familiar kinds of PTSD, that’s a stretch, but I get it – they wanted to have an ultimate horror threat to bring out occasionally, and since “no aliens” was a firm rule it had to be human-only. Still I think it’s pretty clear that they hadn’t given it a lot of thought at this point, because the movie’s explanation doesn’t really fit with this (I guess you could rationalize it by saying that the causative factor there could be contagious if you were around Reavers for long enough, but that’s even more of a stretch).

    But, with my nitpicker turned off, I agree that it’s an effective and nicely constructed piece that does a lot to broaden the range of the show. I’m also just a sucker for horror, and the other main not-quite-explained horror element in the series (you’ll know it when you see it) is also used well.

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    • Yes, knowing that there was a more substantive reason for the Reavers made the weak explanations in the episode feel more like folk-wisdom explanations than actual fact. Also, River’s behaviour implied that there’s more going on there.

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      • Well, it makes sense that the “space drove them crazy” explanation would just be a folktale, since how would anyone know – that part doesn’t really clash with the movie. But the survivor turning into one, I think, suggests that the writers at this point did think it was purely psychological… which does clash with the movie and IMO doesn’t work as psychology either (unless you assume that the Reavers’ atrocities are somehow so much worse than any of the other horrible atrocities people have ever committed that they have a qualitatively different effect). And the movie doesn’t present it as a contagious thing.

        But, logic aside, at a thematic level it works on its own terms as an intersection of horror and Western/frontier genre tropes. The Reavers are occupying the same role as the totally merciless and sadistic subtype of Native antagonists in Westerns. But this is an SF pioneer setting with no aliens, no natives, and rather than making up another human society and then dehumanizing them as monsters, they decided to have the monsters be… sort of pioneers who got way too pioneery.

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        • I suppose the Reavers could have deliberately infected one of their victims, as a kind of joke. Or a recruitment tactic. Or just as an unusally-refined-for-them act of cruelty.

          (While the Reavers are inhumanly savage, they are not un-sentient. They’ve managed to not kill *each other* in unsustainable numbers. They’ve survived as a society with no outside aid for decades. And they retain enough tech knowledge to maintain and operate spaceships. Alan Moore used similar ideas in the (not especially recommended) comic Crossed +100.)

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          • I don’t want to get into plot details of the movie in case Cam would like to watch it again from a semi-forgetful state, but… based on how they explained the Reavers in the movie, they wouldn’t have been able to do that without understanding the cause much better than the people who actually caused it did.

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            • Perhaps they did? As I said, they retained much of their intelligence and tech level. They had immediate access to the affected population, and an obvious reason to be interested in what had happened to them. It likely wouldn’t be a top priority, but they’ve had decades of apparent social stability in which to get around to it.

              (I doubt that this what the writers had in mind. But I find I get more enjoyment from patching plot holes than I do from finding them.)

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          • I just figured that the reaver ships atmosphere contained some of the pacifying agent that created reavers in the first place. The ones with the odd kink in their chemistry react enough different not to ping as victims. ::Shrug::

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    • Eli Bishop: the other main not-quite-explained horror element in the series (you’ll know it when you see it) is also used well

      Oh, now I need you to give me a rot13 on that, because I can’t figure out to what you are referring.

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  2. Also, what you said about the narrative device of having them be questioned separately by the Alliance makes me think that the Expanse writers took notice of this. There’s a passage early in that series (in the TV version I think it’s episode 3, same as this) where the heroes, whom we barely know so far, are picked up and questioned by the super-uptight Martian military; it works nicely to get you invested in getting these people back together and away from these officious jerks who don’t understand what the real threat is, and it’s also a way to deliver some backstory that the characters wouldn’t otherwise be talking about.

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  3. My favorite part of this episode is how the Alliance Commander is intent on subjecting each of the crew members to a brutal interrogation, and is instead the one who gets brutalized by their quirky craziness, to the point where he just wants to get them off his ship. 😀

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  4. So I was about to say that the next episode is a favorite, and then I realized that I was thinking of the third episode in the broadcast schedule, not the 3rd in the correct order, soooooo welp. Bushwacked I have only vague memories of honestly, it didn’t really stand out to me back in the day.

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