A space episode and an episode where the show mixes things up a little with a non-linear plot and nested flashbacks.
It opens with an injured Mal staggering through an apparently abandoned Serenity. As he collapses onto the floor of the cargo bay the story shifts back to Mal and Zoe’s first visit to the Serenity, with Mal attempting to convince her to be part of a crew.
The story flips back to the events much closer in time, as we learn how Mal ended up alone and near unconscious. An accidental fire/explosion has disabled the ship and also severely injured Zoe. From here, the episode runs between three perspectives:
- flashbacks to Mal recruiting the four core members of the crew (i.e. the people who were already crew at the start of the pilot, Wash, Zoe, Kaylee and Jayne) plus Inara;
- the crew responding the emeregency on the Firefly;
- Mal’s last desperate attempt to stay alive, with his injuries paralleling those of the wounded ship.
It’s episode 8 and there are six more episodes to go, so (spoiler) Mal and the ship survive in the end. Obviously, there is a fair bit of sci-fi engineering plot contrivance here but nothing worth quibbling over. It is a cleverly done setting to create a kind of prequel episode while adding to the overall setting. In some episodes, space travel is little more than a way of indicating that the new dusty Western town is a different place than the last dusty Western town. Here, the emphasis is on how space travel has inherent dangers. As much as Mal (and even more so Kaylee) love Serenity as a ship, it is only a little bit better than a death trap (and presumably this is true of most ships). The crew risk their lives with every voyage but do so in an environment where it looks like many people on the settled worlds have a low life expectancy.
A violent encounter between Serenity and another ship hoping to exploits the situation explains how Mal is injured but also draws out another element in the show’s setting that we’ve seen before. Aside from Alliance warships, space vessels aren’t armed. Within the world-building, I assume this is due to the difficulty of having effective space weapons (e.g. the nearest thing to a space battle we’ve seen involved Jayne firing a rifle through a modified spacesuit back in episode 6).
The encounter with the other ship also emphasises the kind of dog-eats-dog culture of space travel. The crew of the other ship are little different from that of Serenity. They aren’t full-time pirates but with Serenity dead in the water, they are happy to use violence to gain an advantage. They are morally no different than Jayne, who (in flashback) Mal recruits during an armed stand-off by offering him higher wages than the outlaw gang Jayne is working for.
Everything works out in the end, of course. Mal outwits/out-guns the other crew and gets from the spare part needed to get the ship’s engines going again but at the cost of a wound that will kill him. The rest of the Serenity’s crew had been forced by Mal to escape in the shuttles, return at Zoe’s insistence and save Mal. The final flashback has Mal speaking to a used-spaceship salesman who is extolling the virtues of a ship that have echoed through the episode. The ship is not Serenity though. Instead, Mal looks away and sees Serenity off to one side on the used-spaceship lot and takes a shine to it.
OK, it is a sentimental ending that ties everything up a tad too neatly but it works. It is also a smart choice for episode 8 — we are far enough in the series to care about these events and for them to have some emotional heft.
As always, some great character work is done with an ensemble cast even though it is ostensibly a Mal-centric episode. I keep coming back to this aspect as the secret sauce of the show. Not every character gets a big moment but Kaylee, Wash, Inara & Jayne each have major scenes (Zoe less so) but Book, River and Simon don’t just vanish. Character development doesn’t even need to be very deep, Jayne especially is very shallow and that’s played up here as well. What’s working well, is keeping the sense of nine different people and the connections between them in play every episode so that we feel we know them even if we know very little (e.g. Book, who is more or less an enigma still).
Inventive and effective.
- Episode 3: Bushwacked
- Episode 7: Jaynestown
- Episode 8: Out of Gas
- Episode 2: the Train Job
- Episode 6: Our Mrs Reynolds
- Episode 5: Safe
- Episode 1: Serenity
- Episode 4: Shindig