Firefly Friday: Ep 8 Out of Gas

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.

  1. Episode 3: Bushwacked
  2. Episode 7: Jaynestown
  3. Episode 8: Out of Gas
  4. Episode 2: the Train Job
  5. Episode 6: Our Mrs Reynolds
  6. Episode 5: Safe
  7. Episode 1: Serenity
  8. Episode 4: Shindig

Firefly Friday:Ep 7 Jaynestown

No sooner than we cover an episode that felt disturbingly close to the Problem of Whedon than we have a devastating profile of the writer/director’s rapidly falling reputation. Entitled “The Undoing of Joss Whedon” by Lila Shapiro, it chronicles a history of bullying and abuse of power by the man. The second to last paragraph uses a Firefly episode as a metaphor.

“Whedon once wrote a line that could have served as a warning to all of us. In Firefly, one of the crew members, Jayne, accidentally tosses the spoils of a botched robbery into the hands of the town’s poor. Jayne is not a good man, but when he returns to the town years later, he sees its residents have erected a statue in his honor. When he confides to the crew’s captain that he’s unsettled by this development, the captain just stares into the distance. “It’s my estimation that every man ever got a statue made of ’em was one kinda sombitch or another,” he says. “Ain’t about you, Jayne. It’s about what they need.”

https://www.vulture.com/article/joss-whedon-allegations.html

And wouldn’t you know it but that’s the one we are up to!

Seeing Firefly purely through the lens of examining the influence (malign or otherwise) of Joss Whedon on modern popular culture, is itself a reflection of the problem. It elevates Whedon to an auteur like figure for a show that’s trying to make the term “space cowboy” a popular narrative. It also obscures the role of the other directors, writers and actors on the show.

Having said…Our Mrs Reynolds and Jaynestown one after the other, there are easy parallels to draw. With Jaynestown we have a story in which everybody’s hero turns out to be a fraud. When the crew visit a mud mining town to pick up some contraband, they find the workers have erected a statue of Jayne, much to the amusement of everybody but Jayne. In the past, Jayne had attempted to steal a pile of money from the local boss but had to ditch the money as he escaped. The riches had fallen on the town and the legend had turned Jayne into a Robin Hood-like hero.

During the course of the story, the truth of Jayne’s actions becomes clear and after a young miner dies to save Jayne from a gunshot, Jayne himself pushes the statue over. It’s a sad ending to an episode that overall works well. As a metaphor for Whedon’s own fall from acclaim, the parallels only stretch so far and unlike Our Mrs Reynolds, it wasn’t actually written by Whedon.

Putting these overstretched parallels aside, this is one of the strongest episodes of the show so far. Perhaps I’m becoming more habituated to the premise and basic similarity of every planet to what I assume is Californian countryside. The dirt poor town and the workers who literally dig up mud is almost a Pythonesque parody of poverty but even though the people are naive in treating Jayne as a folk hero, it’s not sneery and they aren’t depicted as being stupid.

The episode treats Jayne sympathetically as a character but at the same time doubles down on his basic shithead nature. I feel like the two pilot episodes depicted him as a bit smarter than how he is in the main episodes but the basic character is firmly established now.

The capacity of the show to give the whole cast something to do continues. River and Book are left behind on the ship and are given their own sequence, involving River trying to edit Book’s bible. Inara has her own side plot, and the potential romance between Simon and Kaylee is progressed also.

While we are here, Firefly also neatly aligns with the fandom discussion of the week in which our humble blog had a role, namely what I’m now going to call Squeak-or after the mouse themed He-Man remake discussed in the comments. Firefly really isn’t that quippy. The dialogue is lighthearted but our stereotype of a Whedon show I think edits onto our perceptions that Whedon=quips. Having said that, the previous episode (actually written by Whedon) was a bit more effervescent in the dialogue but overall Firefly isn’t a great example of this aspect of shows/movies Whedon is connected with. The main obstacle to the quippy style is the other aspects of the language. The cast affects a 19th-century American style of mannered but down-to-earth speech mixed in with future neologism and chunks of Chinese-derived vocabulary. Badger gets to be a bit more quippy but then Badger is one of the few characters to get an URBAN lower-class accent.

Aside from that, the show is steadily getting better. The biggest strength of the show remains a very effective use of an ensemble cast even in episodes with weak storylines. I don’t think the setting of the show really makes sense but as with a lot of science-fiction, in the end, you get used to basic absurdities.

Also, we are halfway through the episodes! Time for another ranking!

  1. Episode 3: Bushwacked
  2. Episode 7: Jaynestown
  3. Episode 2: the Train Job
  4. Episode 6: Our Mrs Reynolds – a tricky one. Maybe higher, maybe lower?
  5. Episode 5: Safe
  6. Episode 1: Serenity
  7. Episode 4: Shindig

Next week another space episode!

Firefly Friday: Ep6 Our Mrs Reynolds

On the one hand, this episode features a cast clearly enjoying the script and on the other hand, there’s a whole pile of yikes here made all the more uncomfortable by later revelations of Joss Whedon’s history of infidelity. But let’s get to the plot.

The Serenity crew defeat a gang of bandits by disguising Jayne and Mal as husband and wife in other to stage a reverse ambush. That night the whole town celebrates and in the morning the head of the town is apologetic that they couldn’t give Mal et al. a bigger reward. This is just a preamble to the main story which begins in earnest once the ship has left the moon/planet. Mal discovers an apparent stowaway who reveals herself to be his new wife — part of the impoverished town’s reward.

The initial premise here is that a naive (and very, very attractive) young woman, who has been brought up to be very subservient to her husband, is now Mal’s wife due to a ritual in the celebrations that he thought was just part of the party. The woman (“Saffron” played by Christina Hendricks in an early role) want nothing more than to please Mal and be a good wife much to Mal’s consternation and the initial amusement of much of the crew.

I’ll spoil the plot as it makes some of this much less creepy. Saffron is actually a skilled seductress whose actual mission is to help space pirates capture the ship. Even so, the set-up feels like a minefield. Sure, Sheppard Book overtly tells Mal that if he in any way takes advantage of the young woman then this would be morally equivalent to child abuse (the actual age difference between Fillon and Hendricks is only 4 years) and yet even this intervention is there to make it all the more of a dilemma for Mal.

While the subgenre of Steven Moffat Sci-Fi sex comedy had yet to be invented, this is a prototype and along with the uncomfortable situation, the script presents Mal as just a poor misunderstood man with natural urges and also places Zoë and Inara as inherently jealous.

Jayne, on the other hand, tries to trade his prize gun to Mal in exchange for Saffron, making it that much harder to distinguish the character from my existing perspective on Adam Baldwin.

I guess it all works out in the end. Not knowing where it was going made the whole thing more uncomfortable than fun. On balance, the story avoids the worst aspects of the premise but then heads into dodgy dialogue towards the end. The comedic aspects and the group dynamics work out well…sort of…but are hard to untangle from a storyline whose main narrative tensions arises out of potential sexual abuse.

Firefly Friday: Ep5 Safe

The genre of cowboy stories doesn’t require the presence of cows but they help. The cows from the previous episode (The Shindig) have been taken to their destination by Serenity. It’s another Wild West small town of a planet/moon and the ship is a bit out of town to set up a temporary corral for the cows.

It would be easy to pick holes in the commercial principles of the Firefly worlds but shows with more standard space-faring premises don’t make a lot of economic sense either. What the Cockney gangster Badger gets out of this cow-trading isn’t clear either but it is all neither here nor there. The cow-deal suggests weird imbalances of wealth, poverty and goods that is intended to give a sense of what life is like but which would be hard to establish in detail.

The focus of the episode is not on cows or economics but on the backstory of the Tam siblings. The flashbacks don’t really work, exemplifying how show-don’t-tell fails if we’ve already been told. Curious viewers will find the actor playing the young Simon Tam oddly familiar because he’s a very young Zac Efron. In the show’s present, Simon and River get kindapped by hill folk from an even more poor settlement. The people there have a habit of stealing people to keep their community going and are delighted to get a doctor.

Help from the Serenity crew does not arrive for the Tams because Book was accidentally shot when the whole cow-trading situation goes badly wrong. With a lack of doctors on planet and with the Simon and River mysteriously disappeared, Mal if forced into space to find an Alliance ship with medical facilities.

Meanwhile, the kidnappy hill folk turn out to be poor-but-misunderstood and then turn out to be superstitous bigots who think River is a witch. River overtly displaying telepathic powers moves her story along and it is good that she gets more to do here than just act odd.

Naturally, Serenity returns to rescue the Tams. When Simon questions Mal as to why he came back, Mal states that he regards them as crew. Which is nice, although “doctors are so rare out here, that on some planets they get kidnapped and without one I’d have to rely on the help of my sworn enemies” would have been a more obvious, but less inspiring, reason.

The pieces here don’t really all hang together, although the found-family ending parallels Simon’s own quest (in flashback) to rescue his sister from the Alliance. Like every episode so far, some time is spent establishing personality aspects of characters who aren’t the main focus. This wasn’t a strong episode but it still brings the viewer into the lives of the crew.

Firefly Friday: Ep 4 The Shindig

If we are looking for parallels between the show’s setting and the US Civil War era, this episode has lots of them but at the same time present them in a way that makes an easy comparison difficult. There are references to slavery as a practice on the planet Persephone where the story is set and the social event, which is the focus of the story, is meant to evoke the antebellum South. However, this is all after the war, and Persephone is apparently a planet in good standing with The Alliance.

So, there are no neat analogues here. Whedon pulls bits from the general idea of mid-to-late nineteenth-century America and uses them as it suits him.

Mal is presented as a dick throughout. His unresolved feelings towards Inara are presented as aggression towards her profession. His hostility to sex work is amplified by the in-universe respectability of her work as a Companion — respectability that puts her social standing on Persephone as higher than his.

He’s also mean to Kaylee, which I think confirms that the script here is intentionally making Mal be unlikable and petty. He’s clearly on an arc but given the episodes were shown out of order, this arc would have been a very odd one when originally broadcast.

The ever-reliable Mark Sheppard returns as the Cockney criminal Badger. His existence (and a not quite Dick Van Dyke impression by River Tam) implies the existence of a little Cockney moon somewhere in this otherwise Western-themed solar system. His plot involvement is a bit forced but he’s always a welcome presence.

The titular shindig is a social event on Persephone to which Inara has been invited in her professional capacity to boost the status of a posh-git Atherton Wing. Meanwhile, Badger pressures Mal to attend the same event to set up a deal with another big-wig attendee who needs some goods shipped all-quiet-like. Mal ruins everybody’s day by getting into a fight with Atherton who is trying to pressure Inara to stay permanently on Persephone. The fight has to be resolved as a duel the following morning but while Atherton is an accomplished swordsman, Mal is not. And so on…

It’s a pretty thin story that throws around ideas about honour and status, but without much of a clear idea about what it wants to say about them. The low key story (compared to the brutal murders of the previous episode) and the farce-like premise of Mal and Kaylee infiltrating a ball, really needed more obvious humour. As is, the show goes for a sit-com/farce episode but doesn’t let the dialogue play out that way. It’s weird to accuse a Jos Whedon show of having insufficient amounts of quippy dialogue and yet here we are.

I think I’ve watched enough episodes to start a bit of a ranking. Episode numbers are based on the Wikipedia/current order not the original broadcast order (I think IMDB has the original order here https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0303461/episodes?ref_=tt_eps_sm )

Ranking

  1. Episode 3: Bushwacked. More space, less cowboy. Good stuff.
  2. Episode 2: The Train Job. A second go as an introduction to the show.
  3. Episode 1: Serenity. The original pilot has some rough edges.
  4. Episode 4: The Shindig. Diverting but needed more jokes or more depth or both.

Review: Spider-Man and Hawkeye, MCU stuff, spoilers etc

Spider-Man: No Way Home actually has a cinema advert from the cast asking people who see the film not to spoil it. Notably, the key spoiler isn’t the plot (the trailers explain the main premise: the world finds out Peter Parker is Spiderman, he gets Dr Strange to magic that problem away and it all goes wrong…leading to visitors from earlier versions of Spider-Man visiting the current one). The “spoilers” are the identities of the multiple cameos about which there has been a lot of speculation. The warning about spoilers gets some of its own absurdity (i.e. if it is possible to be spoiled, then that confirms the speculation, hence the warning itself is a spoiler) by having Jamie Foxx (Electro from the Andrew Garfield Amazing Spiderman films) also cautioning people about spoilers only to be reminded by Tom Holland et al. that he is one of the spoilers.

Anyway, spoilers after the fold.

Continue reading “Review: Spider-Man and Hawkeye, MCU stuff, spoilers etc”

Review: Covid Rapid Antigen Testing – Part 2

This time (actually a few days ago) we will be sticking things up our nose. Last time I tried a saliva test, which was very easy to use but which had lower sensitivity. This time I’m using a test that swabs the inside of your nose and is technically in the “high sensitivity” range (see https://www.tga.gov.au/covid-19-rapid-antigen-self-tests-are-approved-australia )

The catch here is that the Hough COVID-19 Home Test (pdf,3.48Mb) may well be better at spotting whether you have covid but only if you do the test properly. This is a lot more complicated than the last one, as shown by all the bits and pieces you get.

This was from a pack of 2 tests – so there’s some duplication of stuff there

More steps mean more places where you can stuff things up. On the positive side, this feels a lot more like you are doing an exciting home experiment than the last test. Even more exciting is that ominous-looking black metal cylinder. That turns out to be a little UV light.

In the foil packet is one of those standard plastic rectangles that look a bit like a pregnancy test. However, to see the magic lines which reveal whether you do or don’t have covid (or whether you messed up the test), you have to use the UV torch. For this test, the line(s) aren’t visible in normal light but instead glow (faintly) under UV.

So 5 out of 10 for ease of use and 10 out of 10 for forensic science LARP vibes.

Next time: I’ll see what other types I can get. Apparently, NSW will start providing free tests in the new year.

[I didn’t have covid according to the test – phew]

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.