Joe Watches Firefly

A few weeks ago, I joked that Firefly was not for me. I don’t even recall the context — something about horses in space. There’s no real malice, the show just didn’t click with me when it first aired. (I did troll Casey Liss once… or fifteen times…)

I was a fan of Buffy, and I was a huge fan of Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica (original version, the remake wasn’t out yet), Babylon 5, Farscape, and even Stargate SG-1. The guy that made Buffy making a space show?! Great, sign me up!

Unfortunately, I don’t like the American Old West genre, and it was very clear in the first few episodes that it was going to be more horses than space ships. This is not something unique to Firefly, a lot of science-fiction shows have one-off episodes with Western flair. I happen to not like those either.

I ignored the rest of it’s short run. However, I reconsidered my position when I saw how much the fans of the show loved it. Maybe I should have stuck with it? After all, most of the other sci-fi stuff I’ve seen usually had a weak first season (sometimes two, or three seasons). How do you even recommend the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation to people that never saw it? Do you even tell them to start at the beginning?

Unfortunately, I wasn’t about to buy a DVD set for something I might not like. I thought I’d let the movie Serenity make up my mind back in 2005. Surely, that movie would be great, right? No inept execs from Fox mucking things up, a big budget, a very specific window of time to tell the story — surely all that must be a great experience. I even liked their use of Kasabian in the trailer for Serenity.

The movie didn’t do it for me — for different reasons than the episodes I had watched. This left me unconvinced to spring for the DVD set of the show.

Flash forward to my jokes about Firefly in the present day, and I was confronted with a lot of people that not only love the show, but don’t want to hear any criticism of it — particularly from someone that won’t put the effort in to watch it. It’s on Netflix these days, so I watched it all. (Turns out they also don’t want to hear your criticism of it when you watch it either.)

This ginormous blog post is not for people that can’t stand to hear any criticism of Firefly. I do say positive things, and this isn’t just a giant troll (I would never put this much time in to a troll), but this still may not be what you’d like to hear from me.

The show was written by some of the best writers in modern film and television, and by one of the most acclaimed showrunners and moviemakers alive. It has a lot of merits because of that, and it deserves the love it gets from people that can see past the things that I can not. All I can do is explain what does, and does not, appeal to me as a viewer.

Firefly (TV Show)

Theme Song


I do not like country music, or westerns — therefore I do not like these credits. I can see how someone might feel very strongly about the message of the lyrics in the opening, but it does nothing for me. I honestly put it up there with “Faith of the Heart” from the opening credits for Star Trek: Enterprise.

I know, I have no soul, or whatever.

Serenity (Original Pilot)


This is messy because it’s trying to establish a lot of properties of the universe. It is basically the length of a feature film though so it should be able to establish those principles and tell a good story. The casting is very good, but many things feel contrived. The idea of language changing is nice, but doing so much with language in the first episode is very distracting when you’re trying to pay attention to who these characters are. The wild west qualities are also overwhelming and stick out as very strange when they’re paired with the high-tech stuff. Foot soldiers with WWII-style helmets fighting with guns while green-flamed space fighters whizz overhead is more problematic than it is interesting. Why would that make any sense? This was also a weakness in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine when they attempted to show ground battles being waged during the Dominion War, but some were better than others. Attempting to graft very old war elements visually on to far-future elements is clunky. We do not know who these people are, or what is going on, so it’s a lot of camera motion for naught. Later episodes do a much better job at capturing why we should feel something about this war.

The world-building of the Alliance and Reaver elements feels so completely out of place with the rest of the tone of the episode. The Alliance’s space-skyscrapers, staffed by train-conductors, are just odd. They seem to make no logical sense. The reavers, aren’t effective bad guys because they’re boogeymen that don’t turn out to be all that scary in the episode. The chase is interesting, but the Reavers are a faceless (heh) enemy here.

The horses — why? There’s a lot going on and no one is particularly likable here. There are solid ideas but not much character. A lot of pilots are like this though. After all, it’s about selling the idea of the show to executives, and demonstrating there are enough ideas to mine for future episodes. There surely are. At least there weren’t space jellyfish, wormhole aliens, or a Temporal Cold War. It was also a good thing no one cast Eliza Dushku to show off her acting range.

The Train Job


This episode is more coherent, which is ironic since Wikipedia says Tim Minear and Joss Whedon wrote it as a replacement pilot at the request of Fox. There are problems with the pacing, and with the cheese-ball quality of the bad guys. “Look at me, I’m scary Russian-accented guy. I carve up my nephew-in-law. So evil!” Which is even more ludicrous when we see that the henchman has a whole crew of guys. Why couldn’t they just steal it themselves? This is the first in a long line of cartoonish bad guys. There are funny moments, and some tension, but it drags a lot when we’re getting to know the town sheriff. We need to get to know him because we have to agree with Mal to leave the medical supplies, but we never see this sheriff, or this town, again so it’s kind of a waste. We do clearly set up that Mal is a shoots-first Han Solo, and not Captain Picard.



Standard spooky ship stuff. It’s well directed, and it’s nice because it’s actually in space. What a crazy notion, right? A show about space that takes place in space? Crazy! I liked it well enough but the introduction of the Alliance ship brought the whole episode to a screeching halt and it was totally unnecessary and slowed down everything. The episode would have been better had they discarded that element and made it just about the crew and the survivor.



This episode is supposed to be about Inara and Mal, but it’s really about Kaylee and her magnificent dress. She is a wonderful country-mouse, and the expression on her face when she enters that ballroom will win over any one. There is absolutely nothing bad that anyone can ever say about Kaylee, she is great. The party is suitably ludicrous, as is our foe this week, Atherton. He is a cartoon Disney villain.

No one’s been like [Atherton]
A king pin like [Atherton]
No one’s got a swell cleft in his chin like [Atherton]
As a specimen, yes I’m intimidating!
My what a guy, that [Atherton]



This episode sets us down on another planet that looks suspiciously like Southern California, and a spare western town. The scene with Kaylee and Inara in the General Store is nice and a perfect set up for Simon to be a total jerk to Kaylee. He looks down on everyone like some kind of snob. He shouldn’t look down on things people love! (cough) Back to the review…

The exposition about Simon and River’s abduction is something that seems peculiar. The people in the normal town tolerate a town that kidnaps people? Uh… OK? The whole thing about burning her as a witch is suitably cliche, but it does establish that she can read minds.

Our Mrs. Reynolds


Christina Hendricks is absolutely fantastic here. She knocks it out of the park in every way. Her character turning on them is predictable, but the way it unfolds is engrossing. (You can mostly win me over on execution alone.) The scene where she’s putting the moves on Wash is hilarious because the cat’s already out of the bag about her intentions. The scene with her and Inara on the catwalk is a riot as well. The real cherry on top of it is when Inara goes to check on Mal and kisses him, dropping out cold. Love this one.



This one is a big, muddy mess. It starts off with smalltalk that contradicts what happened in the previous episode. Many scenes in the episode are written to be comedic, but they wind up being goofy. There are some fun exchanges, like when Simon asks for a menu, but overall it’s contrived and heavy-handed. This is pretty unsurprising because it’s written by Ben Edlund, most famous for The Tick. Ordinarily, I love what he does, but this episode did not click for me. I fault the silly bad guys.

Out of Gas


This is HANDS DOWN the best episode of Firefly and better than the movie. It is a tremendously good episode for any science fiction television show and I’d put it up there with the best episodes of any other series. I would wager that it’s possible for someone to watch this episode in total isolation from the rest of the series and love the show. It is very different from the episodes before or after it, in terms of tone, writing, directing, editing. I am puzzled about why it’s such an anomaly in the series.

Tim Minear wrote it, and while he’s written and produced much of Firefly this is the first time they’ve split up an episode in time like this. Other episodes have singular flashbacks that don’t weave in like this. The episode is also directed by David Solomon, the only time he directs an episode of the series, which may explain some of its uniqueness.



More like Ariel Eleven, am I right? It’s a heist in the style of Ocean’s Eleven, instead of a train heist, like the appropriately named The Train Job. There was nice little twist (not that Jayne gave them up to the police, but that they didn’t assume he was guilty of doing it). The Hands of Blue guys finally do something and it’s creepy, and neat (but it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to kill people like that. What if River was nearby?) Even though this episode goes back to kind of format that the episodes before Out of Gas used, it is much stronger than those prior episodes. The character work here is great and really speaks to the talents of the writers and the actors. Especially the scene at the end of the episode.

War Stories


Ugh. The Russian guy from The Train Job is torturing someone, again. The crew did not seem to appropriately plan for being in orbit around the station that houses someone that’s sworn to torture them to death. If I block him out, the episode is good because it shows the crew working through some personal issues. The torture scenes could have been tedious, but it was helped out with heavy doses of Mal and Wash arguing. The rescue is daring, but it really made me question how the Russian guy is so feared. His guys were pushovers. We do see the unsettling first glimpse of River’s combat abilities. Although, I had already seen Serenity so it was not as big of a surprise for me as it was for Kaylee.



Saffron returns and it’s very funny. I still don’t see how any of the crew would agree to work with her again, but they do because otherwise we wouldn’t have another cool Saffron episode where she betrays Mal. To be clear, it is evident from the first time we see her that she will betray him again, no one would debate that. The twist with Inara was nice though. I could watch Inara and Saffron say catty things to each other for 44 minutes.

The Message


Another Tim Minear episode. The Sentinel is in it! Unfortunately, The War is also in it. Again, we are treated to a ground assault that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What the episode really does right is sell us on the idea of this man that’s too damaged by war to find a way in the world. A man that schemes and blames others when things go badly. While Tracey was Mal and Zoe’s charge, they ultimately are the two people that fatally wound him. First Zoe shoots him, then Mal. According to Wikipedia this was the last episode filmed, and everyone knew the show was canceled by this point, which adds another layer to the funeral.

Heart of Gold


We’re back to planet Southern California, only this time, they covered a house in tin foil — I mean REYNOLDS Wrap. Get it? Because Mal Rey— nevermind. The interior of the house is also wallpapered with newspapers. You know, old-timey space-newspapers. None of the production design in this episode makes any sense to me. The people making the show even felt compelled to include a line about the foil being for solar use, which should be a huge red-flag that maybe covering the house in foil is more distracting than not covering it in foil.

The bad guy is rich enough to buy fancy, illegal sidearms but not rich enough to pay for a surrogate to have a baby. The bad guy is also a horrible, horrible cartoon character. It’s really disappointing, after all the work they did in the last few episodes that they went back to the goofy villain. A guy that has a bunch of people indiscriminately fire weapons in to a house where his “heir” is in. How’s that for strategy! We are also treated to more of the “blaster” sound effects for some of the guns.

I do love this exchange though:

Kaylee: Wash, tell me I’m pretty.
Wash: Were I unwed, I’d take you in a manly fashion.
Kayless: Because I’m pretty?
Wash: Because you’re pretty.

There is still real heart and emotion in his episode with the relationship with Inara, and Mal. Neither of them tells the other how they feel and Mal sleeps with Inara’s friend. Inara announces that she’s leaving and it’s really gut wrenching stuff. It’s too bad about all the goofy shit with Crazy Baby Theif!

Objects in Space


Another unique episode, and it starts off from the perspective of River. For the first time the audience can see an inkling of what she’s thinking. It’s clear from the very first episode that she is able to see, and react, to things that she should not be able to.

Wash: Psychic. That sounds like something out of science fiction.
Zoe: We live on a space ship, dear.

The bounty hunter is a very, very strange lion. He certainly had some peculiar quirks, but he wasn’t nearly as goofy as Crazy Baby Thief. It was a very odd note to end the series on, of course, because they weren’t planning on ending the series there. They showed the photo on his ship at the start of the episode, so you knew it would come in to play in the third act. When Simon went searching they lingered on the space suit locker so it was obvious she was in a space suit. It is a pity that the episode was cancelled at this point. While the episode is good, and includes a kooky villain, it doesn’t tie up anything.

The Whole TV Run


After watching the series run, I can only conclude that the show could have continued to improve with a second season, and adequate marketing from Fox. However, even in the episodes that I like, there’s a streak of ridiculous stuff. Let’s be clear that when I say “goofy” I don’t mean “funny ha-ha” I mean that it’s embellishment that distracts you from the story and kicks you out of the episode for a second. Like when I wrote about Star Trek: Voyager and I said that Janeway’s foes tended to have ridiculous flaws, like the Kazon having fleets of starships but no water. That’s kind of what a lot of the situations felt like, they’d sort of throw the logic of “we have a spaceship” out the window.

Serenity (The Motion Picture)


The opening sequence has the kind of budget that finally makes The Verse feel like a grand space. The escape sequence is interesting, since we never saw that escape in the show. Unfortunately, we have a cartoon villain with a pseudo-samurai complex. Joss loves killing and threatening henchmen to show how villainous and singleminded the antagonist is.

The camera work in Serenity’s interior is indulgent, to say the least. A long shot like this really shouldn’t call attention to itself in this way.

When I saw this movie, I thought the Old West elements were too ham fisted, but after watching the TV series, and watching the movie again, the movie shows a level of finesse and reserve in comparison to the TV show. Fortunately, there are no foil-covered houses.

The introduction of the Reavers really does them justice. They could never have done anything close to this on the TV show’s budget. The only time we saw reaver activity was the pilot episode, and Bushwhacked. This leaves a lot of room for the movie, particularly since no reaver was seen on camera before the movie, only their ships, or the aftermath of an attack.

The chase in the mule has a few technical problems where the camera crosses the line of action, and where the Reaver ship criss crosses as well. They are suitably established as a menace in the film, with a firmer footing than The Operative.

The scene where River beats up the entire bar when she gets the coded signal in the advertisement baffled me when I first saw it and it still baffles me. If They’ve been running around in space for eight months, why did the Alliance wait to use this? Why is she in a bar without Simon and with Mal there? Why is there a safe word now, one he could have used on at least two other occasions?

Mr. Universe is goofy. I had always assumed he was in the show before the movie, but that’s not the case. Needless to say the hacker work he does has all the hallmarks of every other Hollywood hacker scene. Translating the animation in to layers and turning it in to Matrix code is the visual cliche to go along with the dialog.

There is a touching scene between Simon and River and it’s a welcome break, and a reminder that there’s good writing, acting, and directing in here. I really want to highlight this as being very, very good.

The exposition delivered by Shepard Book is clumsy. It is a shame. Again, The Operative stuff is ponderous. Having seen the series, I can only wonder why the two men with blue gloves aren’t in the movie at all. Why go to all this trouble to introduce this guy when there was already a set of Alliance agents? I guess they would have been worse at hand-to-hand combat, what with those latex gloves and all.

Whedon Bad Guy Formula:

  1. Show they are nuts by having them kill someone on their side, preferably after a long speech.
  2. Introduce a novel way to kill them, with some telltale signs.
  3. Use some of those telltale signs as a cue to the audience to build up to peril for the heroes, like the pattern of a Boss in a video game.

Summer Glau does an absolutely brilliant job in this movie. Every twitch of her face, every glance, and incline of her head.

One weird thing with the Miranda briefing is that they talk about “Reaver Territory” but in the show there was no such thing. They were a “myth” on the show. However, in the movie, they do go out of their way to make them a concrete force in The Verse.

I’m sort of baffled about why they killed Shepard Book. The Operative also somehow crossfades in over all the feeds that Mal is looking at when he’s getting footage of each of his murdered contacts. The Operative continues to be a loopy weirdo, and they have a contrived conversation, again. This does drive Mal to a really dark place though, a place he never went to in the TV show. Not even when he was being tortured by Crazy Russian Guy.

The clustering of Reaver ships doesn’t make any real sense, only dramatic sense. This is space, guys, come on.

The bleached-out processing and the jump cuts add a sense of unease to all the Miranda scenes. The exposition delivered by the hologram is your standard “The Experiment Went Wrong” stuff though. Labs experimenting on people sure do love to leave these kinds of recordings lying around in Hollywood movies.

Strange observation: Not a single one of the Alliance ships is the same as the ones from the TV series. We’ve also never seen an accumulation of Allaince vessels like this before. The dogfighting makes very little practical sense. I criticized the show for not having enough outer space stuff, but because they’ve never had anything close to this, it feels out of place. It’s also 4 minutes of absolute chaos. If this all came down to a horse shootout it would have been more apt (though I would not have found that very exciting). The sprinkling of “I’m a leaf on the wind. Watch how I soar.” Is great through it.

Unfortunately, they kill Wash. This is surely the craziest, dumbest death I’ve seen in a science fiction movie. There was no bold sacrifice, nor was there a heroic stance, he just gets smote by the writer’s pen. Before anyone can process his death, we are propelled in to the final gunfight. Sure, “war is hell” and all that, but this is a strange time to get gritty and real about death. I don’t think it has the effect on the audience that Whedon may have been hoping for.

When Mal enters the room to send the transmission all I could think of was the scene from 1997’s Galaxy Quest which parodied the nonsensical, deadly innards of starships. There are counter-spinning thingies, chains looped, and dangling — It’s all just too much. Having him fight the bad guy would have been enough without the goofball deathtrap.

Gwen DeMarco: What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn’t have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here? Jason Nesmith: ‘Cause it’s on the television show. Gwen DeMarco: Well forget it! I’m not doing it! This episode was badly written!

We cut back to the loosing battle at the bottleneck and things are going badly, but it’s not ridiculous. Too bad they ruin it with “The door could be closed from the outside.” — How would that help? Wouldn’t they just be able to open the door? Requiring the med kit, made more sense.

Good news everyone, The Operative changes his mind because of the recording from Miranda, which seems totally out of character for him, because he’s a sociopath. He’s been threatening and killing all manner of people without batting an eyelash up until this point. He lets them all go and they make a holographic memorial to the people that needlessly died. They somehow got Serenity off the planet and repaired — Because, of course, the Alliance was all “My Bad, Bros. Let’s help!” Does the Alliance lack actuaries? It’s confounding to take away Wash and Book, but still go for the sappy ending where the ship is all fixed up (except for that one panel). I should not be angry at a happy ending. That doesn’t really seem right to me.

2014-07-31 16:29:19

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