Firefly, Episode 02, “The Train Job”

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June 22, 2013 at 10:46 pm  •  Posted in Feature, Firefly, Sci-Fi by  •  1 Comment

As I watched the opening voiceover of “The Train Job,” I thought “wait, haven’t I heard this before?”  Yes, I know–to use the comic book analogy–that every episode is someone’s first, but the recapping of the universe basics via narration when we just saw the story felt a bit lazy.  I have a bad memory, but not that bad.

And then I realized this was a pilot.  Well, kind of.  The episode we watched last week wasn’t actually the first one aired:  this one was.  One starts to understand why this series wasn’t long for any world.

I don’t know if I can claim which pilot was better, because I’ve seen the real pilot and can’t erase it from memory, which I suppose is far more positive than having watched the Star Wars prequels and not being able to eradicate them.  But, all the same, I’ll stick my neck out:  this is the better pilot, and the network was right in wanting this to be aired first.  Well, for the most part.

A lot of my complaints about “Serenity” were its overstuffed nature–that it was trying to fit in so much world building and exposition in such a little bit of time.  It was kind of like trying to remember the exact pigment positioning on 20 different species of birds when you’ve only just been introduced to birding.  As I haven’t been introduced to birding, apologies if the metaphor doesn’t entirely work.

However, in “The Train Job,” the world building feels a lot more natural and, even if I hadn’t watched “Serenity,” I’d have a sense for what was going on in the universe and the character’s reactions to it through what’s happening on screen.  I know that Mal and Zoe fought in a war against a thing called the Alliance through their reactions in the opening bar brawl.  I know that the Alliance is overly officious and callous (though, for the most part, not openly evil) through their reaction to Zoe and Mal’s theft of the medicine.  I know that the universe is a hard one through the shots of Paradiso and through the interaction with Niska, and I know that Companions have some form of higher social status because of the dialogue between Inara and Kaylee, and because of the reaction to Inara in Paradiso.

So, the sense of the universe still works, but what about the characters?  That’s where you have some problems, but not as many as you might think.  Since Wash is barely in the episode, you don’t get much of a feel for his interaction with and closeness to his wife Zoe, though it is referenced in dialogue.  While the relationship between Simon and River is spelled out, as is the fact that he kidnapped her away from the Academy, not knowing or seeing his actions in “Serenity” does make the character suffer slightly .

But, other than that, the relationships are still very clear, and, after the opening, I wasn’t at all bothered by the minimal repetition of plot points and relationships, as it felt like conversations and dialogue they probably would have had anyway.  In other words, no one goes “as you know” to get across exposition, and that’s good enough.

img_11218_firefly-s1-e2-the-train-jobWhat I found most interesting as far as the differences between “Serenity” and “The Train Job” were how Mal seemed to change.  In “Serenity,” it was clear that Mal was honorable in his own way and loyal and protective of his crew, but that he didn’t care about a heck of a lot else–at least if that “else” didn’t pay.  Jayne even seems to refer to this when he says that he thinks Mal will happily sell River off since she’ll fetch a high price.

But Jayne’s opinion, which I might have bought in “Serenity,” seems to have no validity here.  Oh, Mal was a jerk with a heart of gold before, and he still is here, but the jerkiness is toned down and the gold is a bit shinier.  While he’s amoral in his pursuit of his welfare and the welfare of his crew, as soon as he knows the impact of his actions–such as knowing that the medicine he stole would doom a town’s population–he changes course, even though it’s at personal cost.  While Mal’s shielding of Simon and River could be argued as just being in his self interest in “Serenity” and it certainly appeared that way at the time, given his actions in “The Train Job,” it seems that Mal has either had an ever so slight character shift, or that his moral compass has a clearer lodestone than we thought.

It’ll be interesting to see how this is born out in future episodes, because Jayne’s comments and the Alliance’s continuing pursuit of River seem to foreshadow the central conflict of the series and, presumably, a central character conflict for Mal.  For that conflict to be believable, we do have to believe that there’s at least a chance that Mal will turn River over if properly pressed.  I don’t believe that a conflict really exists though, which is good for Mal, but will be fascinating for Firefly.

trainjobOf course, I could be entirely wrong, because, if “The Train Job” showed nothing, it showed that Whedon has a knack for subverting expectations, and these moments were some of my favorites of the episode.  The opening bar brawl seems to set up the classic “man provoked too far to violence at a bar” trope, but it gets subverted by it actually being the set up for someone else to deliver the punch, and that someone else to be a female.  The ending, with the Niska henchmen delivering his badass threat, seems like it’ll be the set-up for a series recurring villain. But nope:  enjoy turbine blades!

Honestly, my only real complaint is a minor one at best, and that’s Wash didn’t have much to do in this episode.  He had some of the best moments and lines in “Serenity,” and, while he definitely does have a few decent moments here, he’s mainly shoved in as part of the ensemble instead of having a solo or at least 1:1 interaction.  Still, he got his moment to be a badass just like everyone else, so I suppose that’s enough.

Overall, I like “The Train Job” both as an episode and as a pilot.  It’s a bit harder to see how things all went wrong if this is the first episode that aired, as the factors that I thought made “Serenity” not work for a mass audience seem downplayed here.  But, the American public has not been known for its viewing wisdom, so what do I know?

  • Jeff
  • Dan
  • Bret
  • Steven

Like most viewers, and even some die-hard fans of the show, I completely missed Firefly’s short run on television and did not discover it until after Serenity came out on DVD. My first attempt to watch the show was after borrowing the DVDs from a neighbor in my freshman dorm. Watching with a small group of friends, we didn’t even make it through the opening military battle before the fire alarm went off–a constant problem of life in the dorms. But the damage was done–after the building was cleared we didn’t return to the show, and since I thought Firefly was some sort of space military drama, I was in no hurry to try it again. A few months passed before I made a second attempt, which got me so hooked that I binge-watched the whole series, including the movie Serenity.

As someone who was originally turned off by Firefly’s opening scene, but who now considers it to be one of his favorite shows, I can completely understand why “The Train Job” would be considered a much better introduction for most of the characters and the tone of the show. The opening bar scene conveys Mal’s worldview quickly and concisely, setting up him and his crew as the outcasts of society. Having viewed the series many times, I am in complete agreement that the pilot, “Serenity,” should be the first episode since it paints such a better picture of the world and the characters. It’s also crucial because it brings about one of the most recognisable Firefly lines, “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

Joss Whedon loves to play with cliches. The whole premise of Buffy had been a role reversal of the classic damsel in distress, and Firefly does something similar, making the outlaws the good guys while “the law” is an evil, overbearing government. “The Train Job” starts as a classic western heist, but ends with the outlaws feeling remorse and returning the medicine at risk to themselves. I love this change in direction and playing with audience expectations.

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Jayne really stood out in this episode. He establishes right away in the bar fight that he is strictly a gun-for-hire and not willing to fight for his friends’ cause. Later he utters my favorite Jayne line when he tries to take command of the ship, “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with ’til ya understand who’s in ruttin’ command here.” He seems completely happy to abandon his friends but comes through in the end when Mal is having trouble in a fight.

River’s premonition about “two by two, hands of blue” introduces an adversary earlier than I remember. It’s an example that I like of how crazy people in the Whedonverse can often glimpse the future.

Everyone complains about the Chinese swearing but I don’t mind it. It’s a lot less offensive than frakking Battlestar Galactica’s future swear words. And it looks much cooler in the Firefly comic books than the usual @#&%#.

I didn’t do the digging that Ed did here, so it’s interesting to learn that this was the first aired episode. I liked “Serenity” as the intro, and I thought this did just fine after it, but I don’t know how “Serenity” would have been on TV, with commercials, etc. I can see this being a fine first episode.

I love action scenes on trains. Really, I love anything on trains. Something about the unstoppable nature of a train, plus the thrill of the risk of falling off, the close quarters, the strategic thinking…it’s fun. And this is a [space] western; that begs for some sweet train action. But, the actual train scene was short-lived and undramatic. I know, I know — it set up the story. Yes, the other action scenes were good. But I wanted a cool train fight, and will go pout in my corner about it.

Overall, I really enjoyed “The Train Job.” The pacing was great, especially when compared with “Serenity.”  We got to see more of the depth Mal’s character, and what I assume to be a major theme of the show: the conflict between doing the right thing and, well, surviving. The Alliance’s don’t-give-a-shit attitude about the medicine helps us to understand the political landscape of the [galaxy? solar system?]. I’m interested in seeing how Shepherd Book and Mal continue to interact: Mal is obviously a man of some moral standing, but no longer wants anything to do with God.

Some general grievances, because I like to complain:

  • Jayne is one-dimensional, still. I know that this is a rough world, yadda yadda, but I’m not convinced yet that there are people who only have cash as their only motivator. Maybe I’m not deep enough into it to think that there are people desperate enough. Nonetheless, Jayne’s comic relief on this episode is a nice addition, just hoping he gets some more development.
  • Kaylee’s spaciness still drives me crazy. Not as heavy-handed as “Serenity,” but it hasn’t grown on me yet.
  • Companions. In “Serenity,” there was an effort to explain the relevance of the position, but now we’re seeing real diplomatic authority due to Inara being officially “registered,” and I’m all sorts of confused. We’re still talking about exchanging sex for money, here. I’m not trying to call the profession into question, but questioning its connection to authority.
  • (River still is doing nothing, but her relevance appears to be coming very shortly.)
  • I still don’t like the Chinese. It feels heavy in their mouths as they struggle to say the words. Swearing/exclamation is something natural, that you learn growing up. I’m not convinced.

Well, it’s interesting as to whether you can call this a “pilot” or whether you’d call its airing order a matter of executive meddling. I don’t think this works as a proper pilot as you have no real insight into the circumstances of Simon and River. But, alas, here are my thoughts for this episode of Firefly.

The best line of the episode has to go to Jayne: “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with ’til ya understand who’s in ruttin’ command here.” And as much as I’ve heard my colleagues complaints about his one-dimensionality, I have to say: I’m a fan. His little one-off lines are some of the most entertaining.

Some of the little touches can be nice, such as the Chinese checkers Jayne, Zoe, and Mal play at the start. However, the continued west atmosphere just seems a little too strong in places. For example, the bar brawl moment when Mal gets thrown through a digital window–yeah, I know, woohoo, it’s the future, but we’ve already established that a lot of the Border worlds are severely impoverished–tell me exactly what that little forcefield window accomplishes. Does it keep out the bugs while letting in the air? Does it hurt getting thrown through it? When everything else is so low-tech, why would the one high-tech furnishing be the windows? Unless you’re telling me that in a place with so many brawls, a forcefield window is more economical? In any case, it’s just one of those little touches that seems out of tune.

Really, it’s the technology that most confuses me, the mix of ancient and futuristic devices. You’re telling me that there was no way for anyone on the train to detect or notice the huge spaceship that ended up flying overhead for several minutes? Hell, if the there had been windows in any of the train compartments, I feel like someone would have seen it–what else is there to do on a train besides look out the window?

But, I did like the tone and the pacing. It highlighted the character traits of our protagonists while demonstrating the apathetic nature of the Alliance. Oh, and who couldn’t love the sudden rotors death that extinguished what otherwise might have become an annoying repeating character? It wasn’t quite as amazing as Mal’s Indiana Jones moment from the first episode, but it was certainly amusing. I did have to wonder at the Sheriff’s reaction to the return of the medicine, though. Sure, Mal highlighted his good intentions by returning the medicine, but it was only a break in the plan that resulted in them ever witnessing the effects of their actions. They could have just as easily escaped without ever seeing Paradiso. So I get that the Sheriff might forgive him, but there’s a little too much “You’re a good guy, Mal” in his eyes when he gets the medicine back. I’d still be just a little bit irked.

Nevertheless, the show is picking up and I like where it’s headed for the most part. We’ll see what the next week brings.

 

In my opinion, the remarkable thing about this episode of Firefly isn’t the cinematography or the witty dialogue; in fact, the most remarkable thing is that it’s a clear demonstration of how much you can enjoy a show without understanding it.

Firefly is fun — there, I said it. It’s entertaining to watch, with its classic spaghetti-western themes and motifs (from setting to sound), and it leaves the viewer with little or no sense of regret that they sat down and spent forty-five minutes of their life watching television.

But with that in mind, I have a nagging feeling of regret for the average viewer. The “Joe Couch Potato” who might pick up on a show two or three episodes after the premiere — and since Firefly predates Hulu, there wouldn’t be the capacity to go back and catch up in an expedient manner — would no doubt feel lost in some respects; and this is technically the first episode! I think the biggest contributing factor is that there is no precursor to Firefly. There are no Episodes I – III to explain the fact that all of this nonsense about revolution and war is over. And as a result, the “in medias res” cavalarity (my goal for each review is to make up at least one word) of the show’s premise is somewhat defeated by the fact that there isn’t going to be a page one to go back to.

At any rate, I’ll be interested to see if future episodes are similarly captivating yet similarly exclusive to the interested fanboy, in regards to actual plot development rather than gun-toting, Earp-esque entertainment.

Conclusion: Narrative Exposition. I hate it.

  • Bret

    …really? Birding?