Firefly, Season 1, Episode 1, “Serenity”
Written and directed by Joss Whedon
Aired December 20th, 2002 on FOX
Welcome to Sound on Sight’s summer look back at Firefly, the beloved yet short-lived series that aired on FOX during the 2002-2003 TV season. Every Thursday, we will revisit an episode at a time of the show’s one and only season, in the order that they were meant to be seen. The correct sequence is accurately reflected on most, if not all, streaming services that currently have the show, but for those watching via other methods, the accurate order can be found here. Now, without further ado, time to spend some time with the most entertaining group of grifters in The ‘Verse.
Of all the things “Serenity” does well (from which there are many to choose), its successful building of an entire world in less than two hours, complete with fleshed out characters and relationships, is the most incredible. This is something that creator Joss Whedon has done time and time again in both film and television, and the brilliance of the Firefly pilot is the rule, not the exception, to his work. “Serenity” lays out everything the audience needs to know about this universe and the players within it without ever explicitly stating much of anything about their histories. The majority of the exposition throughout is vague; any overly specific explanations would ring false passing between the clearly tight-knit crew at the center of the series. From the very beginning of the episode, as Zoë and Mal are pinned down by Alliance forces in Serenity Valley and battling their way out, only the most important details are imparted to the viewer.
There is no mention of the exact name of the enemy until later in the episode, nor is there a speech about what the team is fighting for, other than their lives. The opening is as fraught as possible, leaving no time for errant dialogue. Mal and Zoë are efficiently established as a heroic wartime team who would do anything for each other, an archetypal foundation for their later emotional conflicts and growth. After a six year jump forward, enough time for Mal and Zoë to not only survive the battle but commandeer a ship and amass a crew, the rest of the characters are introduced in similarly broad, yet complete ways. Wash, Serenity’s fantastically sarcastic pilot and husband of Zoë, saves the day right off the bat while also serving as comic relief in the tensest of situations, a combination that will repeat itself many a time. Jayne is the enforcer and the rudest of the bunch, a third wheel on missions and clearly only sticking around for monetary rewards. Inara, the Companion who rents a shuttle from Mal, is first seen having sex with a client, in the unlikely event anybody is unclear about her profession. Despite this clichéd introduction, it is clear that she has mixed feelings about her work and her clients – a combination of resignation at their casual assumptions and pride in her skill set. Mechanic Kaylee’s endless optimism is readily apparent from minute one, an unflagging sunniness and positive outlook on the world that no other crew member comes close to matching. She appreciates the simple things but is herself as far from simple as possible. The religious Shepherd Book is quite clearly more than just a Shepherd, fitting in nicely on a ship full of people with their own secrets and pasts. Each of the travelers on Serenity exhibits standard traits that any television gang requires to function within a narrative, yet they stand out as unique within this universe from the start.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of this first visit to the world of Firefly, compared to other shows set in the future, is which aspects of the world Whedon chooses to differentiate from modern reality and which he keeps the same. Besides the obvious presence of spaceships used for interplanetary travel, much of the “futuristic” technology or social cues are backgrounded in the story and woven into character interactions. Having Chinese be one of the two languages characters speak is at once a commentary on the direction our global society was heading at the time, a way to get explicit language around Standards & Practices (see also the repeated use of phrases like “gorram”), and an easy shorthand to place the time period in an intermediate space – far enough forward, based on our calendar, that most people speak the language; not far enough forward that everyone communicates in a completely foreign alien discourse. It doesn’t seem like cultural appropriation for Kaylee to walk around in a silk embroidered jacket and carry a parasol, because every aspect of culture is blended together in a naturally acceptable way.
This extends to the Western elements of the show as well. “Serenity” makes sure to touch on all sides of society, up to and including the weaving in of Wild Wild West adventure with the advanced technological capabilities. Whereas a series like Star Trek was happy to approach the exploration of new frontiers as an allegory to the American expansion West, Firefly makes that subtext text and has fun with it to boot. When Mal, Zoë, and Jayne get caught in an actual showdown replete with six shooters, horses, and the picturesque expanse of an abandoned prairie, it is not just a culmination of their quest to unload stolen goods, it is a roaring good time. This tender balance between fraught missions and the characters’ ability to have fun in the face of incredible danger is an eventual hallmark of the series and that tone is foregrounded from the start, rather than being added belatedly as the audience becomes more familiar with this group of rebels and thieves. Whedon clearly honed this ability during the adventures of a certain vampire slayer, and his deftness pays off in spades. That all of this layering is accomplished in the same episode that establishes the main arc of the season, and that very little gets lost in the shuffle, is nothing short of astonishing.
Which brings us to the two passengers who will come to represent so many of the moral and ethical quandaries the series touches upon during its lifespan: Simon and River Tam. Even though they make up two thirds of the passengers the crew picks up on Persephone (not counting the undercover fed, who is so obviously not long for this world that he doesn’t get a proper introduction and is summarily dispatched with ease by Mal in one of the captain’s most dashingly heroic moments), Simon and River are shrouded in mystery right up until the moment they aren’t. The reveal that the doctor’s cargo contains not precious jewels or money but a teenage girl is one of the great surprises that shows are capable of early on, before the audience has a chance to catch their breath or establish expectations.
The one long speech of the episode, Simon’s explanation to the crew of what the Alliance did to his genius sister, is the only true lump of exposition the audience receives but it is also the most necessary, due to where Simon is coming from in the landscape of the show. He and his sister are outsiders, doomed to be thought the worst of until further notice (his threatening to leave Kaylee to die on the floor doesn’t exactly help things in this regard), so he has no other choice but to lay their background bare to his accidental accomplices as a way to prevent retaliation. Sean Maher expertly sells the anguish and confusion that Simon is wrestling with, establishing Simon as someone who needs to be constantly working towards a solution to the next problem on his plate, but in this case is too paralyzed with confusion and concern to know how to proceed. It is the standard story of a privileged and successful member of society brought low by personal tragedy, and this thread of the narrative both allows the Alliance to be revealed as something more than just an oppressive governmental organization and puts the crew back on their heels in the face of an entirely unexpected development. They can steal from abandoned ships, face down two-timing fencers, and hide from Reavers any day, but this brand of adventure is clearly a new kind of peril. Even with so much more waiting to be expanded upon and fleshed out in coming episodes, there is more than enough in these two hours to establish Firefly as a distinctive and exciting addition to the futuristic television canon. Welcome to The ‘Verse.
- Morena Baccarin is such a sci-fi stalwart by now it’s almost crazy to see her here as Inara in probably the least sci-fi oriented role of the entire crew.
- Mark Sheppard’s portrayal of Badger is a nice bit of casting and a fun performance. His apple peeler on the desk really doesn’t get old.
- “We shall rule over this land, we shall call it…this land.”
- “He’s the captain.” “That’s right, I’m just the husband.”
- “Been a long time since Patience shot me and that was due to a perfectly legitimate conflict of interest. I got no grudge.”
(POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR FUTURE EPISODES PAST THIS POINT):
- The constant fake outs of Kaylee’s demise are indicative of her playful spirit (as well as the show’s), yet it’s tough to watch now without automatically thinking of the deaths to come, all of which are very permanent and come with no tongue-in-cheek foolishness.
- There wasn’t enough space here to discuss Shepherd Book in much detail, but the larger questions of religion and belief systems that permeate the season are already popping up in this episode’s conflicts. Specifically, Book telling Inara he thinks he is on the wrong ship, and Mal’s one-eighty on the matter of believing in God or not. From kissing a cross in the midst of battle to insulting a preacher in just six short years! That’s our Mal!
- One of this author’s favorite through-lines of the season, the Kaylee and Simon flirtation, is already present and palpable. Their relationship, and Kaylee’s maturation, as the season goes on is one of the most purely beautiful things to watch in a world that doesn’t hold back when it comes to suffering.
- Jayne admitting that he was bribed to betray the crew and turned it down as too small a sum is one of the tidiest bits of foreshadowing the episode includes. There’s no way his willingness to betray people wasn’t going to come back around.
- The introduction of Reavers here serves as a nice detail about how expansive The ‘Verse is, and is also a completely terrifying image of what could befall the crew. Gina Torres’ horrifying description of what Reavers do sets the table well for the audience to already know what is coming the next time they encounter that particular danger.