Firefly, Season 1, Episode 2, “The Train Job”
Written by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear
Directed by Joss Whedon
Aired September 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.
Usually, new series repeat much of the action and details from their pilots in their second episode, to make sure anybody that missed the first go of things has a full understanding of the characters and relevant plot lines established in the initial installment. Because of this, it’s only marginally distracting that “The Train Job” was aired as the original pilot instead of “Serenity” and as such, repeats many of the same beats as the “first” episode; there is enough additional information and character shading added that it has value as a second episode, even if the central plot is slight. As legend has it, Joss Whedon and Tim Minear only had two days to write the episode in time for it to air, having been requested by the network to make a second, shorter pilot, which somewhat explains the focus on Mal and Zoë pulling off the central heist while everybody else is relegated to the footnotes of this adventure. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially upon a second or third watch, but this doesn’t allow quite the same sense of crew unity as most other episodes in the season do. Besides the two main crew members, Inara gets the largest spotlight, thanks to her time with Kaylee and her rescue of Zoë and Mal. Her societal status as a trained companion was already remarked upon in “Serenity”, but here she gets to prove how respected she is in society at large and leverage it to a successful rescue of her friends.
The heist itself is a lot of fun, with most of the crew pitching in to pull off a good old fashioned train robbery. Well, as old fashioned as hovering a space ship over a train in order to steal futuristic medical supplies can really be. The entire sequence wherein Wash positions Serenity above the train and lowers Jayne down so he can rendezvous with Zoë and Mal is spectacular, even more so considering the show’s less than grandiose budget. This kind of job illustrates how good the show’s heroes are at their chosen profession: they hatch a spectacular plan and execute it with only minor bullet wounds. Much more impressive than lifting stolen merchandise off an abandoned ship on the outer edges of space. At the same time, the sequence lets Whedon show off a bit as a director, particularly the scenes outside with the hover maneuver and the close-quarters fight inside and subsequent evasion of the guards’ suspicions.
The train robbery also brings with it a different kind of criminal mastermind assigning the job. Where Badger was vaguely menacing and slightly amusing, Niska has all of the menace with none of the humor. It makes sense that the team has to take whatever job they can get from whomever will give it to them (which Mal even lays out clearly to members of the crew) and this underlines the danger they tempt on every trip, no matter the target. Mal’s insistence that they need the money, so it is worth it to take the job, clashes directly with his (somewhat muted) sense of chivalry as soon as he realizes what the containers hold. Nathon Fillion gets to fully stretch his acting muscles as he settles into Mal here, from intense sarcasm to genuine worry about his team to cavalier captaining mode, then back to sarcasm again. The audience’s reintroduction to Mal in “The Train Job” might be the most important part of the episode, besides its establishment of multiple recurring characters and problems. Mal’s role in “Serenity” is to be the snarky captain, but the audience is so overwhelmed with information not everything breaks through as it should. Here, Mal can become the embittered, untrusting, but goodhearted man he actually is – especially around Zoë. The scene of the captain and his first officer posing as married travelers is incredible for the actors’ facial expressions alone, but it also truly underlines the closeness of their relationship. They settle into “marriage” almost immediately because as longtime soldiers and ship mates, the two are basically married anyway. Gregg Henry is a nice surprise here guest starring as the Sheriff, and he acquits himself well as an authority figure (as he always does), but the real importance of the Paradiso jaunt is its highlighting of Wash as the third wheel in his own marriage.
Not everything works in “The Train Job” despite the various light moments and energizing Western-inspired adventure. As mentioned above, the episode is pretty thin when it comes to plot. The train heist shakes out pretty much as expected and any conflict with Sheriff Bourne is waved away because of his admiration that the crew would do the right thing and return the medicine. It’s a shortcut that has to happen so they can get back to the ship and have the real fight with Crow and the rest of Niska’s men, which also feels truncated. The crew wins in short order and the fight itself has an obvious symmetry to the opening bar brawl. If much of the episode being rushed means the episode has time to have Mal casually (and awesomely) kick Crow into one of the ship’s intake engines, then that’s a fine trade off, but most of the final scenes still lack the smaller details that make the show tick. River and Simon spend almost the entire episode in the background, hanging out in the medical bay (although Simon does get to drug Jayne, which is amazing in so many ways). Summer Glau starts to make River her own here which pays dividends later, yet as a supposed first introduction to these characters, there isn’t much to feast on. The one truly memorable moment is River’s realization that she can’t ever go back to her childhood home. It is well played by Glau and an absolute gut punch that reminds the audience this girl, though a genius, is still just a hurt and confused child in the grand scheme of things. After a nearly two-hour first look at this world, the next episode was always going to be slightly less satisfying. Even with a lack of much forward momentum, “The Train Job” does what it sets out to do, and lays the groundwork for much, much more.
- “What are you gonna do about it?” “Nothing. I just wanted you to face me so she could get behind you.” The opening bar brawl is clearly there to establish things like “Unification Day” and “Browncoats” in as shorthanded a way possible, but it’s also tons of fun to watch unfold.
- Inara and Kaylee’s big sister-little sister hair brushing moment is so sweet until Mal goes and ruins it by being, well, Mal. The lack of a second season assuredly robs us of more of that pair bonding, which is a real shame.
- “I don’t think the captain would much like me praying for him.” “Don’t tell him. I never do.” Sign 23,967 that Inara and Mal have an unspoken history.
- This entire review could have been about Adam Baldwin’s magnificently hilarious performance as a half passed out Jayne. Alas, repeatedly watching YouTube clips will have to suffice. It really is perfect.
(POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR FUTURE EPISODES PAST THIS POINT)
- The foreshadowing of Niska as a criminal kingpin with a violent streak and an intense ability to hold a grudge is a bit over the top here, but the show really wants people to remember his menace when he returns to wreak havoc in “War Stories”.
- Herein lies the first appearance of the gloved men who are in search of River, commonly referred to as the Hands of Blue. Their methods of information gathering aren’t yet alluded to in the closing tag (AKA unabashedly killing everybody they come across), but their general iciness is enough to immediately cement them as not great people.
- It’s a throwaway line, but Kaylee brings up the need to replace the ship’s compression coil. Of course, Mal’s insistence that they don’t need a new one will come back to bite him when the crew is later stranded in space. Always listen to Kaylee, Mal!