Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 20, 2006)
Back in Ye Olden Dayes of this website, I often took review requests from readers. I liked this and was able to do so since I acquired so many of the DVDs on my own. Armed with a Netflix subscription, I snared many of the titles I reviewed that way.
As time passed, however, we got more and more support from the studios. That meant I received lots of new releases and didn’t need to get discs on my own. Unfortunately, this also made it much more difficult for me to check out older discs. I dropped my Netflix subscription and focused almost entirely on the screeners I received. I did – and still do – occasionally rent titles for review, but that’s almost always when I want to compare an old release to a new version of the same title. If the DVD doesn’t have a modern counterpart, I’m unlikely to rent it.
Once every blue moon or so, however, I get the urge to check out something I missed the first time. Fox actually sent me a review copy of Firefly - The Complete Series back in 2003, but I skipped it. Reviews of packages like this take a ton of time to do. Since I can write up a bunch of movies in that span, it doesn't seem like an effective choice, so I usually restrict these TV reviews to series I know I like.
And then came 2005’s theatrical film Serenity. A big screen take on the Firefly universe, I thoroughly enjoyed the flick even though I had no familiarity with the series. The film certainly whetted my appetite, though, and made me eager to check out the shows.
So I went back into my stash to finally watch Firefly. This set includes all 14 episodes of the series. I’ll examine them in production order. That doesn’t remotely follow the sequence in which their aired, so I’ll mention those dates as well. The story synopses come straight from the DVD cases.
Serenity – Part 1 and 2 (air date 12/20/02): “The crew of Serenity is eager to rid themselves of an easily traceable cargo they salvaged from a vessel adrift in space, totally unaware that a passenger has brought an even more dangerous cargo aboard.”
The series launches with this strong double episode. It sets up all the characters and situations in a concise manner. “Serenity” doesn’t dally with tedious explanation of every little thing. Instead, it tosses out just enough bits and pieces for viewers to get a feel for matters and trusts us to figure things out on our own.
In addition to being a solid introduction to things, “Serenity” provides a very entertaining show. Admittedly, it functions best as a series overview, but that doesn’t mean it concerns itself solely with exposition. It musters a good story in its own right and makes us eager to see more.
The Train Job (air date 9/20/02): “Mal has second thoughts after discovering that two boxes of Alliance goods his crew has been hired to steal are full of badly needed medical supplies headed for the mining town of Paradiso.”
Since “Serenity” clearly received a lot of time and effort, I worried that the second episode might come as a letdown. Happily, “Train” keeps things soaring. In fact, it might even top “Serenity”, as it provides a nice, fairly self-contained story. It helps expand some characters and some themes, but it works fine on its own. We can see the series’ complexities and nuances as they develop here, and that helps make “Train” a solid show.
Bushwhacked (air date 9/27/02): “After encountering a booby-trapped spacecraft carrying the lone crewmember of a horrific Reaver attack, Serenity is boarded by an Alliance Commander looking for Simon and River.”
This episode helps move along a couple of elements. We dig into River’s story a little more, and we also learn a bit extra about the Reavers. As with “Train”, these come with another fairly self-enclosed story. “Bushwhacked” provides a good scary tale and a strong program.
Shindig (air fate 11/1/02): “In order to secure a job transporting cargo for a client, Mal attends a social event where a dance with Inara leads to him being challenged to a swordfight in defense of her honor.”
Characters come to the forefront during “Shindig”. The plot is secondary as the show mostly examines the romantic tension between Mal and Inara. It develops them well and turns into a fun episode.
Safe (air date 11/8/02): “When Simon is kidnapped by a group of villagers in need of a doctor, Serenity is forced to make contact with an Alliance ship in order to seek medical help for the critically wounded Book.”
Here the series expands our knowledge of River, though it doesn’t neglect other areas as well. We get a nice look at the business side of the characters’ lives in addition to the tidbits about the mysterious River. The way the show turns into a witch trial gets a bit silly, unfortunately.
Our Mrs. Reynolds (air date 10/4/02): “After a celebration in which the crew is honored for ridding a planet of a group of bandits, they return to Serenity to find a woman named Saffron who claims that Mal married her during the festivities.”
I gotta admit “Mrs.” threw me for a loop. At first, I took the episode to be little more than a goofy bit of comedy, and the story line seemed pretty predictable. We had an exploited woman who I felt sure would be taught how to be an individual.
That’s what I get for underestimating Firefly. As it progresses, “Mrs.” Becomes more complex and interesting. Add to that a gorgeous guest star and you discover a winning episode.
Jaynestown (air date 10/18/02): “When the crew returns to a planet where Jayne participated in a heist gone bad, they’re shocked to discover that Jayne’s past actions have turned him into a local hero of Robin Hood-like mythic proportions.”
Another episode with an apparently comedic theme, this one offers a funny commentary on the nature of myth and legend. How many of our heroes were really just as mercenary as Jayne? It’s a good choice to use the series’ least altruistic character as its folk hero. The subplot with Inara exists just for story convenience, but the main tale is more than clever and involving enough to make this a good show.
Out of Gas (air date 10/25/02): “After an explosion leaves Serenity crippled, Mal orders everyone to abandon ship while he stays behind in an attempt to make repairs – and reminisces how he found the ship and picked his crew.”
More dramatic than usual, “Gas” utilizes a complex flashback structure to cover various areas. I like the look at how the crew came together, but don’t mistake this for a glorified clip show. The main Mal story is tense and dramatic, even though we know he won’t die.
Ariel (air date 11/15/02): “Simon offers the crew a proposition: if they help him sneak River into a hospital so he can run tests on her, he’ll tell them where to find medical supplies that will fetch an enormous price on the black market.”
More info about River pops up here. This is really a caper episode as the crew goes to enormous lengths to get River in and out of the hospital. It provides nice action and intrigue, and it also clearly alludes to the Alliance’s intense interest in River.
War Stories (air date 12/6/02): “Wash regrets insisting that he be allowed to accompany Mal on a mission after the two men are captured by Adelai Niska – the client who previously hired Mal to steal the medicine bound for Paradiso.”
Arguably the series’ best episode, “Stories” deserves to be called an epic program. It starts in a comedic bent as it looks at tensions between Wash and Zoë; the former seems jealous of the latter’s relationship with Mal, though at times it seems he’s more jealous of her closeness to the captain.
Once Wash and Mal take off on their expedition, though, matters change. This becomes a shockingly brutal program that really packs a punch. It works brilliantly and turns into a riveting piece.
Trash (never aired): “Mal is shocked to discover that his old friend’s new bride is Saffron who, although furious after Mal blows her cover, offers to cut Mal in on what she calls the perfect, big-time scam.”
Since this episode offers copious shots of a naked Mal, I’m sure female fans consider it a favorite. We get the return of the sexy but devious Saffron and provides a fun caper show. She’s an intriguing character, and this show’s lighter tone nicely counterbalances the intensity of “Stories”. It’s a good little program.
The Message (never aired): “While Jayne opens a mail package from his mother that contains a wool cap with ear flaps and a pom-pom, Mal and Zoë open their package to discover the body of their old way buddy, Tracey.”
“Message” ends up as one of the less interesting episodes, largely due to the presence of Tracey. Other than blind military allegiance, it never becomes clear why Zoë and Mal display such devotion to their weaselly old colleague. He always seemed shifty and selfish even in the good times, and nothing changes that. The show’s twists are predictable so this program doesn’t work terribly well.
Heart of Gold (never aired): “The crew comes to the aid of a bordello when its madam, an old acquaintance of Inara’s, asks for help after a gunslinger claims a prostitute’s baby is his and he’s taking it because his wife is barren.”
More Western than most Firefly episodes, there’s not a lot to this one’s story. Essentially the plot acts as an excuse for more complications in the Mal/Inara relationship, and the tale itself is slow and dull. It never becomes memorable.
Objects in Space (air date 12/13/02): “The crew is caught off-guard when a bounty hunter, eager to claim the enormous reward on River's head, sneaks aboard Serenity and methodically begins taking the crew prisoner one by one.”
After two lackluster episodes, the series rebounds a bit for its last produced program. It develops River’s character and also adds a cool new personality via Early the odd bounty hunter. This one fades at the finish, but it offers enough quirkiness and cleverness to succeed overall.