“Objects In Space” (season one, episode 14; originally aired 12/13/02)
Donna Bowman: By this point in our Firefly saga, I’m not a newbie anymore. Yes, it’s still my first time through; I haven’t seen before what I’m about to watch. But from another perspective, I know too much. I know it’s almost over, and over for good. And that makes me jumpy. Y’all keep talking about a leaf in the wind, and even though I’m skipping over the spoilers, I catch the drift. Something very sad is going to happen. Being a newbie, I don’t know exactly when. But being a viewer after the fact, I know there aren’t many more chances for that something very sad to happen, and I’m bracing myself every single second.
For some reason I got it into my head that the leaf was going to float on the wind in “Objects In Space,” and I was dreading this hour as a result. Right up to the end, where River drifts back to Serenity, Wash stands ready to assist Zoe with the “fearsome brow mopping” as she takes out Simon’s bullet, Jayne and Book hit the weights, and Kaylee starts a game of jacks—I was waiting for the sucker punch. That wariness probably prevented me from enjoying the episode nearly as much as it deserves. But it also heightened my attention to the many pleasures to be found in this rather audacious little “the call is coming from inside the spaceship!” tale of space invasion, as I savored each one thinking it might be the last.
And there is so much to savor. The contrast with “Heart Of Gold” couldn’t be more sharp; if you need a case study for your thesis about what Joss Whedon brings to the table as a writer, just consider the ridiculous wealth of ideas and entertainment in “Objects In Space.” There should be a word for it—ideotainment? Epistetheater? Jubal Early, the bounty hunter who sneaks aboard the ship to snatch River, is a character straight out of Sartre, asserting his right to transform the crew from autonomous humans to simple objects he can direct toward his end, gratifyingly flummoxed when those objects turn the tables and trap him in their gaze. River’s plight and power are starkly poignant, as she accepts her friends’ contention that she’s dangerous but also seizes the chance to craft a meaning for her own existence. The dialogue veers from terrifyingly out of control (Early asking Kaylee if she’s ever been raped) to shockingly amusing (Early misunderstanding Kaylee’s “Are you Alliance?” for “Are you a lion?” and musing “Might as well be, though; I’ve got a mighty roar”).
The backdrop for this philosoventure is a thought experiment. What would happen to our freedom if someone had the psychic power to discern our true selves? Sartre knew his Kierkegaard well. We might decide to feel trapped by the existence of such a power, he says, but in actuality we wouldn’t be—because no matter what message came across those spooky wires, it would still need to be interpreted. It means what you think it means, no more (there’s no permanent, eternal, involuntary meaning to a life), but also no less (there’s no getting away from the necessity of choosing a meaning moment by moment). When she decides to go with Early, River says that she’s leaving so that “people can go on without me, be with the people they want to be with.” Without her there knowing too much, she thinks, her friends will be free.
But Early knows better, in his groping, questioning way. “Is it still her room when it’s empty?” he asks Simon about River’s abandoned sleeping quarters. “Does the room, the thing, have purpose?” Only a mind can attribute purpose to a thing, and that includes the person-things that surround us, who stubbornly, intermittently insist on attributing their own purposes to themselves rather than accepting ours. “If there’s no girl, then the plan is like the room!” Early fumes, finding that his whole reason for being here (perhaps reason for being, full stop) becomes absurdist nonsense without people staying put on the shelves where he’s placed them.
I could fill this whole column with an analysis of existential quotations, mostly from Early. “That ain’t a shepherd,” he says confidently about Book, as if he’s in charge of delineating the species. “People don’t appreciate the substance of things,” he rhapsodizes about the cargo hold. “Does that seem right to you?” he repeats on multiple occasions, a sign that he’d like to appoint himself God and set all those niggling contradictions of the ’verse to rights. But I’ll allow as there might be a few things to say about “Objects In Space” from a perspective other than the philosophy professor’s. Noel, maybe you can lighten the mood with some funny Wash lines about soup and such.
Noel Murray: Well it is always a hoot when River rubs soup in her hair; less so when she tries to blow everybody up. But I’ll save most of the other comical material for the stray observations, where they’ll fit more comfortably. (Or do they fit wherever they’re placed? Does the shape of where I put them change to conform to what they are? Strains the mind a bit, don’t it?)
I will though leave (most of) the philosophizin’ to you, so I can take a moment to admire the audacity of “Objects In Space.” Maybe it’s because I recently watched Joss Whedon’s black-and-white, modern-dress version of Much Ado About Nothing at the Toronto International Film Festival, but this time through “Objects In Space” I was more impressed than ever by Whedon’s resourcefulness, and his willingness to use what he has at his disposal to make something that pleases him. Think about it: After all the new locations and sets and props in “Heart Of Gold,” here’s an episode that’s mostly confined to Serenity, save for one dream sequence and a couple of shots of Early’s ship. And yet it feels much grander. “Objects In Space” is—what’s the word?—imbued with meaning, as Whedon uses this little space show he’s created to ponder the ideas that preoccupy him.
In some ways, this episode is a sequel to—or perhaps a redo of—“The Message,” in that it deals in part with how much we’re responsible for our own actions and the actions of those we influence. When River gets her hands on one of Jayne’s guns at the start of the episode, he’s quick to excuse himself, saying, “Let’s move this conversation in a ‘not-Jayne’s-fault’ direction: I didn’t make her crazy.” And when Kaylee describes how River handled firearms like a pro during the rescue of Wash and Mal a few episodes back, she nervously notes that River acted like she was playing a physics game. (“She just did the math,” Kaylee says.)
But River, to her credit, seems far more willing to own who she is and what she does than any of her friends or enemies are. She knows she’s to blame for Simon’s career being off-track, for example, and she knows the problems she causes Mal and company. Even Early seems to use philosophical remove to let himself off the hook, as he muses about how an engine will die if only one part is removed, and uses “it’s my job” as a justification for hurting people. River, on the other hand, reminds Early that he took this job so that he could exercise his sadism, and that while he may be the sum of all of his influences, he’s still fundamentally what he is. Remove any one part, and Early would still be an engine—just maybe a less effective one.
As for the object that is “Objects In Space,” it’s like Jubal Early’s gun: It has a very pretty design, and it’s functional. (Plus, I like the weight of it.) For all its ponderousness, the episode is still tense and dramatic, with an effective score and some haunting imagery, such as the shot of Early walking along the outside of the ship. It’s also very wry, with funny little asides like Wash’s comment that River’s possible psychic abilities are “like something out of science fiction.” (“You live on a spaceship, dear,” Zoe reminds him.) And maybe it’s because Early and River’s pontifications had me overly aware of everything, but when Jayne woke up in the middle of the action and pulled the blanket away from his armory—only to snuggle up beneath it and go back to sleep—the moment seemed like more than a gag. Sometimes a blanket serves as an armory-cover. And sometimes, it’s a Jayne-cover.
DB: I want to backtrack to the middle of your response, Noel, to pick up a bit of dialogue that resonated much differently after the episode was over. “Nobody can shoot like that who’s a person,” Kaylee says while recounting her experience in “War Stories.” That’s chilling enough when River overhears it; on the basis of freaky abilities she has, personhood might be denied her. What’s left? Objecthood. “We’re all just floating,” in the words of the disembodied voice that starts the episode; “It’s just an object, it doesn’t mean what you think,” in the words echoing in River’s head when she picks up the branch from the cargo bay floor.
Objects aren’t persons because they don’t have decision-making and meaning-making imperatives. But we turn people into objects all the time, whenever we act like their meaning for us is their true and only meaning. That’s how the crew debates treating River (as a dangerous impediment to their lives and mission) and how Early actually treats River (as a treasure somebody wants and is willing to pay for). But objectification doesn’t necessarily translate into a lack of appreciation for the object’s beautiful and functional qualities; just look at how characters throughout the series, Early included, appreciate their guns to the point of fetishization.
Which brings us around to the object that’s most consistently floating in space in this series: Serenity herself. Various members of the crew, and most especially Mal, let their appreciation for the ship shade into personification (the opposite of objectification). When River asserts that she is Serenity “and Serenity’s very unhappy,” she’s revealing an untapped, unappreciated power of persons and objects together: that they can become one. Not a user and his tool, but a user-tool hybrid where the intentionality flows freely throughout. I love the thought that Mal and his crew have so thoroughly inhabited this home that it has taken on their mission. It’s not an object to be repurposed by whoever takes the reins. It’s not just a person-support system, all mechanical and functional. It’s not a design to be appreciated and savored by a connoisseur. She’s imbued.
Oh crap. That’s going to make next week a lot harder to take, isn’t it?
- River is the smallest cargo Early has ever had to transport, except for one deadly and unpredictable midget.
- Jayne thinks he could be canonized someday, because he once hit a guy in the neck from 500 yards with a bent scope, and that has to count as a miracle.
- Early’s “that ain’t a shepherd” line is pretty nifty, because it could be Early intuiting something about Book’s past, or it could be an extension of his considerations of what makes a thing a thing. Is Book still a shepherd if he’s unconscious?
- When Zoe says that she doesn’t think River would ever hurt anyone, Jayne reminds her that she once came after him with a butcher’s knife. (“Anyone we can’t spare,” Zoe appends.)
- From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: People still say “don’t let the bedbugs bite,” only it’s “spacebugs” (and they feel deeply embarrassed about it).
- From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: When Book says that he directs his sexual urges into other pursuits, Jayne grunts, “You mean like masturbatin’?”