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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Firefly: “The Train Job”

Illustration for article titled Firefly: “The Train Job”
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Noel: Last week’s Firefly review sparked some good discussion in the comments about whether the show is “libertarian” or not, as well as whether it can be read as an unfortunate apologia for the Confederacy. I tend to side with those who think that the show isn’t overtly political in either of those ways, but that it’s merely riffing on genre archetypes that may have had some political implications in the past. Specifically, I like the idea that some of you mentioned of Firefly as a kind of reverse-Star Trek, tracking the lives of the people who weren’t all that pleased when The United Federation Of Planets took over. Ultimately, I think Joss Whedon’s interest in underdogs—combined with his willingness to subvert conventions—means that he and his writers are primarily trying to be true to these characters’ experiences and attitudes. And these characters haven’t been given any reason to respect the feds, any more than Clint Eastwood was given any reason to respect the Union in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

That said, as much as Firefly may be trying to flip Star Trek’s script (affectionately, mind you), the two shows do have at least one thing in common: Star Trek couldn’t get its original pilot episode on the air right away either.

First episodes of any series can be tricky to finesse. Creators are trying to introduce concepts and establish a tone, while giving the viewers just enough information to entice them to return—without spilling so much that there’s nothing more to say in the weeks to come. (Writing these weekly reviews can be similarly challenging; I could’ve easily penned 10,000 words on Firefly last week, but then I would’ve had to spend the next few months saying, “See column one.”) In the case of Star Trek, NBC rejected the original pilot “The Cage” for having a tone the network felt was too dry, snooty, and potentially off-putting to TV viewers; so creator Gene Roddenberry retooled and came back with something more action-packed (and with some major casting changes, mostly necessitated by the long layoff between shooting the two pilots). Firefly received the same kind of “notes” on its pilot from Fox, so Whedon and his top Firefly henchman Tim Minear quickly wrote a new script to satisfy the network’s demands for more derring-do and less woe-is-me.

Certainly it’d be hard to argue that “The Train Job” lacks action, on balance anyway. The episode’s big setpiece is a grand cargo heist, which sees Serenity racing alongside a speeding locomotive. Frankly, the scene is so thrilling that it throws the rest of the episode out of whack. Once you’ve seen Jayne dangling from a grappling hook in a funny hat—“Time for some thrilling heroics,” he boasts—it’s hard to adjust expectations once “The Train Job” then settles into a much calmer story about Mal and Zoe being detained in the sad little mining town of Paradiso.

That said, it helps a bunch that Paradiso’s Sheriff Bourne is played by one of my favorite character actors, Gregg Henry. (Anyone who’s in Brian De Palma’s stock company is okay by me.) And it helps too that the episode pivots on Mal’s crisis of conscience, as he realizes that the cargo Serenity stole from the hovertrain is actually medicine, needed by the people of the unnaturally terraformed Pardadiso to fight the resultant bone-and-muscle-destroying disease known as Bowden’s Malady. So while the captain and his second are pretending to be innocent newlyweds looking for work, they’re also trying to find a way to get back to Serenity before it takes off without them, so that they can offload the medicine to the people who need it. Mal may be a thief, but he’s not a villain.

Because I watched Firefly originally in its Sci-Fi Channel run, I saw the series in its intended order, so I have no idea how “The Train Job” would’ve played for me if it had been the first episode I’d seen. From my perspective, it’s a pretty impressive salvage job, and even moreso when you factor in how quickly it was written. “The Train Job” does effectively reintroduce Firefly’s characters and premise, while throwing us directly into a story that does combine western motifs with science fiction. This kind of “in medias res” is so rare with TV pilots that I don’t think Whedon’s compromise with Fox was to the show’s detriment. This episode works as a “chapter two,” and it works as a very different kind of pilot. I still prefer the real first episode, but I do wish more shows would jump right into the action the way that “The Train Job” does.


Donna, what do you think?

Donna: “The Train Job” does suffer from reintroduction disease in places (“Hey, your coat is kind of a brownish color!”). At the risk of heresy, however, I like that we don’t have another flashback to The Battle Of Serenity Valley, or worse, a soliloquy where Mal stares into the bottom of a shot glass and recounts its significance. The in medias res approach of “The Train Job” as a series opener probably works better for those of us who’ve seen the prequel, as it were; we’re getting to have our cake and eat it too. But I’ve always liked stories that plunk me down in a narrative in progress and trust me to figure out what’s going on while it’s going on. That’s the way we all experience life, after all. None of us get to see the back-story before we begin.


And so the need to establish Mal and Inara’s sexual tension leads to a much funnier scene than the equivalent one in “Serenity:” “What did I say to you about barging into my shuttle?” Inara demands, and Mal croons, “That it was manly and impulsive?” The relationship pays off in “The Train Job,” too, in a way it doesn’t in “Serenity,” with Inara showing up in Paradiso and throwing her Companion prestige around both to save Mal and put him in his place. It’s impossible to give all the character bits as much heft as they got in the two-hour pilot, though, so we barely get any sense of Wash and Zoe’s connection (other than the former shouting to Jayne that they’re not leaving his wife behind). Nor is the relationship between Kaylee and Inara, not to mention Kaylee’s crush on Simon, as well handled in this shorter format.

But River comes off a lot better than the shivering former occupant of the box that she had to be in “Serenity.” We see an intriguing combination of trauma, gibberish (that will inevitably turn out to be more meaningful than it seems to her shipmates currently), and lucidity. And Jayne gets an even better showcase than the glowerfest in which he indulged in “Serenity,” partly because for most of the episode he’s not being brought to heel by his captain. Instead he gets to assert a different, more pragmatic, less sentimental version of Serenity’s mission and of its band of misfits. I respect that, and I think it makes him a better series antagonist (or maybe loyal opposition) than the “is he a villain or isn’t he?” plotline of “Serenity.”


I have a hard time believing that one of those network notes was “make the political analogues with classic Westerns more explicit,” and yet “The Train Job” makes a far better case for that libertarianism or Confederate “states’ rights” position than “Serenity” did. “I’m thinking we will rise again?” “Unite all the planets under one rule so they can all be interfered with equally?” Lines like that give a lot of ammunition to folks who might want to find a Stars-And-Bars hidden in the cargo hold.

But these aren’t proof texts for some kind of racist or survivalist agenda—not by a long shot. They’re references to the passion for self-determination and economic freedom that motivated acknowledged heroes of the wrong side of The War Between The States and the outlawed loners who fled west to escape its aftermath. Now, you and I happen to be Southerners born and bred, and although our families never cottoned to resentful anti-Yankee rhetoric, we grew up respecting Robert E. Lee as one of America’s great tragic heroes, and believing that although the cause was not just, many of the men who fought for it were. Maybe that’s why I think it's entirely possible to see Captain Reynolds in that same light. Or am I imagining distinctions where none exist?


Noel: No, I see the distinctions too. The individualism that Firefly celebrates is both a callback to a certain type of historical and cultural hero and an extension of Whedon’s interest in characters who forge their own path in societies that keep trying to distract them with busywork. In “Serenity,” Captain Mal warns, “You depend on luck, you end up on the drift,” but he could’ve just as easily put “the established order” or “religious faith” in the place of “luck,” given his worldview.

One of the questions then that Firefly raises is whether a personal philosophy is as reliably righteous as an organized, shared code of values and behavior. One of the other ways that “The Train Job” is so effective at reintroducing the show’s premise is in the way it keeps teasing out Mal’s roguishness, along with that of his crew. When Book starts appealing to Mal’s softheartedness regarding River Tam, Mal grumbles, “Shouldn’t you be off bringing religiosity to the fuzzy-wuzzies or some such?” Meanwhile, Jayne is convinced that Mal’s whole sheltering of the Tams is part of a larger, strictly self-serving “move.” Then there’s the matter of the heist. The crew talks so casually about their wickedness.“Take us out of the world, Wash,” Mal says. “Got us some crime to be done.” And even Kaylee cheerfully answers, “Oh, crime!” when Simon asks, “What are we doing?” during the hovertrain caper. Yet Book eventually does push Mal to admit that he’s looking after the Tams because, “It’s the right thing to do.” And when he finds out about the medicine that Paradiso needs, Mal doesn’t even entertain Sheriff Bourne’s suggestion that a man has a choice to make in such a situation.“I don’t believe he does,” Mal says. Is that just his lapsed Christianity maintaining a hold? Or can Mal really be a crook and a hero?


So again, while I personally don’t think that Firefly needed a second first episode, I do admire how much of the show’s depth and quirks “The Train Job” is able to put across. Heck, a lot of it is there just in the opening scene, in which Mal, Zoe, and Jayne are playing Chinese checkers on Unification Day, and apparently waiting for any staunch Alliance supporter to mouth off so that they honor the anniversary with a brawl. When the fisticuffs inevitably occur, they’re both funny (as when Mal baits his prey while Zoe maneuvers behind him) and telling about who these characters are (as when Jayne asks, “What month is it?” and refuses to fight because he had any personal stake in either side of the war). Add in the digital window that Mal gets thrown through, and the planets on the horizon, and the first five minutes of “The Train Job” really sets up this universe, on a big and small scale.

The episode is well-plotted too: with the introduction of the cruel crime boss Adelei Niska, whom we know won’t take kindly to Mal backing down from the job he was hired to do; and with the way that Simon has to drug Jayne to prevent the bruiser from commandeering the ship and jetting off in Mal and Zoe’s absence; and the way that Inara’s lie to Sheriff Bourne that Mal is her man-slave gets him free, but at the cost of some dignity. The story then culminates in a showdown with Niska’s hulking enforcer “Crow,” who gets shot by a woozy Jayne and then kicked into an engine by Mal when he refuses to cooperate. (Cut immediately to: Another henchman, who acquiesces to whatever Mal asks.)


Donna: Let’s take a moment to appreciate the Whedon wit that’s exemplified in that “cut immediately to.” What makes Whedon’s work special is the way stuff that matters gets leavened with characters who are genuinely fun to be around, not just because they’re quip machines, but because the creator lets them be as amused by their circumstances as we are. I love the ever-so-slightly meta touch of having characters talk about space-this and space-that, as if they were in a B-movie from the 1950s, but with ironic awareness that seems to come from a culture that hasn't been thoroughly lived in and figured out yet: “Tragic space dementia, all paranoid and crotchety,” Mal tsk-tsks.

The example to which you point, the second henchman who is only too eager to carry Mal’s message back to Niska, shows Whedon’s commitment to the button of a scene—carrying it one or two steps beyond both the plot point and the dramatic emotion, giving us character information by showing how everyone reacts to the moment and maybe changing the meaning of it in the process. “So… would his job be open?” Mal queries the sheriff who has just exploded his cover story by explaining that the man he’s supposedly come to see for work died several months ago. Commitment to the bit on Mal’s part, a release from the tension of the moment on ours, but also a view of Mal’s modus operandi: never say die, make a way out of no way, throw everything you've got at the situation and see what sticks. The fun I’m anticipating from Firefly is seeing how this downmarket, wrong-side-of-the-law version of Captain Kirk gets his five-year mission accomplished when the rules exist largely in his head instead of in a prime directive.


Noel: Even more than “Serentity,” “The Train Job” ends with a lot still at stake. Simon has annoyed Jayne. Mal has infuriated Niska. River’s still a ticking time bomb, with two blue-handed government agents on her trail. The crew has a good deal of success in this episodes, but the repercussions for their actions have been merely delayed, not defused. There will come a reckoning.

Stray observations:

  • River on Mal: “Bad… in the Latin.” Mal on River: “Still a little whimsical in the brainpan.”
  • Subject for further study as we move forward in this series: Mal’s attitudes toward women. He doesn’t seem to have a problem with powerful women, given the trust he shows in Zoe and Kaylee. And his contempt for Inara’s profession is complicated by his obvious romantic feelings for her. Still, when Kaylee is sharing some hair-brushing and boy-talk with Inara, it’s such a nice moment that it’s hard not to be a little annoyed at Mal for interrupting and barking at Kaylee that he “ain’t payin’ ya to get your hair played at.” There’s undoubtedly a certain fealty that Mal demands from his ladies. Then again, he demands that same fealty from his menfolk too, so perhaps this is a non-issue. (Again: Something to keep an eye on in future weeks.) Anyway, if Mal hadn’t snapped at Kaylee about her jerry-rigged, compression-coil-poor engine, we wouldn’t have gotten the priceless line, “Were there monkeys? Some terrifying space monkeys maybe got loose?”
  • Interesting that our shepherd Book knows all about Adelei Niska. We’ll have to talk more about Book one of these weeks: about how the cancellation of Firefly robbed us of a fuller Book backstory, and about the shepherd’s brand of Christianity. After all, one of the people writing these reviews does have a PhD in theology. Let’s put it to use!
  • Mal and Zoe pose as a married couple, which is not something that comes to her easily. When Mal gives her an order, Zoe instinctively says, “Right, sir… er, ‘honey.’”
  • From the “Here’s where society is at in the early 2500s” department: There are what appear to be telephone wires alongside the tracks of the hovertrain, and a guy clutching a chicken aboard said train. (No surprise, given how scarce fresh food seems to be). Also, when Simon stitches up Mal, he does it with needle and thread. No fancy Star Trek laser-stitches here.
  • From the “You don’t pay Jayne Cobb to talk pretty” department: “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in ruttin’ command here.”
  • This is why we lost, y’know. Superior numbers.