Firefly Episode 2: "The Train Job"
The opening barfight scene is where we actually learn what Mal's war was about, and if memory serves is where the word "browncoats" first entered the show's lexicon. Beyond that, however, it suffers in comparison to the comparable story elements in "Serenity," a thought I had many times while watching this show. The effects, however, were really interesting, such as being thrown out the electronic window.
After various scenes that explain the story's premise via the, err, "Tell, don't show" method, we learn that life is hard and the main characters are criminals, while Simon and River come from an Alliance world where she was subject to some sort of mental experiments. Moving right along, however, the crew gets a job from a businesslike yet cruel crime boss named Adelei Niska to steal cargo from a train. The scene makes two points 1.) They don't know what it is they're stealing and 2.) If they don't follow through, Niska will try to torture them to death. One realizes quickly that they will, in fact, cross Niska, probably by not doing the job, and that the identity of the cargo will play a role in this.
When Mal and Zoe board the train as part of the crew's plan, they discover a bunch of Alliance soldiers on board. I'm not sure Mal's "Cool - we get to make them look bad" reaction worked with me - it seemed too much a contrast with his previously established annoyance with bad luck, and made his hatred for them seem almost puerile. That said, as mentioned on the DVD commentary, the studio wanted a more jovial Mal, and I guess this is the best they can do on short notice.
The job goes off without a hitch, except that Mal and Zoe are detained by police at the train's destination investigating the theft. The planet's story does put some meat on the "life is hard" bones otherwise declared mainly by writer fiat, and the Alliance regiment on the train served a second purpose by demonstrating that government's lack of concern for these backwaters. The revelation that the cargo was medicine gets the appropriate profoundly bothered look from Mal, followed presumably by a commercial break.
As far as the shipboard plot, I couldn't get around a single point: Given what we know about Jayne, and more importantly what we know Mal knows about Jayne, why is he in charge? Granted, that doesn't carry the same weight it would on a military-based show like Star Trek or Babylon 5, but seriously, who would put Jayne in charge of anything? Simon gets a nice moment by doping him, for which Mal later congratulates the young doctor, further rendering the situation inexplicable.
Eventually, Inara uses her status as a Companion to get Mal and Zoe back to the ship, where Mal immediately announces they're returning the medicine to the planet. Maybe it's just me, but somehow the evident ease of that decision contradicted Mal's earlier professed unconcern with what Niska wanted them to steal in the first place. I'm also not sure what the point of the fight with Niska's henchmen was, or even how they happened to show up so conveniently to begin with.
Maybe I'm being too hard on this as an episode because it does immediately follow and invite obvious comparisons with "Serenity," but there's really no scene here I would rave about the way I would the Kaylee shooting scene or the Patience confrontation from the original pilot. (I didn't actually do that much raving in my review just to keep it at a reasonable length.) However, I can't be the only one who winced at Kaylee's bright "Crime!" when Simon asks her what's up, which seems to embody too much of the episode. I do think the texture of the Firefly world was there, but the characters were all reduced to a mess of roles mandated by the need to do too much in too short a time. I give this episode a 4/10.
Sheriff: "You were truthful back in town. These are tough times. A man can get a job, might not look too close at what that job is. But a man learns all the details of a situation like ours, well... then he has a choice."
Mal: "I don't believe he does."