Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Firefly Episode 8: "Out of Gas"

Many bad episodes have come out of putting ships and crews in mortal peril. Is there anyone who yearns for reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Disaster?" The problem, of course, is that you know they're going to get out of it, usually with some technobabble solution. "Out of Gas," however, is one of Firefly's strongest episodes, interspersing the relatively simple plot of Mal fixing the ship with two sets of flashbacks: one explaining how the crisis developed with an emphasis on how the characters dealt with their desperate circumstances, the other showing how each came to be aboard Serenity. The overall effect is that, as we see the role the ship plays in each of their lives, we come to feel for it as they do, and sympathize with Mal in his struggle.

Firefly's down-to-earth approach shines through in the nature of the problem itself. There's nothing that needs recalibrating in the phase coils or anything. There's just a part that's damaged and no longer fits. It's also an interesting break in conventional patterns that the drama is supplied to the process of fixing it by a physical struggle rather than a leap of technological creativity at the last minute. The immediate precursor to this sequence, the encounter with the space pirates who have the needed part, also shows a lot about life in the outer worlds.

The real backbone of the episode is the "how things got to this point" set of flashbacks. We begin with crew camaraderie, which sets the stage for the "how they all joined" sequence as much as it does the tough times to follow. Once the disaster does occur, outstanding acting conveys the seriousness of the situation long before we learn that the life support is down. Nathan Fillion brilliantly sells every scene he is in. Jewel Staite and Adam Baldwin also show great range in playing their characters outside their usual personalities, which greatly develops the mood.

There were two points I wish had been addressed. One was the possibility of fixing the auxiliary life support, which someone would have thought of, if only to have it dismissed. The other is Kaylee's warning Mal about the compression coil in "Serenity" and "The Train Job." I mean, when we've seen it come up in two of seven episodes, it seems odd for everyone to act like this suddenly came out of the blue. None of those is a major quibble, however, and the dramatic tensions of Wash's quarrels with Mal and character moments like River's encounter with Book and Simon's conversation with Inara about Serenity mean we readily forgive them.

Simon's disregard for the ship is one thing that subtly marks him as an outsider in this bunch, as most others love it, as Inara says openly. The key relationship with the ship is, of course, Mal's. On the DVD commentary, writer Tim Minear said the episode was a story of Mal's love for Serenity, but what he wrote is a little more complex than that. In introducing the ship to Zoe, he talks about freedom, which is what he's after, but there's also the "small crew" aspect that led to the family that is the show's ensemble. Wash was certainly eager to make something of it in the flashback to his hiring, while Kaylee jumped at the chance to be its mechanic. The exception here is Jayne the mercenary who joined for the profits. In any case, the scene where Mal has just been rescued by his crew and wants to make sure they'll still be there emphasizes the personal bonds that have developed from roots such as these.

In the end, though, Wash and Zoe are together, Simon and River are bonded, Jayne just goes from opportunity to opportunity, Book and Inara have professional roles, and even Kaylee is young and optimistic enough that she can find something else later. For Mal, however, after losing in the war, Serenity and its community is all he has, and he is willing to die attempting to preserve it. After all, as we learn at the end, he picked her out across a crowded, err, yard of spaceships.

At this point, Firefly had really hit its stride. Following "Jaynestown" in the originally intended viewing order, this is the second outstanding outing in a row, one I give 9/10.
Mal: "Ship like this, be with you 'til the day you die."
Zoƫ: "'Cause it's a deathtrap."



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