Sixteen years ago today, Joss Whedon’s science fiction television show Firefly aired for the first time. Despite it being really, really awesome, Fox never gave it the time of day it deserved. Episodes aired out of order, some weren’t shown and it was given a death slot on Friday evenings. This caused it to be cancelled after only 14 episodes were made. The fans persisted though, and Firefly went on to become a cult classic, with the Browncoats never truly giving up on the prospect of a revival. Serenity, the amazing feature length film, ended the story, but to this day many are waiting for the ship to fly again. I am very happy to have discovered this brilliant show.
The premise is simple. Hundreds of years into the Earth’s future, humanity has decided to travel the stars. A group of planets form together to create The Alliance, which aims to integrate all colonies together. Those that rebel against it are dealt with ruthlessly, and a war breaks out between the Alliance and the “Browncoats”, fought by those who oppose the Alliance. Malcolm Reynolds is present at the Battle of Serenity Valley when his side loses. Refusing to abandon his principals, he takes a Firefly class spaceship, names it Serenity, and travels the stars with his crew consisting of like minded individuals. They become mercenaries and guns for hire, doing jobs to keep themselves alive in the universe, all the while escaping the Alliance. The series is focused on Mal as three mysterious guests join the Serenity crew, two of which are a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance for reasons unknown.
Apart from Mal (who is one of my all time favourite characters), the crew of the Serenity is huge. There’s Zoe, the no nonsense second in command who fought with Mal in the war who is married to Wash, the comedic and optimistic pilot. Jayne is the gruff, morally questionable muscle, whilst Inara is a “companion”, who gives the ship some prestige in diplomatic affairs whilst Kaylee is the bright eyed and fun mechanic. This already fascinating crew is joined in the pilot episode by the enigmatic Shepard Book, a preacher who wants to escape his past and Simon and River Tam, siblings who are on the run. These nine characters are all amazing, with all of them serving a purpose. In just 14 episodes, we grow to care about all of them.
What’s great about Firefly is its ability to blend genres. On the surface it’s a science fiction series, but Joss Whedon expertly makes it unconventional. There are no aliens, no time paradoxes and no lasers- the crew use traditional guns and the Outer Rim planets resemble a Western. The Western genre plays a huge part in the series, with Mal being a traditional lone cowboy figure and the Alliance representing the expanding United States during the 19th century. Despite the Western influences, the show is still sci fi and like the best of sci fi combines even more genres. There’s heists, costume dramas, horror, comedy (a LOT of comedy) and even a bit of hospital drama. Firefly is a hybrid of many genres and ideas that mesh together to create a realistic and plausible future world.
With only fourteen episodes and a film, Firefly is one of the few shows to not have a bad or even slightly weak episode. All of them are at least good, even if some are not as good as others. The quality ranges from amazing to okay, with emphasis on amazing. The feature length pilot episode is admittedly quite slow, but from episode 2 onwards it’s a non stop thrill ride. Whilst it’s hard to rank the episodes due to their fantastic quality and consistency, I feel more comfortable assembling five episodes of the show I feel are the best. As I’ve already written about Serenity in my favourite films list I will be excluding it, so this list will focus just on the handful of episodes we have-
One of the earlier episodes of the series, and one of the few that counts as standalone. When Mal accidentally angers a client of Inara’s, he has just one night to learn the art of duelling and confront his opponent. This episode is great at showing Mal’s character- he doesn’t respect Inara’s profession but respects her, which fuels his anger at Atheron Wing. This episode is really funny, from Mal’s inability to fence to Kaylee’s day in the spotlight that sees her enjoying every second of this adventure. The episode is also great at providing backstory for the Alliance- whilst Mal is living the rough life, a majority of the galaxy lives in luxury. Mal’s values are clear in this episode, sparing Atherton by stating that he is a good man. This is an important part of the series, as Mal’s morals are clear to him and him only. Mal lives by honour and a personal code, whilst the Alliance have no morals despite having the outward appearance of a civilised society.
This is the heist episode. When Simon hires Mal to break into a hospital in order to examine River’s condition, Mal accepts as by this point, the Tams are crew. What follows is a fantastic and fun heist episode that sees the crew of the Serenity risk exposure to the Alliance. There is great tension throughout, as River and Simon are wanted fugitives who are now being tracked by the mysterious and sinister Blue Hands. Seeing the heist be planned then executed is immensely satisfying, and the whole episode is both important and a refreshingly different experience. The ending of the episode elevates the episode into my list of favourites however. When Jayne calls in some Alliance members in exchange for not getting caught, Mal suspects and threatens him by blowing him out of the airlock. What follows is a powerful and tense scene that ranks as one of both Mal and Jayne’s defining moments. Mal considers a betrayal of the crew to be a personal insult, and he wants Jayne to know that.
3. Objects in Space
The final episode of the series is an unconventional one that nonetheless ends the series fantastically. Tired of all of their past failures, the Alliance hires a bounty hunter called Jubal Early to hunt and capture River. Arriving on Serenity, he comes into contact with the crew and the episode turns into a game of cat and mouse that is endlessly watchable. Seeing River evolve from the confused and scared character at the beginning of the series into someone who outsmarts a bounty hunter is brilliant character development, and Jubal Early is a fantastic antagonist to menace the crew one last time. The entire crew gets something to do- an advantage of this being a bottle episode- and this episode is one last chance to see the crew in action before the events of the film split them up. The beginning of the episode sees River hallucinate as her powers take over, but by the end she has controlled them and uses them to save the crew and continue evading the Alliance. This wasn’t meant to be the last episode, but it was a great end regardless.
2. War Stories
A defining episode in the Mal/Wash dynamic. When an old enemy tricks Mal, he and Wash are captured in revenge for a previous mission that went wrong. It’s up to Zoe and the rest of the crew to save them. The best thing about this episode is how it shows how far the Serenity crew will go to save their captain- none of them have to help, but they do it out of loyalty to the man who would do the same for them. This is also the first episode to demonstrate River’s hidden powers, making it a turning point in the series. This episode does a lot to resolve Mal and Wash’s underlying rivalry, with Zoe being Mal’s closest ally and war partner yet being the wife of Wash. The two men have unspoken tension between them and being captured together makes both of them reveal themselves to the other. With great action, narrative importance, character growth and a lot of classic one liners, this episode is about as good as Firefly gets, and even with a short episode count demonstrates the best of the series.
1. Out of Gas
I’m just going to go and say it- this is one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen. After a gas leak in Serenity leaves the crew vulnerable, Mal orders his crew to evacuate whilst he stays behind. The episode is told in three parts- Mal alone on the ship and injured after an attempted sabotage of the ship, the events leading up to the abandonment of the ship and the crew escaping, and the final part details how Mal gathered the crew in the first place. All three parts of the episode blend together perfectly to create a brilliant experience, and it’s all anchored together by amazing direction and editing and a phenomenal central performance by Nathan Fillion. This episode encapsulates Firefly and why this show resonates with so many. Mal risks everything for the safety of his crew, and through flashbacks we see how that crew is formed. The crew in return initially refuses to leave, purely because Mal is their captain. But a captain must go down with the ship, and whilst he obviously survives it is still a noble and poignant act from Mal. The greatest relationship in the show is between Mal and Serenity, and no episode sums that up more than this episode.
Whilst these were my personal favourite episodes, all of them are worth at least a watch as they all have strong redeeming features to them. Whilst I of course would have loved to see more Firefly, part of me is glad that this show never continued past the film. If it did it would have had seasons, arcs and characters that fell flat, bad episodes would have emerged and the show would just be another television show as opposed to the unique little experience that it is. Firefly is perfect as it is, and any more would have made it less than it is. In my eyes, it’s one of the best television shows ever.