Considering that in the commentary they talk about how hastily this episode was written, (over a weekend) it doesn’t seem like it. As a first episode, it’s pretty strong - clever dialogue, strong character moments, a passable plot with few weaknesses.
The dialogue, as ever, is pretty clever. There’s more humor than the previous ep (pilot). Jayne: “Chain of command - it’s the one I go get and beat you with 'til you understand who’s in rutting command here.”
As a pilot, it’s lacking. There isn’t really enough time to talk about all the characters. The dual nature of the space show and the western feel on the planets doesn’t come across as well; for most of the episode, the ship might as well have been a helicopter.
The first showing of the ship.
Inara translating: “… the exact phrase I used was ‘don’t’.”
Mal trying desperately to keep his cool talking to the sheriff: “So… would his job be open?”
Another theme that we see throughout Firefly is Whedon’s misdirections. There may have been examples in the pilot, but I don’t remember them as well as a few key ones here. Book suggests someone respectable enough could rescue Mal. The camera pans to Simon - he’s dressed up, he’s a doctor, he’s respectable, right? Then you see it’s Inara - the prostitute. Bear is shot in the knee. Mal says thanks. The camera pans to Zoey with her sawed off shotgun, so it was her, right? No, it was Jayne, who was aiming for his head. The intricacy this gives the show is wonderful.
More character moments that make this show great. Mal doesn’t put up with crap. You’ve got the old “villain will haunt you to the end of the universe”, so Mal shoves him in the engine. Book has some depth - how does he know Niska? (I’ll ask this again in a later episode…)
Plot problems I had:
Niska has been trying to get someone to do this job. But the train ride isn’t that long; what are the odds it hadn’t already happened when Mal is ready for the job?
The medecine comes from off planet. Why wasn’t it landed where it was needed?
No one on the train notices this spaceship buzzing them? Huh? Kind of big and loud, don’t you think?
Some more comments? (“Best thing for everyone - I’m right there with you.”)
I have one big problem with this episode, which may be a plot hole, or may be something I simply failed to notice. Why do Mal and Zoe have to be on the train to begin with? Why can’t they come down from the top, like Jayne?
I adore Niska. He’s such a cute little psychopathic gnome.
This episode has one of my favorite Zoe lines: “Sir, I think there’s a problem with your brain being missing.” Gina Torres is excellent at deadpan line delivery.
I wonder if Mal has ever told Jayne he’s third-in-command, or if he figured he could just bully Wash, Kaylee and the others into submission. I lean towards option number two, but I wouldn’t put it past Mal to humor Jayne by saying he is, knowing pefectly well that the rest of the crew wouldn’t listen to him against their better judgement.
I think this is one of the only episodes that actually showed the authority that Companions are supposed to have in this society. Most of the others I can think of (in Janestown and War Stories) just show Inara’s influence over her clients.
Overall, I think this is one of the weaker episodes as far as plot goes, but it makes up points for humor and kicking people into jet engines. (That never gets old!)
I think that someone has to be in the car to open the roof from inside. Also, they didn’t have much time from when Jayne landed to discovery; perhaps being inside helps that out.
I doubt Mal’s told anyone or set up a chain of command. His style seems to be that it’s only him, plus any orders he leaves at the time. Especially, the more we find out about Jayne later, the less I would include him in the chain of command.
Considering that this episode was written over a weekend, and had to serve as a psuedo-pilot as well as a regular episode, I thought it was very well done.
And the moment at the end, where Niska’s goon goes into the jet is the moment that Joss Whedon reached into my chest and hid my heart on that little smuggler’s nook on Serenity. I’ve been a browncoat ever since.
I think Jayne assumes that he’s the third in command since, in a violent situation, he is. And in Jayne’s world, that’s what really matters, and he has trouble understanding that the logic of a immediate fight doesn’t always apply. Jayne’s not a bad man, but he’s been (and been with) mercenary thugs so long that he doesn’t know that there’s a better way. But that’s better explored in other episodes.
Well, I’ve always liked this episode a lot; one of my top five favorites, really. It doesn’t make anywhere near as good a pilot as, well, the actual pilot, but following in natural order from Serenity, it’s a fine riff on the “We do the job, then we get paid” theme established for the series. In fact, mostly it follows the evolution of the original pilot: a bit of back story to explain why Mal doesn’t much care for the Alliance, meet the psycho who wants the job done (and the actor who plays Niska is wonderfully creepy), start the job, have it go all cock-eyed in ways we can’t predict, stumble into a Mexican standoff which results in serious ass being righteously kicked.
Also, to in my mind a greater extent than the pilot, it shows off the genre-warping that made the series so rich in ideas: It’s a space opera! It’s a Western! It’s a caper flick! Hey, it’s all three at once, plus a bit more!
Maybe I like it partly 'cause I like trains, and this one’s a beaut: maglev, apparently, with a locomotive that seems to give a nod to the art-deco streamlined steam locomotives of the 20th Century Limited. The effects are first-rate, particularly Serenity’s reveal in the pre-credits sequence, and, as Whedon and Minear mention in the commentary, the great shot of the ship struggling up and away from the train after winching the goods aboard. Mal’s method of dealing with the henchman is hilarious, yet establishes further the rather disturbing fact that Mal won’t hesitate to kill anyone who threatens him, without blinking an eye. Also, the episode is jam-packed with great lines, most of which NE Texan has already mentioned. Oh, wait, here’s another one:
Mal: “I’m sure he was a very bad man”.
Niska: "(shrugs) “My wife’s nephew. At dinner I am getting earful.”
Lastly, I’ll attempt some excuses, er, explanations for the plot anomalies raised by the OP:
The medicine run to Paradiso may be a semi-regular event, so Niska just arranges for the hijacking to take place on the next run after he gets someone to do the job.
No port or Customs facilities at Paradiso. These are Alliance goods we’re talking about, so everything is done strictly by the book.
Not much to say about this one, except that I presume the train was also made nearly windowless to avoid snarky questions about why someone wouldn’t just look out the window and see the big spaceship outside.
The first time I ever saw the bad guy give his speech, I was rolling my eyes and thinking how old that gets, since the hero never does anything about it. When Mal kicked him into the engine, I literally jumped with shock, and that’s when I knew I loved this show and its characters.
I’m a big Buffy & Angel fan so I was eager to see Whedon’s new baby and watched this when originally broadcast (OK, I taped it when originally broadcast on a Friday night and watched it sometime later) but what struck me (besides the great “chain of command” line) was the interplay between Mal and Zoe. I’d almost compare their relationship to Kirk and Spock, in that Zoe clearly could command but chose to yield to Mal, but that at the same time she was self-assured enough to ask about his brain being missing.
All women in this show are beyond cute, maybe with the exception of River.
There was a reason Hitchcock loved used trains as a setting. Wonderful claustrophobic feeling, those long walks between rows of passengers, the possibilities to hid or even get off (which aren’t there on a plane), ASF. Trains are great for movie drama.
Besides, the semi amoral protagonists of westerns always rob trains, don’t they? So of course, Wheadon would have a train job somewhere in the series.
And as I keep harping on - the grey shades of right or wrong are here again. Mal kicking someone into the engine could as easily have been told from another POV, making a horrific moment and establishing him as public enemy #1.
Main characters aside, I was really impressed by the guy who played the local sheriff. The scene where he describes the illness of the Paradisio citizens (Paradisians?) paints him as a man who cares about the people under his charge, and who is endlessly frustrated by his inability to do more. There is genuine menace in his voice when he says that he wants to drop the perpetrators of the theft “into a mineshaft, and let 'em breathe deep,” but his actions at the end of the episode show that he is more than the stereotypical thug cop.
It does have some problems in terms of being a pilot – no one but Mal, Zoe, Jayne and Wash (a little) have anything to do but the rest have to show up nonetheless. When I watched the show originally I remember being really quite bored by it until Mal kicked the guy in the engine. Until then, it just seemed so adventure cliche. In hindsight, I see things about it that I missed the first time around which make it better than I remember, but it was still awfully conventional of plot. Man, was it a bad idea to make this the first thing anyone saw of this show.
You’re absolutely right. Whedon talks about this in the commentary on the DVD, and about how difficult it was, both in terms of time (the “only a weekend” other posters are referring to is how long he had to write it after finding out his original pilot was not going to air first) and how he had to cram the needed backstory into one hour instead of two. Even he admits that it’s not as good a pilot as, well, the pilot.
Nothing else to add that hasn’t been said. I also like that the cop wasn’t a bureaucratic bad-guy, but a man truly trying to do right by his people. “Chain of command” - brilliant. It gets quoted (in fun) at the WhyHouse all the time.
And yeah, we all like the guy kicked into the engine. But what’s even better for me is the second, more “reasonable” henchman’s reaction!
Joss pointed out something in the commentary for the pilot that counts here, too: Jayne thinks he is the hero of this story. Mal is the Captain, Zoe is 1st officer, but he’s the hero, the go-to guy that gets the job done when the face people fall flat. He’s not in charge, but he’s the hero. “You don’t see anybody else getting ready to jump out of a spaceship, now, do ya?”
Don’t we all think we’re the hero of our stories? I’m sure to Simon the ‘story’ is all about his saving his sister. To Wash, it’s being sure the ship gets where it’s needed, regardless of dangers and enemies and tricky navigation. For Kaylee it’s all about the ship itself, and keeping it ‘healthy.’ Book? Who knows, but I’m sure there’s a story and he’s the hero. And so forth.
This is normal and natural for real people. It’s impressive that JW managed to get it conveyed so clearly by the characters in the series.
I mean, consider the characters in this show after 14 (or whatever it is) episodes and, oh, Sulu or Riker or Boomer or – heck, I can’t even think of his name, the Asian flight deck guy from Voyager. All of them got at least three years of episodes, but would you argue that any of them are half as well developed, as ‘real’, as the least of the Firefly regulars?
To some degree that’s true–but for Jayne, he’s a Hero. Kaylee’s probably not seeing herself in quite such melodramatic terms; she’s just getting the job done and enjoying hanging out with the rest of the ensemble. Jayne, on the other hand, thinks he’s on a TV show called “Jayne’s Company.”