Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Firefly Ep3: The Train Job

The Train Job is notorious for being aired as the introduction to viewers of the Firefly series on television rather than the intended pilot.

The Train Job was broadcast out of order when Serenity was filmed as the pilot. Given this fact I plan on viewing this by placing myself in the shoes of those first-time viewers. While enjoying the adventure I will keep one eye to that perspective in my analysis to see if I can come to some understanding of why Firefly was cancelled so quickly. The truth is we'll never fully understand, but I thought it might be fun to attempt to breakdown this one variable, The Train Job as the show's pilot, on where it all went wrong. Granted, other variables are not the same since I've already seen the pilot episode. I will do my best to separate myself from that information throughout my viewing experience. This could be interesting or impossible. For a truly terrific analysis on where the show went wrong or went right you need to check out the book, Finding Serenity. It's a terrific Firefly read filled with wonderful essays one of them being reasons for the show's cancellation.

Welcome to Firefly, Episode 3, The Train Job. The story begins as Mal, Jayne and Zoe spend a little time on the down low at a planetary bar with music, drink and recreation. A drunkard begins spouting off from the bar dissing the Browncoats and talking up the Alliance. A. No one disses the Browncoats. B. This is surely one way to piss off Mal Reynolds. You have to love this sequence. This is reason to love the series. It's charged with snappy dialogue and the outcome is unpredictable.


You have to love the bar window. Nice touch with the special effects. There's a whole lot less cleanup after the bar dust ups to be sure. You also get a taste of the Asian language often applied throughout the series by Mal. Jayne is a beauty too. A fight ensues and our trio is quickly outnumbered, but damn-it-all-to-hell if you think someone is going to badmouth the independence movement to Mal's face. The gang is rescued by the timely appearance of Wash and lady Serenity. As Mal, Jayne and Zoe are about to be shot off the ledge of a cliff by a rowdy mob, Wash tells them all to go back inside or he will "blow a new crater in this little moon." Frankly that line and delivery is freaking hysterical. Perhaps that line is made funnier having had the pleasure to learn a bit about Wash in the Pilot. Of course, the Firefly-class ship that is Serenity is a transport vessel and is not armed with any kind of weaponry that Wash bluffs he'll use to make that hole. Fortunately the bar clientele isn't the smartest batch of hombres on the planet.


*
Now if I'm seeing this for the first time I would say there isn't a great deal of character development at the outset, but I would be intrigued by this batch of rogue-like characters and their motivations. At least I'd like to think so. Following the opening credits we witness River on a gurney in Firefly's makeshift medlab where she is clearly having visions of past experiments performed on her person. Much of the information here I have a sense about based upon the pilot which new viewers clearly wouldn't have seen or completely understood. Poor River is very unstable. River rattles off all of the associated numeric information to the Firefly-class vessel and as Mal walks in he's clearly impressed too. The moment clearly speaks to her genius which was also referenced in the pilot. Background information is clearly omitted for first-time viewers.
*
Simon wonders if the brawl has brought any unwanted attention upon their group a la his sister River. Mal confirms no. An interesting point is made when River defines Mal's name in Latin as 'bad'. Of course, having taken five years of Spanish I should have noticed that. Mal speaks with Book who asks about River. Mal refers to her as "still whimsical in the brainpan." Splendid funny stuff. Mal is so curt with Book and never buys into his sincere conversation mocking Book as he makes kind remarks about Simon. Book makes ovations to call Mal a good man. Why else would he have fugitives on board? Mal tells Book he needs the "fare." Mal tells Book, look "you're welcome on my boat, God ain't" unbothered by Book's efforts to see inside the man, but on some level he does get Mal.
*
Kaylee and Inara are having a little girl time [not like that!] when Mal barges in. It's a wonderfully amusing scene and Mal wants Kaylee back in the engine room to square things away. Mal and Inara are quickly drawn in to their love/hate relationship. Mal warns they will be landing on a Skyplex [space station] that is overseen by a fairly nasty fellow named Niska. Once again, the Inara-Mal dynamic was introduced with greater detail in the Pilot. This scene extends nicely upon that connection, but might seem slightly odd to the first-time viewer.


*
Gunslingers, Space stations, the BeBop, rather Serenity, you really get a sense of those Cowboy Bebop flavors.
On the Skyplex, Niska greets Mal and team. Niska sports a mighty fine European accent. He looks like the gentlemanly sort. Niska speaking to Mal is happy to bolster his own unpleasant reputation. To prove his point he slides a door open to display a tortured victim who has failed his mission. The man is bloodied and hanging like a carcass of meat. His fate was an unhealthy one. Niska tells them of "the train job." Mal is made slightly uneasy by the dead man, but listens just the same. Niska has a good read on Mal and friends as he mentions their reputations versus the Alliance. The train is Alliance owned and is their primary target. The boxes on board the train must be removed while en route from one point to the other. It will be a difficult moving target. Niska makes one last threat, if Mal doesn't come through, then their relationship will not be so "solid."
*
On the planet below the train roars along. Some nice effects are created for the hovering train craft. Zoe calls Niska a "psycho." She's not wrong. There's even a Nazi-like element to the man. Aboard the train, Zoe and Mal prepare to do the train job. As they begin walking toward their target car they reach one filled with about 20 Alliance soldiers.
*
Back on board the Serenity Inara and Book meet in the break room. Book asks her how long she's known Mal. She mentions she's been with the vessel for eight months, but doubts she will ever actually get to know the captain. This adds a little more to the man's guarded character fleshed out in much greater detail in the pilot including Mal's relationship with the good Lord. There's an interesting moment whereby Book says, "I wish I could help." There's something to the way he delivers that line that implies Book has insights from his own past he could offer, but doesn't want to elaborate as he gets tongue-tied and moves off the subject.
*
On the train Mal and Zoe move closer to their target, but Zoe rightfully discerns that maybe they aren't getting all of the necessary information. She proceeds with caution not knowing what lies ahead for them. Mal tells her the details don't concern them and not to worry. Mal smiles and tells her the existence of the fed guards "makes it more fun." Inbound, here comes Serenity.
*
Zoe: "Sir, I think you have a problem with your brain being missing."
*
Mal: "Come on. We stick to the plan. We get the goods. We're back on Serenity before the train even reaches Paradiso only now we do it under the noses of twenty trained Alliance feds and that makes 'em look all manner of stupid. Hell this job I would pull for free."
*
Zoe: "Then can I have your share?"
*
Mal: "No."
*
Zoe: "If you die can I have your share?"
*
Mal: "Yes."
*
The Serenity prepares the cargo hold. Simon asks Kaylee what she's doing. She responds honestly, matter-of-factly and all cute-like, "crime." This is quite classic and not uncommon in Firefly.


*
Jayne implies to Kaylee that Mal is thinking of handing Simon and River over to the Alliance. Jayne is a complete box of rocks. He's a trip, but Kaylee wonders if what he's telling her is true anyway. We wonder as well, because thus far Mal has made no mention of such a plan. That's not to say he hasn't actually considered it.
*
So, the suspense filled heist aboard the train begins. A fed from the fed car takes a stroll and right away we know trouble is brewing just two to three cars away for Mal and Zoe. The special effects for the sequence are truly magnificent for television. There is such depth and reality to the movements, the air flow, the exhaust from Serenity's propulsion systems. It's a beauty. Thus far though, the character's backgrounds are certainly not there for first time viewers and their motivations are entirely unclear coming off more as bad guys than good or at least folks who've been kicked in the gut by an evil Alliance and just out there trying to survive. It's definitely a vague portrait of this group of people that is not properly defined here. The series pilot is the better establishing vehicle.
*
Jayne drops down into the moving train car from Serenity as the trio begins loadin' up the "booty." Wash holds the old girl steady and it has to be a challenging and treacherous mission exercise for him as pilot to keep the girl parallel to the rapidly moving train. At this point, the fed is moving closer and we wonder if they will pull the job off in time. Zoe rigged a smoke bomb as a warning of sorts at the entrance door should anyone arrive. It does go off and the fed begins firing his weapon haphazardly. Mal jumps and knocks him unconscious. Why is the conductor of the train not seeing this in play? Perhaps, it doesn't matter. Anyway, Jayne lifts off the goods and gets back aboard the fleeing Serenity. Mal and Zoe quickly move to the next car to hide amongst the passengers after lobbing a smoke grenade to create a diversion.

On the Serenity it's clear Jayne was shot in the leg during the melee. Mal and Zoe exit the train and the local law enforcement officers converse. No one knows who took what. It's reported medicine was stolen as Mal and Zoe listen in. Mal's none too happy with his role in this one after hearing that. Elsewhere on the planet, the Serenity has ducked off into a crater to lay low until Mal and Zoe return. A shaken River knows the Alliance will keep coming and coming. She has clearly been through alot and her brain wiring has been scrambled good. Book believes being a little late to rendezvous with Niska is better than letting on Mal and Zoe might be missing, might be detained and might be talking. That would not bode well for the crew. How does Book know this? He's either a fairly savvy stowaway with good common sense or he's experienced.

Back on Paradiso, Zoe and Mal contemplate what they have just accomplished amidst a crowd of ill people. Zoe and Mal pretend to be husband and wife. It's a cute exchange and one of those character exchanges you love to see in the series. A local law officer interrogates the couple. Mal fabricates a story that his uncle paid for their trip as a wedding gift to them. They are in Paradiso looking for work in the mines. Unfortunately ore processing has caused afflictions to many of its people. The officer indicates the meds needed to treat their illness was stolen off of the train. The officer asks Mal when he last spoke with Joey Blogs, the man offering them job potential. Mal says he never did. His uncle set him off in this direction. The officer indicates Joey committed suicide about eight months ago. Blew his head clean off. Mal asks, "So would his job be open?" Is that just excellent?

On the Serenity, Jayne is applying pressure to lift the old girl off without Mal and Zoe. Wash refuses to budge right along with Kaylee. Fortunately Simon doped Jayne earlier with painkiller and he finally drops in front of the crew before he can do any further damage by forcing an execution of his plan to return the goods to Niska sans Mal and Zoe's leadership. So the crew hatches a plan to rescue Mal and Zoe. The crew isn't stupid and apart from Wash's love for Zoe, they know the smart plan is to have them on board. This is another factor first time viewers wouldn't entirely grasp, the marriage of Wash and Zoe explored in more detail in the pilot.

The plan goes into effect. Inara waltzes into the office holding Mal and Zoe for questioning and slaps Mal and informs the sheriff that Mal is her "indentured man," or as The One To Be Pitied calls it, love slave. They buy it. She brings Mal and Zoe back to the ship. Kaylee asks how it went. Mal puts it plainly referring to Inara, "she hit me." But, Mal and Zoe tell the crew they aren't going anywhere. The medicine must be returned. Mal knows they'll just have to tell Niska the deal went south. This, of course, speaks volumes about the heart and soul of Mal. He is a good man at heart and to see this many people suffering is not what he signed up for. He won't have a hand in the ills of regular folk. In the end, Niska's mob shows up and Mal will need to deal with them directly. Mal tells the murderous group the deal is off. He calls it even. "There's no even" with Mr. Niska. A huge brawl ensues. Mal is about to get wacked when Jayne suddenly shoots the head moron in the leg. Mal excitedly proclaims "nice shot" to Jayne. A drugged up Jayne slurs his speech with one of the funniest lines, "I was aiming for his head."

Mal brings the goods back to the local Paradiso sheriff. The sheriff respects Mal's decision to return the goods. He tells Mal a man has a choice to make when he hears of the kind of circumstances the people are living under. Mal, the big damn hero, makes it clear there is only one choice, the right one, and he makes it. That says it all about Mal. This is why we love Mal. If anything it gave first-time viewers a chance to see what this cast of rogues was all about.

Back at Serenity, Mal tells the head thug to return the money to Niska. "We're not thieves, but we are thieves, point is we're not taking what's his." Funny, funny stuff. The head musclehead tells him keep the money for his funeral. Mal is forced to kill him and kicks him into the vacuum of Serenity's turbine engine thrusters. The next thug quickly complies with Mal's wishes after witnessing his partner's quick demise. Classic!



Not to be confused with the Blue Man Group!
The final moments introduce two men complete with blue gloves in search of a girl in the photo. The girl is River. There is a touch of mystery about these men presenting their quest to the Alliance. I always found it to be the X-Files element within the show and it was a terrific idea. It was a frightening undercurrent. About midway through the entry, River is having one of her seemingly psychotic breaks when she offers some information. At the time the information seems fairly innocuous or strange or pointless like psychobabble when it really lends a bit of insight into her past. There is meaning there when she says, "they'll never stop, they'll just keep coming until they get back what you took, two by two, hands of blue." Jayne brushes her off as crazy like most of us do. I suspect much of what she says isn't quite as crazy as it seemed upon my initial viewing. Unfortunately the hands of blue never get fully fleshed out in this series. What a heartbreaker.

It's a hoot to watch a series for a second go round. Getting all of the intimate details you missed the first time around is fun. In the end, I'm not sure I fully excused myself from my prior knowledge of Firefly's pilot entry despite my efforts to do so. In fact, I know I didn't. I see where the proper sequencing of this series would have worked to its long-term benefit. Having said that, I cannot understand how someone still wouldn't be lured into this wonderful series based upon The Train Job. HAVING said that, I believe there were many variables in play at the time of Firefly's release that doomed its future from the very start. You can point to many problems outside of the series' material itself. This is a flawlessly penned show and there is no fault in it that I can see. It's impeccable. Fox squarely and solely takes ownership and bears responsibility for this failed series. Like any new show it needed time to develop and garner an audience. It never had a chance. I truly believe it is the best Joss Whedon has offered in his short career. The TV format requires time, Firefly burned brightly, like the insect, it's life too was far too short.
*
The Train Job: A

2 comments:

babs m said...

Very nice dissection and I think you do hit the points of why this series SHOULD have been told in sequence. I miss it so much. :( Just for the dialogue alone and the inter-character relationships, so complicated and intriguing.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks Babs M for the remarks. Amen, I'm with you.