Joss Whedon’s Firefly – the “corrected” episode ratings

15 October, 2010

The British magazine SFX has published a Joss Whedon special issue, consisting of two volumes, one of articles and interviews, and the other devoted to summarising and rating all the films and TV episodes he has produced. Having first encountered Firefly only a couple of months ago (apart from seeing and not being impressed by “The Train Job” many years ago), I felt compelled to “correct” the ratings for that series. Here are the ratings and my brief summaries of influencing factors.

Serenity: Parts One and Two (movie-length pilot episode) (1.01)
Writer: Joss Whedon
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: 5 / 5
Succeeds on every level. SFX calls it “confusing”, but I found it a lot less disorienting than starting with The Train Job, which provided no set-up. In this pilot, once you understand that our main characters are on the losing side of a devastating war, you can follow subsequent developments easily. I do find River a bit hard to buy, but it was Glau’s first acting role, after all.
(SFX rating: 3.5 / 5)

The Train Job (1.02)
Writer: Joss Whedon & Tim Minear
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: 4.5 / 5
This is what a “standard” Firefly episode should’ve been like. Sparky dialogue, our characters face some danger and get to show off their smarts, there’s some well-executed gung-ho action, and nice twist in the third act which forces our heroes to face a moral dilemma. The frontier planet environment provided some nice world-building too.
I did find this episode a turn-off when I first saw it, way back when, precisely because the set-up wasn’t explained, but also because I was uncomfortable with Whedon’s smart-aleck adolescent dialogue coming from supposedly mature adult characters. Also, I thought the spaceship looked less like a spaceship and more like a student share-house! But I got used to these elements. I still think the “two by two, hands of blue” rhyme is terrible.
(SFX rating: 4 / 5)

Bushwacked (1.03)
Writer: Tim Minear
Director: Tim Minear
Rating: 4.5 / 5
Exciting, unpredictable. Reavers rule.
This builds nicely on the Reaver threat, showing a little more clearly why everyone is terrified of these perverted psychopaths. A shame they were dropped after this, until the feature film. This episode was a bit like that film Event Horizon, but not cheesy and lame. It was also nice to see a bit more of the Alliance, and satisfying the way they have to admit in the end that the Firefly’s crew are blameless (this time).
(SFX rating: 3 / 5)

Shindig (1.04)
Writer: Jane Espenson
Director: Vern Gillum
Rating: 3 / 5
Slack pacing, and too much Inara.
Yeah, I’m not an Inara fan, and here’s why: there’s an interesting idea behind the character, that these Companions are revered as a kind of wise, cultured elite, despite them being essentially high-class call girls. The problem is that the writing rarely gets to grips with this, and the acting never does. Inara has nice things, and conducted a tea ceremony, but doesn’t otherwise demonstrate great cultural knowledge or especially refined behaviour. Also, both Mal and the guest villain in this episode insult Inara by calling her a whore, which contradicts and undermines the idea that Companions are respected. Finally, the actress playing Inara isn’t up to the job. Someone with a bit more class, or at least a bit more individuality, could’ve got across the idea that Companions are an aristocratic breed. Sadly, Joss went for the pretty face and sad mouth, and not for the talent.
Regarding the pacing, there is too much dawdling before we figure out what the plot of the episode is, and then there’s too much dull conversation at the ball. To tell the truth, I found even the duel scene a bit dull – it never felt like anything was really at stake, the villain was made of cardboard, and the jokes weren’t strong enough to compensate.
(SFX rating: 4 / 5)

Safe (1.05)
Writer: Drew Z. Greenberg
Director: Michael Grossman
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Competently generic.
SFX said Bushwacked was too much like a Star Trek episode, but I’d say this is Firefly’s Trek show. The crew land on a Planet of Hats, and two are kidnapped. The outcome is never really in doubt.
(SFX rating: 3.5 / 5)

Our Mrs Reynolds (1.06)
Writer: Joss Whedon
Director: Vondie Curtis-Hall
Rating: 1 / 5
A sitcom plot; inconsistent characterisation; annoying guest actor.
For some reason, SFX writers consider this a wonderful episode, but I don’t get it. The set-up (“Whoops, did we get married last night?”) is a cliche. The characters’ reactions to the captain are bizarre, with Zoe and Book accusing Mal of some sort of terrible, immoral behaviour bordering on rape. Book: “If you take sexual advantage of her, you’re going to burn in a very special level of hell. A level they reserve for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.” Okay, the theatre joke is nice, but WTF? If Mal has sex with the woman who tricked him into marriage, stowed away on his ship to be with him, and wants very, very much (apparently) to get freaky with him, he’s the bad guy? This is bad writing.
Finally, I find the guest actress unlikable. I had the same problem with an episode of Enterprise (Rajiin), which had basically the same lame plot, and again they chose a woman with starkly angular features, mean eyes and a humourless mouth to play the seductress whom no-one can resist.
(SFX rating: 5 / 5)

Jaynestown (1.07)
Writer: Ben Edlund
Director: Marita Grabiak
Rating: 2.5 / 5
Doesn’t have the wit, tunes or story to match its concept.
The set-up is great. At this point, we already have great affection for the dimwitted galoot, and the idea of a village of people who regard this lug as a folk hero promises great things. Unfortunately, the execution is weak.
The scene of the crew getting drunk plays all the cliches with nothing really fresh added. The song in praise of Jayne, set up to be the centrepiece of the episode, once again shows Whedon’s failings as a songwriter, both melodically and structurally, and the lyrics aren’t actually funny beyond being about how great Jayne is. The resolution of the plot, such as it is, feels anticlimactic.
(SFX rating: 4 / 5)

Out of Gas (1.08)
Writer: Tim Minear
Director: David Solomon
Rating: 5 / 5
Brilliant multi-layered plot, high comedy and drama, great character moments.
I gave up on Firefly for a couple of weeks, after two bad episodes in a row. Fortunately, when I finally started watching again, this was the episode I saw. The story across three time periods could have been confusing, but in execution quickly becomes quite clear. The central plot of the ship being in danger feels important and dangerous. There are a bunch of great character moments, as we meet them “for the first time” in the flashbacks. And I like the third act twist, wherein the rescuers don’t exactly have our heroes’ interests at heart. That feels very “Firefly” to me.
(SFX rating: 4 / 5)

Ariel (1.09)
Writer: Jose Molina
Director: Allan Kroeker
Rating: 4 / 5
A nifty heist episode, like “Train Job”, though with slacker pacing and too much Inara. Also, we get some nice development of the wider world of the series, and learn more about Simon and River.
(SFX rating: 3 / 5)

War Stories (1.10)
Writer: Cheryl Cain
Director: James A Contner
Rating: 3.5 / 5
A decent “standard” episode. To be honest, I don’t remember much about it, except that Mal and Wash take to being tortured surprisingly well (funny), and River shows she’s a crack killer, and spouts a terrible line: “No power in the ‘verse can stop me.” Probably even worse than “I can kill you with my brain.”
(SFX rating: 4.5 / 5)

Trash (1.11)
Writer: Ben Edlund & Jose Molina
Director: Vern Gillum
Rating: 2.5 / 5
The annoying guest actor from Our Mrs Reynolds returns, to kick off a generic heist plot. There’s a “sting” at the end which I didn’t see coming, which I guess makes me an idiot. Also, naked Mal, for those who are interested.
(SFX rating: 4 / 5)

The Message (1.12)
Writer: Joss Whedon & Tim Minear
Director: Tim Minear
Rating: 3.5 / 5
A convoluted, hole-filled plot with no great emotional appeal, redeemed by some character moments. The main guest character wasn’t very interesting or likable, and his death felt like a plot contrivance, so the funeral at the end was a hollow, overblown moment. Jayne’s hat is the highlight of the episode, admittedly a great highlight.
(SFX rating: 4 / 5)

Heart of Gold (1.13)
Writer: Brett Matthews
Director: Thomas J Wright
Rating: 3.5 / 5
Whedon’s “prostitutes are cool” schtick gets more overt and annoying, and there’s too much Inara. I think Whedon’s interest in hookers during this show might’ve been due to personal experience…. The episode is redeemed by a good seige story. The brothel being an old homestead covered in “futuristic” tinfoil was an interesting look.
(SFX rating: 3.5 / 5)

Objects in Space (1.14)
Writer: Joss Whedon
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: 4.5 / 5
This final episode aims high, but doesn’t hit quite as solidly as “Out of Gas”. The bounty hunter Early is interesting and likable, and the way he overcomes the crew and terrorises Kaley is gripping. Also, River gets a little more character development, which is nice. But there are some points where the plot seems directionless.
(SFX rating: 5 / 5)
 
 
Serenity (feature film)
Writer: Joss Whedon
Director: Joss Whedon
Rating: 4 / 5
It’s good, but the ending is a bit by-the-numbers and TV scale. The Reavers look quite crap close up, just blokes with shaggy wigs. The wrong characters die.
Watching this movie on TV was what convinced me to try Firefly again. It’s plotting is slick and exciting, and it’s great to see more world development. The Reaver ships are cool, and the Alliance Operative is an intriguing “villain”.
I hated it when Wash died, and Book’s death seemed superfluous too. It’s obvious these deaths were used to “up the stakes”, but the fact that I could tell this undermines their worth. The fact that no-one seems especially upset, even Zoe, also works against the film. I think better candidates for offing would’ve been Simon (Space Xander!) (Glau would’ve given a great grief scene) and the always superfluous Inara.
Mal’s climactic action scene is a bit disappointing, as he’s fighting to connect an antenna, not save the world or even just his ship. His laconic front never falters, which is also a let down in terms of dramatic pay-off.
The Reavers in the final shoot-out are just guys in regular clothes with shaggy wigs. Based on the design of their ships, and the self-mutilation we saw in Bushwacked, I expected to see more exposed skin, wild body paint, and crazy body piercings, scars and deformities. That would’ve been much more exciting and true to what we’d previously learned. Someone really dropped the ball there.
(SFX rating: 4.5 / 5)
 

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