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Friday, January 4, 2013

Firefly Ep 1: Serenity - James' Review

Episode 1: Serenity

For a long time, I put off watching Firefly. It was really a combination of reasons,
the main one being that I didn’t believe all the praise the show got. But as I neared the
end of my Star Trek marathon (every single episode of every single show including the
movies), I started to plan out my next SciFi show, and Firefly came up as a possibility. It
was only 15 episodes, so I figured I could breeze through it.

The first thing to note is that you really can’t just breeze through it. The show is
much to complex. The characters are detailed and interesting, and the story requires
some dwelling upon to fully appreciate it. This is immediately apparent in the first
episode. The show starts of with a bang, quite literally. Shots of explosions and gunfire
make it apparent that this is a full fledged war. This is where you first meet Mal and Zoe.
Mal is immediately portrayed as a risk taking, enthusiastic individual, and someone who
truly believes in what he’s fighting for. The latter fact is realized when he is told to
surrender by whoever was in charge of his army. Zoe has no real development in the

The first half of the episode introduces all the characters in two ways. Mal, Zoe,
“Wash”, Inara, Jayne, and Kaylee’s roles and personalities are introduced, and we see
the “new” members of the crew, Simon, Book, and River. Up until the scene where
Kaylee is greeting people at the ship, I was really enjoying the show. However, Kaylee
really began to get on my nerves. The blatant, and frankly a bit obnoxious, immaturity
didn’t strike me as funny. Her frequent use of the word “shiny” in place of “good” or “fun”
made me think she had the mind of a three-year-old. As for the other characters, I
thought they were all done really well, and seemed very authentic. Mal is a bit of a
cliché, but hey, who doesn’t love a classic character?

Now comes Book. I absolutely love him. He’s coolheaded, intelligent, and kind,
and doesn’t force his beliefs onto others. I find his character refreshing in two ways, one
being that he acts as a sort of “shore leave” from the sometimes gritty and stressful tone
of the show. Book is the friend you can talk to after a long day of work, and feel
immediately better afterwards. The other reason is the fact that he doesn’t press his
beliefs onto others. So often you see religious individuals, and even non-religious
individuals trying to prove their point and press their beliefs onto others endlessly and
tirelessly. Book understands that his beliefs are not the only beliefs, and respects that
wholeheartedly. His relationship with Inara highlights this, as he begins to farm a
friendship with her. He even jokes about the lectures he can give about her line of work
(prostitution), and states that he has no intention of using them. I am exited to see more
of their relationship.

One of the things that did bother me though, was the whole Western theme. To
put it bluntly, it seemed unnecessary, not well thought out, and at times, unrealistic.
Now, if the show had a Wild West vibe to it, or some motifs or comparisons to life in the
Wild West, I would have jumped right on board. The idea of the lawless “Rim” is almost
the exact situation of the Wild West. However, it went beyond allusions and similarities.
Everyone talks like they’re in a spaghetti Western, all the civilian guns are very close to
the old 1800’s weapons, the dress style is, without exaggeration, exactly the same as
Western movies, and even the music is folky. While it’s not exactly “tacked on”, the
Western style really seems like a gimmick that Joss Whedon thought “would be kind of
cool, I guess”. Why are guns 500 years in the future less high tech than they are now?
Even the military guns are the exact same models that the military uses today. Some
things can be explained away like the style of dress, but then why do they talk like
Rooster Cogburn without the accent? The music is purely folk-Western, and has
nothing to do with the SciFi aspect of the show, and seems completely irrelevant.

As the story continues, it becomes clear that Simon is hiding something. It comes
as a shock when he turns out not to be the government agent Mal suspected him to be,
and even more of a shock when the incompetent agent shoots Kaylee in the stomach.
But what really caught me off guard- well, actually I knew what was going to happen
next because I had seen the next scene when I was younger while my Dad was
watching it. But if I had not known, what would have really caught me off guard was
what Simon was really hiding: his sister, River.

The story slows down a bit at this point, though Kaylee is still battling for her life
with Simon trying his best to help her. A bit later on, Simon starts telling the story of
what happened to River, that she was extremely intelligent and that the government
was performing tests on her. He smuggled her onto the ship in response to a plea from
River to get her away from the government scientists. Frankly, the story was a bit cliché,
but I could have shrugged it off if River was a better character. Throughout the rest of
the episode, she added nothing except panicky scenes, tantrums, and scary mutterings,
shoving the fact that something “wasn’t quite right about her” into my face. There could
have been some really great insight into her character right from the start, but instead
the writers chose to make the viewers not care about her instead. She is the only really
weak character in the group (at least Kaylee is somewhat interesting), and I hoped that
would change soon. After only about 40 minutes, I was sick of River just sitting there,
adding nothing to the episode except for a potential hostage for the Alliance Agent.

One thing that I wish the episode did earlier on was show the crew fluidly working
together like they did in the exchange with the colonists near the end of the episode.

They carried out a plan fluidly and almost flawlessly, showing that they are able to work
together well. However, this didn’t seem to be the case previously. I got the impression
that Mal just gave them orders, and the crew just screwed around until work got done. I
will be interested to see which of these facts is predominant in the upcoming episodes.

The end of the episode ended with my two favorite characters (Book and Inara)
talking, with Book opening up to his most unlikely friend. Well, actually there was one
more scene, but I really don’t care much about Mal or Simon, so it really didn’t any
anything for me personally, except to set up the stage for the next episode. Overall, the
show doesn’t really live up to its reputation, but defiantly has potential.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Firefly Ep 3 Bushwhacked - Mike's Review

In this episode I noticed how crowded space is in the Firefly Verse.  Responding to a distress beacon Serenity encounters an apparently derelict ship.  They board and find one person alive and everyone else who was aboard dead.  They also 'salvage' the cargo and before getting away are waylaid by an Alliance cruiser and it's bureaucracy.

When the distress signal is received there little doubt about going to investigate and render aide if they can among most of the crew.  The doubts that some express, like a worry about Alliance ships responding and encountering them by Simon I understood in part I think because they were not raised very strongly and it was pretty clear they would go.  Only Jayne seemed the most reluctant until the possibility of booty is raised.  It's intended as a funny moment when Jayne agrees to go and see what can be done to lend aide when he's clearly just thinking of personal gain and I did chuckle familiar with Jayne as I am from having watched the series before.  But it was a pretty cold chuckle it didn't strike me as funny as I think it was intended.  I think I could imagine my fear giving rise to thoughts of leaving to others the task of going to see what happened to the ship and if anything could be done.  I can not imagine changing my mind for booty, or maybe even that but then to pretend it was due to a sudden change of heart.  That is difficult for me to imagine and I wonder about what could shape a response like that?  Because I do think real people can and do act that way.

An interesting scene happens that I think shows the virtuoso writing, in two scenes I felt a sense of comradeship among the crew grown, the character of Simon fleshed out a touch, and the contrasting natures of two important poles of the crew Kayley and Jayne is brought into sharp focus.  And it was funny.  Earlier in the show we learn that Simon has a fear of EVA in spacesuits.  Initially the crew has to board the derelict ship in suits and Jayne tricks Simon into thinking he's needed onboard the ship and has to suit up.  Simon enters the ship, makes his way to where the rest of the crew is and finds them all unsuited.  Everyone laughs, Simon curses Jayne.  Kayley walks up and gently tells him he attached his helmet incorrectly.  It's funny and you see the caring nature of Kayley in stark contrast to the self centered nature of Jayne.

I always thought the show handled science pretty well and depicted space well.  The images of the ships approaching and rotating around each other was beautiful and silent.

River again seems distant but maybe getting closer.  She's drawn to the ship and it's due to her that they figure out Reavers committed the murders.  I began to feel a connection to her wondering and to her as a part of the crew.

The rest of the episode involves dealing with the Alliance who suspect the crew of committing the murders and dealing with the sole survivor.  The survivor becomes savage and goes on a rampage.  Mal says it is due to the atrocities he witnessed and says it would be kinder to kill the man.  Again I realize this same character that insisted on helping strangers if they could is also capable of killing another human being without any apparent distress.  It stuck me that although Mal may be an extreme example Kayley is much the same.  When she has to disarm a sensitive booby trap her approach is to face it with the same pleasant disposition she has in every trouble she faces, she gets hurt and sad but at the start she just goes in, with a pleasant voice she details the options regarding the booby trap.  When Mal asks if she is sure she can do it she points out either she can and all is well or she can't and they will be dead and wont have to worry.  She faces each step as she is and takes that step.  So does Mal, they are just different in how.

It is a chilling moment when I realize that when the survivor says "No...mercy' it isn't a plea for mercy but a statement.  As a friend of mine likes to remind people, good grammar can save lives.

And by the end of the episode, only the 3rd, I feel already that the crew is becoming one group.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Firefly Ep 2 "Train Job" - Mike's Review

The Train Job felt like diving right into the deep end after the introduction in the first episode.  Same kind of job in a sense, illegal, don't ask questions, but in that we are introduced to the widening web of the Verse.

In quick summary Mal signs the crew up for a job for a notorious and ruthless crime boss.  We are introduced to Niska where he explains his theory of reputation and relationships.  He knows he has a reputation for ruthlessness he wants to turn the idea that he is ruthless and demanding into reality for Mal.  To do this he shows them a man he has tortured and killed for failing to complete a job he hired him for.

Niska tells Mal that he knows of Mal's reputation for getting things done but that only how he completes this job will make that reality for Niska.

Mal's idea of what it means to be a free being and loyal to his crew means that he can not ask questions his other ideas of morality would normally demand.  It showed to me how we all prioritized our ethics and morals, holding one above all the others we can easily allow ourselves deliberant or not to be blind to some of our choices and actions.

The job is to rob a train on a resource poor world.  It has one resource, an ore that combined with other environmental conditions creates a chronic disease condition in the human settlers there.  The condition is painful and fatal except when treated regularly with medicine.  The question Mal didn't ask was what the cargo to be stolen was.

After they steal the cargo they learn it is this medicine.

The settlers on the world are people who in general share the Brown Coat (the rebel, anti-aliance faction) sentiment but as Mal tries to make the larger political/social moral point about the exploitation of the less powerful settlers by the alliance the sheriff makes the point that it wasn't the alliance who stole the medicine.

Even when we try to be blind to the real consequences of our actions often the 'verse just keeps trying to show us and Mal is forced to see the consequences of his actions because of spending time with the sheriff and others in the settlement.  Once faced with the reality he chooses to return the medicine and face the consequences of dealing with Niska.

And in fact this choice only strengthens his connections with his crew; with the possible exception of Jayne, although it puts them in danger.  It was a crack in Mal's image that let in all the others and together they are able to if not fully resolve at least live through the resolution of the job for a while.

And so it seemed to me that Niska was indeed right, by his actions in "accomplishing" the job Mal did show who he was.  That time at least.

A few other things of note in this episode.

Having been part of and entangled with big bureaucracies I thought the portrayal of the bureaucracy on the Alliance ship excellent.  The Alliance isn't an evil empire, just large, powerful and trying to maintain the status quo and made up of moral human beings doing the best they can with the lives they have.

River still seems inaccessible to me as a character.  Interesting in an intellectual way but while I find something in each of the other characters that touches something inside myself I haven't felt that yet in River.  Along those lines I felt both Simon and Book really started solidifying for me.  Simon when he says he'll deal with Jayne on his own shows the courage to take responsibility for his own life that he must have had to rescue and flee with his sister in the first place.  And Book at first feeling useless but in the end provided valuable information and help to the crew.

The ease in which Mal shoves Niska's thug into the engines at the end is disturbing and yet somehow it seems appropriate to me for the character of Mal.  This is not a soft hearted enlightened man, this is troubled determined man who wants to be free and wants to be good.