Monday, January 31, 2011

Firefly: The Train Job Review

Good times, good times with this crew. Bar fights, train heists, and fake identities. It must be granted that, while not as effective at introducing us to Firefly's world as the intended pilot, The Train Job is not by any means a poor replacement. It's faster, snappier, and sleeker. And though it certainly leaves you more breathless (particularly if this is your first glimpse into the 'verse), it seems even less plausible that the failure of the series lies entirely with the Fox executives' reshuffling of episodes.

Michael Fairman as Adelia Niska
The episode gets off to a fast start with Mal, Zoe, and Jayne getting into a bar fight. There's a wonderful beat as the fight starts where Jayne doesn't get involved, claiming that he 'never fought in no war.' It's both lighthearted and character forming for the man whose allegiance is weak at best. The episode maintains this breezy atmosphere until the core MacGuffin gets rolling and the team is off to purloin some mysterious goods for a truly creepy crime lord named Adelia Niska, played by Michael Fairman. The dialogue written for Mal and Niska's introduction is wonderful and indicative of Whedon's writing prowess. The conversation tensely skirts the concepts of reputation and gossip, ending with a powerful feeling of dread in a scene that would otherwise feel campy thanks to the show's aforementioned low production values. The contrast between Niska's unsettling evil and his body-guard's absurd, over-the-top menace is representative of the show's fractured sense of style.

Gregg Henry giving our boy Nate a run
for his scenery-chewing money.
The heist is botched thanks to an unexpected squad of soldiers, leading to the revelation of the goods as medicine necessary to keep the denizens of this particular world functioning. The interrogation between Mal and Zoe (pretending to be newly-weds looking for work) and the local sheriff, played by Gregg Henry, is scenery-chewing. Henry does wonders with his short appearance and manages to almost pull the spotlight off Nathan Fillion with his tired, seen-it-all sheriff suffering from the planet-wide affliction for which the medicine is so valuable. Meanwhile, back on the ship, the remaining crew chaff's under Jayne's assumed chain-of-command leadership until the doctor drugs him to allow cooler heads to prevail. It's nice to see these secondary actors in their own scenes without being dominated by Fillion. The climax of their tension in the cockpit is particularly charming, though Sean Maher's doctor is increasingly one-note.

Mal and Zoe are rescued by Inara (nice to see her doing more than lighting candles and looking seductive) but their realization of the contraband's purpose brings out their altruism and they back out on their deal, setting up what will no doubt be a harrowing run-in with Niska in a future episode. The forgiveness of the sheriff came a little too easily given his threats during the interrogation scene earlier, but Henry's performance helped smooth over the rough plot-stitching. It was cathartic to watch Niska's body-guard get kicked into Serenity's engine. Here's hoping the show's other campy aspects are similarly discarded over the course of the season.

Jayne drugged. 
Overall, The Train Job is great fun. Tightly written, well acted (thanks in large part to the guest stars Fairman and Henry), and light-hearted throughout, it exemplifies the best of the show. Based solely on this, it is not a bad candidate for inaugural episode. Though it doesn't share any of the slow unfolding of the real pilot, it is certainly more polished. The chink's in the show's armor persist though as the land-side scenes still feel too campy and the supporting actors too hit or miss. However, the more I watch, the more these short-comings seem charming instead of distracting. We'll see how episode 3 goes.

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