Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Firefly: Bushwhacked Review

Whoa. This show is really starting to flex its atmospheric muscle. Humor: check. Drama: check. Horror? After seeing Bushwhacked, that is a resounding check. Given the previous reviews' complaints about camp, one would assume that a horror-themed episode would be one of the worst offenders. Horror is, after all, a fertile genre for low budgets, bad acting, and over the top gore. So the restraint and true fear this episode evokes is doubly effective for overcoming this reviewer's prejudices.

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The episode gets off to a bang as a dead body bounces off the cockpit, shocking the viewer and setting the stage for what turns out to be the least campy foray into the 'verse yet. (Coincidentally, it's also the first episode to take place entirely in space. Methinks there's some connection there?) Despite a threat which could be understood as basically space zombies, the real chills come not from the monsters (called Reavers) but from the void. We are made to feel its immensity through various channels in Bushwhacked, though none more effective than the character of Simon Tam. Through his eyes (quite literally) we understand the breathtaking emptiness of space and the fragility of humans who traipse through it, often with nothing but a "little mylar and glass" to protect themselves. His helmet doesn't fit right as he enters the ghost ship and his claustrophobia is infectious. By the time we see the void through his eyes as he and River cling to the exterior of the ship while it is being searched by Alliance, the accompanying deep bass is truly terrifying in a way that disfigured bodies and a knife-wielding maniac could never be.

That's not to say that said bodies and said maniac are not unnerving. But their effectiveness is amplified through the chilling frame of nothingness. The Reavers would not be nearly so terrifying were not their madness explained in relation to the void. The concept of men gone crazy at the edge of space is a powerful one because it makes the villains relateable. Their evil is not driven by lust for power or perversion but is sprung from madness. They are not genetically engineered demons or some disease-ridden, evolutionary dead ends. They are us. The unknowable, incomprehensible nature of reality destroys the various society-supporting structures we build, leaving us with nihilism and its attendant anarchy. For a species whose strength and progress is marked by understanding, the unknowable is our greatest enemy and this is a concept Bushwhacked uses to powerful effect. When the Alliance destroys the ghost ship at episode's end, we quite literally face the limits of our own understanding. We become the Reavers in our support of the cathartic explosion which rids us of having to ask questions, trying to explore, attempting to understand.

The overwhelming sense of dread distracts us from the second deux ex machina moment in as many episodes as the Alliance, despite having our heroes captured, decides to let them go. And, while a few lines of dialogue still land a touch heavy on our ears, Bushwhacked suggests a show well on its way hitting its stride. The progress from Serenity to this third episode bodes well for the future. Here's hoping the pace is maintained (though the knowledge of its eventual cancellation becomes increasingly tragic as the episodes improve).

Check back in soon for the review of episode 4!

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