Monday, March 7, 2011

Firefly: Out of Gas Review

Tim Minear.
A quick review of the writing credits for each of the eight Firefly episodes seen so far reveals some interesting attributes of each primary scribe. Whedon's writing is, unsurprisingly, the most accessible and pleasing. Serenity, The Train Job, and Our Mrs. Reynolds all move effortlessly between humor and drama with neither tone feeling overdone. The guest writers range from pleasing (Jane Espenson's Shindig was a delight) to hackneyed (Drew Z. Greenberg's Safe felt mostly tacky) to overwrought (Ben Edlund's Jaynestown being the worst-reviewed episode thus far). Which leaves the work of Tim Minear, Whedon's creative second-in-command. Minear was responsible for the hair-raising Bushwhacked and co-wrote the enjoyable The Train Job with Whedon. But perhaps the most poignant Firefly episode to date is also Minear's second solo act and Out of Gas does not disappoint, suggesting that Minear might have his finger closer to Firefly's emotional pulse than even its more famous creator.

Out of Gas employs a three-point narrative structure where the main story arc is broken into two non-linear parts. The episode starts roughly three-fourths of the way through the story with Mal clearly injured, collapsing on Serenity's cargo hold floor. This scene then segues into the third part of the structure which is a series of flashbacks to Mal's discovery of Serenity and assemblage of his crew. The second part of the structure starts at the beginning of Out of Gas's story and progresses forward conventionally until it meets up with the episode's first scene. While confusing to describe, under Minear's pen the episode holds together well and the juxtaposition of the three separate stories reinforces the emotional core of the narrative.

Mal in love with metal.
Out of Gas is essentially a love story with Serenity and Mal as the principle heroes. There are no villains who imperil the crew nor any moral conundrums that need to be answered. A piece of hardware simply breaks down in the engine room while the crew is on a route meant to be below the radar. While not as terrifyingly presented as in Bushwhacked, the void makes an unsettling reappearance that underscores the frailty of humans. One little wrench-sized piece of machinery exposes the crew to almost certain death by asphyxiation when the life support breaks down. (Or perhaps death by cold, depending on which Tam you ask.)

After exhausting their options to fix the problem themselves, Mal orders the crew to take off in opposite directions in the two shuttles while he stays behind like the captains of old, to go down with his ship. The goodbyes are heavy without feeling ham-fisted but it is clear that the most important relationship is between Mal and his ship. When help finally does arrive, it comes in the form of mercenaries who are a little too opportunistic for their own good and the second part of the narrative meets up with the first. This approach allows the show to maintain a sense of danger from the outset while still presenting the lighter side of life, making it seem all the more fragile.

The cherry on top is the third narrative frame which consists entirely of flashbacks to the formation of Serenity's crew. Each character's introduction is interesting and well-acted, with bits of humor peppered in to juxtapose how far they have come as a crew. (Wash and Zoe's introduction is particularly funny as she clearly doesn't like him at first. And who can blame her? A porno-mustache with that much bravado would be unsettling to anyone.) These flashbacks combine with the main narrative to effectively cement the family unit of the crew and humanize the ship. Kaylee is Serenity's heart, Wash her wit, Inara her sexuality, and Mal her soul. By humanizing the ship through the avatars of her crew, Minear makes the final shot of her resting in a scrap heap pack an emotional punch that is quite surprising.

While Out of Gas does feature moments of levity, it is primarily a drama. The whole cast does a superb job of nailing the somber atmosphere with Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk deserving special recognition. Their confrontation is genuinely pulse-quickening for fear that their friendship wont survive, and their reconciliation is equally powerful. Adam Baldwin also has a few choice moments that feel perfect despite having a limited role in this episode. His goodbye to Mal is both tear-jerking and funny in the same moment. And Jewel Staite's line, "Sometime's a thing's broke so it can't be fixed" is chilling.

Get along!
There is something almost funereal about this episode (to pull a line from the episode itself), suggesting that Minear might have known the show would be canceled when he wrote it. It is an ode to the ship on whose decks the show is at its best. Though behind-the-scenes quotes suggest news of the show's cancellation didn't come until later, Out of Gas seems to see the writing on the wall. It is certainly the most tender episode viewed thus far and has a strong shot to be the one that sticks to the viewer's ribs longest after the show ends.


  1. Excellant review of my fav and most of the other O.B. members fav show. Very clear and right on with the importance of the ship, without "Serenity" there's nobody. Joss has always said that "Serenity" is the 10th crew member. I look forward to reading all of them.Check out another excellant board,...

  2. Thankya thankya. We'll give it's author an extra scrap from the table tonight.