Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Firefly: Objects in Space Review

The crew.
It was not without a tinge of regret that I fired up the final episode of Firefly. Though hardly the holy grail of science fiction television that many contend it to be, the series was heartfelt, creative, and clever without being too highbrow. It managed to capture the gee-whiz appeal of science fiction without ever letting it dominate the thoroughly human characters and stories. And it is tragic to ponder the directions and advances the show could have made had it not been prematurely canceled. While 14 episodes could never dethrone TV's sci champion Star Trek: The Next Generation (at least in the minds of BofHam's elite editors), a full run might have been a different story.

But we've got a job to do here and it's not about lamenting long-dead television programs. It's about reviewing them.

After the fulfilling but uneven Heart of Gold, there was some concern that Firefly would end on a misstep. Thankfully, Objects in Space is nothing of the sort. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, it is a beautiful, tragic, curtain call. It doesn't try to cash in on familiar jokes (a la Jaynestown) nor does it gild the atmospheric lily too heavily (a la The Message's final scene). In fact, there is nothing quite like it in any of the preceding episodes. It's like a girlfriend you break up with who handles it with such poise and strength that you realize you never truly knew her. It's the final, flirtatious wink over the shoulder from a writer and a show who knows it's got it going on. It is strange, beautiful, haunting, and sad. It is, perhaps, the perfect final episode for Firefly.

Snapshots in space.
Objects opens with a tour of Serenity as viewed through River's eyes. On full display is Whedon et al's ability to communicate volumes through the briefest snapshots into the characters' lives. Whether it's Kaylee and Simon relaxing on the couch, Book and Jayne bantering in the kitchen, or the married couple on the bridge, the vibrancy of these moments establishes a rich reality in which the viewer is immersed. And, in presenting them as a series of vignettes, clearly not tied to any plot arc, Objects gives us an even more intimate view of life aboard Serenity. It is the most human the series has felt without being important.

What is your DEAL!?
But something is clearly afoot. Through River's eyes, we see the subtext of each scene. Simon laments that River's problems ruined his own dreams, Jayne continues to feel guilt at attempting to turn in the Tams in Ariel,  Mal and Inara both clearly yearn for some resolution to their romance, and the passionate moment shared by Wash and Zoe seems overpowering for River. But it is Shepard Book's inner thoughts that are the biggest surprise; anger and violence apparently seethe underneath his placid exterior. Of all the interesting back stories on Serenity sacrificed to the indifferent masses, I will lament his the most.

It seems, with no time left to conclude the first season's overarching plot, Firefly has chosen to resolve the biggest questions regarding River. Namely: she is some kind of psychic assassin. The concluding shot of this opening montage is beautiful as River bends down to pick up what she thinks is a stick from the hold's now-forested floor. But reality comes crashing back into River's reverie as we discover that what she thought was a stick is actually a gun. Thankfully, though not as pronounced, this ethereal atmosphere is sustained throughout the rest of the episode.

The stick/gun incident turns out to be the straw that broke the collective camel's back as the crew convenes to decide River's fate. Apparently slashing Jayne with a knife is okay but brandishing a pistol is a no-no. However, the deeper reasons seem to revolve around the crew's growing recognition of River's psychic abilities. Kaylee recounts River's superhuman killing abilities from War Stories and the crew goes to bed to think over how to proceed.

As befitting the final episode of a series canceled after one season, a mood of existential nihilism pervades. The episode's title refers to a recurring theme in which various characters question whether objects shorn of their function continue to have meaning. Is River's room still River's if she's not in it? Is Firefly still a fictional reality if no one watches it? This is an honest, unattractive question and the show deserves praise for tackling it so unabashedly.

Richard Brooks as Jubal Early.
The somewhat surprising main character of the final episode is none of the series regulars, but rather an unhinged bounty hunter named Jubal Early. Come to collect on River's bounty, Early is one of the strangest guest stars to grace the 14 episodes of Firefly's single season. Played to note-perfect insanity by Richard Brooks, Early chews through each scene with a fascinating otherworldliness. His character is the embodiment of nihilism, the grim reaper for now-meaningless objects. After dispatching most of the crew with ruthless efficiency, Early takes Simon hostage and proceeds to search the ship for River. Brooks manages to fill the character so completely that we are left unsure of how to react to him. There are certainly some comedic moments as Early's lunacy gives him an almost buffoonish air. But as soon as the viewer starts to feel comfortable around him, he reveals a mean streak that reaffirms the threat he poses.

Without giving away too much of the plot, the crew manages to best their intruder thanks to the leadership of River who, at one point, pretends to be Serenity. It is a bizarre episode featuring metaphors almost leaden in their straightforwardness. (River's humanized Serenity representing the show with Early being the cancer of indifference threatening to rip all meaning out of this labor of love.) But the raw honesty of Whedon's writing makes even the hammiest of ham-fisted plot devices work. He is not winking at the audience in Objects; he is earnestly wrestling with what it means for a show with such heart to die. And, bravely, we don't get an answer. The final shot of this entire ride is of Jubal Early, floating through space and the last words from Firefly's collective mouth are "Well...here I am."

But, in spite of the bleak tone that pervades Objects' existential crisis, there is hope here too. The final scenes of the crew we've come to love feature them carrying on to their next adventure. Zoe and Wash removing a bullet from Simon's leg in the infirmary, Book and Jayne bantering over weights, Kaylee and River playing jacks. The bulwark against meaninglessness might be nothing more than existence, but this has proven to be Firefly's greatest strength. A reality so alive we feel it's continued existence even after the show's cancellation.

The opening shot of River picking up the stick resonates by the episode's end. We choose what meaning to give these objects. A gun can be a stick, a ship can be a soul, and a TV show can be important, even if no one watches it.

Reality is what you make of it.

Check back soon for the review of Serenity (the movie) and our B.E.F. award ceremony.


  1. Best thing I've read in along time. :'( Just watched this the other night and sad to know that it's the last we'll probably ever see of this wonderful crew!

  2. Wow. This made me cry. It's so true.