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The Train Job
original airdate: 9-20-02

What do you get when you combine Star Wars, the old west, a lone space cargo ship and Joss Whedon's mind? A futuristic show about a team of space mercenaries traveling the galaxy, battling injustice and committing criminal acts.

In the distant future, environmental mismanagement has led to the destruction of Earth and the expulsion of her residents. Forced to spread in all directions, mankind found new solar systems to live. As the planets were colonized a galaxy-wide government called The Alliance rose up to take control of all the planets. But it was unjust, of course, and a rebellion arose that led to an interstellar revolutionary war.

Six years have passed since The Alliance quelled the war and most of its rebels. Those remaining defiant ones are now forced to the outer edges of the settled planets, finding work and income where they can. They do the jobs that allow them to survive, all the while trying to stay under the radar of The Alliance.

Enter Firefly, a starship of rebels, runaways and ruffians. The ship's crew includes the bold captain, the stalwart second in command, a bullet headed warrior, a lovely mechanic, a stunning 'companion' (figure it out), an Alliance doctor (on the run) with his (by all appearances) insane sister and an out of place holy man. Although it is not immediately obvious which part they will play, each character adds a special element to the ship.

The adventure begins on a small moon in the outer reaches of Alliance space. Picture a bar scene worthy of the old west. Captain Mal, Zoe, and Jayne sit in the corner of the bar playing a futuristic game that closely resembles Chinese Checkers. The tavern regulars are celebrating Unification Day, the day the rebels were successfully beat down. After receiving their work orders for a new job, the captain picks a fight with the local Alliance supporters. The most notable props in this scene are the futuristic drinking glasses made from the bottoms of plastic water bottles, proving that all those non-biodegradable water bottles Americans use will still be around 2000 years from now.

The opening credits give a flashback to the beginning of Enterprise, with a strumming slow song with grand space shots as the ship careens off to parts unknown. This does more to terrify the first time viewer than to set their mind at ease. But it's important to keep an open mind and let the show establish its own feel. Luckily, Firefly turns out to be so much more than its opening credits.

River Tam is introduced as a screaming basket case. Nightmarish shots of some sort of medical experiments flash across the screen. These appear to be memories from her previous life that little is known about but are actually flashes from the original pilot episode, to be aired in December.

River's brother, Dr. Simon Tam, rushes to her aid as she awakes from the nightmare. He truly cares for her, having given up all that he was in The Alliance to help free his sister from whatever torture the government imposed upon her.

The charismatic figure that pulls the crew together is the captain, Malcolm Reynolds. His motivations remain unclear, but he seems to take in strays like an animal shelter collects puppies.

The priestly character aptly named "Shepherd" is trying desperately to fit in. He doesn't really know why he is allowed to be here, and it is not yet explained why he is there. But he wants to earn his keep and help the crew with anything short of actual criminal acts. Mal has made it clear that the occupants of the ship are welcome, but he also makes it clear to the priest that his god is not.

The first exposure to the engine room reveals a tangle of wires and engine parts establishing a strong feeling that mechanical problems may be the plot of a future episode. However, for now, it gives an opportunity for the captain to yell at the mechanic for slacking on her duties and to introduce the inside of Inara the registered companion's ship.

Stunningly beautiful, Inara has a measurable presence and is well respected in the universe for her profession. Finally the world of the future breaks through the satin curtain to legalize… uhhh… companionship. Who says a post-apocalyptic world is all doom and gloom? After a quick explanation of the guild laws that bind companions we are introduced to the softer side of Mal. The employer for their current job is an unsavory sort that Mal doesn't think Inara should tangle with. So he confines her to the ship, breaking through his hardnosed veneer for a moment.

Mr. Adalade Nisca is the unpleasant employer with a henchmen named simply Claw. He details the job they are to perform for the Firefly crew and threatens serious repercussions if the job should fail. Nisca waxes eloquent about the difference between reputation and reality. The appearance of a tortured man hung by his ankles serves as Nisca's mechanism for bridging the world between reputation and truth. Nisca means business and doesn't like being messed with.

The visuals in this first episode were simply stunning. The ship exteriors are beautiful to look at yet they contain an element of grunge that one would expect from a well-used backworld cargo ship. Some of the most memorable scenes involve distance shots of The Alliance headquarters and panorama views near a levitating monorail train. Some stages appear more like they were shot in the dentist office down the street or a soup kitchen in Cleveland than a mobile space ship traveling at interstellar speeds. Still, the sets don't distract from the integrity of the show.

And pacing only adds to it. From smoke bomb distractions to chance encounters with 20 armed alliance soldiers, the energy keeps you involved in the show and on the edge of your seat.

A budding romance appears to be starting between the ship's mechanic Kaylee and the young Dr. Tam. Tam still has trouble accepting the illicit activities of the crew, but he is grateful for a hideout from The Alliance and willing to help where he can. Hopefully, the romance between the two will remain a side plot and not take over the show like so many bad sitcoms. However, the characters' interactions are dynamic and already the chemistry is working with the crew.

The world of Firefly appears all the more realistic for its shades of gray and the ambiguity of who the heroes are. Decisions are made and steps are taken that set up the complex moral code and lives of the characters. This is Whedon's strong suit, as made evident by his complex characters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Hopefully the writing and acting will remain strong enough to continue carrying the show.

At the end of the episode we are offered a lead to a potentially ongoing storyline. On board the ship, River haves a frightful moment as she scares the rest of the crew with her recitation of "two by two - gloves of blue".

"They'll keep coming" she says. "They won't stop." It's unclear at this point whether she is having a premonition or a flashback. But she seems genuinely terrified.

The closing scene shows two men at the alliance headquarters. They say they are looking for a woman that may have been on the world where the recent medicine theft occurred. They show a picture of a woman that looks a lot like River Tam, probably because it is. And they have hands of blue. The blue hands are in fact rubber dish gloves… But they seem ominous enough.

If the first episode is any indication of success quality of the overall show, this series will go far. The explanation of why things are the way they are is clearly established. There are still many mysteries about each character, where they've come from, why they behave the way they do. But these mysteries will be a running element for plot twists and character interaction.

For a pilot episode this is extremely promising. There are a number of obstacles and trials to complete for Whedon before the show attains classic status. But the actors, writers and directors are off to a great start. We can hope that truly "They'll keep coming" and "They won't stop."

Kevin Goodman

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