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Fencer  with fencing sword. Fencers duel concept.
Fencer with fencing sword. Fencers duel concept.

Firefly Episode 4: Mal Ends Up in a Swordfight Amid Outer Planets

It all starts when ship’s engineer Kaylee decides she wants to dress like a Southern belle…

In Episode 4 we open with the crew returning to the planet Persephone where the series began. While in the Market, Kaylee, the ship’s engineer, finds a dress that she particularly likes and Mal, who is growing impatient because he’s carrying something heavy, says there’s no way she could use such a dress because she’d look silly working on the ship in such a thing. Of course, this infuriates everyone, and they all leave in a huff.

Now, what’s interesting about this scene is the world-building. The show really commits to the whole Western genre because the dresses remind one of the southern belle’s style or even something out of the Victorian Era — vintage garments that high society might wear back in the day.

Now, I won’t say this is distracting enough to take something away from the show, but I thought that the idea of the rich as well as the poor going along with the elite Western style was a little much. So far, we’ve seen the Alliance dressed in the standard space attire, which is something similar to Star Trek. I like the notion that the settlers wear rugged, Western style clothing because it works with the idea of terraforming other planets. This was a real opportunity to show the contrast between the elites and those who live on the outer planets but the differences were not really explored.

Anyway, Mal lands a deal with Badger, the boss who backed out of their previous deal because the foodstuffs that the crew smuggled were marked by the Alliance. However, Mal still agrees to accept Badger’s deal, which is to go to a fancy party and secure an arrangement with a local businessman.

Mal, feeling like a jerk on account of his poorly-thought-out remarks to Kaylee, decides to buy the dress so she can attend the ball. While there, dancing and mingling with the socialites, they run into the Ambassador Inara who is having troubles of her own. Her current “date” has offered to pay for her services permanently so she can stay on the planet and not have to run around with brigands. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mal doesn’t like this and punches the guy in the face.

This leads to the man challenging Mal to a duel… a sword duel. Mal know nothing about sword fighting, but agrees anyway because how hard could a sword duel be? The good news is the businessman thought all of this was hilarious and agrees to use Mal’s ship to smuggle his cargo.

Of course, they fight, and the duel doesn’t go well for Mal because it turns out sword fighting is hard. The Ambassador offers to stay with her client if he spares the captain’s life. Mal doesn’t like this, and in the heat of emotion, knocks the sword out of the client’s hand and, once again, punches the guy in the face, ending the duel.

It’s not a bad episode, but it’s filler in every sense of the word. The only thing that’s accomplished is the Ambassador and Mal like each other a little more… they’re supposed to be in love or something, but beyond that we learn little.

Inara/Morena Baccarin

The only thing worthy of note is the extended commitment to the Western motif — and I have to say, in this instance, they went too far. I like the idea of the outer planets being the Wild West, but the contrast is greatly weakened in this episode. One of the things that makes the story work is the idea that these rough-and-tumble renegades are up against a galactic threat.

The Alliance has lasers, massive ships, and all sorts of wild technology which creates a sense that our team is up against great odds. And as it typical in this type of story, there is a veiled promise that, somehow, our team is going to bring this empire down, a promise which is fulfilled in an unexpected way in the movie rendition, Serenity (2005).

But in this episode, we see the socialites dressing in period attire, which creates a sense that we are not looking at some sort of economic power contrast, but a standard style of the day. It’s a nit-pick to be sure, but I thought it weakened the story’s premise… just a bit. And I’m sorry, I love lightsabers and sword duels in space as much as the next guy but seeing a regular fencing match without some sort of technological twist was a little disappointing.

Anyway, we’ll review Episode 5 next time. Oh, and by the way the businessman’s cargo turns out to be cows.


Here are my reflections on Episodes 1 through 14 of the Firefly TV series, thoughts as to why the series was canceled, and my review — and defense — of the spinoff film Serenity:

Firefly: Can science fiction reimagined as the Wild West work? I strongly recommend the original 2002–2003 series for its careful development of the culture that grows up around world-building (terraforming). Firefly is an impressive blend of the future and the past and, if Disney+ carries through with its threat of a remake, be sure to see the original.

Firefly Episode 2: When Captain Mal gets a pang of conscience… In the 2002 series, he decides to return stolen goods when he learns of the plight of those from whom they are stolen — with fearsome consequences. The mystery deepens around the mind manipulation that new crew member River has suffered but we get at least one clue.

Firefly Episode 3: Should some people be left to die? After the space crew rescues the survivor of a pirate attack, Captain Mal faces off against The Shepherd on whether God can save even that man. Mal knows something of what happens to victims of Reaver attacks and he is soon grimly proven right about the ways they change.

Firefly Episode 4: Mal ends up in a swordfight amid outer planets. It all starts when ship’s engineer Kaylee decides she wants to dress like a Southern belle… The blend of space adventure and Western shows signs of strain in this episode but it advances the relationship between Mal and the Ambassador.

spaceships battle

Firefly Episode 5, Part 1: Brawls that don’t make sense, Part 1. In this episode, after the cattle are unloaded, characters act in an uncharacteristic way in order to create a plot crisis. The problem with characters acting out of role in order to drive the story is that the story begins to feel incoherent; the crisis doesn’t quite feel real.

Firefly Episode 5: Part 2 So River is now a witch? Simon and River are captured because a town on the planet lacks a doctor. But things take an occult turn… As I noted when looking at the first part, the characters’ behavior seems to defy their history but it does create plenty of action.

Firefly Episode 6: We Meet a Stagecoach — and a Vixen! Gary Varner: In this enjoyable episode, there is only one plot hole and it isn’t really significant. After foiling a crime, Mal finds himself wed to a local woman due to town custom. Usually, these plotlines are easy to guess… but this episode fooled me!

Firefly Episode 7: Jayne can’t live with himself as a hero Jayne Cobb, otherwise dumb muscle, once helped many people — inadvertently — and is stuck with deadly consequences when the truth emerges. In this well-thought-out episode, the Firefly series examines the burden of being a bogus hero to those who desperately need something to believe in.

Firefly Episode 8: The ship breaks down in space. What next? Mal, expecting to suffocate alone on the ship while the other crew members escape, relives the life that brought him there. While the flashbacks were strong and well-acted, too many plot developments seem implausible. For example, why didn’t the ship have spare parts?

Firefly Episode 9: A medical heist — the best episode so far Simon, with access to medical equipment, diagnoses his erratic sister’s neurological issues — after she has unaccountably stabbed Jayne.
Jayne plots a dire revenge against the crew, leaving Captain Mal with a very difficult decision.

Firefly Episode 10: Jealousy divides the Firefly crew in space. And yet jealousy plays a key role in saving Mal and Wash from a villain’s sadistic torture. Episode 10 is much stronger for building on Episode 9 and introducing danger scenarios that follow logically from earlier plot developments.

Firefly Episode 11: The Vixen! She’s back! Firefly TV heats up So why is Captain Mal sitting naked in a desert? We get to hear the story leading up to that. Saffron is now hitched to Mal’s pal; so imagine the poor sap’s shock when Saffron and Mal draw guns on one another.

Science fiction illustration of a battle cruiser spaceship travelling faster than the speed of light in hyperspace, 3d digitally rendered illustration

Firefly 12: The Amazing Mail Order Human Body The episode, while still interesting, returned to a pattern of puzzling plot developments Kaylee falls in love with an organ harvester? But doesn’t that mean Dr. Simon has just dodged a bullet? More to come.

Firefly Episode 12, Part 2: Kaylee falls for a recently undead man Further thoughts on the strange developments regarding the organ harvester. Before he grabbed Kaylee, I’ll admit, I was on the organ smuggler’s side…

Firefly Episode 13: If you are stuck at home in a rainstorm… Otherwise, you may just want to skip this one. But let me explain why. I can’t say for sure what they were thinking, but I will say this was the closest I’ve been to being outright offended by an episode of really anything.

Firefly Episode 14: Ending on a high note River proves to be a telepath but highly unstable, as she mistakes a gun for a stick and Mal must get it away from her. But in the midst of the uproar, a bounty hunter boards the Serenity, unnoticed…

Firefly: What worked, what didn’t… and WHY was it cancelled? When all is said and done, Firefly is one of those classic series that any sci-fi fan should watch. It was the victim of poor scheduling, out-of-order episodes and a confused marketing plan that sold it as a comedy — it’s an adventure with comic moments.

Serenity: My defense of the film’s initial choices (Part 1 of a three-part review) Some viewers have complained that director Joss Whedon changed the characters’s behavior in the film vs. the TV series. I believe they are mistaken. I fell in love with the film before seeing the preceding Firefly TV series. Possibly, failure to make that backstory clear enough cost the film a sequel.

Serenity Review Part 2: Great scenes dogged by bad plot choices. We meet fresh villains and finally learn River’s secret: She knows the origin of the malevolent Reavers and it is not neat or pretty. I believe that one of creator Joss Whedon’s critical story decisions probably killed the 2005 film’s chances of a sequel, despite continuing interest.

Serenity Review Part 3: Final thoughts on the movie and TV series. Despite some lapses that made me wonder if the same crew was doing the writing, they are on a par with Star Wars and Star Trek. Were the TV series cancelation and no film sequel a mercy in a way? The film ended things on a high note. Not all TV series or films with sequels are so lucky.


Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Firefly Episode 4: Mal Ends Up in a Swordfight Amid Outer Planets