The vast quantities of cow dung left on the ship after a shipment of cows was dropped off is a telling omen for how this episode unfolds. We do get some much-needed exposition in the form of hints and flashbacks regarding the Shepherd and River Tam’s past but, apart from that, Episode 5 is by far the worst.
While the first four episodes had some weak moments, they’ve been funny and enjoyable. Episode 5 dives into the incoherent.
We open with the cows from the previous episode being unloaded from the ship and herded into a corral. Mal (Captain Malcolm Reynolds) and his crew work the herd like real cowboys which is enjoyable, but as they’re working, Simon Tam begins to get on Mal’s nerves, so Mal send the doctor and his sister River out for a walk.
They end up in town where they meet the Ambassador and Kaylee, who are looking at antiques. Kaylee asks how Simon is enjoying his stay on the planet, and Simon — frustrated because his sister is acting particularly erratic — begins to vent about being forced to stay on a lousy ship, constantly bullied by the captain.
Kaylee, who feels strongly attached to the ship, is angered by his dismissal and infers that he hates the whole crew. Both she and the Ambassador — who has had nothing to do with this conversation and is guilty of making a few disparaging comments regarding the crew’s lifestyle herself — march out of the shop in a huff, leaving poor Simon confused. To make matters worse, River has meanwhile disappeared, so Simon rushes off to find her.
Now, I want to pause here and offer a comment on character construction in general: One of my pet peeves is when the characters pitch a fit of stupidity merely for the sake of the plot. It’s fine for a character to make a wrong choice here and there; nobody’s perfect. But when a writer begins leaning on bad decisions to drive the events in the script, it becomes a problem. In less than five minutes, we get multiple, not only dumb, but uncharacteristic decisions by the protagonists.
For example, Mal, who is typically paranoid about the fugitive siblings, suddenly doesn’t care where they go. Simon, who is equally paranoid about leaving the ship, suddenly decides to take his sister — who is acting even more erratic than usual — not on a walk through the surrounding woods but to the local town, where she does just what he might have expected: Touch everything and run off.
Kaylee’s reaction is understandable because she’s expressing an insecurity over the social class difference between herself and Dr. Tam. But it’s still somewhat aggravating that she couldn’t clearly see that the doctor was agitated because he was chasing his sister around the store.
The Ambassador’s anger with Dr. Tam is likewise frustrating because most of her screen time is spent listening to rich men tell her she’s too good for the life she leads (and she often agrees with them). But she stays, presumably because she’s in love with Mal, even if she doesn’t realize it. And yet she’s supposed to be the reasonable one so it makes no sense for her, of all people, to leave the fugitives alone. The whole setup is clearly contrived in order to isolate the Doctor and his sister, without regard to consistency of character.
Here, is another baffling bit: As Simon leaves the shop, a group of law enforcement officers rush into the antiques store… why? Do a bunch of policemen need fancy china and antique tools? It makes no sense! Then as Mal is haggling with the men who are supposed to take the cattle, these same policemen show up out of nowhere and start a gun fight. They didn’t throw china at the bad guys so why were they in the antiques shop right before going to arrest a bunch of criminals? Then the show tumbles into the realm of complete stupidity when the old-fashioned revolvers and rifles start emitting lasers! Lasers! In the first episode, these same guns were shooting real bullets. Lasers were weapons for the ships and the Alliance types.
Even as the classic Western six-shooters and rifles are firing lasers, at the end of the fight, the Shepherd is struck down by… a bullet wound. What is going on?
The gunfight ends, and the wounded Shepherd is taken to the ship. But surprise, surprise, Simon and River have been kidnapped. Wow, what a shock! It’s almost like most of the characters were acting like morons just so the doctor and the sister could find themselves in this exact predicament. I didn’t see this coming! Not at all!
I have so much more to say about this, so we’ll finish Episode 5 next time.
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.
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.
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.