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Still life with old-fashioned lamp, magic witch books, tarot cards and old papers. Mystic background with ritual esoteric objects, occult, fortune telling and halloween concept
Still life with old-fashioned lamp, magic witch books, tarot cards and old papers. Mystic background with ritual esoteric objects, occult, fortune telling and halloween concept

Firefly Episode 5: So River Is Now a Witch? Part 2

Simon and River are captured because a town on the planet lacks a doctor. But then things take an occult turn…

As I mentioned in the first part of this review of Episode 5, we stumble through a series of contrivances to get Simon and River kidnapped. Mal and his crew continue to make baffling choices. They decide to leave Simon and River behind. Mal essentially says that they were stupid enough to get themselves caught, so they are on their own.

Simon Tam

This is baffling because Mal’s driving force is worry about his crew, and he’s long since made it clear that he considers Simon and River to be part of his crew. Because he was the one who had told them to take a hike, one would think that he’d feel some sort of responsibility for their predicament. But he doesn’t.

It could be argued that the reason they all left so quickly was that the Shepherd had been shot by a laser gun which fired bullets… I think. I am still trying to understand the weaponry here.

But wait, Simon is a doctor. Considering the fact that they have a giant ship, one would think that if they moved quickly and flew over the area, they could hypothetically find the doctor and his sister before they disappeared into the wilderness.They could find aid for the Shephard faster by getting their doctor back than by crossing the galaxy just to find medical help. These details are never addressed. The most we get is a brief lamentation by Kaylee, the ship’s engineer, who felt bad for leaving Simon alone in the first place. This is the only instance of character consistency in the entire episode.

Eventually, the crew decides to land on an Alliance ship and ask for help. At first, the Alliance personnel refuse, but after seeing the Shepherd’s identification card, they rush him in for treatment. This implies that the Shepherd has a shady past, and it is nicely done.

Meanwhile, Simon and River are taken to a small village where, wonder of wonders, they need a doctor. Now how did the kidnappers know that the Firefly’s crew had a doctor in the first place? Don’t know! And what are the chances that such nefarious characters would secretly have a heart of gold and turn from a life of crime just to find medical treatment? Unlikely!

And here’s the clincher: There’s no particular plague or illness infecting the town, forcing the people to take extraordinary measures. The show literally says, “Sometimes you just need a doctor.”

Now, I know these people are supposed to be primitive. But, you mean to tell me that there is so little medical infrastructure on this planet that small town residents are forced to kidnap random people from other planets in the hope that they might find someone with basic medical knowledge? Why didn’t the writers just have the townsfolk scream Ooga! Booga! after every sentence? They have fancy china, laser guns that shoot bullets, post hole diggers and tools for fencing, but no one who knows how to treat a common cold? Consider my suspension of disbelief shattered.

River Tam

Anyway, Simon helps these poor derelicts by telling them to keep their bandages clean while River runs across a mute girl. We get more serene nonsense until River approaches one of the women helping Simon and recounts the girl’s tragic story. There are a couple things going on here at once, so we’re going to take a moment to break it all down:

First: River went through some kind of trauma. We don’t know what happened exactly, but we do know she’s really smart, and the Alliance was trying to use that. We’ve seen her copy other people’s accents, and she has moments of lucidity in which she usually says something profound. She likes cows and is in awe of the world around her. Now, we’re introduced to psychic powers… maybe. All we know is that she didn’t actually speak with the girl because, River says, the girl’s voice got scared away. Yet she knows the story. River’s list of abilities seems to be growing, and to be fair, we’re still learning about her. But I get the sense that this promising plot point is never going to be mentioned again.

Second: A woman instantly claims that River is a witch. I’m not kidding, a witch. Now, let’s assume the woman is as superstitious as the show wants us to believe. Fine. But let’s also remember that there are other factors in play. Number one: This planet is apparently devoid of doctors. Perhaps, it would be wise to think twice about screaming the word witch, potentially scaring the doctor and his sister away. Number two: River just did something good, communicating and thereby potentially helping to rehabilitate the mute girl. Even if one believes in witches, it’s hard to imagine that a religion which is terrified of witches would also believe the witches could do good. If one is willing to burn a witch, one might also infer that there is no good inside said witch, which is why she deserves to roast. Perhaps, some second thoughts are warranted.

But of course, the woman does not hesitate. In response, Simon stutters like an idiot, failing to realize that he is the only doctor on the planet and that his sister helped an innocent child. The woman shrieks once again that his sister is a witch and scrambles off into the night.

The townspeople gather and then something even more bizarre happens. The town leader asks what’s going on — and River proceeds to tell everyone that he had murdered the previous town leader to gain his position of authority. The leader responds by slapping her across the face.

Malcolm Reynolds

Hang on. The townspeople just heard River tell a man’s dark secret and he responded as if to imply his guilt. They believe she is a witch, so the revelation must be true, and he all but confirmed it by slapping her! Shouldn’t there be two burnings? I’m confused. Is witchcraft bad but murder just one of those things? Kidnapping is okay, so maybe.

It looks like the end for the doctor and his sister, but Mal and the crew return just then, the ship hovering over the camp to rescue them. Mal has just recently remembered that Simon and River are a part of his crew.

It’s a cool scene with some nice dialog but, like everything else, it makes no sense. Mal might have done a flyby to find the Doctor and his sister when they were first kidnapped because they weren’t too far away. But hours, perhaps days, have passed since then, so the crew should’ve had no idea where to look. So, how did they find them?

Turns out it’s okay. Our heroes escape, and we’re left with a happy ending — and lots of questions.


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 5: So River Is Now a Witch? Part 2