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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

This episode starts out strong, but gradually breaks down. We open with Mal collapsing onto the metal grating of the ship’s hull. He’s bleeding and the lights are off.

We don’t know what happened but we witness a series of flashblacks consisting of three separate timelines: events in the present, how Mal found himself in his current predicament, and the deep past where Mal is first gathering his crew. The episode is essentially an abbreviated version of how the crew got together, sandwiched between a doomsday scenario for Mal.

The trouble starts when the crew is celebrating Simon’s birthday. Suddenly, something blows up inside the ship. A couple of hallways are engulfed in flame and Mal and the others just barely get the living quarters’ doors closed in time. For me, the most interesting moment during this episode occurs when Jayne opens the hull doors which sucks the flames into space. This was neat to watch except that the mechanics of it doesn’t make any sense, given what we’re told later.

At first, I thought they’d merely suffocated the flames by sealing off the living quarters and opening the ship’s hull, cutting off the oxygen. But Kaylee later says that the ship’s engines are down, along with all the life support systems. So they have only the air which wasn’t sucked out with the flames.

This is strange because, once they resealed the hull, they opened the living quarters which should have dispersed the air. Given the size of the ship, there should have been too little air to breathe. Plus, how did they even reseal the doors in the first place if once the engines died, everything shut down? If everything didn’t shut down and they had emergency power, why couldn’t they reroute that power back to the life support systems?

Captain Mal/Nathan Fillion

This was a little irritating because it looked like the episode was going to be about what happens when a ship such as theirs breaks down. But it became apparent that the episode was nothing more than a contrived crisis to justify Mal reliving his life and thereby giving us some exposition of the crew’s origin.

The truth is, little thought was put into the doomsday scenario. That became even more apparent when the the ship’s peril originated in a small part the size of a forearm. For one thing, it’s hard to imagine that this one tiny part should cause a chain reaction which not only killed the ship’s engine but also shut down both of its life support systems. For another, the show goes out of its way to mention the insignificance of this part, vaguely referred to as a “calibrator.” If this part is considered unimportant and therefore, presumably, cheap, why didn’t they have extra calibrators? It seems as if they had no spare parts whatsoever, which seems incomprehensible if you’re traveling through the void of space.

Plus, there’s another annoying trope in this episode. The writers do their best to convince us that there’s no hope. Wash says repeatedly there is absolutely no way help is coming. They are too far out, and nobody can hear them. Then, once the rest of the crew take the two shuttles in search of rescue — leaving Mal to go down with the ship…or rather, suffocate with the ship — surprise, surprise, Mal just so happens to receive the help he needs…sort of.

Mal had come up with a plan to boost the distress signal at the expense of its clarity. But that would slow down any help that might come, making the plan pointless. By the time the theoretical rescue vessel translated the signal and reached the ship ,the chances were they’d all be dead anyway. In theory, the rescuers might have heard Mal’s scrambled signal or maybe, the crew just got lucky. But the scriptwriters never let us know, one way or the other.

At any rate, some space pirates show up, whether they are rescuers or not. They just so happen to have a spare calibrator (it can ruin your ship if it breaks, but nobody pays attention to it). But even the writers must have felt bad about such an obvious contrivance so, just to shake things up, the pirates double-cross Mal. But before they do so, they toss Mal the new calibrator. Only after that, do they bother to shoot him. Why not shoot him when he opens the door? We all know why. The plot needs to happen.

Anyway, Mal finds a gun and scares the pirates off, then collapses on the grating — which gets us back to the opening scene. The rest of the episode is pretty straightforward. Mal limps to the engine, replaces the calibrator, and wakes up to find the crew hovering over him because they felt bad about leaving him in the first place.

This was a poorly written episode though I didn’t find it quite so annoying as Episode 5. At least the revolvers weren’t shooting lasers for some random reason but the disaster sequence was poorly done. As for the flashbacks, they were good, funny even, and very well acted, thanks to a strong cast. I wouldn’t recommend it necessarily but it’s not bad in the sense that it regresses the characters or undermines the core narrative of the story, and we do get some much needed exposition of the history of the crew, regardless of the lousy delivery of key scenes.

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 8: The Ship Breaks Down in Space. What Next?