Although I love Joss Whedon, I’m not one of those fans who thinks he’s perfect. One major flaw in his works is that he is amazing with finales, but not as good with beginnings. The first episode of Firefly has a lot of great establishing moments and a lot of worldbuilding, but the pacing is seriously slow. Mostly because the episode itself is an hour and 30 minutes long.
The episode opens at the battle of Serenity Valley. It’s your typical “against all odds” kind of battle and it doesn’t go well. I gasped at the sight of Mal kissing his cross necklace and watches as his faith shattered before his eyes as the Alliance closed in on them. The action of the episode, however, doesn’t pick up until the crew of Serenity lands on a planet to pick up passengers. On the surface, Mal claims that they’re just gonna make a rest stop in a moon called Whitefall. In reality, they’re smuggling a crate of foodstuffs that they salvaged.
The standoff in the cargo hold leads to the major moral conflict of the episode: What to to with Simon Tam, who is a wanted fugitive on the run from the Alliance. Dobson, a passenger that the crew picked up, turns out to be a mole, going after Simon and River for the bounty on their heads. Mal is more than willing to let Simon go if it meant getting the Alliance off his back, but when Dobson shoots Kaylee and leaves her in critical condition, Mal has no choice but to let Simon put his skills as a doctor and surgeon to work. (Kudos to Book for knocking Dobson out, by the way.) Once the bullet is extracted, Mal checks what exactly Simon brought on board with him that the Alliance wants so badly. Enter River Tam, very naked and very afraid. Once River is unboxed, Simon reveals his backstory to the crew. The crew debates about what to do with Simon, River, and Dobson. Mal wants to leave the Tams on Whitefall but Inara disagrees and threatens to leave.
Jayne gets put in charge of interrogating Dobson. While he is able to get answers out of the mole without resorting to torture, Dobson plants the seed of doubt in Jayne’s mind: Simon and River are worth a lot of money. This becomes a major moral dilemma later. In the infirmary, Kaylee points out to Mal that in spite of what he says, he is a nice man because he always looks out for his crew. She points out that he needs to have faith in people. He proves to need a lot of room in that department because he decides to prank Simon in a scene I dare not spoil here. Unfortunately, while Mal, Zoe, and Jayne are making a deal on a distant moon, Dobson escapes and takes River hostage.
Things finally start picking up when the ship catches the sight of Reavers, a group of monsters known for putting their victims through fates worse than death. When Mal, Zoe, and Jayne return to the ship, Mal shoots Dobson dead and they take off running, escaping the Reavers by the skin of their teeth. Shepherd suffers a minor crisis of faith about the fact that he has no moral qualms about Mal shooting Dobson. Stuff between Mal and Jayne gets foreshadowed for a future episode and Mal makes Simon an offer: stay on the ship and work as a medic and they’ll keep them on the run and away from the Alliance.
The moral dilemma stems on the conflict of what is legal vs what is morally right. This conflict of ethics gets brought up a lot. In this verse, Inara’s job (a high class call girl) is considered legal while Mal and his crew trying to salvage a ship is considered illegal. While Simon getting his sister out of the Academy was morally right, it came at the cost of him and his sister becoming fugitives. Mal comes off as hardened and morally ambiguous, just wanting to survive, but the members of his crew, especially Inara, keep him accountable. He needs them just as much as they all need him. Ut still comes as a sigh of relief that Mal decided to keep Simon and River on board. But his prank on Simon was psychotic.
A theory that analyzes Mal’s change of heart in this episode explains that River embodies someone who was royally screwed and abused by the Alliance like Mal was and, in his own strange way, Mal wants to give River the help he never got. I’m actually one to vouch that it was actually morally right for Mal to shoot Dobson in the hostage situation. As much as I wished that someone wrestled River free from Dobson and that Dobson could’ve been thrown off the ship to starve on Whitefall, it wasn’t likely to happen. Mal’s friendship with River is hinted at throughout the series, but is best seen at the end of Serenity (the film). We have a long way to go until then, though. Stay shiny because tomorrow, I look at “The Train Job.”