Sunday, September 22, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #7: Firefly - "Out of Gas" (2002)

The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

For all of the supernatural and science-fiction plotting that appears in Joss Whedon shows, they are, at their core, primarily relationship-based.  The dynamic between the entire crew of the Serenity is one of my favorite things about Firefly, but there are smaller relationships that play out over the show's limited run too.  There's Zoe and Wash, the married couple who seem unlikely at first, but whose rhythm feels like the product of years together.  There's River and Simon, the brother and sister who've bonded over the tough circumstances they've both faced.  But one of the most interesting of these -- and one that may not readily come to mind -- is the one between Mal and the Serenity itself.  Malcolm Reynolds almost functions as a post-hero -- a man who is aware of the existence of heroes in stories and is attempting to be one himself.  He tries his hardest to have the steeliest resolve and the wittiest rejoinders, all with a certain level of self-awareness.  And if he is the post-hero, then the Serenity is his post-sidekick.  "Out of Gas" is a remarkable episode for many reasons, but especially because of how much it fleshes out Mal's relationship with his beloved ship.

The episode is written by Whedon cadet Tim Minear, who is the master of the flashback, a technique that is employed throughout the course of the hour.  "Out of Gas" opens near the end, with Mal collapsing on the floor of the ship, blood dripping from his abdomen, before cutting to an earlier point in the story.  Minear layers on the flashbacks, alternating between the present (Mal's bloody amble through the ship), the past (how he got into this situation), and the distant past (his first meeting with the rest of the crew), and keeps things from getting messy due to some slick editing.  There's a bit of symmetry between the cuts, as one scene in the present directly informs the jumping off point for a flashback.  The episode shows the events that led up to these people originally coming together, highlighting how inextricably linked they are.  Like all protagonists in a Joss Whedon show, they have a bit of a familial bond.

Of course, we soon learn that the cause of this sticky situation is an explosion that happens on the ship, brought about by a broken part that Kaylee told Mal needed fixing way back in the pilot.  Conditions are dire -- there is no spare part, Zoe was knocked unconscious by the explosion, and they only have a few hours of oxygen left.  The deterioration of the ship causes a breakdown within the crew, as Mal and Wash become embroiled in brief squabbling over what to do, and some of the others panic in the face of their impending deaths.  Usually, this would be an easy bit of symbolism, but the ties between these people and their ship are so tangled that it feels organic and logical for this crisis to have such fractious results.  The deepest investment in the state of the ship comes from Mal, who eventually sacrifices himself by staying on the ship and sending everybody else off on shuttles to try to find safety.

There certainly are episodes of Firefly that are funnier ("Our Mrs. Reynolds," my personal favorite), more exciting ("Ariel"), or brainier ("Objects in Space").  The thing about "Out of Gas," though is that it's the episode that's most essential to understanding the heart of the show.  The Serenity is the thing that unites all of these disparate people, and like the catalizer that initially causes the explosion on the ship, Mal is the component that keeps things running.  Yet, in the end, it's not Mal getting the new catalizer into place that saves the ship -- it's the rest of the crew coming back to him after Zoe regains consciousness.  As much as "Out of Gas" is about a man and his ship, it's also about those other people who make his time on that ship so much more enjoyable.

1 comment:

  1. Love, LOVE the opening to this episode, especially because of this track:

    My favorite episode has to be somewhere between Jaynestown, Shindig and War Stories, but this is a great episode too.