Firefly: The Train Job (S01E02)

Mal: Now, this is all the money Niska gave us in advance. You bring it back to him. Tell him the job didn’t work out. We’re not thieves. But we are thieves. Point is, we’re not takin’ what’s his. Now we’ll stay out of his way as best we can from here on in. You explain that’s best for everyone, okay?
Crow: Keep the money. Use it to buy a funeral. It doesn’t matter where you go or how far you fly. I will hunt you down, and the last thing you see will be my blade.
Mal: Darn.

This is one of the quintessential episodes of the short-lived but brilliant show Firefly, and one of the best episodes of any science fiction show in recent memory.  While the premise of the show (an old-fashioned train robbery) is engaging in and of itself, it’s the way that Joss Wheedon, the TV show’s creator and the director of this episode, introduces his characters and lets them play within the tapestry he has imagined, that truly hook the viewer and set the tone for the series as a whole.  I often tell people that Firefly is sort of like what would happen if there was a TV show about the adventures of Han Solo–the Solo who shoots first, that is.  And the above dialog between the show’s hero, Malcolm, and one very nasty henchman, perfectly capture the mix of determination, heroism, and (provided you have seen the episode) humor that has eluded so many TV protagonists in recent memory.

Firely is also often described as a western in outer space, and with the backdrop of a train heist, and a cast of ragtag scoundrels living life by their own rules, it’s easy to see how one would arrive at this sort of conclusion after watching The Train Job. Interestingly, Wheedon had originally intended to use this as the true pilot episode, and the character introductions feel much more natural and organic than in the substitute pilot demanded by FOX. So much characterization is packed into the 40 short minutes of The Train Job that I think Aaron Sorkin would even be jealous. But far from just introducing the characters, they each find a way to contribute to the show (save for River, the young girl whose past is hinted at and spends most of the episode practicing emo stares in the corner). We get hints that “shepherd” Book is more than he claims to be, see many sides of the illustrious Jayne, and even get a peek at a budding romance between the ship’s mechanic and doctor. But it’s the final minutes of the show, when the fearless take-no-prisoners Captain Mal demonstrates what Faramir in Lord of the Rings would call his true quality that we see how special these characters, and the who show, really are.

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