Amazing Episodes- Out of Gas (A writing analysis)

I think a good litmus-test of a piece of art is how well you can remember the first time you experienced it when you come back to it, and Firefly very much hits that mark for me. Long before the freshly exposed controversies of Joss Whedon, I joined the Firefly bandwagon quite late, watching the entirety of it on Netflix back in 2014, and feeling completely heartbroken by the end of Serenity, for a number of reasons. Immediately, I was hooked.

For those not in the know, Firefly is a Sci-fi/Western series, similar to Star Wars without the fantasy elements. Morally dubious characters, mysteries never unravelled and plenty of early 2000’s CGI thrown in for better or for worse. Originally airing in 2002, it’s episodes were mismanaged by Fox and released out-of-sequence, which directly resulted in low ratings, and it subsequently being cancelled after only fourteen episodes. After home release, a sequel film called Serenity and eventually streaming on the internet, however, it soon escalated from Cult following to essential viewership for many. Although I was late to the bandwagon, I remember thinking that this was one series that definitely lived up to the hype.

Today I will be revisiting my favourite episode, while not often reviewed as the best amongst critics or even other fans, it is an episode which instantly resonated me the first time I saw it. For me, the perfect episode in a series is one that encapsulates everything that makes the series special, condensed into a single run-time. Allow me to explain why I believe Out of Gas does that perfectly. There will be spoilers for the episode, although it is not a plot heavy one, as it establishes and develops almost every relationship, it’s best to experience this episode and the series completely fresh.

3 Time-lines

The most striking difference in this episode to all others is the formatting. We begin with Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), alone on the Serenity, which is unusual enough, let alone for the fact he is leaving a trail of blood behind him. The halls of the Firefly ship are dark and empty, and something is evidently wrong. This is the present segment, as we follow Mal trying desperately to reactivate the power and life-support systems by himself.

The second timeline is the ‘Just-before’ segment, where we follow the events that lead up to Mal being left alone to die on the ship. It starts innocuously enough, as we get the classic dynamic between the characters at the dining room table, where the mechanic Kaylee (Jewel Staite) gives Simon (Sean Maher) a birthday cake, shortly before the power is suddenly cut short, and a fireball roars through the room, knocking out Mal’s L.t Zoë (Gina Torres). The engine room becomes an inferno and is locked off, but that means Simon can’t get to his medical supplies. The group are stranded, having followed a path to keep them away from anyone who might find them, they are essentially doomed to be not found. The crew come to terms with their eventual demise, but Mal is the one who doesn’t lose hope. Kaylee tells him that a part needs to be replaced, not repaired. Eventually, Mal piles everyone into the escape shuttles, and remains to go down with his ship, refusing to accept defeat, with a slim possibility he may be able to recall the two shuttles if he succeeds in repairing Serenity. A salvage ship does come, and the captain does agree to give Mal the replacement part, but shoots Mal in the stomach, with intentions to take the ship for himself, before Mal finds a hidden weapon and secures the ship back for himself.

With the first two time-lines caught up with each-other, Mal replaces the part in the engine, but passes out just short of pressing the recall button. Fortunately, Inara (Morena Baccarin), disobeyed orders and returned early, and had Simon save his life. Mal is initially angry, but realises if she hadn’t, he would be dead. In a touching final moment, Mal asks Shepard Book (The late-great Ron Glass) if they’ll still be here when he wakes up, and is gently reassured before falling back to sleep.

The third and final time-line is the past, intertwined with various transitions as the captain enters the different rooms of the Serenity. Each of these sets up how he came to be with the crew of the Serenity, and the ship itself. We have seen a few flashbacks before the show, of River (Summer Glau) and Simon Tam and of the war Mal and Zoë fought together in, but not how the main members of the crew came together, and for me, it’s the most interesting part of the episode.

How it shapes the Characters

I spoke before about how it takes all aspects of the beloved show and condenses them into a single episode, and the past segments are what do the heavy lifting. While the present section shows Mal’s ruthless determination and survivalist, the ‘just-before’ section shows him as a true captain. It’s very rare you could call Malcolm Reynolds a good-person through and through, but he has his core values which he sticks by with rigid authority, and one of those is putting his crew before himself, and another is to never give up in the face of abject adversity. We still get plenty of the crew dynamic here, as Jayne (Adam Baldwin) antagonises, Inara pleads for Mal to stop being so proud and stubborn and Kaylee flirts with Simon. Even just having these two segments by themselves would still be an entertaining and typical romp for the show, but the episode steps it up by showing us how the crew came to be on the Serenity.

We initially see Mal show Zoë his brand new ship, and she is of course dissatisfied. As with everyone else in the shows ‘Verse, everyone seems to have a weird hatred of Firefly class ships except Captain Mal (And Inara and Kaylee). He hears there is a decent pilot nearby, and in a later flashback, we meet pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) with appropriate moustache, who Zoë takes an immediate, yet apparently short-lived hatred to, before they are interrupted by a mechanic we’ve never seen before. In a later segment, we learn that although this new (or old) mechanic was originally hired, he is clearly less knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the job than the girl he is currently sleeping with, Kaylee, who Mal asks if she wants a job. The other mechanic asks why a ship would need two mechanics, and Mal responds;

“I really don’t.”

The next flashback shows us how Inara came to rent the shuttle of the Serenity as her office, and immediately introduces us to their constant dynamic; Mal is rude, dismissive of her Companion work, and Inara defends herself with honour. The final flashback is with the antagonising and treacherous Jayne, who initially holds Mal up by gunpoint, but is eventually coerced into betraying his current partners and joining up with them for a promise of his own room and more pay, with the only shot being fired from Jayne into his old compatriot’s leg.

The flashbacks are of course a big steaming spoonful of fan-service for unasked-for-questions, but they work here simply because they don’t let themselves distract the rest of the episode. They are there to further develop the character dynamics, but they do so by defying expectations in a very expected and familiar way. Also for those of you wondering why I haven’t spoken about the final scene and flashback, it’s because it’s my favourite, and I will go in depth over it’s surprising significance at the end.

What we can learn

Firefly is at it’s best when it’s characters conflicting personalities are, obviously, in conflict. The characters are so memorable not because of their unique differences, which are all unique, but because the writing gives them plenty of room for those personalities to breathe and resonate with each-other. Out of Gas takes this perspective in a very Sit-com-esque directions. You may notice with some Sit-comes with a growing cast they have a tendency to split up the cast into several concurrent story-lines so each character can bounce off with each other in a new setting. Out of Gas instead follows basically the same story-line, just in three different timelines, however it especially revels in the dynamics between Mal and every other member. Before this episode, Mal is a leader, leading them from job to job with his stone-cold authority and simmering anger, but this is the episode that finally makes him a captain. He saves his crew’s lives over his own, opts to go down with his ship, defies obvious death staring at him, and gives each crew member a chance simply based on his gut instinct. In return for his loyalty to them, his crew save his life in tow. His last line is so memorable, because it’s that rare glimpse below his armour; although he pretends to be the strongest person qualified to be leader, he wouldn’t be anything without anyone to lead.

You could argue that Firefly was never an action orientated series, especially due to the lack of budget for SFX, and the limitations of 2002. It has always excelled in circumventing this into interesting situations. There are a few gun battles, but the majority of the series places interest in creating careful alternatives, such as being pursued by villainous authorities in dangerous games of cats-and-mice. In this episode, there are only two shots fired, but there isn’t any lack of excitement. We follow Mal through two sets of mind: the first, watching his desperately survive but dying to know the circumstances that lead to this predicament, and the second after we discover the events leading up, but as time runs further and further out. It is intercut in between these flashbacks which provide Fireflys signature levity and odd-ball humour, which lifts us from the overwhelming claustrophobia of the present.

The episode capitalises on it’s concurrent themes by having events tying in together. When Mal enters a room in the present, it triggers his original memories of first stepping on board the Serenity with slick transitions. When  Zoë is administrated adrenaline by Simon in the just-before, it quickly cuts to Mal using it on himself in the same fashion. It gives the episode a sense of momentum which builds upon the tension. Every scene is carefully crafted in a way to make everything feel fluid, building into each other and weaving in and out of one another in a masterful way.

Finally, the flashback scenes revel in playing on unexpected outcomes, but in an expected way. We have already heard people talking trash about Firefly class ships, so it stands for reason why she would be unimpressed with Mal’s rash purchase of the Serenity, and her immediate dislike to Wash, who she would eventually fall in love with and marry before the series begins. We are first of all startled to see a different mechanic in Kaylee’s place initially, but the curiosity is paid off when we see the woman hastily putting on her clothes in the engine room who finds that “engines make her hot” is indeed the cheerful, ship-loving mechanic herself. Jayne has always been treacherous and power-hungry, but that didn’t simply start when he joined Mal, it was always in his nature, but he was never a smart man. So when he is tricked by Mal and  Zoë’s words into betraying the others who are holding them at gunpoint, we are relieved in a way to see it is the outcome we expected, but the writing is so sharp, it still makes it a fresh revelation.

The final scene is powerful in it’s minimal use of vernacular. We know that Mal has a soft spot for the ship, and when the slick-talking salesman is taking him on a tour of a ship, we feel initial surprise that the interior does not belong to the Serenity, especially as the captain seems disinterested. With a silent look, ignoring the calls of the salesman, Mal looks adoringly at the Firefly ship, sitting by itself. Then the episode ends. The lasting thought Mal feels is exactly the same as I felt when I watched this episode for the first ever time; a longing feeling culminating in the end of a search of something special. Mal looked at the yet-unnamed Serenity and new he had found his new home, and I felt that for fourteen episodes, it was my home too.

“Ship like this, be with you till you die.”

What did you think of this episode when you first saw it? Is there a different episode you think encapsulates the series perfectly? Or have you never seen the series before but I’ve piqued your interest? Let’s talk about it!

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