Firefly: Exposition Done Right (And Wrong) In “The Train Job”

“The Train Job”, as most Firefly fans know, had a troubled genesis.

Whedon and Tin Minear, naturally, wanted what became “Serenity” to be the show’s first episode. Fox, unhappy with the finished product for whatever reason, disagreed. And so, Whedon and Minear were forced to essentially write another pilot, one that had to be half the length of the first, in a rapid space of time.

The result of that process was “The Train Job”. It’s a good episode – hell, is there a bad episode of Firefly? – but the patchwork is evident all over the place, the signs of rushed writing and rushed production. As a new pilot, it works, but there are still a few problems evident.

One of these, ditched on the DVD edition but preserved on Netflix, is the opening narration. Over random shots of the series, Ron Glass utters the following:

After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terra formed and colonized. The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule. There was some disagreement on that point. After the War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control. Out here, people struggled to get by with the most basic technologies; a ship would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain’s goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying. 

Glass is a good actor, but his delivery here is with all of the verve and enthusiasm of Harrison Ford on the infamous narration of Blade Runner, most notably the “There was some disagreement on that point”, a line clearly meant to be a little blackly comedic, but which actually sounds terrible in reality. A different version, narrated by Nathan Fillion, exists as well, but is little better.

One of the problems with it is that it’s just patently unnecessary, especially for a pilot episode. It’s flat-out telling you stuff about the universe that could be shown to the audience more subtly. Whether this was a Whedon idea or a studio requirement, it just simply does not belong.

And that’s even more obvious when you look at what directly follows this abomination, the opening scene of “The Train Job”, wherein Mal, Zoe and Jayne get into a bar fight on some backwater moon in the process of getting a job. Taking each line of the above as a reference point, I’d like to demonstrate how the same point is made in the actual show.

After the Earth was used up, we found a new solar system and hundreds of new Earths were terra formed and colonized.

In the course of the opening, it’s established that we are in the future – with Mal being thrown through a holographic window and the spaceship appearing – and that we are on a new world, by repeated references to the fact that the crew are on a moon of some kind. That, and the planets in the background of the outdoor shots. It’s done in a more natural fashion, with no attention being drawn to the plot points.

The central planets formed the Alliance and decided all the planets had to join under their rule.

The drunken bald guy at the bar makes the point about the Alliance far better. We know through his rant that a war was fought by an entity called “the Alliance”, and that it was fought for “unification”. The scene trusts the audience to get the picture, the narration doesn’t. In the context of it being “U-Day”, and this moron being a veteran of some kind, the set-up and the information flows better.

There was some disagreement on that point.

Ugh. Baldy makes clear that a war was fought, and it was against those who seemingly did not want “unification”.

After the War, many of the Independents who had fought and lost drifted to the edges of the system, far from Alliance control.

Baldy lets the audience know that the Alliance won the war, and Mal’s reaction to the “toast” lets us know that he was one of the losing side. The surroundings are enough to let us know that we are on the outskirts of civilisation, what with the sheet metal buildings and all. The brutality of the ensuing argument, where Mal, Zoe and Jayne come close to being murdered out of hand, and are able to scare off their attackers, also does the job of showing a place far from authority.

Out here, people struggled to get by with the most basic technologies…

While it is established that we are in a version of the future, the bar itself is a dimly lit ramshackle place, dark and dirty. Even Serenity doesn’t look all that great, a far cry from the sleek and shiny sci-fi future of something like Star Trek.

…a ship would bring you work, a gun would help you keep it. A captain’s goal was simple: find a crew, find a job, keep flying. 

As the opening scene attests, Mal has a ship, and he’s in the area to find work. In order to get out of here with said work, he has to be a little punch happy, though, of course, he is the one who initiates it. As the few moments before the opening credits show, as Mal talks on the bridge with the crew, here is a man and his workforce on the edge, happy to take an illegal job in order to make some money.

So, the opening sequence of “The Train Job” does the narrations job far better. But on top of that, it does a tonne of other stuff too. What is established, in order:

-The Asian/eastern influences in the society of the show (with the bellydancing, music, accoutrements of the bar, Chinese Checkers, and the use of the Chinese language).

-That the Alliance friendly people are the bad guys, at least relative to Mal and co (“Lund” and his behaviour)

-That Mal is the Captain of the group (Zoe calls him this).

-That Jayne is not very smart (“What month is it?”)

-Six years have passed since the war, and the Independents were “Browncoats” (“Six Years today, the Alliance sent the Browncoats running…”)

-That Mal is a smart Alec (“Your coat is sort of a brownish colour” “It was on sale”)

-That Mal has a certain way with words that might not be immediately obvious (“And I’m guessing you weren’t burdened with an overabundance of schooling…”)

-That the crew are happy to be devious and underhanded (Mal distracting Lund so Zoe can brain him from behind).

-That Jayne didn’t fight in the war, and isn’t super reliable (“Hey, I didn’t fight in no war. Best of luck though…”).

-That Wash is the pilot of the ship (Mal radios him to make a “grand entrance” with Serenity).

-That Mal, Zoe and Jayne can all fight with the best of them (holding off a large crowd and giving as good as they get for the most part).

-That the Unification War has obvious American Civil War allusions (“I’m thinking we’ll rise again”).

-That Serenity is an unarmed cargo ship (…can’t even tell a transport ship ain’t got no guns on it”).

-That Kaylee is the mechanic/engineer/tech person of the ship (she’s working on a console, and has the appearance of a grease monkey).

-The ship has additional crew we haven’t seen yet (“How are the passengers?”).

-That Kaylee’s a little idealistic and naive (the way she says “Was there a terrible brawl?”).

-That Zoe and Wash are married (“Are you getting my wife into trouble?”)

-That Mal has a chip on his shoulder over the war (the brawl, and Zoe’s reveal that Mal always looks for one on “U-Day”).

-That the crew are, happily, criminals (“…got us some crime to be done”).

Look at this list. Look at the extraordinary power of “Show, Don’t Tell”. It’s astounding, and what’s more, Whedon will basically do it again for the film, which I’ll get to in time.

But “The Train Job” does go back the other direction on more than one occasion. Shortly after the opening credits, Mal and Book share a conversation that is more obvious in its exposition and characterisation, especially for Simon and River. They had a nice scene just beforehand which helped set them up with a bit of subtly, but then you have Book pointedly stating why Simon should be sympathetic (to the audience, if it wasn’t obvious). From there, he probes Mal directly about his moral values in a rather clumsy way, before being as vague as he can be about his own reasons for being on the ship. At least it ends well, with a more natural sounding reveal of Mal’s antipathy towards religion.

Later, we get introduced to Niska who, while being fairly stand-out, is probably Firefly’s weakest villain in terms of characterisation. He’s essentially a Nazi, and with a lack of time to make him  a complete character, Whedon and Minear jumped straight into a brutal glimpse of torture and basic philosophising about reputations. And we never see him again in the episode, instead being relegated to the even emptier Crow as an antagonist. Whedon would get the chance to come back to Niska in “War Stories” of course, but in “The Train Job” he’s rushed.

Later still, right at the end of the episode in fact, there was another moment that I felt got fleshed out to an unnecessary degree. As Mal and Zoe bring back the stolen medicine, the local Sheriff essentially puts the full stop at the end of the episodes’ moral dilemma by enunciating it clearly, too clearly for my liking, when no words really needed to be said at all.

So, “The Train Job” has its strengths and it has its weaknesses. Considering the studio interference and very brief time the Whedon/Minear duo had to write the episode, the end product is still sterling work, but it is certainly in no way a better introduction to the series than “Serenity”.

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