I think that the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”, more than any other episode of Firefly, is the one that is the most sci-fi “lite” in the series. Firefly is, of course, a sci-fi western, one with a character drive. Well, “Our Mrs Reynolds” is one that’s heavy on the character and the western, and not so much on the sci-fi, not until very late in the game. It’s an example of how people differ in their approach to modern visual sci-fi, with some trying to mesh two elements together, and others trying to keep them apart. Firefly has already done this to an extent in “Bushwhacked” with horror/procedural, but “Our Mrs Reynolds” is something else. It’s an episode where the future meets the past at a very set point, with the two staying apart elsewhere.
I mean, the first 33 or so minutes of “Our Mrs Reynolds” have barely any sci-fi in them at all, bar the fact that much of it takes place on a spaceship. But that’s just a setting: the story told here could just as easily be on a transport boat or a wagon convoy or something like that. It opens with as western a scene as you can find, with Mal, Zoe and Jayne talking care of some bandits, with everyone being on horseback, and proceeds to a very parochial looking party, with moonshine, dancing by firelight and nary a piece of fancy technology or other future elements to be seen. From there it becomes a story about arranged marriage and a captain’s relationship with women, with a nasty sting in the tale.
When the sci-fi does come in “Our Mrs Reynolds”, it’s an unwelcome intrusion in a way. The episode is at its strongest as Mal blunders through his interactions with Saffron, alienating numerous people on the ship as he rejects her and then tries to “do right” by her, and as she is revealed to be far more manipulative and sinister than she first appeared. But then a space station with an electrical ring turns up, and there’s gunfire in space and vacuums and such. It’s not bad, far from it, but it is a very different kind of thing to what “Our Mrs Reynolds” presented up to that point.
It calls to mind Jayne’s words, having briefly embraced the rustic superstition of the rain stick but is then confronted with something much prettier: “You got a wife!? All I got was some dumbass stick ‘sounds like its rainin’”. “Our Mrs Reynolds” exhibits, or perhaps thinks its audience will, a kind of attitude like that, where because it is, nominally, a sci-fi show, it has to have a sci-fi finale. The sci-fi stuff is there to grab the attention of the viewer in a more normal way for a sci-fi show, and it comes like a stunning reminder that the program we are watching takes place far in the future and not in the past. By the final scenes, the episode has reverted back to type, with Saffron being apprehended, dressed like a Wild West showgirl, in an actual log cabin.
I do think that director Vondie Vurtis Hall and writer Joss Whedon do bring these two elements together properly. The space station guys are just characterless vultures ambushing unwary travellers, but they get an added zing through their collaboration with the far more fascinating Saffron, a character that would probably have ended up playing a far more significant role if the series had been allowed to continue (I always saw her as a sort of Anya-type character, destined to wind up on the ship in some capacity, maybe as a replacement for Inara in the event she left). It isn’t complicated science-fiction at all, and neither is the resolution that the crew come up to deal with the problem (it is, basically, “shoot them a bunch of times”).It’s essentially the same thing that they did at the start of the episode. That the brush with proper sci-fi is kept so limited, helps to keep the attention on the other aspects of the story, and I think that this is for the best.
“Our Mrs Reynolds” is a great example of what you would call “grounded” science fiction, where the sci-fi part of the whole experience is just basic setting and a few other bells and whistles. “Our Mrs Reynolds” is about the roles people play and the way they play each other, whether it is by keeping secrets or manipulating people to your advantage. It isn’t the kind of narrative that needs space battles or laser guns or anything like that to succeed, and is a prime example of how well Firefly does with its characters, using the setting to accentuate the main focus on them. It’s an episode where the opening, from the gunfight to the party, enthrals the audience in different ways. It’s an episode where the normally commanding and confident Malcolm Reynolds is faced with a situation that he has little comprehension of, and it’s both amusing, and important, to see him stumble through that, insofar as it showcases a more vulnerable and weak side of him. It’s an episode about how new people can turn existing relationships fractious. And it’s an episode that also serves to add a bit more to the Mal/Inara relationship, that got a temporary respite from attention in “Safe”, but that Whedon and company clearly wanted to be the main spine of the inter-character conflict and drama on the show, since it will have a similar focus on a few of the limited number of episodes. And all of this is done, and can be done, without Reavers or Hands of Blue, or Alliance behemoths. Only the barest hint of technobabble permeates, and is forgotten just as quickly as it appears.
Other sci-fi shows handle such plots very differently. I recall Enterprise’s “Bound”, where the duplicitous sex-crazed females are explained away with pheromones or something. Same story on SG-1’s “Hathor”, while BSG’s “Six Degrees Of Separation” had a radically different narrative and ending, that delved into hints about otherworldly powers. The archetypal plot of “Scheming female character seducing her way to what she wants” has been told a lot on sci-fi, but rarely have I seen a sci-fi show approach in the way “Our Mrs Reynolds” did, where the fantastical elements are actually downplayed in favour of actual character.
“Our Mrs Reynolds”, that has a certain whiff of “bottle episode” about it at times, provides the right setting for all of that. It’s a keen example of Firefly’s ability to mix genres and narrative elements, and to keep things fixed squarely on the people involved, as opposed to the thing they are travelling on or the universe they are a part of.