“Out Of Gas”, an episode that I typically find ranked as one of Firefly’s finest, is a story that is intrinsically about the connection between one Malcolm Reynolds and the Firefly class vessel that he has the good fortune to own. Sure, the episode spends a lot of time linking Mal to the individual crew-members that make up Serenity’s personnel, treating them like the different organs that make a body work (or the different parts that make an engine turn, if I wanted to make a more appropriate analogy). But right at the heart, when Mal is left all alone on his ship to await death or salvation, we see “Out Of Gas” as a story that ties a captain and his ship so closely together, that at moments they are basically an extension of each other.
There is so much to like about “Out Of Gas” that I have to be careful I don’t turn this into a diatribe about the episodes qualities, but there is one specific aspect of it that I do want to mention. It is a piece of visual entertainment that first got me thinking about the power of lighting and hue from a cinematography standpoint. Joss Whedon’s excellent directors commentary on the DVD is well worth listening to, as he guides the viewer through the timelines and the colour schemes that mark them out: a nostalgic grainy orange and green saturation for the flashbacks, a cold and deathly blue for the present, and a mixture of the two for the near past, the colour scheme working amazing to mark out those first two timelines, and providing the right indications of where we are at any particular moment in the third.
The warm glow of orange lamps at dinner turn to fiery death and then to gradual blue, as the crew turn from happy revellers into people shivering in the cold, waiting for the oxygen to run out. Further throughout the episode colour and associated movement helps to inform us about the ship and its perils: the blue toned sterility of the medbay, the eerie emptiness of the drab cargo hold, the crew quarters enveloped in shadowy darkness, the blinking lights, like a life support machine, in the cockpit, the terrible stillness in the engine room and the, late on, completely colourless ship as it lays dead. And it is that terrible sight, of the previously full of life Serenity motionless in space, its interior silent and its crew scattered, that makes “Out Of Gas” such a terrifying glimpse into catastrophe.
The connecting thread between every flashback to the far past, to every short skip to the near past, and to the pitfalls of the present, no matter what the colour being used, is Mal. I think that he is present in all but a very small number of short scenes, and every flashback and time switch is seen through his eyes, in his location and in the things that are happening to him. He shares in that warm heating glow at the dinner scene. The blinding green of far off days are his tinted memories that come to mind at this most testing moment. The blue of the ship is his growing cold. The purple haze that starts to overcome everything is his delirium as the gunshot wound weakens and disables him.
And in that haze, and the accompanying skips back to the near present and to further back in his life, the transformation occurs. Mal becomes more than he is, and Serenity becomes more than a ship. The ships’ wounds become Mal’s wounds, almost literally speaking: Mal’s efforts to fix the ship mirror his own feeble efforts to fix himself, having to do both tasks alone, each entity dependent on the other for any chance of survival.
You can call it what Inara does, a quaint but crazy decision to “go down with the ship” in the best tradition of legendary sea captains. You can call it sheer desperation, Mal wanting to maximise the crews chances of an unlikely rescue. But I see it in much more intangible terms, calling back to the previous pronouncements on the nature of Serenity and the battle that it was named after: after you’ve been through Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there. Mal, and his entire identity as a man living free, not under the heel of anybody, is bound up with his ship. They’re one and the same, a sentiment magnified by the final shots of “Out Of Gas”, when a smiling Mal decides that this dinky little Firefly is the ship for him, and subsequently spends a great deal of time and effort filling it with the people he wants to fill it with. He’s the brain of this machine, and its triumphs are his triumphs, its failures are his failures and its freedom is his freedom. Of course Mal will go down with the ship, of course he will choose to face his end, if he has to, within this structure of metal. There is no other option for him. He’s linked to this vessel, through an immediate attachment formed when they both saw each other, through the experiences he has had flying her and crewing her, and through his past connection to the terrible place that it is named in honour of. When Serenity is out of gas, Mal is too.
And it can be extended to Zoe as well. Serenity’s injury becomes her injury: as the ship lays dying, so does its first mate. Like Mal, she went through Serenity Valley and came out the other side too, though she does not appear to have been as damaged as Mal. Regardless though, she too lives in Serenity, unable to completely get away from the battle. She too comes to identify with the ship, its hurts and its grief’s. We might look forward to her last words in the film, as she refers to the ship and to her own grief over Wash:
She’s tore up plenty. But she’ll fly true.
Like Mal, Zoe briefly becomes one with the ship. When Mal fixes the ship is when Zoe, miraculously, recovers consciousness on the shuttle and orders a return, bringing the crew, the component parts, back together for a victorious reunion, Wash giving his blood to Mal to fix him up, after Mal gave his blood to fix the ship. When Mal asks, in his drug induced state, “You all gonna be here when I get back?” it might as well be Serenity asking. Later, in “Objects In Space”, the connection between ship and its crew members will form a major plot point.
It’s more subtle than my clumsy words can really make clear, but “Out Of Gas” wants the viewer to know that the people of Serenity, especially its captain and first mate, are more than just crew. The ship is just some floating derelict without them. They are a scattered and isolated group of people without it. And none more so than Mal, a person more attached to Serenity than anyone, who intends to stay true to the salesman’s pitch: “…treat her proper, she’ll be with ya for the rest of your life.”