Before “Ariel”, there is really only so much we have been able to learn about “the Core”. It’s the bastion of civilisation and the unification movement, the most populated planets with the most advanced technology and, as it happens, the most repressive forms of government. Here is where the Alliance sits in the most prominent place of power, sending its tendrils further and further out, to the border worlds and then to the rim. It is described as a place of wealth, sophistication and power.
So, you might forgive an audience if, upon learning that “Ariel” will be set upon the titular Core world, they get a little excited about the prospect. Here is an Independent ship with a (mostly) Independent crew, setting down and setting foot on a world that should be anathema to their ideals and to their usual surrounds.
“Ariel” tries hard enough in its depiction of the Core worlds, but really does come up a bit short in what it is trying to do. I’m sure that the majority of what I am about to critique – in fact I’m certain of it – can be put down to the limitations of budget and time (in that order) that the production team had. But the end result, the depiction of the planet Ariel, its people and its society, is still more than a little flat.
I mean, it starts off well enough. Simon and Inara take turns bigging up Ariel as a very nice, very fancy place – great restaurants, beautiful hiking trials, bio-luminescent lakes, everything that Serenity’s usual ports of call are not known for – even as Zoe, and then Mal, tear it all down: “sensors” everywhere, repressive government and a likelihood of breaking a law just by stepping off the ship. There’s a planet and a society set-up, along with the Core conflict between that society and this crew, very easily.
But what comes after is less good. Two overhead shots of the city, one in the day and one at night, occur. Both are made using rather flimsy looking CGI, and the night-time shot, where the fixed ambulance flies towards the hospital, makes “Ariel City” look like the background for a low-budget 1990’s adventure game, when it was clearly going for something more akin to the opening shot of Blade Runner. I understand there might have been a need to show the city off in some capacity, but the kind of cheap CGI that was employed here is more a detriment than a suitable addition.
The actual hospital that the group go to engage in their heist looks weirdly drab and unimpressive: remarkably poor lighting (seriously, what was up with that?), really bare hallways and rooms, along with locations that don’t really look like they belong in a hospital at all (it’s actually a biomedical industrial centre in California). I sense that a lot of the production budget for “Ariel” was probably spent on the ambulance and then the “imager” room, and everything else suffered. But the end result is that I felt no kind of “wow” from being in the Core: this was just a normal hospital, albeit one that seems to have a terrible shortage of lightbulbs. One feels like “Ariel” didn’t have to be set in the Core at all, but might have been better suited to one of those border planets that mixes and matches its elements like, say, the already visited Persephone. I mean, the gigantic dump, that seems to have tonnes of useful stuff in it just lying around, is also a bit off-putting. This is the Core, why is our first glimpse of it a scrapheap? Ariel, and the Alliance structures within it, seem far too modern, and by that I mean that it all looks far too like today.
I guess what I’m trying to get across is that the Core should be an impressive place to the audience, and not just in its look: the people of the Core also seem to be less than capable. Hospital staff are easily hoodwinked by the heist, some of the doctors appear to be nitwits, the Alliance feds only apprehend Simon and River after they get what they were coming for, the Hands of Blue casually stroll after the escaping fugitives and then fail to catch them and, finally, Serenity suffers no kind of pursuit for its troubles, despite the fact that this is supposed to be a Core planet.
All of this stuff can be waved away of course. The Core is so free of crime that the people there are unused to dealing with it, you’re always going to have bad doctors, the Hands of Blue might be cyborgs, etc. And while all that might be valid, it still doesn’t change the fact that the Alliance is just made to look ineffective and dumb in “Ariel”, in a manner that I do think goes a bit too far. The Hands of Blue, as discussed, are very threatening and memorable, but, even discounting their failure, I feel like “Ariel” was a good place to show the Alliance as more powerful than it previously has been shown to be, considering that we are now in its backyard. Stealing medicine from this hospital is just a bit too easy, escaping with everyone is just a bit too easy, getting away scott free is just a bit too easy. Maybe if the hospital was a bit more futuristic, maybe if the crew had more trouble planning and executing the job (I’ve sometimes wondered how “Ariel” might have been as a two-parter) maybe if they catch some heat from the authorities in future episodes over it, it might have been a bit more satisfying.
As it is, “Ariel” is still a fine episode, one of my favourites, but almost entirely because of the characters that inhabit the story – especially Jayne – and the experiences that they go through. It has little to do with the depiction of the Core itself, which was throwaway and a tad disappointing. Firefly never got the chance to redress the balance, and we’ll never be in the Core again, notwithstanding the few brief glimpses we get of shining, glimmering structures in the opening prologue of Serenity, a more suitable depiction of the place that the Core is supposed to be.