“Objects In Space” is Firefly’s default finale, though it was never intended to be such. And it is the episode, barring her focus-sharing turn in “Safe” and “Ariel”, that belongs mostly to River Tam. “Objects In Space” revolves around her, the targeting of her of Jubal, the crews perception of her and River finding a place on-board Serenity beyond being the occasional danger.
We see this plot line set up right from the very beginning, as River wakes and wanders around the ship, encountering people and understanding some of what they are really thinking due to her “reading”. This is the first – and only – time that we truly see things from River’s perspective, and it’s a warped, uncomfortable experience. River’s “gift” seems wrapped up in boatloads of negativity: Simon’s inner monologue expresses regrets that he isn’t back being a trauma surgeon, Jayne is still fretful about his betrayal in “Ariel”, Book has a terrifying turn that makes little sense, while Mal and Inara continue to circle each other, unwilling to express what they really feel. Only Wash and Zoe intimate moment seems to have any kind of positive effect, but even that has a shade of weirdness to it, River intruding on something she shouldn’t be intruding on, the experience causing her to flee, unable to handle the flood of feelings and emotions.
The culmination is the upsetting moment when River, uncomprehending, waves a gun around, thinking it to be a very different object to what it is, understanding but not comprehending. This leads into the debate about River, which could almost double as a writer’s room discussion about the character. So far, River hasn’t really done all that much, bar the shooting incident in “War Stories” that Kaylee recalls here. Now, in Firefly’s dying days, the crew come together to talk about what River can do and what kind of purpose she has on-board Serenity. For a large section of “Objects In Space”, starting here, River vanishes from the plot entirely, only turning up again in the last act.
The crews discussion on River is a fascinating look at how they approach such a problem, one that has no easy answer. Many neutral points of view are taken: characters like Wash, Book and Kaylee don’t have it in them to suggest that River should no longer be on the ship, and Jayne is careful not to be too gung-ho in expressing such a similar sentiment. Wash himself reacts with humour, which earns a sharp rebuke from Inara, a singular moment in the course of the show. In the end nothing can be decided: no one wants to deal with the dilemma of turning Simon and River out, or keeping her around and risking a potential disaster, as would eventually occur in Serenity.
The driving force of “Objects In Space” appears shortly thereafter, in the form of Jubal Early, a man I’ll talk about a lot more next time. River evades him easily, and when they do come into contact with each other, it’s a very strange, almost psychedelic way.
River claims to have “melted away” in the face of the crews concern, melding with and becoming Serenity itself, speaking with the ships voice. There’s a lot to talk about or infer in this moment. Obviously she hasn’t actually done this is a tangible sense, but it isn’t the first time that a feeling similar to this has been created in Firefly. Whedon and company always stressed that the ship itself was the “10th character” of the show, an entity that they wanted an audience to connect with in the same way that they connected with Mal, Kaylee, Book or any other character. In “Out Of Gas”, this idea got taken to its furthest point, as Mal and his ship were placed into a position where they seemed one and the same thing, intrinsically tied. Now River, who spends her time walking around Serenity in her bare feet, being as close to the ship as anybody can be physically, becomes what Whedon dubbed similar to the “God ship” concept, imbuing (very deliberate choice of words there) Serenity with her voice, so that she can articulate Serenity’s thoughts, concerns and anger. We’ll never know how far Whedon wanted the audience to take this idea – whether River is just screwing with Jubal or if, in some weird cosmic way, she does briefly allow Serenity itself to merge with her – but it marks “Objects In Space” out in a major way. In a production sense, this was carried out wonderfully, with River’s voice changing from being clearly inter-com based to being much clearer, like she was physically in the same room as the people she was addressing (Summer Glau did, in fact, do just this as part of filming).
But “Objects In Space” is not just about metaphysical concepts and existentialism (more on that another time), it is, as stated, about River and her place. She knows, earlier than anyone, about the threat that Jubal poses. She dodges him, hides from him, and orchestrates a plan to undo him. She uses things he would never expect – his ship, the memory of his mother, and his own flawed psyche – against him. In the end, River is responsible for the defeat of Early, fighting back against him her own way: using intelligence, lateral thinking and resources that she controls expertly. Kaylee, Mal and Simon all play their parts – Simon almost blows it, but does so in a way that showcases, again, his own kind of unexpected physical heroism– but River is the orchestrator. Without her, there is no way that Early could have been defeated. When Mal welcomes her back from Early’s ship, he’s welcoming her back onto the crew after brief thoughts of her no longer being welcome. Like Simon previously, River has proven she does have a place on Serenity, even if she “ain’t quite right”.
Many fans focus on the episode’s very last lines, but I am always a bit more struck by River’s final contribution. Playing some game with Kaylee, she looks at a rubber ball intensely before continuing. It is as if the character’s experience in the course of “Objects In Space” has changed her a bit, made her more confident, more satisfied with her surroundings and her place there, able and willing to tackle the problems that face her, be they mental or physical. She has worth, she has value, outside of her previous role as just a helpless scared child with a dangerous side.
“I can win this.”