Having finished my look at the 14 episodes of Firefly that exist, I find that there is some stuff between “Objects In Space” and Serenity that is worth considering. One of those is “Dead Or Alive”, the unproduced script, written by Cheryl Cain and due to be directed by Marita Grabiak, an episode that never got the chance to come into being. It is unique among the many ideas and half-formulated plots floating around out there for Firefly episodes – that I will talk about a bit more next time – insofar as it is a complete script, that could have gone into production easily enough. It is available on various parts of the internet, for your reading pleasure.
The first thing that really strikes you about “Dead Or Alive” is the similarities that it has to “The Message”, with the central backbone of the plot – Mal and Zoe trying to help an old war buddy who isn’t all sweetness and light in the end – taken from “Dead Or Alive” and used in that episode. A few other bits and pieces come into play too: the visit to the post office early on, Jayne’s attachment to something very un-Jayne-like, and the location of the ending, among the catwalks of Serenity’s cargo bay. In many other respects, “Dead Or Alive” is pretty different to “The Message”, but the similarities are worth noting.
In terms of a review of the episode – with the caveat that it is always a little unfair to review a draft script in relation to an existing TV show – I always found “Dead Or Alive” passable and little else. Maybe you need the performances, the music, the visual direction to really make Firefly come alive, but I was ultimately not very bowled over by this, an episode that may have yet to undergo a few redrafts before it could really be turned into something great. It’s very on the nose with its central message, of Mal and Zoe confronting some elements of their past and the main focus of the episode – Declan Everton – is introduced properly very late. Characters like Jonah and Mather aren’t very fleshed out, with Mather in particular just being sort of a non-entity. The emotional trauma being felt by Azuria fails to really pop with just words and the bitterness of the ending – in comparison to the more cathartic experience that formed the conclusion of “The Message” – leaves a bad taste.
But “Dead Or Alive” is far from a trainwreck. Like a few of the existing Firefly episodes, it does manage to find some stuff for every crewmember to do effectively, and many of these mini-plots are really quite effective. The general gist of the central plot, showing the hitherto exclusively heroic Independents as potential bad guys, was something that would have been welcomed (more so than Tracey in “The Message”, the difference between a crook and a terrorist fairly obvious) and the fallout from the factory explosion allows for some neat things to happen, character wise.
For Mal, it’s about him confronting his past ideology. Everton is more than just some soldier he used to fight with, like Tracey, he’s somebody that he trained. The script really wants to ram that message home, that Everton and his ideology is a direct result of the teachings that Mal gave him, both militarily and politically. Mal is disgusted by the person that Everton has become, but knows that this reflects back on him, leaving him in a disturbed state by the episode’s conclusion.
Zoe, for her part, see’s in Everton the kind of person that she was back in the war, a more ruthless individual who has had her life changed greatly by her marriage to Wash. “The Message” maintained this sort of angle as well, contrasting the Zoe of the flashbacks, slitting throats without a qualm, with the more loving – but no less dangerous – individual she is in the “present”. In “Dead Or Alive”, Everton is a stern reminder to Zoe of what might have been. Wash is on hand to remind us of this, remaining a voice of reason in the face of Declan’s growing guilt.
Like many of this episodes, and just like in “The Message”, Jayne’s role here is all about the comedy, winning carnival games, getting attached to a stuffed turtle, talking guns with other men with more muscles than sense. Some of his lines do help to break the tension nicely, not least when he considers, and then doesn’t, give the turtle to Kaylee, perfectly in keeping with Jayne.
Kaylee, for her part, gets another healthy dose of reality in “Dead Or Alive”, matching the experience that she goers through in “The Message”. Her cheer and optimism take a pounding in the aftermath of the bombing, and it is to her that the righteous indignation of the episode must go, as she turns on Jayne for his thoughtless shoptalk and then later tries to comfort Azuria. Here, we can see a hurt and somewhat traumatised Kaylee maintain the kind of person she is without just being a mindless bright spark, understanding that some people need to find an outlet for grief, and trying to help them towards that.
Inara is out of her comfort zone in the episode. The refined, sophisticated and beautiful companion is suddenly surrounded by death, gore and pain, and has to adapt to her role as a makeshift nurse for Simon’s operations. There is little in terms of long-lasting drama to be found in all that, but it is always good when characters are thrown into unexpected places so we can see just how they react: Inara struggles at times but gets through it.
Simon has a much more interesting quandary. It’s only natural that the man who risked everything to save someone’s life in “Ariel” would jump into the fray in the aftermath of the bombing, but it leads to that potentially very grim conclusion, where Simon isn’t sure if he really did do all that he could have done to save Tanaka’s life, once it became clear that the Alliance commandeer was beginning to get a little suspicious of him. That Simon could potentially go down such a dark road speaks to the way that he has been forced to change while out on the edge of civilisation, and to the potential lengths that he could go to keep his sister safe from those who would want to harm her.
Interesting as well is the brief moment at the end of the episode where Kaylee “notices” the apparent closeness of Simon and Inara after their experience. The two have had close moments before – in “Serenity” and “Out Of Gas” – and as I have previously mentioned, I have always wondered if there was not a future triangle plot to be found there. It’s not the last time in the established canon that it will come up either.
Lastly we have Book and River, two characters who have minor roles to play in “Dead Or Alive” but still manage to make an impact. We see Book as the comforting preacher and as the help to Simon, but River does steal the show a little bit, in her twisted stories told to the surviving children that tell us a little bit about her own private experiences.
“Dead Or Alive” could have established a lot of very important things for the future of Firefly. The existence of Independent-orientated terrorist groups – later dubbed “Dust Devils” in the comics – is probably the most important, but there is also that possible Kaylee-Simon-Inara dynamic as well as Simon’s potentially terrible dark side. But it certainly would have needed some fine-tuning, either before or during production, for it to match the height of the rest of Firefly. As it is, it is a nice little addendum to the actual series, a little extra taste of the ‘verse that we can enjoy while continually pondering what might have been.