Created by: Joss Whedon
Episode Title: Out of Gas
Episode #: 8
Production Code: 1AGE07
Season: Really? There was only one.
Original Air Date: October 25, 2002
Written by: Tim Minear
Directed by: David Solomon
As I mentioned awhile back in an old TMT, came to the extraordinary science-fiction television series, Firefly, rather tardily. Like after it happened-three years-late. I know what you’re thinking. Why show up at all, then? Well, it was worth it. The show, one that the Fox Network completely and utterly mishandled by screwing up the episode order and playing havoc with air dates, was unique in a way some stellar genre programs often are.
It was original, well-written, and had a cast of obscure but attractive, or little-known actors littering the show; showcasing unexpected talent or personality as the producers presented smart fresh material1. Of course, such programs usually pay a high price for being so creative and ahead of the curve: low ratings and early cancellation being their usual reward. Star Trek, Brimstone, Millennium, The Adventures of Bristol County Jr., anyone?
Still, as much as this series is now looked upon as one the greatest shows cancelled before its time, found I wasn’t alone in missing out on its initial run. Credit those who found, cherished, and went on to champion it online. For without them, along with its tireless creator Joss Whedon2, the 2005 film Serenity never would have happened, and thus not spur my, and others, conversion as a latter-day dedicated fan.
I still think my colleague Jamie Helton from the Filmverse blog captured the essence of the show best in a comment offered up in that same TMT post:
“The thing about “Firefly” is that it’s essentially a western in a science fiction setting. Also, the characters are just so much fun to watch as they are very cleverly written. You never truly know where they stand or what they are likely to do, which is highly unusual for a TV show, which usually has extremely predictable characters and situations.”
So, following my most recent binge watch of this short TV series once again, thought to review the one episode I most look forward to. Much like my Favorite Scene post from a few years back. Perhaps, to give myself a better understanding on why this one from Firefly tugs at my heart by the time this viewer reaches the end and Mal jerks himself awake to utter…
“You all gonna be here when I wake up?”
Out of Gas
Episode synopsis: After their spacecraft suffers a mechanical catastrophe that leaves her crew with only hours of oxygen left and his second-in-command critically injured, Mal orders the crew off the ship, taking the shuttles in opposite directions for a infinitesimal chance at survival — but he elects to stay behind in the hope he can somehow save Serenity and recall his shipmates.
Inara: “Mal, you don’t have to die alone.”
Mal: “Everybody dies alone.”
As opposed to the seven episodes that preceded this, Out of Gas tells its Tim Minear3 story non-linearly. Displacing our ragtag crew, throwing them out of time and in a dire limbo to what had been a birthday celebration for Simon. Presenting viewers with alternating timeframes: as a wounded, bleeding Mal trying to save his equally dying ship alone, flashing back to the near-past event that led to this, and the circumstances that brought about the formation of Serenity‘s core crew.
The “space western” concept Josh Whedon envisioned for this series only added to the storyline. The semi-nomadic wanderers who use firearms and their wits as everyday tools of survival – occasionally as a means to settle disputes or make a buck. Using their ideals of “frontier justice” to outdistance a corrupted civilization nipping at their heels. Trading the genre’s stock harsh desert environs for the cold, bleak vacuum of space while avoiding “meeting their maker” by any means possible.
Like the venerable oater, the core motifs of love, danger, and death always close by.
Nathan Fillion’s Mal provides enough flawed, fatherly actions to fill Serenity to the brim, and is a standout in the episode
The danger brought out when the ship’s compression coil blows out, disabling the engine and creating the explosion that critically injures Zoë. And it’s her casualty that seriously damages the calm of the two main males in her life4: Capt. Malcolm Reynolds, her wartime colleague, and Wash, her husband and Serenity‘s pilot. The loss of consciousness5 removing the anchor she’s been in their lives. Each spinning off in ways good and bad for the crew now threatened with depleting air.
And even if Serenity swims in it, nothing, literally nothing, beats space with its inherent darkness at representing death.
“Hey! What you two think you’re doing? Fightin’ at a time like this? You’ll use up all the air.”
So, that only leaves love, a tried and true Whedon penchant in his host of television series, as the route to salvation from the other two, which is the strength of the episode.
As much as the structure of the various timelines eventually meeting makes for great and tense viewing, keenly when it gets to a satisfying ending, it’s the characters that are at the heart of this episode. And ultimately, the series. Their interplay when things are at their most dismal nothing short of momentous. Balanced against learning more of the core members who haven’t been covered by previous shows (episodes Serenity and Safe come to mind) in unexpected ways key to that.
Morena Baccarin (as the Companion Inara Serra), Alan Tudyk (Hoban “Wash” Washburne), and Jewel Staite as the compassionate Kaywinnet Lee “Kaylee” Frye get to shine with surprising preambles. To say nothing of Jayne’s (Adam Baldwin) dim-witted duplicitousness, which will bite him in the very next episode, Ariel. Along with the too often overlooked splendor of Serenity herself. Finally getting her due care of the calamity onboard showcasing what a safe harbor she’s been.
Out of Gas gathered what came before, summed up an already interesting sci-fi series brimming with character and led the way to an even better second half with early payoffs. Brought the quirky, challenging personalities present and expounded on them. Especially, for what it means to be a member of Mal’s crew, severely tested here and in the later feature film, through Minear’s moving script. Helped wonderfully with solid pacing by director David Solomon and a melancholy score.
Finally, why this episode speaks to the series’ steadfast fans (and me particularly)6 is its symbolism. What it means to be in that most imperfect of outfits, whether called crew or a family, couldn’t be on better display. The push-pull we all feel toward those seeking sanctuary, or merely a place to call home. Browncoats, the hunted, or those hiding from the harshness so plentifully about, thrown together into something special, and logged by this teleplay of Serenity pushed to the brink.
- What else explains “Keeping Up With the Kardashians”? ↩
- Whedon’s “feminism” and his once lofty status has taken a hit since, as noted here. ↩
- Frequently works with Josh Whedon and “…is an American screenwriter and director. He has been nominated for four Emmy Awards (2013, 2014, 2015, 2017) for his role as an executive producer on American Horror Story and Feud.” [Wikipedia] ↩
- The tension between the two men involving Zoë coming to a head in War Stories, the tenth episode of the series highlighted awhile back. ↩
- “Gina Torres‘ character spends most of this episode unconscious in the ship’s medical bay, partly because Torres was absent for part of the shoot. She was on her honeymoon with husband Laurence Fishburne.” [IMDB] ↩
- No surprise, it was “The highest rated episode of Firefly.” [IMDB] ↩