An Awfully Crowded Sky

Leave it to the geniuses at Fox to ditch the pilot episode in favor of The Train Job as the first aired episode of Firefly. Likely no other single decision led more to the cancellation of the series than did ignoring simply the best introduction to the 'verse possible. Starting with a flashback to the Battle of Serenity Valley that defines the person Mal is today, the pilot episode efficiently brings together the characters of a large ensemble cast without losing the viewer or sacrificing the plot. It succeeds in doing what any introductory episode should do: establish the players, describe the world, and set up the extended plot.

The plot is intially introduced via the scenes of the Battle of Serenity Valley in which Mal's platoon is ordered to surrender to Alliance forces. Back in the present day, it is furthered by the revelation of River Tam as the girl inside the big box. Mal gives the Tams refuge aboard Serenity, and from that point on, they join the crew in hoping to stay one step ahead of the Alliance as River's past is slowly divulged.

The universe is revealed by the description of the political order and the various technology prevalent in the scenery. The central core of the solar system is under control of the Alliance which continues to try to expand further and further out. The core is wealthy and civilized, though at the same time corrupt. The Alliance has yet to completely establish roots at the periphery, where both freedom and disorder are prevalent and survival is difficult. The strange mix of technology further draws parallel with the contrast between the core and border planets. In the parts where Serenity travels, spaceships break down and need frequent repairs. Most people use traditional firearms rather than lasers. Many worlds don't have neatly paved roads so people ride horses to arrive at their destinations.

The players are distinguished as smugglers from the very first scene after the introductory flashback. Further dealings with Badger and Patience make clear the types Mal deals with regularly. The dialogue is used to get a glimpse of the personalities on board Serenity.

JAYNE: Captain, can you stop her from being cheerful, please?

MAL: I don't believe there is a power in the 'verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful. Sometimes you just wanna duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month.

[...]

ZOE: I know something ain't right.

WASH: Sweetie, we're crooks. If everything were right, we'd be in jail.

By the end of the episode, an essential portion of each character's identity is clear to the viewer: Mal's feelings of betrayal and loss, Zoe's loyalty, Wash's humor, Jayne's opportunism, Book's mysterious past, Kaylee's sunny disposition, Simon's sacrifice, River's victimization, and Inara's elegance. The episode succeeds at every level as the introduction to the series. It's too bad that it was aired as the finale to the series after the decision to cancel had been made. Who knows what alternate history may have emerged were it aired in its intended slot?


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Thank you for an insightful

Thank you for an insightful analysis on the pilot. I agree with every word. This is very useful.