Firefly: Episodes 1 and 2 (The pilot, titled “Serenity”)
Principle Characters and Actors who play them:
Nathan Fillion … Captain Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds
Gina Torres … Zoë Washburne
Alan Tudyk … Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne
Morena Baccarin … Inara Serra
Adam Baldwin … Jayne Cobb
Jewel Staite … Kaylee Frye
Sean Maher … Dr. Simon Tam
Summer Glau … River Tam
Ron Glass … Shepherd Book
From here on, everything is my analysis of the story, and none of it is necessarily what the screenwriter envisioned as the story structure. It’s simply the way I experienced the story. Of course, this is just structure. The way the actors, screenwriter, director, cinematographer, special effects people, etc. put the story together is what makes it appealing to the viewer. But without a well-structured story, it’s all meaningless. To understand what I’ve done here, the reader should be familiar with at least the first four chapters of Story Alchemy. I’ve indicated what I believe are the major plot points in red type. Plot points are major changes in a conflict. The natural occurrence of plot points in practically all well-told stories was a favorite topic of fabled screenwriter Syd Field.
In the previous two movies I analyzed, About Time and Frozen, the central conflicts are much different from that in Serenity. In About Time, the central conflict is Tim’s internal conflict, and it is generally humorous to watch as he comes to terms with himself. In Frozen, the conflicts are more serious than in About Time. Elsa has a power she can’t control, and she has to keep Anna away from her or she might unwillingly hurt her, as she has in the past. In these two conflicts that form the central part of the story, both are concerned with doing what is best for the other. That’s also true of About Time, but it’s certainly not true in Serenity, which remember is just the first episode of what was planned to be an extended television series. Firefly has a much more complex plot structure. The creator and writer, Joss Whedon, intended the series to run many years as had his pervious series Buff the Vampire Slayer. However, Firefly was cancelled halfway through the first season due to some really bad judgment on the part of studio executives. As a matter of fact, a quick check on IMDb shows that this initial episode, which was written to be the pilot, was shown last. “Train Job” was the first episode aired. Firefly was cancelled without even showing the last three episodes. The stupidity of studio executives has no bounds.
First of all in Serenity we have the conflict between the crew of Serenity (the spaceship) and the Alliance, which forms the central plot structure for the entire series. Then we have the ongoing conflict between civilized human beings and the Reavers, the degenerate, cannibal humans who unaccountably went insane on the edge of space some time before. Then we have the conflict in this pilot episode between Dr. Simon Tam and the captain, Mal, over Simon’s sister, River. Note that Mal never directs the conflict at River but always at Simon. She’s a juvenile, and Simon brought her aboard, so he’s responsible. We also have a conflict between Inara and Mal. Kaylee gets involved in both these conflicts. We also have a conflict between the married couple, Zoe and Wash, over her duties as second-in-command and marital responsibilities. Then there’s Kaylee who falls in love with Simon, and he won’t give her the time of day. The conflict between Mal and his hired gun, Jayne, is both humorous and serious. Then we have Lawrence Dobson, a passenger, who turns out to be an Alliance mole. Here’s a list (I have left out a few.):
- Crew of Serenity vs the Alliance
- Civilized Human Beings vs the Reavers
- Dr. Simon Tam vs Malcom Reynolds
- Simon/River vs the Alliance
- Inara vs Mal
- Kaylee vs Mal
- Kaylee vs Simon
- Jayne vs Mal
- Lawrence Dobson vs Mal, Simon, Shepherd, Jayne, etc.
So which is the central conflict? I’m going split this question into two parts.
- What is the overall series, Firefly, central conflict?
- What is the episode’s, Serenity’s, central conflict?
This seems a bit more manageable. Obviously, the overall series conflict is straightforward: Crew of Serenity vs the Alliance. Having seen the entire series plus the follow-on movie (regrettably also titled Serenity) that resolves all the conflicts, or as we usually say it, ties up all the loose ends. But when we try to identify the episode central conflict, we run into trouble. Is it Mal vs Simon or Crew vs Dobson? It turns out that both of these conflicts are resolved at the end of this episode. Or at least temporarily resolved. At the end, Mal asks Simon to stay onboard. Serenity could use a medic, Mal says. Also Mal puts a bullet in Dobson’s head, which pretty much resolves that conflict along with all the others in which Dobson was involved.
But which conflict is central to the episode? I guess I would have to say both are. And perhaps here is the key to creating a well-plotted series. You have the overall conflict which is locked in the first few minutes. In this case, it’s the loss of the Battle of Serenity Valley by Mal and his company to the Alliance. This is a conflict that will provide the entire series arc. Joss Whedon personalized that conflict in the first episode by having an Alliance mole onboard. But also central to this episode is the conflict between Simon Tam and Mal because Simon brought an Alliance fugitive onboard Serenity, his sister River. These two conflicts should then progress according to the plot pentagon. And this is the way I will analyze the episode bellow.
Yes, the story is riddled with conflict, yet we do have some relationships that are seemingly without conflict. Kaylee has no conflict with Inara, River, Wash, Zoe or Shepherd Book. All these people are crowded together inside a rather small spacecraft. It’s like a family. Mal’s central purpose that he repeats over and over is to keep Serenity flying. That keeps him in continuous conflict with many of the crew and with the Alliance. Shepherd Book, the clergyman, and Inara, the hooker, stand up for and help each other, strangely enough, although Shepherd does threaten Inara with a story about lepers. These non-conflict relationships are the way Joss Whedon builds characters that people adore. The statement that, “The only thing interesting in fiction is conflict,” is just so untrue. The crew of Serenity care about each other, and they show it in positive ways. They will argue and fight, but they also love each other and show it.
When is the conflict between Simon and Mal locked? This is where it gets tricky. We could say that it’s when Simon first steps aboard Serenity. He has brought his sister aboard hidden in a life-support container. But the conflict hasn’t been locked yet because Mal doesn’t know, and even when he does find out, he could say that it was okay to bring her aboard. So you could say that the conflict isn’t actually locked until Mal objects to River being aboard and singles out Simon as going against him. But this occurs 48 minutes into the episode, just a little past the halfway point. I’ve resorted to say that the conflict is locked when Simon steps aboard Serenity and Kaylee introduces him to Mal. This is at the 25 minute point, which is certainly late, but the first part of the episode has been devoted to setting up the over all series conflict.
How about the conflict between Lawrence Dobson and Mal? I’m also going with the first time we see Dobson as locking the conflict. Granted Mal doesn’t know that he’s a mole just yet, but Dobson certainly is in opposition to everything Serenity represents. We just don’t know it yet. This occurs 28 minutes into the episode
One might say that the first half of the double episode has been used to setup the series (the pilot actually) and the second half is the first episode.
It isn’t possible without writing a rather large book on the subject to identify all the conflicts and associated plot points. What I’ve done below is to identify three of the most important conflicts. The first, the series central conflict with the Alliance, I’ve only identified the first plot point, i.e., locking the conflict between Serenity and the Alliance. In both the episode conflicts (between Mal and Simon, and Mal and Lawrence Dobson), I’ve provided what I believe to be all five plot points. Your viewing experience may be different from mine, and it may be perfectly valid. This is just my attempt at determining the first couple of layers of conflict that drive this story.
(0hrs:00mins:00secs) Opens with a battle scene in the Unification War. Sgt. Malcolm Reynolds rouses the rebel troops to hold Serenity Valley. Kisses cross that hangs around his neck.
(0:03:00) Mal shoots down aircraft. Saves Zoe from the crash.
(00:4) Mal and his troops told to surrender to the Alliance. End of SETUP
Six Years Later
(00:7) Incoming alliance while Mal and his little band of outlaws are on an illegal salvage operation. Tells Kaylee to shutdown everything when Wash detects the approach of an Alliance cruiser. PP1: LOCK THE ALLIANCE CONFLICT
(00:08) Alliance locates them there during a sweep for survivors. Mal tells Kaylee to fire up Serenity, his new spaceship. Alliance sensors pick up a firefly class spacecraft.
(00:09) Serenity releases Cry Baby decoys, but brings in the loot.
(00:10) Serenity runs. “Let’s moon ‘em.” Alliance flags scavengers but goes to help what they believe is a disabled spaceship impersonated by the decoys. “Put a line on the Cortex and flag Interpol for a firefly class spaceship.”
(Titles – one minute)
(00:11) Opening contraband — looks like gold bars.
(00:13) Zoe: something is not right. Wash: “Sweetie, we’re crooks. If everything were right, we’d be in jail.”
(00:15) Inara engaged in her “honest living” as a companion (whore).
(00:17) Touchdown on Eaves Down Docks on Persephone.
(00:18) We meet clergyman Shepherd Book, who says, “I’m not a grandpa. I never married.”
(00:19) Meeting with Badger to deliver the goods. He knows Alliance has put out an APB on a Firefly class spaceship and won’t accept the goods. It’s all marked. Doesn’t like Mal’s history of fighting against the Alliance either.
(00:22) Shepherd Book meets Kaylee, comes aboard Serenity.
(00:24) Mal suggests going to White Fall and selling the stolen goods to Patience. Zoe objects because the last time they dealt with her, she shot Mal. Also, first mention of Reavers.
(00:25) We meet Simon and see his mysterious metal box. PP1 LOCK THE SIMON CONFLICT
(00:27) Inara arrives on Serenity. Lift off of Persephone. Serenity out in space.
(00:28) We see Lawrence Dobson, who later will turn out to be an Alliance mole. PP1 LOCK THE DOBSON CONFLICT
(00:28) Group information meeting for passengers in the kitchen.
(00:29) Bit of a schedule delay. Ordered by Alliance to drop off medical supplies on White Fall, fourth moon of planet Athens. Seems to bother Simon.
(00:30) Inara meets the passengers through Mal’s insults for her being a whore (companion).
(00:32) Dinner in the ship dining room. Book wants to know if Mal minds him saying grace. Mal: Only if you say it out loud. Simon questions Mal. Does the Alliance commandeer your ship often?
(00:33) Kayee taken with Simon being a doctor. Mal ejects Jayne from the dinner table because he insults both Simon and Kaylee.
(00:34) Shepherd Book brings supper to Inara.
(00:36) Wash calls Mal to the bridge. Someone onboard has hailed the nearest Alliance cruiser. They have a mole onboard. PP2 FULLY DEVELOPED DOBSON CONFLICT
(00:38) Mal hits Simon thinking he is the mole. PP2 FULL DEVELOPED SIMON CONFLICT
(00:38) But Alliance man, Lawrence Dobson, has gun on Simon and Mal. He is the one who signaled the Alliance cruiser. He is after Simon.
(00:39) Dobson shoots Kaylee during the confusion. Shepherd Book takes down Dobson.
(00:40) They are hailed by the Alliance cruiser and told to prepare to be boarded and for prison transfer.
(00:40) Simon refuses to treat Kaylee’s stomach wound unless they run from the Alliance.
(00:41) Mal to Zoe: Tell Wash to change course and go for hard burn. “We’re running.” Kaylee in ship medical clinic. Simon operates to remove the bullet.
(00:42) Waiting for Kaylee to stabilize. Mal leaves to open Simon’s box. Jayne restrains Simon.
(00:43) Mal opens Box. Fog clears. Naked girl inside.
END OF PART 1:
(00:44) River wakes, screams. Mal: “What the hell is this?” Simon: “This is my sister.”
(00:45) Crew and guests meet in “living room.” Simon tells how smart he is, gifted. But River makes him look like an idiot child. She is a gift. PP3 SIMON CONFLICT REVERSAL
(00:46) River wanted to go to the government program at 14. Then she started sending him letters in code. “They are hurting us. Get me out.”
(00:48) Mal. “You put the Alliance hot on our trail and got Kayee short.” Kaylee pulls through, Simon & River are to get off at White Fall. If not…
(00:49) Inara: “They won’t last in White Fall. You throw them out, I’m leaving too.” Mal: “Might be for the best.”
(00:50) Mal hits Simon again because he says that Mal must be working for the Alliance.
(00:52) Jayne to torture info out of Dobson, the Alliance mole. PP3 DOBSON CONFLICT REVERSAL
(00:53) Reavers pass by, but go their own way.
(00:57) Kaylee awake, River asleep.
(01:00) Mal tells Simon that Kaylee is dead.
(01:01) Simon sees that Kaylee is fine. “He [meaning Mal] is psychotic.”
(01:02) Crew has beg laugh over Mal’s cruel joke.
(01:03) Patience says they can deal for the stolen goods even though they are marked by the Alliance. She’s not afraid of the Alliance. Mal realizes that it’s a trap but still has to go through with it because the Alliance is everywhere and their choices are limited.
(01:04) Dobson cuts himself loose. PP4 DOBSON ANGUISH OF CHOICE
(01:05) Serenity sets down on White Fall. Good place for an ambush, says Mal. Zoe worried.
(01:06) Dobson knocks out Shepherd Book.
(01:08) Jayne at a remote location takes out a sniper and takes the rifle.
(01:09) Patience pays Mal for the goods.
(01:10) Mal tells Patience where the goods are buried, But Patience won’t leave without getting her money back. Mal gives Patience her money back, but Patience still won’t leave. She’s going to kill Mal and Zoe.
(01:11) Jayne kills Two-fry. Gunfight ensues.
(01:00) Simon stops Dobson from abducting River.
(01:12) Mal gets money back from Patience. “I do a job. I get paid.”
(01:13) Revers are after them. They ride horses back to Serenity.
(01:15) Mal, Zoe and Jayne now back aboard Serenity. Simon has gun on Dobson. Dobson puts gun on River. It’s a standoff. Simon doesn’t know what to do. Mal enters and puts a bullet in Dobson’s head, and he and Jayne throw his body out the back of Serenity as they take off. PP5 RESOLUTION OF DOBSON CONFLICT also PP4 SIMON ANGUISH OF CHOICE
(01:16) Serenity runs from Revers, but they are closing in. Kaylee, even though injured, is needed in the engine room.
(01:18) Wash asks Kaylee to do a Crazy Ivan (spaceship maneuver).
(01:19 They perform the Crazy Ivan and go for full burn in the atmosphere to blowback and escape from the Revers.
(01:21) Shepherd Book seeking counsel from Inara (the hooker), says that he believes he’s on the wrong ship. Inara says that he’s right where he should be.
(01:22) Simon consoles River.
(01:23) Jayne wants to get rid of Simon and River. Mal asks why he (Jayne) didn’t turn on him and side with the Alliance. Jayne: “The money wasn’t good enough.”
(01:24) Mal asks Simon to stay aboard. They can use a medic. Simon is confused but obviously he and River are going to stay. PP5 SIMON CONFLICT RESOLUTION
(01:26) THE END
As you can tell from the timeline, plotting for an initial episode of a television series can be rather unconventional and immensely complicated. Also note that the central conflict with the Alliance is not resolved, although the conflict with the Alliance representative aboard Serenity, Lawrence Dobson, is resolved when Mal rather conclusively shoots Dobson in the head. He and Jayne then dump the body overboard. The conflict between Mal and Simon is resolved with Mal asking Simon to stay onboard and be the ship’s medic. However, this conflict is destined to be revisited several times in future episodes whenever River displays threatening behavior. The other thing is that these two series conflicts do evolve over the two hours, much as the plot pentagon predicts although I don’t know that each plot point fits the description of what I say they should be in Story Alchemy. This doesn’t make them wrong. The plot pentagon is somewhat of an average of all stories that have occurred in the history of mankind, and any specific story must satisfy its own dictates. The story alchemist should keep the Philosopher’s Stone in mind when creating a story but not let it override the author’s better judgment. It should also be consulted when problems arise. For example, when a character seems shallow, the story alchemist should go to the plot pentagon and envision the depths of character hinted at by the internal and external pentagons generated by stellation. You don’t have to focus on the Philosopher’s Stone all the time you’re writing. It can be a reference, a trigger, for helping along the process.
One way to tell what is going on in this episode and even all follow-on episodes of Firefly is to watch the movie Joss Whedon made a few years after Firefly was cancelled to bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion. It is also titled Serenity. It demonstrates how all the plots and subplots have been intricately woven together. Everything we learn about River tells us something new about the Alliance and the motives that drives it. Also, it turns out that the Reavers were created by an Alliance effort to control human behavior. All the sub-conflicts dovetail into that central conflict involving the Alliance.
Firefly is a masterful example of good storytelling. Too bad Firefly didn’t run for the seven years Joss Whedon intended. Studio executives did everything they could to make it unappealing to audiences. (See the Wikipedia entry.) They aired this pilot last instead of first. And they changed times and days and frequently preempted it with sports broadcasts. Makes you wonder what they thought they were up to.