Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"The Message"

Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk
Morena Baccarin, Adam Baldwin, Jewel Staite
Sean Maher, Summer Glau, Ron Glass
Created by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon & Tim Minear
Directed by Tim Minear

After watching this episode just now, I thought to myself "Yeah, that's another lackluster, mediocre episode, and not very memorable." I theorized that it was probably some problem with the direction. I don't know enough about directing to necessarily be able to tell the difference between good and bad direction, so I figure that if there's an episode that doesn't grab me, although there's nothing specifically wrong with it, it was probably poorly directed. So I wondered who wrote it and who directed it. I was stunned to learn the answer.

This episode features Jonathan M. Woodward in a prominent guest role as "Tracey", an old war buddy of both Mal's and Zoe's. Woodward played an unusually chatty vampire in "Conversations With Dead People", which we discussed last week, and will be back in a very prominent recurring role in the fifth season of "Angel". That means that he appeared in the final season of all three of those shows. If I were superstitious, I would start to wonder if he wasn't cursed somehow. Maybe that's why he never appeared in "Dollhouse".

I really can't figure out what this episode is missing, but it just feels flat to me. All of the elements are there. There's a strong hook, and intriguing mystery, danger, heroism, action, romance, and comedy. And there's nothing wrong with any of it. It just feels bland and singularly uninspired.

Being unable to summon any enthusiasm for this episode, pro or con, I think it's time to explore a tangent. One thing that I never really noticed before is the tight continuity between episodes. I just happened to watch this episode on Hulu (because I didn't have my DVD handy), and it opened with a recap of the previous episode, "Trash". As this episode opens, Mal is unsuccessfully trying to find someone willing to buy his high profile stolen artifact from him. This sort of thing has happened before. For instance, in "War Stories", the crew is shown enjoying the fruits of their recent score from "Ariel", before Zoe squanders it all to rescue Wash. These little connections are not really important, but they're nice. They give the impression that each episode matters, even if only in small ways, in the lives of the characters.

There's one other thing I need to say. The story of this episode involves Tracey specifically targeting Mal and Zoe because he knows that they're "saps". He has contempt for their attitudes about morality and honor, but he thinks he can use that for his own ends. Even after this is uncovered, Mal still protects Tracey as best he can. It's a nice reminder that these characters truly are heroes, as well as being outlaws.

1 comment:

MosBen said...

I think Tracey's opinions of Mal and Zoey is a bit more complicated than he lets on. I think he does believe that they're saps, but he's also relied on them and trusts them to do things that he can't or won't do. Again, I think you *could* decide that it's just cynicism, but I think there's a little something more.

Yet again I'm left slightly confused by your reaction to this episode. Is it the jaw-droppingly high amount of awesome that "Out of Gas" represents? No, but episodes of that quality happen only very rarely. That this show has a couple of them is amazing in itself. In any other series this would be a stand out episode worthy of high praise. That it has some stiffer competition in this series doesn't make it any worse.

That funning anecdote about "When you can't walk" in this episode is a great device, and really gets me in the gut at the end. Same for Mal's line about how he "carried the bullet for a little while."

I agree on the continuity bits, but I'll take it a bit further. If you're making a show, and you don't care about continuity, don't do it. There are plenty of shows out still that just do self-contained stories and they work out fine. Continuity isn't necessary to make a show good, but sloppy continuity (as we're seeing over in Angel, and saw in BSG), just leads to audience confusion and undermines whatever it is the writers are trying to get done.

The little bits of continuity (nice pun, by the way re: "fruits") in Firefly are great because they work. The audience either doesn't notice them or if they do say, "Oh yeah! Cool!" and get back to the story. If the audience is thinking about how the pieces of your continuity fit together and not about the story you're telling, you're doing something wrong.