Firefly and Western Literature
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“Time for Some Thrilling Heroics”

I just watched the episode “Train Job.” One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how many elements of the Western are used in Firefly, and “Train Job” is one of the most explicitly Western episodes (at least until they actually rustle cattle in a later episode), as the train robbery is a staple of the Western, and the series Western in particular. The episode reminds me a lot of Alias: Smith and Jones, a tv Western from the mid-seventies that I’ve been watching. Members of the Butch Cassidy gang, “Smith” and “Jones” decide to go straight (under the aliases Smith and Jones) and earn amnesty by not committing any crimes for a year. Their former speciality is the train robbery, and several plots have them working to thwart other attempted train robberies. Anyway, the opening credits compare them to “modern day Robin Hoods,” and describe them as “good bad men.” That seems to be the character type for Malcolm Reynolds, the good bad man, who in this episode returns the stolen goods when he realizes what he’s stolen (much needed medicine).  Smith and Jones are notable for never having killed anybody, despite all their robbing and stealing, and the plots often involve labyrinthine ways to avoid killing the bad guy. Mal has no problem killing people who need to be killed.

This is also one of Adam Baldwin’s best episodes, I think, as his character Jayne Cobb has lots of great moments, starting maybe with his “Time for some thrilling heroics” line as he puts on a silly hat–before, heroically, descending on a rope to the top of the train as Serenity flies overhead. I keep trying to focus on Western tropes, but there’s too much good Jayne here, especially once he tries to cease control over Serenity in Mal’s absence: “You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I go get and beat you with until you understand who’s in rutting command here.” Of course, as Jayne asserts authority, he loses it because the doctor has overmedicated him (“You can’t change that by getting all . . . bendy.”). Before he passes out, he does a little homage to Boris Karloff in Frankenstein (trying to grab hold of the sunlight for the creature, as if catching butterflies, trying to grab the “bendy” light from the console for Jayne).


One Response to ““Time for Some Thrilling Heroics””

  1. Watched this episode again too – it really is the ‘disguised’ Western that Whedon fancied making. In the script it refers explicitly to the opening scene in a ‘Border Planets’ saloon, as a ‘Western space’ (although as the script instruction goes on to say, more ‘multicultural’). To me this suggests the essence of Firefly – as BOTH Western space AND critical too of the absences and elisions of traditional Western space, hence the insertion of the diverse cast in the saloon and the sountrack that drifts from fiddle and banjo Western music to Oriental / Indian sounds.Anyway the scene is archetypal Western saloon scene – with insulting roughneck and mal’s response (the kind of ‘heroics’ discussed above).

    Of course the episode BECOMES ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (the First western film) in space.And when the Firefly episodes were screened this was, I beliieve, the first one shown – so this is the audience being introduced to the style and content. It says loud and clear — this is a Western , but dressed up and deliberately moving outside the generic frame. So the Companion (Whore) is respected here – in this episode she rescues Mal and Zoe – and the engineer is the visually fragile girl – and the tough guy is a comic fool called Jayne (A Boy Named Sue?) and the hero/captain (as we are told here has a name that means Evil) …

    This is a Western Jim, but not as we know it. It’s postwestern, the ‘border planets’ of genre …

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