Firefly and Western Literature
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Out of Gas and Ariel

These two episodes of Firefly are arranged as episode 8 (“Out of Gas”) and episode 9 (“Ariel”) in the Firefly DVD collection, although their original air dates are nearly a month apart, with “Out of Gas” first airing on October 25, 2002, and “Ariel” on November 15.  The network airing order seems particularly unfortunate for a couple of reasons. “Out of Gas,” which sees Mal left behind on the immobile Serenity as he flashes back to the days when he first purchased the ship and first met the individuals who would become members of its crew, needs to have the characters well-established (something which had not been accomplished only four episodes into the series) in order to appreciate the episode’s nostalgic tone. We need to know the characters and the ship in order to feel Mal’s sense of loss. We also need to know the characters better to appreciate the humor of the flashbacks; seeing the characters the way they were back then is just not as effective when we haven’t had a chance to get to know them yet in the “now.”

“Out of Gas” is much more effectively placed in the DVD collection, not only because we’ve had more episodes to get to know the characters, but also because it makes a good companion piece for the episode “Ariel,” creating a thematic contrast showing just how difficult it is to survive under the Alliance, whether one is at its extreme edge or in its very center. Both places, savagery and civilization, prove to be just as dangerous, even if the natures of those dangers differ dramatically.

“Out of Gas” takes place on three levels, shifting back and forth between three distinct moments in time.  In the episode’s present, Mal is trying desperately (despite having been shot) to replace a damaged part and restart Serenity‘s engines (and its life support system). In the recent past, the episode traces the events that have led up to that moment–the decision to sail through empty space to avoid detection, a fire in Serenity, the discovery of the damaged part, the escape of the rest of the crew on shuttles, the arrival of another ship with a good part but bad intentions, the shooting of Mal, etc.). In the distant past, woven throughout the telling of the other events in the narrative, we learn the history of Serenity (Zoe: “You paid money for this, sir? On purpose?”), and we meet the crew for the first time (Wash with a cheesy mustache, etc.).

This is a story about the dangers of going too far out past the frontier boundary of civilization and savagery, out past the Alliance and  into “the black.” As Wash comments to Mal, “You wanted us under the radar, out of range of anyone or anything.” “Out of range” may mean freedom and safety, but it is also a dangerous place to be, free from society’s restrictions but also unsupported by any social safety nets either.

If “Out of Gas” explores the danger of being too far outside of society’s boundaries, “Ariel” explores the danger of being too far inside, as the crew visits the planet Ariel, one of the “core” planets, and (in a neat heist sequence) infiltrates an Alliance hospital so Simon can access equipment to see what has been done to his sister River (and the rest of the crew can steal Alliance drugs to be resold). Inside or outside civilization, of course, Jayne is not to be entirely trusted (but not to be entirely distrusted either), and “Ariel” is one of the more exciting episodes of the series, with its masquerades, double-crosses, and creepy (and deadly) men with “hands of blue.”

And, to me anyway, the episode seems all the stronger for being preceded by “Out of Gas,” as the pairing illustrates just how difficult the situation is for our crew, trying to find a point of balance between civilization and the nothing that lies just beyond the frontier.

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