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|Written by||Helen Eaton|
|Read by||Helen Eaton|
Much has been said and written regarding the effectiveness of The Train Job as an introduction to the Firefly ‘verse, but if we leave that discussion aside and avoid comparisons with the originally intended pilot episode, what do we have? Well, a great episode, in my opinion! I like to think of The Train Job as representing a time when things were going well for Mal and his crew, at least before the train job itself started to go wrong. Hence Mal’s lighter mood at the start of the episode and his playful banter with many of the crew. Once that is explained away, I find I can enjoy this episode very much.
So what is it that makes The Train Job good? Well, first up there’s some great humour, and some great action, in the bar fight scene, topped off with a spectacular entrance by Serenity. Then there is some wonderful banter between Mal and pretty much everyone else on board Serenity, particularly Zoe, with whom he shares many witty exchanges, such as the following:
And of course later Zoe has the brilliant line, “Sir, I think you have a problem with your brain being missing.”
Mal and Zoe are not the only ones to have great lines in this episode though. Jayne has three classics – “Time for some thrilling heroics”, the chain of command speech and “I was aimin’ for his head” - plus some great physical humour when Simon dopes him. And while we’re on physical humour, we mustn’t forget that extremely memorable moment with Crow and a certain ship’s engine.
But what I appreciate most about The Train Job is the way it clearly shows us the kind of world Mal and the crew of Serenity live in. Not in the sense that it is a multi-cultural world that mixes technology and pioneering hardship, although it does that very effectively, but in the sense that we get to see what right and wrong, and good and bad, mean in this world.
Our introduction to Mal sees him quite happily talk his way into a bar fight. This is clearly not someone who is averse to a bit of ungentlemanly behaviour. The fight is rough, but still playful in many respects. Mal kicks and punches, but he isn’t the one to pull a gun and when someone does, we can see that this isn’t the way he wanted the fight to develop.
After coming back on Serenity, he announces “Got us some crime to be done”. He doesn’t equivocate – he knows which side of the law he’s on.
As the episode progresses, our initial impression of Mal is softened by his interaction with the rest of the crew and some of the comments they make. Book expresses his curiosity that Mal would take Simon and River on and Mal’s reply that it was the “right thing to do”, while clearly said in a mocking tone, doesn’t rule out the possibility that there’s some truth in it. Then later in conversation with Inara, Mal reveals a gentler side to his nature as he voices his concern for her safety as Serenity and her crew head to Niska’s skyplex.
When we meet Niska, we see that he is Mal’s opposite as a criminal. He is a classic villain, doing despicable things with no apparent conscience. And his henchmen are “stone killers” that make Jayne look “cuddly” in comparison, according to Jayne, at least. Niska doesn’t punch and kick in an “honest brawl between folk” as Mal does at the start of the episode. No, he tortures them and he kills them. If this is the world Mal lives in then his misdemeanours start to seem fairly minor in comparison.
Inara’s conversation with Book while the “caper” is taking place provides us with further understanding of the kind of world Mal lives in:
Inara’s comment suggests that Mal has not set out to be a criminal, but he needs work and he can’t always be choosy.
However, when Mal finds out what the cargo was that he and the crew stole, and why it was needed, the look on his face suggests he wished he had been a little more choosy this time.
Mal’s reaction mirrors that of the Sheriff’s, but contrasts greatly with how the Alliance responds to the news. The Alliance officer shows no concern whatsoever for the plight of those who need the medicine. He comments that he has “better things to do”. What exactly these things might be is hard to imagine. As the Sheriff says, the Alliance is really not much use to those on the border planets.
And so we come to Mal’s decision to return the medicine. We don’t see him deliberate over the right thing to do, because, as he says later, he has no choice. But he knows that there will be consequences for him and his crew:
Mal has no answer for Wash. It is clear that returning the medicine will do exactly what Wash predicts and put Niska in a “killing mood”, but there’s something more important than that: the needs of the people in Paradiso.
Having just seen the humanitarian side of Mal, we now come to one of the most memorable moments of The Train Job: Crow’s timely demise at the hands of – or rather at the engine of – Serenity.
Mal attempts to deal reasonably with Crow and gives him the chance to walk away, but when he rejects that chance, Mal does the necessary.
It is possible to see Crow’s killing as simply a prelude to set up the extremely funny exchange that follows between Mal and the second henchman, as Tim Minear notes in the DVD commentary. However, Mal’s actions are also completely consistent with what we have come to realise about the world he lives in. His killing of Crow is a kind of “self-defence in advance”, which admittedly wouldn’t stand up well as a plea in a court of law, but in the context of the reality we’re being introduced to in the episode, it seems justifiable. Mal’s reaction immediately after kicking Crow into the engine does suggest that he is not quite killing in cold blood, as it does bother him. But such is life in the ‘verse and after a moment he collects himself together again and moves on.
After the humour and violence of Crow’s killing, we change gears yet again as Mal and Zoe take back the medicine. Mal’s conversation with the Sheriff reveals that there is a deep understanding between them. They might be on different sides of the law, but there’s more that unites them than separates them.
So yes, The Train Job is in many ways a fun, light-hearted introduction to the ‘verse, with fantastic dialogue and plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, but it is much more than just that. It is an episode that sets out clearly how the lines between right and wrong, and between good and bad, are blurred in the ‘verse, just like they are in real life. Mal and his crew – like most of us – are somewhere in the middle.