The Train Job is Firefly's second pilot, the one the network ordered because they thought the actual pilot was too long and slow and difficult to follow.
Perhaps this episode works well as a pilot. I wouldn't know, since I didn't watch it first. But seeing it after the actual pilot, it feels... disappointing. It has its moments, more than a few, but most of the time is spent reintroducing us to characters we just met, and expositioning to cover narrative gaps that we learned about in much greater detail last week. It's not an episode to skip, thanks to its few vital moments. But its certainly the slowest episode of the series.
And, as most of it is a repeat of last week's exposition, there isn't much to say.
We're not in Kansas any more
The opening shot of the episode isn't promising. To be fair, the writers of the show have to squeeze an hour and a half worth of backstory and buildup into 45 minutes here, along with telling a different story and setting up more things for the future. So they have to take shortcuts. And the first thing they have to establish is that we're in a culture-fusion world, half cowboys in an old Western, half generic Asian influences.
How do we establish that? By having a faceless woman bellydancing in the opening shot. She's belly-dancing to exotic music, so we know that this is a culturally exotic world, but then we see we're in a dusty old bar, so there must be something more going on, amiright?
If that wasn't exotic-without-actually-being-Chinese enough for us, the camera then pans past a woman who seems to be dressed in a style reminiscent of geishas. She's wearing a kimono, at least, with her black hair pulled into a high bun, and what appears to be white makeup covering her face. I don't know enough about different forms of Chinese traditional dress to definitively claim that this woman wasn't dressed in a Chinese-influenced way, but my gut response to the image was that it was very iconically Japanese, in quick and easy TV terms. Either way, the "exotic" Asian people were part of the backdrop, thrown in to establish the scene, before the Western tones, and our actual protagonists, took center stage.
Welcome to the Crew
Once we've got out of that bar, the episode spends a good ten minutes reintroducing us to the crew and their relationships with one another. Some of the scenes, like River's flashback into her time at the academy, are really re-effective at introducing us to them, and even add something to what we've seen before. Unfortunately, some intros were less enjoyable.
On the one hand, our first look at Inara wasn't her "at work," as it was in the pilot, but her spending time with Kaylee, chatting, teasing her about Simon, and generally being sweet together. Female friendship on a sci-fi show! Between two women who are pretty different from one another! Awesome.
Unfortunately, there's a weird sexual component to the way it's shot, with the candles, and the dim lighting, and the ~exotic music~, and the way Inara gently brushes Kaylee's hair. Combined with Mal's snippy comment about Inara "servicing crew," and it seems like a weird scene... a way to tell us that Inara is a sophisticated, sexual character, without actually showing us.
Asians on a Train
Compared to last week, there were a lot more people of apparent East Asian origin in this episode. Not in speaking roles, of course, but in the background, as they were at the establishing shots. We see a mother and two children on the train, and some other blurry people that seem to be of East Asian ethnicity in the background at the jail. I think the fact that they were included as prominent background people in this episode (there if you're looking for the detail, but voiceless and easily ignorable if not) ruins the argument that Chinese people tend to be the rich and powerful in this new world, if the fact that none of the Aliiance members we see are East Asian didn't already suggest that. The show made an effort to place actors of that ethnicity here. But if they're also the poor and suffering, like the people the crew encounter every day, why don't we see more of them? Why are they not speaking? What are their stories, beyond generic downtrodden?
I'm only two episodes in, and already I'm uncomfortable. I feel like I'm going to have become a broken record on this topic by the end of the series.
And now I'm done complaining
This is a bit of an empty episode after the pilot, but it's not all bad. The moral conflict for Mal and his crew wasn't too straightforward (they need a job to keep flying, they take one without asking questions, they find out more and don't like it, but if they turn it down they'll be short of money AND they might die), and it certainly set an interesting tone for the episodes and dilemmas to come. Mal and his crew are often desperate people, and Mal can be brutal when he wishes to be, but he has his own moral code, and he won't break it, especially if it hurts people who the Alliance has screwed over as much or more than him.
Meanwhile, Nishka is delightfully creepy as the kindly old bloodthirsty Russian psychopath, and the two by two rhyme, and the associated reveal, is shiver-worthy. Mal had his iconic moment of kicking a man into Serenity's engine, and Inara got to sweep in and show that she's the one with the real power, although it is power given to her by the Alliance, and all a trick of status and silk in the end. I'm looking forward to potentially seeing the implications of that, and her grappling with Mal over power and pride, come to a head in time.
Next week, Bushwacked. The Reavers are back. And this time, we're going to learn a lot more about them. Can't wait!