Watching Firefly anew on Science Channel nearly a decade after the show’s original run on Fox does contain a few unexpected pleasures, and I’m not talking about the newly produced interstitials with physicist Dr. Michio Kaku. No, I’m talking about how present perspective can affect the way you process a previously viewed experience. Or, put another way: “HEY! IS THAT ZAC EFRON PLAYING YOUNG RIVER TAM?” It was, though I didn’t recognize the High School Musical star until late in the scene. I was too distracted by the ironies of the lad’s fancy textbook, an electronic reader with a penlight stylus for highlighting or recording key passages. I love it when sci-fi stories take a chance at imagining future technology. Nearly nine years ago when “Safe” first aired, that thing seemed like a decades-away innovation. Today, we have the iPad – and it doesn’t need no stinkin’ stylus. That’s sooo 2002.
There’s another way in which retrospect impacted the experience of “Safe,” although you didn’t need the filter of accumulated history to see it. For me, the greater whole of the episode was compromised by the lame turn at the end. Simon and River had been abducted by poor hill folk, and the story encouraged us to think that the sibling fugitives were going to be sold for ransom or reward. In a nice twist, we learned their kidnappers nabbed Simon because he was a doctor and their village was in desperate need of medical assistance. While their plight didn’t absolve them of their crime, it shaded these impoverished backwater types with some complexity and nourished the show’s thematic interest in creating a storytelling world marked by sharp class differences. But did they have to be puritanically religious and hysterically superstitious impoverished backwater types, too? These futuristic neo-Pilgrim New World colonists -- seemingly unshaped by 1000 years of preceding human history -- accused River of being a witch after the super-powered schizoid used her empathic/telepathic abilities on the jittery Biblethumpers, exposing the town Patron’s dark secret in the process.
Maybe it was the acting, maybe it was the scripting, but Firefly failed to convince me that these specific people with these specific beliefs would exist in its very specific world. I so wanted to Simon to shout: “Good lord, people! Haven’t you read The Crucible? There was an acclaimed film adaptation by Julie Taymor’s 17th generation clone last year involving puppets and flying people. Did you not catch that wave?” If the show was trying to say that wrongheaded religious fundamentalism will still be alive and well 500 years in the future, then fine: I can believe that. If the show was trying to say that history has a way of repeating itself, I can accept that, too – but history usually doesn’t repeat itself so literally. Why embrace this particular oldy-moldy chestnut to dramatize fanaticism? Couldn’t Team Whedon have leveraged their considerable imagination to invent a whole new form of scary spiritual hoo-ha?
As it is, the denouement of “Safe” felt like a lazy punt – like the writers didn’t know how to end the story (or didn’t know how to address a network note: “Must our heroes be such losers? Give them a genuine heroic beat!”), and so they whipped up a bogus crisis that allowed for Serenity to swoop in at the proverbial last minute (I admit, the implicit irony of the figurative deus ex machina rescue was kinda clever) and Mal to cock a gun and crack an action hero quip.
PATRON: The girl is a witch!
MAL: Yeah, but she’s our witch. So cut her the hell down.
Otherwise, I thought “Safe” was awesome.
NEXT: A rare Men Without Hats reference. Plus: Pretentious Blather!