Wanna keep breathing – Rewatching Firefly’s Out of Gas

Tuesday night J and I watched Out of Gas.  Catalyzer on the port compression coil blew …


This is how you do it television writing people. This is how you take a thin, clichéd plot line and write it interesting.  Provided the editor gets the screen transitions right and the colouring works in post-production, the plot devices themselves are actually quite simple.

How to open an episode; with your big dam hero dying on the floor.

The first trick is to start your tale about three-quarters of the way through at a crucial moment. This opening plot point needs to be significantly dramatic, but more importantly it has to hit the audience where they care the most with a barrage of questions.  Out of Gas starts with a moving camera roving around the ship. And suddenly, all the audience has are questions. Where is everyone? It looks like they just suddenly up and left, dishes still on the table, sleeping cabins a jumble, chairs overturned. Did they run? Were they attacked? What happened? Where ARE they? Then jump cut to a close up of Mal lying on the floor. What? What happened? It looks like he’s dying, but no that’s impossible, he’s the “big dam hero”.  What the hell is going on? Is that blood? What’s that thing in his hand? There’s a close up, so it’s important. But what is it? What happened to Mal? How will he survive? Where is everyone?

Then we hear voices and the scene transitions, but not as you might expect to start answering the questions raised by the opening sequence. Instead, the story jumps backwards into the second highly effective plot device – thematically compatible backstory, breaking into and transitioning at key moments in the main plot line.

Well, hello there Wash and Wash’s moustache. Zoe was less than impressed.

By now the audience has gotten to know the main characters and has started to wonder. Where did these people come from? How did they join the crew? How did Mal and Zoe get started on Serenity? But the backstory plot isn’t just there for its seriously high interest value. It also provides an emotional explanation for why Mal does what he does, what matters most and why Mal is prepared to go down with his ship, but not without first doing everything he possibly can to “keep breathing”, despite the extreme odds stacked against him. The short backstory vinaigrettes also allow a bit of humour to naturally lighten an otherwise dark tale.

Mal: Try to see past what she is, on to what she can be.
Zoë: What’s that, sir?
Mal: Freedom, is what.


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