classic episode
firefly: "war stories"

1.09 / Original air date December 6, 2002

Written by: Cheryl Cain
Directed by: James A. Contner

Let's begin with a brief history of Firefly. Imagine an old fashioned spaghetti-western on the frontiers of space, with spaceships instead of stagecoaches and where folks speak a dialect like English that's been dragged through a Chinese gold mining town. Men are tough, and women are just as tough. Now picture that show being written by the team behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Firefly is set 500 years in the future onboard a small firefly-class spaceship called Serenity. It had exciting plotlines, an ongoing arc, an ensemble cast most shows would kill for and a showrunner (Joss Whedon) with proven long-term vision in genre television.

Quite frankly, Firefly was one of the best, most original, most creative, well-acted shows to come out of the Fox stable EVER. Fox screwed around with the airing order, the timeslot and anything else they could possibly screw with until finally it was cancelled. It went on to become one of the best-selling DVD box sets of all time. Eventually it became so successful that a movie called Serenity was commissioned to allow Joss Whedon to finish telling the story he had only begun to tell with the TV show. The movie was great, but five more seasons of TV would have been infinitely better.

Every time I think about this, and all the other shows Fox has canned without giving them a chance to find their audience, it makes my blood boil. Firefly and Wonderfalls (coincidentally two shows that featured bisexual/lesbian regular characters) were the biggest losses of the 2002-2003 television season. Now all we can really do is point uninformed viewers towards the DVD box sets and say "here, look at what you missed".

Case in point. Of all the excellent stories told in the brief life of Firefly, "War Stories" was my favourite. This was mainly because the episode introduced whole new sides to almost every character onboard Serenity. But, what I really love about this episode though, is that this was the episode when we found out that Inara takes female clients.

Inara is a companion, which in the Firefly universe is an extremely high-priced and highly trained courtesan, who has more in common with the Japanese Geisha than the Western concept of prostitute. Companions are trained and bonded to their guild. Their customers are vetted carefully, providing a system of recommendations (and bannings if a companion is treated with disrespect) that ensures the safety and well-being of all companions. Amongst even companions though, Inara is considered high-class and exquisite, so much so that her clients don't choose her, she chooses them. Inara travels aboard Serenity, partly because she enjoys the freedom of travel, and partly to be close to Captain Mal Reynolds, who she is secretly in love with.

Inara often takes clients from planets where Serenity and her crew have their own business. In "War Stories", while Mal and Wash are off delivering medical supplies to an outpost for money, Inara takes in a Senator from the planet for the evening. The Senator turns out to be female, and we find out that Inara takes on female clients only when they are particularly special in some way.

The really interesting thing is that Inara chooses to take on female clients. It is not a requirement that she do so. Her bisexuality is common knowledge, but the appearance of a female client takes the crew by surprise at first. As the Senator comes onboard, Kaylee (the ship's cute engineer) is transfixed by the image of the two women, both richly-dressed and speaking with the polite manners of the upper classes. Kaylee blushes and stammers a little at the thought of Inara's sexual proclivities, but mostly she's simply intrigued by the glamour of the client in her naive-yet-knowing way. The captain simply stares after them, shrugs and says, "huh" before going about his business. It's a priceless scene, and playing for comedy hits the exact right note. There's no disrespect intended towards Inara. She's amused more than annoyed by the crew's reaction.

While the women are alone together, Inara explains her sexual preference. She finds it liberating to sometimes be with a woman. With a woman she can relax, be herself, and not put on the seductive show generally required of a companion. The bedroom scene between the two women is sexually-charged, tasteful and erotic. It makes me wonder how many interesting female clients Inara could have had over the years, and how many interesting storylines could have developed as a result, had the series been continued.

In the main plot of the episode, Mal and Wash (the pilot) are captured by an old enemy, leaving Zoe (our sexy second-in-command) to come to the rescue. When Zoe only manages to save Wash with the first ransom payment, she and the rest of the Serenity crew (minus Inara of course) saddle up and head off to save their captain. We see Zoe as the leader she is, and her pride in her husband Wash as he manages to pilot Serenity undetected towards the enemy stronghold. We see how loyal Jayne the mercenary really is to Mal, and we find out a little more about the enigmatic preacher Shepherd Book, his past, and his relationship with violence.

Also, when Kaylee finds herself unable to pull the trigger even to save her own life, we get yet another teasing glimpse of how powerful a weapon River might turn out to be, which freaks Kaylee out and threatens to jeopardise their childlike friendship. (I'm not even going to try to explain about River - you'll just have to watch to find that out!)

"War Stories" uses almost every character on Serenity to their best advantage. We see their strengths and weaknesses (though it is hardly surprising that Simon can't shoot straight, he is a doctor after all!) and we learn what the crew can accomplish individually, and as a team. Couple that with some of the series' funniest one-liners, nice special effects and the lesbian sub-plot and this makes for forty-two minutes of pretty spectacular television.

There could have been so much more, dammit. I'm bitter and I don't care who knows it. I suppose though we should be grateful for what we did get, and I'd still urge anyone who hasn't yet experienced this particular TV Universe to buy a box set, settle in and immerse yourself in yet another Joss Whedon masterpiece, because with Firefly even the theme song is cool.

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Firefly - Kaylee