“The Train Job” was the show’s second pilot, and the first episode that Fox aired, and was co-written by the hugely talented Tim Minear, who was the showrunner for the series and is credited as either writing or co-writing four of its fourteen episodes. It’s actually what sold me on the program when I saw it about three years after its network run. The first pilot is good, and so is this one, with an added “wow” at the climax that I’ll come back to in a moment, but I think lots of programs are good, and only sit up and pay attention to a few of them.
The hour starts by introducing Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, and Adam Baldwin as the three fightin’ members of the crew, the ones who get their hands dirty, looking for a quiet drink in an Alliance-friendly bar on the anniversary of the end of the civil war that saw Fillion’s and Torres’s characters, Mal and Zoe, on the losing side. From there, “The Train Job” had a weird balancing act, because it had to give us an exciting but simple story to launch the show, while reintroducing the other six regular characters that the original film, consigned at the time to the vault, had already established.
I think that, had I been willing in 2002 to give Fox another try for its umpteenth Friday sci-fi show, I’d have been hooked. There is one very clumsy bit where it comes back from the title sequence to start a scene with Sean Maher and Summer Glau without giving viewers a reason to think that these two are on board the same spaceship we had seen previously, but I like how each character and their backstory gets defined – and, sadly, Mal gets another opportunity to be rude to Inara – and I’m always in the mood for a good heist story.
The criminals’ consciences get the better of them, leading to a delicious little climax. “Serenity” had already established, when Mal ended the hostage standoff very abruptly, that these characters were not going to act like conventional teevee heroes. “The Train Job” repeats the situation in its famous “Now this is all the money Niska gave us in advance” scene. Our kid’s eyes got about the size of dinner plates, because he’s never seen a teevee hero kick a villain into an engine intake before. Sold. Hooked. I’ve never been a fan of telling people “there’s a scene you’ll love that I can’t tell you about,” but when two different people asked me, in 2005, whether they should look into this program that people had gone nutty over, I had to say that twice.
The show’s almost twenty years old at this point; I don’t mind spoiling it now. Sorry if I did, but the DVDs are old enough to vote.