Bottle Up and Explode
Objects in Space
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"People don't appreciate the substance of things. Objects in space. People don't know what's solid."-Jubal Early (Richard Brooks)

Every bottle episode is ultimately about space. Sometimes episodes focus on how the space the characters inhabit is very limited. At other times, bottle episodes are about the metaphorical space between characters. Yet no bottle episode is as meticulously tactile as "Objects in Space," which was the final episode Firefly filmed before its untimely (and unjust, and probably un- a lot of other things as well) cancellation. That it is a bottle episode is not that surprising; the show's budget was not all that high, and constructing the multi-level set that is the ship Serenity had eaten a lot of that budget, so much so that three of the 14 episodes filmed are in fact bottle episodes (the other two, "Out of Gas" and "Our Mrs. Reynolds" are both excellent as well, but this one just seemed to say more about bottle episodes in general). What makes "Objects in Space" so fascinating is the way that it uses the space to tell a story about how the most distant and aloof character on the series belongs with the rest of the group.

The story template the episode fits into is a pretty standard one, so much so that Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed this episode in addition to creating the series, had already written a version of it for his two previous shows (Whedon geeks probably already know these as "Family" from Buffy's fifth season and "Fredless" from Angel's third season). All three episodes serve the same larger purpose for their respective series. They each center on a character who feels (rightly or wrongly) that they do not belong in the core group that is the cast of the show, and each demonstrates how that character is in fact a vital member of the team. For "Objects in Space" that character is River Tam (Summer Glau), the at least mildly crazy government programmed assassin that the rest of the crew is helping to hide from the Alliance (the powerful government force made up of the Chinese and American governments). Everyone on Serenity believes that hiding River from the alliance is the righteous thing to do (except Jayne, who doesn't care about righteousness), but none of them feel personally connected to her, except for her brother Simon (Sean Maher). In fact, the episode opens with an incident that leads the crew to discuss whether it is even safe to keep River on board. Unbeknownst to the crew, this conversation is being overheard by preternaturally cool (and also kind of crazy) bounty hunter Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) who has tracked the ship out into the middle of space and plans to infiltrate it and remove River in order to collect the bounty on her.

The episode proceeds fairly simply from there, playing out as Early's journey through the ship and his interactions with each of the characters, ultimately concluding in a game of wits between River and Early. Yet this episode sets itself apart by exploring, more thoroughly than any episode we have yet discussed in this column, the space in which it takes place. Both River and Early are tactile characters, and both are shown to be outsiders on the ship. Each of them experiences the world in a different way than anyone else, and the way that they interact with their environment speaks volumes about their characters. River sees things as more than they are, understanding their potential and accepting their existence fully, which may sound like an easy concept but is in fact one of the most difficult things to do (in the stellar commentary track for the episode, Whedon lays out the idea of this, referencing Sartre's Nausea to illustrate how difficult it can be to accept the mere fact of something). Early in the episode, she terrifies the crew when she picks up a loaded gun, yet we see the scene play out at first from her perspective, watching as she steps on what appears to be a tree branch and picks it up to examine it. When Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) worriedly takes the gun from her, she tries to explain, "It's just an object. It doesn't mean what you think" but no one will listen to her. We see River walking barefoot throughout the ship, feeling and connecting with it, and when the crew discusses the danger she poses, it is revealed that she is listening in by standing on the bannister of the catwalk below, with her ear to the ceiling. The purported function of an object is irrelevant to River. All she sees is what she can do with it.

To Jubal Early, on the other hand, function is everything. He is fascinated with the mere functionality of every object he comes into contact with. He speaks rapturously about the gun he holds as a tool built expressly for a single purpose. When he views the ship's loading dock, he comments on how wonderful it is that the walls go out as they move up, giving the illusion of space. And when he sees River's room empty, he stops (even in the midst of holding her brother at gun point, searching the ship for her) and ponders, "Is it still her room when it's empty? Does the room, the thing have purpose? Or do we just imbue"¦"

This fundamental difference between River and Early (whose perspectives we view the entire episode through) speaks volumes about their characters. River is a fundamentally good person, someone who wants to use her surroundings in the best possible way to assist those around her. She utilizes the strengths of everyone around her to overcome Early in the episode's final minutes. Early uses his surroundings only to inflict pain, whether he is dropping Mal into his quarters, sliding down stair rails to hit Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), or dangling, spider-like from the ceiling to get the jump on Simon.

Every bottle episode is in some way about space and how we relate to it, but only "Objects in Space" forces us to contend with the existential quandaries that the firm existence of these objects present us with. Either you believe in a higher power, and each object has been placed into existence for a specific use (or uses), or you believe we exist in a random and chaotic universe, which makes the mere existence of ourselves, or anything else around us, something worth marveling at. Last week we talked about how "The Beast in the Cage" reminded us not to take the little things in life for granted. "Objects in Space" takes that one step further, forcing us to contend with the idea that every time we take a step and hit solid ground, it's a minor miracle. Every time an object is useful to us, that object's existence is flat out miraculous. And the fact that we can identify how phenomenal that is? Well that makes us even more unique, intricate, and fascinating. It was on a different Whedon show that a certain vampire with a soul once realized "If there is no great plan, if nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do." "Objects in Space" makes the same point, in a way, and perhaps never better than in its closing moments, when Jubal Early floats hopelessly through space, and simply says, "Yep. Here I am."

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

7/1: "Torando!," The United States of Tara

7/15: "The Probe," The Outer Limits

7/29: "The Man in the Fallout Shelter," Bones

8/12: "Midnight," Doctor Who
Tags: Firefly
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