Deep in space, Serenity’s compression coil blows out, disabling the engine and critically injuring Zoe (Gina Torres), who is unconscious. Life Support fails and the backup is disabled. When only a few hours of oxygen are left, Mal (Jason Fillion) orders the crew into the shuttles in two groups and sends them off in opposite directions, while he stays behind in case someone hears their distress signal. Hours later, a ship turns up. Mal successfully bargains for a new catalyzer, but the captain (Steven Flynn) shoots Mal and decides to seize Serenity. Mal grabs a gun when the crew have their backs turned and drives them off the ship.
Bleeding from a stomach wound and fighting not to pass out, Mal installs the new catalyzer and restarts the engine, but he passes out before he can call the shuttles. He wakes up in the infirmary, surrounded by his crew, as Wash (Alan Tudyk) gives him a blood transfusion. Zoe welcomes him back, revealing that she ordered the crew back to Serenity as soon as she woke up in the shuttle.
Throughout the episode are flashbacks that show the assembly of the crew, intercut with other scenes: Mal convincing Zoe to join him; Wash as pilot and a mechanic named Bester (Dax Griffin) replaced by Kaylee (Jewel Staite); Inara (Morena Baccarin), who bargains to rent a shuttle for her companion business; and Jayne, who has Mal and Zoe at gunpoint, working for a criminal, but takes a better deal from Mal; and the last flashback, in which Mal sees Serenity for the first time. Flashbacks to the distant past are in warm, dark tones, with shadows; scenes of the near-past are bright and vivid; scenes in the present and near-future are blue and purple, with sharp contrast. The differences become less distinct as the story goes on.
When the series was cancelled, Alan Tudyk gave the big red recall-button from the bridge-set to Joss Whedon to press if he succeeded in getting the series renewed, joking that it would summon them all back again. Gina Torres was unconscious a lot and did not appear in most of the episode because she was on her honeymoon with Laurence Fishburne. The narration was by Mal and not Shepherd Book as usual. Joss Whedon said Out of Gas was one of his favorite projects, along with two episodes of Buffy, and it was the highest rated episode among fans.
The unusual three-part structure was a success mostly because of Director David Solomon and writer Tim Minear. With his track record, it is easy to give all the credit for the series to Joss Whedon, but Tim Minear is a great screenwriter, known for his work on X-Files, Zorro, Lois and Clark, Angel and Dollhouse, and recently as director of American Horror Story, for which he received four Emmy nominations. Like Joss Whedon, he is known for black humor and for morally ambiguous but sympathetic characters. In fact, I’m not entirely sure who should take credit for what in their collaborations. Ironically, if Fox Studios had not refused to air the episodes in their proper order, with the pilot first, Out of Gas might not have been written at all.