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Mal and St Crispian

First aired: The Signal: Season 5, Episode 18
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Andy King
Obviously it takes us to, well, I’m not going to mince words here, the St Crispian’s Day speech. Everybody's got one. Possibly too many people have them, but to me, I really wanted to take Mal to that place.

Joss Whedon’s words here, from the DVD commentary to Serenity the BDM, are referring to Mal’s “I aim to misbehave” speech, that he makes just after the crew discovers what happened on Miranda. This isn’t Mal’s only St Crispian’s Day speech though. The words he speaks to his men in Serenity Valley, that we hear at the beginning of Serenity the pilot episode, could also be called a St Crispian’s Day speech. But who is St Crispian anyway and what does he have to do with our favourite captain?

St Crispian was a third century martyr who is chiefly famous for the fictional speech made on his feast day centuries later, by Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. King Henry makes his speech as the English are about to head into battle with the French at Agincourt. The French troops vastly outnumber the English and are better armed and supported, so morale amongst the English is low. Sound familiar? Henry rallies his troops in a speech which stresses how their inferior numbers will just mean that their victory will bring even more glory. As he says, “The fewer men, the greater share of honour”. If it is a sin to “covet honour”, then Henry considers himself “the most offending soul alive”. He tells his men not to wish for reinforcements from England. Anyone who has “no stomach to this fight” should leave. Those that remain will win and will be remembered with honour each St Crispian’s Day in times to come, as we can hear in this clip with Kenneth Branagh playing the title role in his film version of Henry V:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

In both Serenity the pilot episode and Serenity the BDM, Mal – like Henry V – faces a battle against the odds and makes a speech intended to inspire his followers. But do the similarities end there? And how do Mal’s two speeches in the two Serenities compare with each other?

In the pilot episode, Mal attempts to inspire his men by reminding them that they have already done something that was considered impossible and that makes them strong. They have beaten the odds once and can do it again:

The Alliance said they were gonna waltz through Serenity Valley. And we choked them with those words. We’ve done the impossible, and that makes us mighty.

Mal still has faith at this point, both in his men and in his God, as is suggested by the way he kisses the cross around his neck. Zoe may assess the situation more pragmatically and have her doubts, but Mal is confident:

Really think we can bring her down, sir?
You even need to ask?

Mal is also sure at this point that he and his men will not die. Or at least, he claims to be sure, in order to give them courage. His reasoning might not be entirely serious, but his continued belief that the Independents can beat the Alliance is:

We’re gonna die.
We’re not gonna die. We can’t die, Bendis. You know why? Because we are so very pretty. We are just too pretty for God to let us die. Hah, look at that chiseled jaw. Hah, come on.

In this, Mal’s first St Crispian’s Day speech, we can see some clear similarities with the speech given by Henry V. Both characters display absolute confidence in their men, despite being greatly outnumbered by the enemy, and are sure that victory will be theirs. This confidence does not appear to be based in reality, but rather in their belief in the rightness of their causes. The outcomes of their respective battles, however, could not be more different. Henry leads his troops to victory against the French at Agincourt, but as we all know, Mal is on the losing side in Serenity Valley.

By the time Mal’s next St Crispian’s Day speech comes around, the Mal we met in Serenity Valley is gone and we have a man who is only just starting to believe enough in something again to fight for it. Consequently, even though Mal is once again facing a battle against the odds, the speech he makes to his followers on Serenity the ship could hardly be more different from the one he made in Serenity Valley:

This report is maybe twelve years old. Parliament buried it, and it stayed buried till River dug it up. This is what they feared she knew. And they were right to fear... because there's a whole universe of folk who are gonna know it, too. They're gonna see it. Somebody has to speak for these people. You all got on this boat for different reasons... but you all come to the same place. So now I'm asking more of you than I have before. Maybe all. Sure as I know anything I know this, they will try again. Maybe on another world, maybe on this very ground swept clean. A year from now, ten, they'll swing back to the belief... that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. So no more running. I aim to misbehave.

The setting for these words is very different from Mal’s speech in Serenity Valley. Mal and his crew are not in the heat of battle, rather they are sitting around the dining table in the comfort and safety of the ship which is their home. Mal is passionate about what he is saying, but he delivers the speech soberly and in a manner very different from how he spoke to his men in Serenity Valley.

It is not just how Mal delivers his speech which is different here. What he actually says is in some respects almost the opposite of what he says in Serenity Valley. Instead of being confident of victory and claiming to be “too pretty to die”, he concedes that he is asking his crew for more than he ever has before, “maybe all”. He has no confidence that they will all make it through alive, and sadly his lack of confidence turns out to be well-founded.

Mal’s men in Serenity Valley were there to fight for a common cause and as their leader Mal was in a position to command them. In contrast, the members of Serenity’s crew joined Mal for their own various reasons and so Mal asks them if they will fight with him, rather than orders them to do so. They all agree to follow Mal, and with a lot less reluctance than Bendis shows in Serenity Valley.

In both battles Mal is fighting for freedom and in both battles the enemy is the Alliance. The outcomes of the two battles are very different though. Serenity Valley ends in defeat, but in the film Mal and his crew are victorious against the Operative. And ironically it is an old shrapnel wound from the first war which allows Mal to gain victory in the second, as he is able to withstand the Operative’s attempt to paralyse him.

Perhaps the most striking similarity between Mal’s two speeches is the one that makes them worthy of being described as St Crispian’s Day speeches in the first place. In both speeches, Mal, like Henry V, is the epitome of an inspirational leader and I for one would follow him to the end of the ‘verse.

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