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He Looks Better in Red

First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 4
Written by Bindiya Dale
Read by Bindiya Dale
Edited by Bindiya Dale

MAL: protein in all the colors of the rainbow...

RIVER: Two by two, hands of blue...

BAR PATRON: Your coat's sort of a...brownish color.

KAYLEE: Did you hear what that purple-belly called Serenity?

RIVER: He looks better in red.

Color. It affects our minds on an almost subliminal level on a daily basis. A red light cautions us to slow down on the roads, or stay back from a braking vehicle. Would it have the same effect if instead of red it were, for example, a blue light instead, or one without color at all? Would we perceive the danger as quickly? A variety of studies have looked at the way the human mind associations feelings, emotions, and meanings with various colors, and a clever person uses this preconceived association to their advantage when creating art. Firefly and Serenity definitely had their uses for these subliminal shortcuts, but did you ever stop to notice exactly how explicitly the 'Verse was color-coded for your convenience?

CAREY MEYER (PRODUCTION DESIGNER): We sort of came up with a color scheme, starting from the engine room running through to the bridge, where we went from very hot, warm tones through to sort of more even tones to very cold blue tones up in the bridge.

So we know the creators were conscious of color when it came to planning out the 'Verse. The question is, how did these colors come into play? What were they meant to convey? Did they affect the audience in the manner intended?

The first comparison is a simple one. How many of us call ourselves Browncoats? Quite a few, I imagine. But why brown? The brown coat became the uniform of sorts for the Independents because, simply put, it was the easiest and the cheapest to outfit their soldiers with. It's a rustic color, earthy and hardy and common, a ready representation of the underfoot Independents fighting for their own way of simple living out on the rim. Now look at the Alliance by comparison, in dark armor with bright 'purple-bellies'. Purple has been for centuries a color of royalty, of wealth and prestige. These are men with money and means and a strong authoritative hand guiding them, the will of the Alliance.

But it isn't just clothing that defines these two opposing sides. Notably the settings in which the crew finds themselves in an Alliance-controlled area are cool-colored, with hues of blue. Blue is often seen as a calming color...perhaps a purposeful attempt by the Alliance to keep the areas under their control subdued and calm? Here it isn't used as a color of comfort, but one of tension. It is cold, sterile, and unfriendly, a color of opposition at several points in the series and the BDM. At the start of the film the ship, which we've come to expect to see shot in warm, cozy lighting, is shot in blue, reflecting the tension amongst the crew. The same lighting reflects an oppressive mood during River's escape, as well as the halls of Niska's space station, or the hospital on Ariel. The infirmary, a place no one wants to end up for obvious reasons, is always lit with an almost eerie blue light. It serves as the main backdrop for Simon, a product of the Alliance, who seems to favor blue in his wardrobe as well. The time frame in Out of Gas where Mal struggles against the clock to fix his ship and call his crew back is shot in deep blue for every agonizing moment. Even the Blue Sun logo in the background of many shots hints at the Alliance's efforts to meddle in every aspect of life in the 'Verse.

By extension another color offers a threat to the crew of Serenity: the black. It is the void, the great nothing. It is a color of loneliness, of absence, the stuff on which sane men go mad according to Book. Is it any wonder then that the Operative moves in black armor, he who claims to have no name or identity beyond his cause? The Hands of Blue travel exclusively in this color as well, save of course for their namesake, the ever-reaching hands of the Alliance. White has its place as well. In Chinese culture it is a color of death and mourning. Inara and Zoe reflect this in their attire for the funerals of Nandi and Wash, respectively. The dead planet Miranda itself seems almost completely devoid of color, her cities lifeless and drained and almost blindingly white in the daylight.

In contrast, warmer colors are used to portray happier times. The dining area is always lit by a comfortable, warm yellow glow, and it is here the crew is seen the happiest, chatting over meals and joined together as a family. With the exception of Book, Simon, and River, the crew always find themselves attired in warmer-hued colors, and the more rustic settings they find themselves in also have that honey-hued filter over them. Look at the inside of the Heart of Gold brothel, the bar in Jaynestown, or the crew's quarters. The flashbacks in Out of Gas have a warm, bright yellow-green hue, and most of the flashbacks have a rather humorous, lighthearted feel to them. They are also a starting point for each new member of the crew, a new beginning, and green is often a symbol for springtime, new growth, and new beginnings. By coincidence or not, River's dress shifts from blue to green after she deems herself "all right" in the BDM and breaks out her helpless state to wreck a roomful of Reavers.

It isn't always as simple as black and white, or in this instance warm and cool. Blue found heavy symbolism here, but one of the other most significant colors in the series is red. Here the meaning can be a little more complex, neither inherently good or bad, but powerful regardless. Inara's shuttle and clothing is drenched in red, and there it is quite appropriate as a color of sensuality and desire, as well as the romantic tension whenever Mal barges in unasked. Kaylee shares this color in her room of choice: the engine room is a warm, ruddy color from rust and age, and it is here she lingers most. Hers is a less polished but still clearly sexual and forward nature, lest we forget how Mal first met the plucky engineer in this room. So too the notorious Yo-Saff-Bridge sheds her virginal and pure white dressings draped with a red shawl like some innocent Red Riding Hood lost in the woods, and is seen mostly in reds when showing more of her true nature later on, hinting at her modus operandi.

The meaning shifts as we look at another character who prominently displays red: Jubal Early. Red here is a bloody color, a threat of violence, and Early is certainly aggressive in his pursuit of River and his dealings with the crew. In Ariel, River remarks after slashing Jayne's Blue Sun T-shirt that he looks better in red, perhaps a reflection on her perception of Jayne as a man of violence or possibly a statement against Blue Sun itself. It is present as the sole lighting during Wash's sudden death in the BDM. It is also symbolic of the most primal violent force in the 'Verse, the Reavers, as Mal recognizes when planning to disguise Serenity as one of them.

MAL: Paint...we're going to need red paint.

ZOE: Sir? Do you honestly mean to turn our home into an abomination in a suicidal attempt to fly through Reaver space?

But the attempt works. Why? Would the attempt have gone over so well if they'd painted the ship yellow, or black, or (so help them) blue? No. The Reavers function at a very basic level of human instinct, yet they still recognize red as 'their' color. Even under stress Mal understands the symbolism to be found in color, as do the creators of the show, and so can we. Details as fine as the color of the lighting in a scene or the shade of someone's shirt can speak volumes about the story or the character, and the choices aren't made at random. It's easy to observe their efforts, both subtle and blatant, to paint the 'Verse in all the proper shades, in hues of tension, comfort, violence, and peace.

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