Silence in Space

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Serenity, the pilot

First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 1
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Helen Eaton

For me, writing about Firefly and Serenity has always involved focusing to a great extent on the words spoken by the characters. I love to analyse what the characters say and to consider how their words tell us about their personalities and relationships, and how they speak to the themes of the stories being told. I also love to discuss how the characters talk and to revel in the richness and creativity of the language the writers used.

There is a lot more to Firefly and Serenity than what comes to us via our ears though. There is, of course, what comes to us via our eyes: the visual information which we glean from the sets, costumes, lighting, colours, camera angles, the movements and facial expressions of the characters, and so on. All of this information is as much a means of telling the stories of the ‘verse as the words and the music are.

So, in this new series of articles, my focus is - for a change - going to be firmly on the visual rather than the aural. And in order to stop myself getting distracted by what I hear, my preparation for each article will be to watch the relevant episode with the volume turned off. And first up, appropriately enough, is the pilot episode, Serenity.

The battle scene at the start of Serenity gives us many visual clues which hint at the contrasts between various worlds which will be a major theme of Firefly. People dressed in a way which makes us think of wars long past are scurrying around on the ground, being hounded by impersonal, futuristic-looking crafts in the sky which glow green. Right from the start we have the contrast between the old and the new, the earthy and the aloof, the oppressed and the oppressors.

And then we see Mal, at the centre, both literally and metaphorically, of a group of people looking to him for hope and guidance. He is animated and intense, his eyes darting around to make eye contact with all of those looking at him. Even if we don’t know what he’s saying, it’s clear he is a leader and doesn’t doubt himself at all. He is a man of action, only taking the briefest of moments to be still, before kissing the cross around his neck and moving on. And wherever Mal goes, Zoe follows unflinchingly. They differ though, in their reaction to a narrow escape as the enemy craft Mal shoots down nearly crashes on top of them. Mal’s face shows delight, whereas Zoe’s shows relief.

And then comes the moment when everything changes for Mal. Without hearing the words, we don’t know exactly what is happening, but we do know it’s devastating for Mal and he can hardly believe it’s true. The camera is finally still, and so is Mal, stunned into stillness by what has just happened.

Mal’s world has just been turned upside down and the next shot of him is similarly upside down. He floats into view from the top of the screen and we switch from the chaos and earthiness of the battle to the smooth, measured movements of three characters working in space.

The green glow of the Alliance cruiser, as it comes into view, is a clear visual link to the crafts we saw involved in the battle. The overwhelming size of the cruiser is also clear. As we see it reflected in Mal’s visor, we realise that he may have escaped the battle from the start of the episode, but he has not managed to escape the shadow of the Alliance.

When we see Serenity breaking away from the derelict ship and fleeing from the threat of the Alliance cruiser, the contrast between the two ships could not be clearer. Serenity is all curves and graceful spins, whereas the cruiser remains spiky and rigid. Serenity also emits a friendly orange glow, rather than a blue or green one, and continues the theme of earthy colours which the Browncoats favoured in the opening scenes.

The look on Mal’s face as it becomes clear that he and his crew have outwitted the Alliance is another contrast with the earlier scenes. The delight on his face when he shoots down the Alliance craft in Serenity Valley is the emotion furthest from his face as he walks away from Jayne and Zoe in the cargo bay. This time there is no pleasure for him in outmanoeuvring the Alliance.

As we see the crew go about their business after Mal, Jayne and Zoe are back on board, the camera angles used make me feel as a viewer like I’m looking in on a family from a hidden, outsider’s perspective. I’m looking up at the crew from the crate of Alliance goods, or out at them from a smuggling hole, or peeping at Wash and Zoe from a distance. This is a close-knit group and I, at least for now, am an intruder and not yet allowed to become a part of Serenity’s world.

Inara’s first appearance introduces us to what seems to be a very different world, full of sumptuous reds and golds. It is a surprise when she draws back the curtain in the shuttle to reveal that she is after all also living in the world of shuttles and spaceships. As we see her shuttle take off, we glimpse a futuristic world of grey and silver, with tall, spiky buildings and skies crammed with various flying crafts. And then abruptly we jump to a world of chickens and “good dogs”, tents and shipping containers, and costumes and faces which suggest a variety of ethnic origins. Book makes his way through this world with a look on his face that probably resembles the look on our faces as viewers. He is bemused by the overload of sensory information and clearly an outsider. And then after seeing so many eclectic characters and costumes in the background, it is a surprise to see Dobson, who manages to stand out by looking completely nondescript, and Simon, who achieves the same effect by looking overly formal and neat.

Without knowing what the characters are saying, we are still able to get an impression of how they relate to each other. Mal, Jayne and Zoe, for example, are clearly a unit, working together on various jobs throughout the episode. Of these three, Mal and Zoe have the closest relationship and Jayne appears to be the outsider. We see this in Jayne’s yellow spacesuit, which is different from the matching colours of Mal and Zoe’s suits. We also see it when the three characters walk away from their meeting with Badger, as Mal and Zoe walk together and talk, while Jayne follows behind. And as the three go to deal with Patience, they again split into a two and a one.

We are also able to gather something about Mal and Inara’s relationship from their furtive, wordless glances at each other, when Simon operates on Kaylee. And when Simon tells River’s story to the rest of Serenity’s occupants, we learn something about the different characters from how they react. Zoe is impassive, for example, whereas Wash’s face shows concern. Jayne is unmoved and Mal is guarded. Meanwhile, Simon’s face shows various emotions as he tells the story, his previous cool facade gone.

The battle between Dobson and the rest of those still aboard Serenity is played out in dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, whereas Mal, Jayne and Zoe face Patience and her gang under sunny blue skies. The two confrontations come to a head at the same time though, with added drama from a third front, as it becomes clear that the reavers are heading straight for Serenity. Mal brings both of the confrontations to a satisfactory conclusion with the help of his gun. The look of mild irritation on his face as he shoots the horse Patience is using for cover is strangely not unlike his expression when he marches on to Serenity and matter-of-factly shoots Dobson. It is then Serenity’s turn to step up and deal with the reavers, care of a Crazy Ivan achieved with help from Wash, Kaylee, Book and Jayne. Mal gets his hero shot when we look up at him as he holds his gun on Patience, and Serenity gets hers as we look down at the impressive effects of the Crazy Ivan as she carries her crew away to safety.

After all the drama of the various confrontations, we end on a quieter note, with a different kind of confrontation. Mal and Simon are on opposite sides of the bridge and - as is usual for this episode - opposite sides of the shot. There is clearly some kind of truce after their conflict earlier in the episode, but it is equally clearly a wary one, with the two characters still keeping their distance.

The final shot is of Mal, his face wistful and his thoughts far away. He is someone who has cheated death on several fronts - from Patience, Dobson and the reavers - all in one day, but somehow this leaves him neither triumphant nor traumatised. We don’t need to hear his words to be intrigued, and to want to know more.

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