Silence in Space

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The Train Job

First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 2
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Bindiya Dale

Before I sat down to watch The Train Job without any sound, I had not realised quite how many parallels there are between this episode and the pilot episode Serenity. Removing the distraction (so to speak) of the dialogue and music seemed to leave my mind with space to hold the two episodes against each other and contemplate how, with respect to the visual information they present, they are sometimes complementary and sometimes contradictory.

Take the openings of the two episodes, for example. We start the pilot episode with night-time scenes of a large-scale battle between soldiers. There are serious weapons being used and people dying all around. In contrast, The Train Job starts with the lead-up to a bar fight which ends up outside in the sunshine. Two small groups of people are fighting, without weapons. The fight is dirty and scrappy, and until Lund draws his gun, there is no danger of anyone being killed. The start of Serenity is all about tragedy and lost hope, but the start of The Train Job is all about comedy and light-heartedness.

There are similarities between the two episodes as well though. The main characters are presented to us in very similar ways, for example. Mal, Zoe and Jayne are together at the start of The Train Job, just as they are at several points in the pilot. And Jayne is again clearly the outsider in that group of three, not joining in the bar fight at first. Kaylee and Wash are both introduced in ways which clearly show their roles as mechanic and pilot respectively. And in both episodes we see Inara in opulent surroundings, which are both part of and very clearly separate from the rest of the ship. In The Train Job, we first meet Simon and River in the infirmary, which in terms of colours and lighting looks very different from the rest of the ship, in the same way that Simon and River themselves clearly do not fit in with the rest of the crew. Book is presented to us as a somewhat unreadable character. We see him look quite stern as he talks to Mal and it is clear that he stands up to him and will not be shaken off, despite Mal walking away from him.

As I watched Mal’s interactions with other characters at the start of The Train Job, I couldn’t help but compare his demeanour with parallel moments in the pilot episode. When Serenity rescues Mal, Zoe and Jayne after the bar fight, Mal smiles and waves to the people he had been fighting with and goes aboard with a lightness in his step. It is a far cry from the look of utter disbelief and despair on his face as he is told that the Independents will be laying down arms in the flashback scene of the pilot, or from the lack of emotion he shows at the end of the teaser when Serenity and her crew outwit the Alliance.

The Train Job deserves to be viewed on its own merits though, and although some contrasts and similarities with the pilot do stand out in sharp relief in the absence of sound, there is plenty to see in the episode which has no parallel in the pilot. Niska’s space station is one such visual treat, for example. It is silver and shiny (in the non-‘verse sense) and appears to have all the trappings of what we would expect from a futuristic space station. It also has thugs, and a smiling gentleman in a strangely cut, collar-less suit and an oddly shaped tie. Without knowing what Niska is saying, it is hard to read him. He appears almost genial and kind, until he cheerfully reveals a torture victim, hung up by his ankles.

The interaction between Mal, Zoe and Jayne on the one hand, and Niska and his thugs on the other is interesting. Jayne looks at Crow, whereas Mal and Zoe look at Niska. Each knows his place and naturally makes eye contact with the person of equivalent status from the other group. Mal looks wary as he talks to Niska and it is clear that the latter is in charge of the situation. In fact, this is a thread which runs through the whole episode. Wherever Mal and his crew go, everyone is against them, whether it is the bar patrons at the start of the episode, Niska and his thugs, the Feds on the train or the Sheriff and his men when Mal and Zoe try to return the medicine.

As the heist begins, the dynamics between those aboard Serenity are very telling with respect to their characters. Simon comes to talk to Kaylee as she prepares the equipment for dropping Jayne onto the train. Simon is shy and tentative and Kaylee is also shy, but welcoming too. The contrast between Jayne and Simon is very clear. Jayne’s clothing fits very much with his surroundings, but Simon stands out a mile with his crisp, white shirt and fancy waistcoat. Meanwhile River looks on silently from above, disconnected from everyone else.

River behaves in a similar way in the infirmary when Simon tends to Jayne after the heist goes wrong. She sits on the counter at the side, away from the group. Without Mal or Zoe, there is no one obviously in charge, but is clear that Jayne wants to be. Wash stands up to him and Kaylee looks concerned. Book watches on from the side at first, but then when he speaks, the reactions of the others (with the exception of Jayne) suggest that they recognise him as having authority.

In the same way that Book’s input draws him into the group, Simon is clearly more accepted when it becomes clear that he has drugged Jayne. Before Jayne falls over, Simon is another character standing off to one side, apart from the group. But after he admits what he has done, Kaylee goes over to his side and he is also drawn into the group.

After the humour - which is even clear just from the visual information - of Inara’s rescue of Mal and Zoe, there is an abrupt change of tone when along come Crow and his cronies. Despite the odds for winning a fight not looking too good, Mal does not appear to be intimidated. Perhaps this is because he is meeting the enemy on his own turf this time. He is not in an Alliance-friendly bar, in the space station of a psychotic torturer or on a train full of Feds. He is on his ship and he has his crew with him. And even if Wash is not usually a fighter and Jayne is somewhat incapacitated, both very much play their part in the ensuing fight. And so, of course, does Serenity.

Despite many ups and downs along the way, all seems to have turned out for the best as we come to the end of the episode. There is time though for a glimpse of two mysterious men, both wearing the same collar-less suits and oddly shaped ties as Niska was, but with the addition of blue gloves.

Taking the episode as a whole, what stands out for me most from the visual information it offers is the sense of Mal against the world. Everyone he meets seems to be in some way antagonistic to him, including at least one of his crew. But by the end of the episode, he’s still flying, and as we all know, that’s enough.

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