Silence in Space

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First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 4
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Anna Snyder
Edited by Andy King

In watching the episode Bushwhacked without any sound, I was struck by how much of a role is played by the black. This is, of course, an episode in which at no point do we catch sight of any land, but the black is more than simply the backdrop to the story. It is the untameable, vasty nothingness within which characters have attempted to carve out a home of some kind, by various methods, and with varying degrees of success. We first see Serenity, which is a picture of warmth and light, in contrast to the black around her. Then we come across the derelict ship, which is so dark inside that it is as if the black has entered and reclaimed the space she occupies. And finally we see the Alliance cruiser, which is full of the harsh shining light of civilization, and using this light to meddle where it can.

Serenity’s, and Mal’s, approach to life in the black is clear from the opening scene of the ball game. Everyone is having a good time, playing a rough and frenetic game in good spirits. Outside Serenity, there are many dangers at every turn. If it is not the Alliance, it is the reavers. If it is not the reavers, it could be any one of Mal’s “business partners” - the Badgers and Niskas of this world - or rivals, who are often indistinguishable from the former category. So while they can, and while Serenity’s hull keeps out the black and its accompanying dangers, Mal and his crew make good sport of what they have, literally. This attitude reminds me very much of a favourite poem of mine, The Midnight Skaters, by Edmund Blunden, which ends with these lines:

Then is not death at watch
Within those secret waters?
What wants he but to catch
Earth's heedless sons and daughters?
With but a crystal parapet
Between, he has his engines set.

Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
Use him as though you love him;
Court him, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.

Instead of a “crystal parapet”, Serenity’s occupants have the ship to protect them from the black, and later Simon and River have only “a little mylar and glass” as they don spacesuits. The attitude of Mal and his crew is the same as that of the midnight skaters though, as they “twirl, wheel and whip” in the safety of their haven.

Perhaps the occupants of the derelict ship had a similar attitude at one time, but clearly their ship was not enough to keep the dangers of the black on the other side of the glass. At the start of the episode, Serenity was gliding majestically through the black and all was as it should be. When we meet the derelict ship, things could not be more opposite. The ship is no longer moving in any direction and instead is sadly, lifelessly spinning on the spot. Inside, all is dark and desolate, in comparison to the light and life on board Serenity. There is evidence that until very recently there was life aboard though, as we glimpse a red balloon, half-eaten meals and a doll in a trunk.

As Serenity docks with the derelict, she opens herself up to the dangers of the black. First it is the survivor who comes on board, bringing with him the infection of the reavers. Then it is the opposite danger of the Alliance soldiers swarming on to Serenity in search of Simon and River. Serenity is caught between the danger of extreme savagery, in the form of the reavers, and the danger of extreme civilisation, in the form of the Alliance.

Whereas Serenity is full of warm light and the derelict is full of darkness, the Alliance cruiser is full of a cold, harsh light. In each case, the lighting fits very much with the occupants of the vessel. Serenity’s occupants are a family (albeit a created one and one with its fair share of conflict and squabbling), the derelict’s occupants are by this point corpses, and the Alliance cruiser’s occupants are soldiers.

When Mal and his crew are taken on board the cruiser for questioning, they seem very much out of place in the harsh, brightness of their surroundings. Each character responds differently to the situation, leaving their interrogator, Commander Harken, clearly somewhat bemused. Inara is composed and serene, presumably using her companion training to judge what Harken wants to hear and talking accordingly. Zoe is likewise composed, but also very reserved, keeping her posture erect and her expression neutral. Wash is in contrast completely open and relaxed, gesturing happily with his hands and seemingly enjoying himself. Kaylee is clearly bothered by something and is speaking her mind, whether or not anyone wants to hear it. (Harken appears to be not quite sure what has hit him.) In contrast to all the others, Jayne remains silent, perhaps aware that the best way for him to create an impressively intimidating presence is to keep his mouth firmly shut. Book takes a different approach and talks earnestly, leaning forward and apparently trying to reason with Harken. Mal acts in a similar way to Book, although he is far more reserved and on his guard.

And of course while all this is going on, Simon and River have ventured out into the black. If the dangers of the black - namely, the reavers and the Alliance - have found their way inside Serenity, the safest place to be must be on the other side of the hull for a change. For Simon, the view from this perspective is clearly an overwhelming and frightening one, but for River, it is equally clearly a wondrous and heartening one.

Having started the episode with a shot of Serenity moving freely through the black, we end with the sad sight of the stationary derelict ship being blown up by the Alliance cruiser. The derelict ship has fallen victim to both of the opposing threats which are constantly antagonistic to Serenity and her crew. First, the ship is hit by the reavers and their savage appetite for destruction, and then it is finished off by the Alliance and its “civilised” appetite for meddling.

It is a sober note on which to end a very dark story and serves to highlight the fragility of Serenity’s situation. In a ‘verse full of threats and danger, Serenity and her crew are still flying, but other ships and other crews are not.

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