Silence in Space

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Out of Gas

First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 9
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Anna Snyder
Edited by Yi Weng

Out of Gas is one of my favourite episodes, but when I started trying to write about it for this article series, I was initially unsure as to what to write about. It’s not that Out of Gas is a visually uninteresting episode. In fact, I would go as far as to say the opposite is true. The structure of the layered flashbacks, which is a key element of the episode as a whole, is partly evoked through visual means. Most obviously there is the way the three time periods have distinct looks in terms of colouring and lighting. We also have the visual continuity links when we switch between time periods, such as when Mal opens the infirmary door in the present and we jump to the flashback of Zoe being brought into the infirmary after being injured. However, all this visual information is such a key part of the episode that it does not take the exercise of removing the distraction of the music and dialogue to notice it.

Happily, my initial misgivings that I would have very little to write about proved to be unfounded. As I watched Out of Gas without sound, I realised that there were still some visual details and parallels which stood out in a new way to me. In the opening scene, for example, the absence of the music serves to emphasise just how lifeless and deserted Serenity appears to be. Until Mal falls into frame, the ship seems to be completely abandoned and therefore the lack of any sound is highly appropriate. As we move into the first flashback, when Mal shows Zoe around Serenity, we are shown a ship which is similarly abandoned, but this time there is hope that it won’t always be this way. Flashback Mal and Zoe head off hopefully into the light, while present-day Mal is left despairing in the dark. The grating he is lying on is reminiscent of a cage, hinting at the events which left Mal in this predicament. The explosion which left Serenity drifting also left her waiting to be preyed upon by any passers by, as if caught in a trap or a cage.

After such a dark opening, it is relief to move to a flashback of happier times. And the contrast could not be greater. Everyone is laughing and smiling as Book tells his story. Even Mal and River are looking happy. And everyone is bathed in a warm, cosy glow from the lights on the table, which are soon joined by the candles on Simon’s birthday cake. Of course this happiness does not last long, and soon the characters’ faces are not lit by a gentle glow, but by the fierce flames which are attacking Serenity from the inside.

The situation is clearly serious, and as Wash realises that Zoe is badly hurt, the look of concern on his face is all the more striking since he is usually the joker of the crew. We do not get the chance to dwell too long on this though because of course this is the time when we flashback to the comic scene of Wash with his moustache and Zoe’s initial reactions to her future husband.

When we return to the seriousness of Serenity on the drift, the different ways her occupants react are all quite clear from the visual information alone. Kaylee looks heartbroken, whereas Simon and Inara seem more resigned. Book is the most visibly upset, and Jayne and River the least. Meanwhile Mal and Wash take out their anger on each other. And Serenity herself is a sad sight, with the rubbish that was swept out of her with the fire now collecting around her.

Kaylee is distraught that she is unable to revive Serenity, and this is all the more poignant because her realisation that she cannot fix Serenity comes just after we have seen her happily manage to do just that in a flashback. On that occasion, she was the one getting Mal to look at where the problem lay, but in the later time period, Mal has to lead her by the hand and coax her to show him where the broken part should go.

The dynamic between Mal and Inara is also very different in the two time periods. In the flashback, they are cold and professional with each other, whereas in the other time period, Inara gently manhandles Mal out of the way with the kind of casualness that comes from great familiarity. The looks that pass between them hint at many things left unsaid. Inara’s appearance in the two scenes also provides some interesting contrasts. In the flashback, she wears dark, jewelled clothing and a veil, almost as if to keep herself slightly hidden, and to make sure Mal stays at a safe distance. In contrast, in the other time period she wears a simple peach-coloured dress, her hair is down and her make-up more natural.

As Mal settles down with his blanket to wait in forlorn hope of a rescue, the expression on his face is unreadable. What is going through his mind? Has he resigned himself to die on Serenity? And is he perhaps not that bothered by this prospect? Does he have anything worth fighting for at this point? He certainly does fight for his survival after he is shot though, to the point of leaving a trail of blood through Serenity as he slowly and painfully manages to fix his ship.

In the opening scene Serenity is not moving and she is similarly still in the final scene. However, there is a world of difference between the two scenes. In the opening scene, she is drifting in the black, abandoned by all but her captain. In the final scene, she is on the ground and at rest, being looked at longingly by the man who will become that captain. At the start of the episode there was despair and the story of Mal and his Serenity had apparently come to an end, but at the close of the episode, we see the hope that was present as their story began.

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