Silence in Space

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War Stories

First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 11
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Anna Snyder
Edited by Yi Weng

It is appropriate that in an episode which focuses on uncovering the true self of various characters, the first image we see is that of a brain scan. Simon is looking at a scan of River’s brain in the hope that he can understand her better. However, later in the episode it will be Kaylee, rather than Simon, who gets an insight into River, and not by looking at a brain scan, but by seeing what happens when River is held “over the volcano’s edge”, as Shan Yu would say. The contrast between these two approaches to uncovering a person’s true self is already clear in the opening scenes of the episode, as we first watch Simon trying his clinical approach and then switch to Niska, who is supervising the torture of his latest victim and appears to be a devotee of the Shan Yu approach.

Back on Serenity, the activity is rather more wholesome, as Jayne’s crate of apples provides enjoyment for all. Kaylee chases River playfully around the ship and all is well. The differing approaches to how to eat an apple are clear visually, but the reason behind Mal and Zoe’s preference for cutting their apples would not be conveyed without the dialogue which accompanies this scene. However, watching the scene without the sound does make it even clearer how the image of an innocent apple hiding a deadly grenade is a parallel with River, who is herself a weapon, disguised as an innocent girl.

Before Niska gets his hands on Mal and Wash, and things take a turn for the serious, we are treated to some great visual reactions to the revelation that Inara’s latest client is a woman. When Mal’s offer of a handshake is shunned by the man who checks out Serenity before the councillor’s arrival, he looks at his hand as if to check whether it is dirty. Inara rolls her eyes at Mal’s misreading of the situation and when he finally understands who the councillor is, he is open-mouthed and generally lost for words. Kaylee and Jayne are similarly open-mouthed, but clearly for different reasons, as the former looks on with happiness and the latter leers rather than looks. Book appears at first to be indifferent to the excitement, but then jumps up rather quickly when the councilor arrives, in order to get a look.

As is often the case, it is the contrasts in the episode which become even clearer when there is no sound. The scene of Inara and the councillor provides a very stark contrast with the scene of Mal and Wash being tortured, which is soon to follow. Inara and the councillor enjoy the chance to reveal their true selves, and a more than usual amount of bare skin, in the absence of any men. Mal and Wash are tortured by Niska and reveal something of their true selves in the process, also along with some skin. The massage in the scene with Inara and the councillor is a parallel to the rather more painful “treatments” which Niska has prepared for Mal and Wash.

A lot of what we learn about Mal and Wash as characters comes from the dialogue between them as they are tortured, but there are also some visual clues. Their initial reactions to being captured, for example, are quite revealing. Wash talks a lot and seems frantic. Mal is more measured and calm. When they are blindfolded and left in the torture room, Wash’s focus is very much on what he is saying rather than what he is doing, whereas Mal says little and instead methodically works his way around the room, trying to get a feel - literally - for the situation. As the torture begins, it is equally clear that the two characters are reacting differently to the situation. Mal is defiant and stands straighter, whereas Wash slumps and seems to be giving up. Niska, meanwhile, continues to smile and enjoy the pain he is inflicting on his victims. There are no layers being revealed in his character. With Niska, the kindly gentleman façade is a very thin one and he makes no effort to hide his enjoyment of the pain he causes for other people.

The need to mount a rescue mission for Mal and Wash is potentially a “volcano’s edge” experience for Zoe, giving us the chance to see her real self in action. But in fact, what we see is very much what we have known all along about Zoe. She is calm and decisive as she puts together her plan and she assumes her leadership role in Mal’s absence with no fuss. As she enters Niska’s skyplex with the money to offer in exchange for Mal and Wash, she looks all around her as she moves through the corridors, taking in the lay of the land and storing it for future reference.

Zoe’s quick response to Niska’s offer of returning only one of Mal and Wash is clear evidence that when held over the volcano’s edge, she will choose her husband over her captain. Niska is blindsided by Zoe’s ability to choose so quickly and definitively. He is left open-mouthed and even stops smiling for a while. He regains his composure before too long though, and sends Wash and Zoe on their way with Mal’s ear. For all his ruthlessness in having Mal’s ear cut off, Niska doesn’t simply hand the ear over, but wraps it neatly in a white handkerchief before presenting it to Zoe.

Even Zoe cannot help but show some horror at Mal’s ear being cut off, although she doesn’t allow Niska the pleasure he would presumably derive from seeing her horrified expression go on too long. The reactions of those aboard Serenity to seeing Mal’s ear are varied. Inara and Kaylee react very similarly and both turn away in shock. Book is angry and Simon and Jayne are largely unmoved, although Simon has a professional interest in the state of the ear and Jayne just seems curious.

The Wash who was slumped and beaten when being tortured is no longer in evidence as the second phase of the rescue mission begins. He is determined to rescue Mal and efficiently gets together the weapons he needs to do so. Book shows a similar efficiency in helping Simon and Kaylee get ready, suggesting yet again that he wasn’t “born a shepherd”. His ability once the fighting begins is also very noticeable, especially in comparison with Simon’s reluctance and Kaylee’s terror. As the mission comes to a successful end, it is not the usual trio of Mal, Zoe and Jayne providing the firepower, but Wash, Zoe and Jayne instead, as they fire at Mal’s torturer. Wash clearly will have his own war story to tell now.

River’s part in the action will, of course, remain an untold story for the present. Her sharpshooting saves Kaylee, and saves the day. She strikes a suitably heroic pose and looks pleased with what she has done, but then there is a glimmer of confusion in her eyes. Later, as the crew are all safely back on Serenity, Kaylee looks up at River, who is on the walkways above her. There is a physical distance between them now which matches the distance newly introduced into their relationship, and contrasts with the closeness they had as Kaylee happily chased River at the start of the episode.

The closing scene of Zoe making soup for Wash shows how they have grown closer in their relationship after their run-in with Niska. All is clearly well between them now, in contrast with the tension in evidence at the start of the episode. Wash’s strength in a crisis and Zoe’s love for her husband have both been revealed at the volcano’s edge.

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