Silence in Space

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The Message

First aired: The Signal: Season 8, Episode 13
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Miranda Thomas
Edited by Yi Weng

I was expecting watching a silent version of The Message to be an altogether less mournful affair than watching it in the normal way, with the accompaniment of Greg Edmonson’s beautiful, but sorrowful music. However, it turned out that the visual information alone effectively conveyed the sense of sadness I associate with The Message. One way in which this is achieved is simply by the number of scenes which take place in darkness. Obviously, for an episode set largely in space, darkness is to be expected, but even some scenes which could have been in daylight are set at night, namely, the flashback to the battle of Du-Khang and the funeral scene. The scenes set inside Serenity are also often sparsely lit, with the overall impression very much the opposite of the cheery and warm atmosphere we have come to expect. The lighting on the bridge after Serenity has hidden in an ice canyon is particularly effective, with the darkness only tempered by an eerie blue glow.

The darkness in The Message is not just literal though. The episode starts in the space bazaar, with the usual colourful and eclectic mix of people going about their business inside. Of all the people we could focus on, the camera comes to rest on a showman, who has a small skull pinned to the back of his top-hat. What he is selling is similarly somewhat on the dark side – the chance to view evidence of alien life, or rather, a cow foetus. Even before Mal and Zoe take delivery of what appears to be the corpse of their friend, the episode hasn’t exactly had a lighthearted start.

Alongside the dominant impression of darkness in the episode, there is also a sense of coldness. This is most clearly evident in the ice canyons of St Albans and the snowy funeral scene, but is also foreshadowed by the ice-planets which Book and River eat. This sense of darkness and coldness fits well with Tracey’s story. He is someone who has found the real world after the war a harsh and uninviting place, and has ultimately been unable to survive it.

As with many Firefly episodes, The Message is full of contrasts, some of which become even clearer in the absence of sound. Take the two contrasting parcels which arrive at the start of the episode, for example. Jayne rushes in to take hold of his parcel, all eager anticipation. He shakes it, sniffs it and quickly finds out what is inside. Meanwhile Mal and Zoe are cautious and exchange wary glances as they slowly reveal the contents of their parcel. Perhaps the coffin-like size and shape of the parcel have already alerted Mal and Zoe, but they both seem to look on the parcel as something negative, even before they have found out what it is. In contrast, Jayne is eager to open his parcel even before he knows it came from his mother. The contrasting attitudes to the prospect of the contents of the parcels turn out to be justified, of course. Jayne gets a “fun hat” (which will do a great job of keeping out the cold that forms the backdrop to the episode), whereas Mal and Zoe get a “dead guy”, or so it seems.

There are further visual contrasts in the flashback scene of the battle of Du-Khang. The battle is being played out in a Buddhist temple, which we would normally expect to be a place of peace. The statues of Buddha look serenely down on the frenetic fighting going on around them. The camera jumps around in a similarly frenetic fashion, contributing to the overall impression of confusion. The different approaches to the battle exhibited by Zoe and Mal are clear to see though, even in the confusion of battle. Zoe moves stealthily and cuts a heroic figure as she goes in for the kill. In contrast, Mal bursts onto the scene, gun blazing and ends up in an ungainly heap on the floor.

For all the sombre looks and sad glances in The Message, there are also some nice touches of visual humour. The comedy of Mal’s position relative to a naked Tracey, for example, raises a smile, as does the look on Jayne’s face as he deals with a vomiting Tracey. And then there is Wash’s not very subtle reaction on discovering that Tracey is alive after all. Book, in contrast, seems unfazed. Clearly this kind of thing happens all the time at the abbey. Wash’s crazy-eyed flying style as he attempts to outmanoeuvre the Alliance vessel chasing Serenity is also memorable. Even Book – who has been the epitome of coolness up to this point – is visibly perturbed by Wash’s wild attempts to pilot Serenity out of harm’s way. The dinosaurs on the console are similarly stoic at first, maintaining their guard on the bridge, but are then flung out of frame by a particularly violent lurch as Serenity dodges the falling rocks at the climax of the chase.

As the chase is going on, Tracey is getting to know Kaylee and the ease and openness with which they interact is a contrast with the awkwardness between Simon and Kaylee at the start of the episode. Tracey’s somewhat bedraggled appearance, with his ragged clothing, is also a nice contrast with the neatly and expensively dressed Simon. Without the dialogue explaining the “pickle” which Tracey has got himself into, what we see of Tracey creates an impression of sweet-faced innocence, which appears to make him very much a good match for Kaylee.

As Tracey’s sad story comes to an end, Mal, Zoe and Jayne make good use Serenity’s space to outwit Tracey, coming at him from different angles. It seems appropriate that his end is achieved by three people working together as a team, when it was his failed attempt to go it alone which landed him in trouble in the first place.

It is teamwork which also deals with Womack, who comes aboard Serenity in search of Tracey and is met by Mal and his crew strategically arranged and ready to make their play. Again there is good use made of the space within Serenity as Mal, Jayne and Zoe train their guns on Womack and look down on him from the walkways. In contrast, Book is on the same level as Womack and is unarmed. He is steely and cool, even approaching Womack with his hands in his pockets. Womack and his minions are clearly no match for the tactics of Mal and his crew and leave without another shot being fired.

The closing images of the episode are sad ones, as is to be expected. As Tracey dies, Mal places a hand on his shoulder and Zoe similarly holds out her hand to him. Then Mal and Zoe carry Tracey’s coffin, in a repeated image from earlier in the episode, but this time for real. There are sad looks all round, but perhaps the saddest and most haunting look of all is from Mal, whose gaze is directed to one side, as if to us as the viewers.

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