Serenity is Really Missing its Shepherd and Companion

Looking back over the now-complete series Serenity: Leaves on the Wind, which will mark the beginning of a continuing Serenity comic series, as well as the other short-run “miniseries” of Serenity comics that have emerged in the past few years, we can do some assessment of how the series is working, post-film.

[For those of you who haven’t seen the 2005 film Serenity, SPOILERS ahoy.]

The Serenity comics up until Leaves on the Wind all seemed to be about tying up loose ends left over at the end of the film. Float Out gave Wash a good send-off, The Shepherd’s Tale finally revealed the backstory of that most mysterious of characters and Better Days explored the Serenity landscape that could exist if the crew actually did pull off that big heist and get rich. All very interesting and probably necessary (Better Days excepted) in order to satisfy fan needs for “closure”. Now the series is venturing truly into the future, or at least it’s trying to do that. But there are some important differences between Serenity the comic series and Firefly the TV series that we all fell in love with over a decade ago.

The dynamics of the ship, and the characters, are quite different, for one thing. Malcolm and Inara are together… “together”-together, in the parlance of our times. Part of the joy of the original series was watching Mal’s passive-aggressive jabs at Inara, and watching Inara effortlessly swat them away, all while seeing the deep respect between them. That particular dynamic is difficult to do well between two mature characters in any medium without devolving into romantic comedy territory, and they did very well indeed. The moments such as when Inara kisses Mal in “Our Own Mrs. Reynolds” or the quiet scene they share, watching over a herd of cattle in “Shindig” are tremendously effective ways to suggest adult relationships between these characters that transcends story and genre. It was a classic piece of Whedon genius, and therefore it was a bit of a bold move to have Inara “retire” from the “Companion” business after the events of Serenity the film and officially begin a romantic relationship with Mal. If handled correctly, this could be a nice addition to the story, but consider what’s being lost.

Inara’s profession gave Serenity a veneer of civilized authenticity, or so explains Mal in the pilot episode. She brought “class” to an otherwise ragtag group of misfits. With her robes and her incense and her candles and hookahs and tea sets, Inara’s world was completely alien to that of the rest of the ship. She created an entirely distinctive atmosphere through the work she did. And, on a meta-writing level, Inara’s profession allowed for lots of explorations of the future of sex work and the place of sex in an advanced, multi-ethnic, post-American society. It also allowed for some great jokes, double entendres and twists of fate and phrase. By taking all of that way from Inara and making her into “Mal’s girlfriend” (and there’s little evidence in Leaves on the Wind that she’s anything other than that), it seems to me that the richness of the character mix is significantly diminished.

Inara’s “absence” (the character we knew is gone, and it remains to see if she can become as interesting) is not as important as Shepherd Book’s, however. When I first saw Serenity, the film, like everyone else I was surprised to see that Book was no longer a member of the Serenity crew, but even more shocked by his dramatic death about 3/4 of the way through the film. Book’s advice to Mal as they share a cigar in his one significant dialogue is one of the best in the film, hitting the main theme of the story while allowing for Book to remind us that Mal Reynolds isn’t the smartest person in the galaxy. That was always one of his roles on the TV show: to demonstrate wisdom, culture, morality and education to a group of people who he knew would not listen most of the time. Book never needed to be in charge: he had no problem taking orders. But his advice was always offered, firmly and without apology, and he would always be there to point the right way through a moral dilemma. In Buffy terms, he was the “Giles” of the show, but unlike Giles, he didn’t see himself exclusively as Mal’s mentor and teacher. When help was needed, he offered it to anyone in the crew, and since he knew that preaching to Mal would be a waste of time, he simply followed along and led by example. Those few occasions when he sensed that Mal was in a listening mood, such as when they share that cigar on Haven, he speaks the truth, simply and honestly, and respects Mal’s ability to make up his own mind.

Book wasn’t the only character Mal received advice from. Simon had opinions, as did Wash and, of course, Jayne. Each had their place. When medical advice was necessary, Mal turned to Simon. When he needed to know if a manouver were possible, he turned to Wash. And if he wanted to know how much he had to drink the night before, he turned to Jayne. But all three of those characters offered lots of other advice as well, advice Mal didn’t need. That wasn’t Book’s style. He would only offer advice when he knew it would be heard and when it was solicited, or when the morality of the situation compelled him to speak out.

Losing any of these characters is like losing an integral member of a band you love. The band might continue on, like The Who after Keith Moon’s death, but it’s never quite the same, and in some cases the band simply admits that and stops (Led Zeppelin). In the new era of Serenity we’ve lost Wash, and that is a great loss, but it’s interesting to read these stories and not miss him as much as one would think. River is a great pilot, and Jayne still provides a lot of the humour. Wash’s brilliant asides are missed in group scenes, but he does not leave that big of a hole in the crew. (Except, of course, to Zoe, who misses him terribly. But that’s Zoe’s character moment, not Wash’s.) But Book, I think, is going to prove irreplaceable, especially with Inara’s “neutering”.

In Leaves on the Wind, for example, the crew deals with the organized resistance to the Alliance, and penetrates deep into Alliance territory in order to rescue some children who had been captured and subjected to the same sort of medical experiments and torture as River. Book, one would think, would have had a lot to say about those actions, particularly in the relationship between the resistance and the Alliance. As revealed in The Shepherd’s Tale, Book was no stranger to counter-insurgency warfare, and probably knew quite a few resistance members already. He could have been the once voice that would have steered Mal clear of the final Alliance attack and saved many members of the resistance. One can also see him proudly agreeing with Mal’s decision to rescue Zoe rather than fight some sort of lopsided war, and to sacrifice her in the first place to save Zoe and Wash’s baby. He would have been proud of his (very reluctant) student.

Inara and Book were the only two characters on Firefly that seemed to have a complex, well thought out moral and philosophical system, stemming from their experience and education. This was an important mechanism that made Mal something more than a typical “Male Antihero” character so prominent in other “Quality TV” shows (think Breaking Bad or Mad Men or Rescue Me, etc.). With those voices right there, on the ship, not afraid to meet argument with argument, there was a certain intellectual democracy about the show that was very refreshing. Where is that going to come from now? Inara’s only substantial dialogue for the whole Leaves on the Wind run is an expression of Doe-eyed devotion to her man. And Book, of course, is absent. Without their steadying hand, we have to trust that Mal has learned enough to proceed with wisdom.

The new Serenity series is just getting started, so there may be more promising things to come. But the series feels fundamentally different now, and it will be interesting to see if it can capture that peculiar combination of poetry, genre, melodrama, comedy, philosophy and romance that made Firefly the legend it deservedly is.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

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1 Comment

  1. coby criste says:

    excellent points, man. I think the thing is, the comics have such little room to tell so much story, so what Zack Whedon is doing is jumping forward in time to just hit the highlights: making Mal the leader of the resistance, showing Zoe’s baby, etc. If this were a regular series, they might have time to explore the nuances you mention, such as Inara’s classin up the ship or Book’s guidance. But, with only a mini-series or one shot here and there, they’ve got to focus on more of the bigger picture stuff

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