Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Message

Sci-Fi Saturday

Mal and Zoë reminisce on the past when their former war ally mails them his corpse with instructions to return him to his family for proper burial. Unfortunately, there's more to his story than his message lets on, and the Serenity finds itself under attack from those with an interest in what the dead man has to offer.

The review for "Trash" can be read here.

Sometimes loyal to a fault, there are few things in life that will make Mal (Nathan Fillion) take notice than a friend in distress, and the plight of those who fought alongside him in the war is one closer to him than others. Having survived the war there's nothing that affects Mal and Zoë (Gina Torres) as much as finding their allies dead, and the request of a former comrade is a promise that both will keep.

There is a certain sadness to Kaylee (Jewel Staite) that has never been more apparent than it is now, as she listens to Tracey's (Jonathan M. Woodward) message on repeat, thinking on how her family would feel if they learned of her death, and whether or not her life, as it is, is really enough for her. Kaylee's love for Serenity has always been evident, and while there have been hints here and there that she left behind a supportive and loving family on her home planet, we've never, until now, been shown what it is that it means to her to be alone out of the world. As she and Tracey spend time together, bonding over their similar left-behind rural lifestyles, Kaylee has the chance to reconnect with someone very much like herself, appreciating the lengths he would go to for the well-being of his loved ones and considering him as something of a possibility for her own future. Kaylee's connection with Tracey isn't simply a reaction to her anger at Simon (Sean Maher,) she feels a kinship with him because, like her, he takes risks that lead him far away from family, but they never stray from his mind no matter how far out he gets. Tracey represents, at once, everything that Kaylee once was, has become, wants to be, and would never wish to be, and it's a subtle and fascinating story.

Tracey is introduced to the audience through use of flashbacks, and the story is set up with his personality to be slowly revealed through back story as Mal and Zoë reminisce on who he was. The fact that Tracey's death is reported prematurely allows the audience a chance to connect with him in real-time, to see how he interacts with the people on Serenity's crew, with Mal and Zoë as they are now as opposed to how they were then, providing us with reasons to actually care about his eventual demise. The problems with flashbacks is that they tend to be biased based on how the character felt about the situation or how the writer wants us to imagine this brand new character was in retrospect, but here, with Tracey musing on the changes in Mal and Zoë since his time with them, we aren't forced to rely on old information but are given new information, and it's a far more effective tool than trying to imagine who this person was.

The story opens with Simon and Kaylee on something of a date at the bazaar, with both taking the opportunity to flirt as Simon tells her that she always finds the bright side in everything, something that he greatly admires about her. He then goes on to imply that she's his only option, as the only other women aboard the ship are either married or related to him, and Kaylee storms off. The stories between the two of them are starting to feel a bit too paint-by-numbers, with every script repeating the same beats as they flirt, Simon makes Kaylee angry, and then they become friendly again by the end of the episode. I understand that Simon's socially awkward around women he likes, but it's getting to the point where he needs to have made some kind of progress.

Book (Ron Glass) walks into the cockpit stating that their only choice is to give up Tracey and make their own escape, and it's framed in such a way to imply that they really are going to go through with their plan. Tracey nearly shoots Wash (Alan Tudyk,) forcing Zoë's hand and having her shoot Tracey, and the conflict continues unfolding. As Tracey lays dying he sees Book confront Womack (Richard Burgi) and realizes that they were going to use Book's knowledge and influence in an effort to save Tracey, having decided to use him as bait in their ruse. The issue with this reveal is that there was ample time for Mal to have explained the situation to Tracey, and there really was no reason for Tracey to have been made to take hostages. The moment that he started panicking and waving a gun around, all Mal needed to do was tell him the truth, but instead he tried to calm Tracey down as though they really were planning on betraying him to the feds, and it's very forced, done only to make drama and bring an end to Tracey as a character.

Burgi gives a good performance as Lt. Womack, maintaining a calm demeanor whilst simultaneously being incredibly threatening, becoming a very viable threat to the crew of the Serenity as the story draws on. Woodward, too, makes the most of his appearance here, and while Tracey is, as a character, perhaps a little clichéd, he's very well acted here. The rest of the cast is also largely fantastic, providing very real reactions of mourning to the death of a fallen comrade.

Tim Minear directs this episode very well, using a handheld camera during the battlefield flashbacks that lends itself to the chaotic nature of war, and using another shaky cam as the Serenity is chased through the atmosphere, adding much tension to the sequence and amping up the drama. Tracey waking up as Simon starts his autopsy is a good surprise to the episode, very well done, leading to a sequence where we learn, very quickly, how Mal and Tracey related during difficult situations. The episode closes over a scene of Mal and the crew returning Tracey's body to his family, with Tracey's recorded message playing over it, and it's very effective to remind us of where he came from and how any member of this crew could be in his place at this moment in time.

Co-written by Joss Whedon and Minear, this story takes the opportunity to show sides of characters that haven't really been delved into yet, allowing the audience a chance to see Kaylee in a contemplative state regarding where she's come from, and giving Jayne (Adam Baldwin) a softer side that we so rarely get to see. Jayne's hat is the source of much comedy as he himself is very proud of it, unaware that everyone else is mocking it to his face, Wash stating that a "man walks down the street in that hat, people know he's not afraid of anything," and Jayne misunderstanding the meaning behind his words entirely. The difference between Zoë and Mal is shown here very well, with Zoë explaining that, in facing an enemy, it's important that you "don't ever let them know where you are," as the element of surprise is the only ally you have, followed quickly by Mal coming onto the scene, screaming "I'm right here!" repeatedly, guns blazing. Despite his betrayal of them, Mal and Zoë stay loyal to Tracey to his very last moment, sitting by his side and offering him comfort, not because they feel guilt regarding his situation, but because they understand what lead him there and, even if he turned on them in the last minute, he's still a very important figure in their collective past. Book's secret history is expanded on slightly, with him noting that the feds haven't sent any transmissions despite being very close to a station, and there's a slight hint that he might have been in the service at some point.

Once more the relationship between Simon and Kaylee is at a stalling point, neither certain how to properly relate to the other. Lt. Womack is more than likely to return in the future, either directly for revenge against Mal and Book or simply enacting vengeance in passing. Book's history continues to be hinted at, and with the number of times he has used his influence and knowledge to get Serenity out of a jam it's only a matter of time before his story is revealed to the crew.

The review for "Heart of Gold" can be read here.


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