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The Poetry of the 'Verse

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Following the Voices

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First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 7
Credits
Written by Helen Eaton
Read by Helen Eaton
Edited by Cornelius Wilkening
SIMON
River...? What are you...
RIVER
I followed the voices.

In the first three parts of this series, I looked at how the language of the Firefly ‘verse mixes the past, present and future together with different dialects of English, a little Chinese and the unmistakable voice of creator Joss Whedon. Although it is possible to talk of the language of the ‘verse as a whole in this way, it is definitely not the case that everyone in the ‘verse speaks the same way. So in this instalment, I’d like to consider the language used by individual characters, by taking a look at, or rather, a listen to, those on board Serenity at the start of the series: Mal, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Jayne and Inara.

MAL
Now I did a job. I got nothing but trouble since I did it, not to mention more than a few unkind words as regard to my character so let me make this abundantly clear. I do the job and then I get paid. Go run your little world.

When we meet Mal at the start of Firefly, we find a man who is closed off and concerned only with his own welfare and that of those he considers his crew. As befits such a character, his speech tends to be blunt and devoid of the normal niceties found in the speech of people who do care what others think of them. Mal is quick to cut people off, for example, and to tell them to shut up, in either English or Chinese.

We don’t know much of Mal’s background, but as seems appropriate for someone raised on a ranch, the Western influence of the language of Firefly is strong is his speech. He and Jayne are quite similar in this respect, but Mal is the wordier of the two and his put-downs tend to aim more for clever than coarse:

MAL
And I'm thinking you weren't burdened with an overabundance of schooling. So why don't we just ignore each other till we go away?
MAL
And I think calling him that is an offense to the psychotic lowlife community.
MAL
Well, my days of not taking you seriously are certainly coming to a middle.

Mal is not one for talking about his feelings, so when he does express positive feelings for someone, it tends to be subtle, as when he tells Simon, “You’re on my crew”, or due to medication, as at the end of Out of Gas, when he asks the crew, “You all gonna be here when I wake up?”. All of this means that the impact of his speech about love at the end of the film Serenity is all the greater. The man who was hardened and embittered by his experiences during the war has become a man who is willing to talk about love keeping his ship, and him, going.

Zoe is a contrast to Mal, both in character and in speech. In The Message we learn from Tracey that during the war, Zoe was not one for smiling or emotions, but by the start of the series, she has clearly moved on and has no problem showing tenderness and emotion with Wash. Her speech does retain something of what could be called a military flavour though, as it is often guarded and measured. She is also the only one aboard Serenity to regularly call her captain “sir”:

MAL
Whatever happens, remember I love you.
ZOE
Sir?
MAL
Because you're my wife.
ZOE
Right. Sir. Honey.

Wash, in contrast, only calls Mal “sir” when he is angry with him and his sarcasm when he does so is plain to hear. Zoe can be sarcastic too, but is usually far more subtle and very, very dry:

ZOE
Sir, I think you have a problem with your brain being missing.
ZOE
At last. We can retire and give up this life of crime.
ZOE
You paid money for this, sir? On purpose?

It’s not just the dry wit of the lines themselves that stands out, but the brilliant delivery also. Consider the following example and especially the way Zoe continues to speak around Jayne’s interjection without even a pause:

ZOE
Sir, I know she's unpredictable. But I don't think she'd harm anyone.
JAYNE
Butcher's knife...
ZOE
Anyone we can’t spare. I mean, far as we know, the girl's never even picked up a gun before.

Wash’s voice is perhaps the one that most resembles that of Firefly’s creator, Joss Whedon. Wash tends to sound less Western and more Whedony than the other members of Serenity’s crew:

WASH
You're pretty much down to ritual suicide, lambie-toes.
WASH
Can I mop your brow? I'm at the ready with the fearsome brow mop.
WASH
Do not fear me. Ours is a peaceful race, and we must live in harmony...

Wash’s humour also contrasts with that of other characters, being not as much about put-downs as Mal’s and not dry like Zoe’s, nor coarse like Jayne’s. He is the most intentional and the least subtle of the crew with respect to humour. He aims at funny and he doesn’t miss. So much of what Wash contributes to the dialogue is about bringing the humour, that his words carry a lot of weight when he does speak with a serious purpose, such as when he suggests to Mal, “Can we maybe vote on the whole murdering people issue?”.

Kaylee, as Simon notes, is someone who manages to “find the bright side of every single thing”. Her speech, therefore, is full of positive comments about the people and the situations she encounters. In this respect, she is very much Mal’s opposite:

KAYLEE
No, it's shiny! I like to meet new people. They've all got stories...
JAYNE
Captain, can you stop her from being cheerful please?
MAL
I don't believe there is a power in the 'verse that can stop Kaylee from being cheerful. Sometimes you just wanna duct tape her mouth and dump her in the hold for a month.
KAYLEE
I love my captain.

Kaylee’s sweetness definitely comes along with some earthiness though, and when this comes out in her speech, the comic effect achieved is impressive:

KAYLEE
But he could have made them family. Instead of keeping Simon from seeing I was there. When I carried such a torch, when we could've... We're going on a year now, I ain't had nothing twixt my nethers... weren't run on batteries.

For Jayne, coarseness and earthiness could definitely be considered the norm. He is, by his own admission, and by that of others, not the most eloquent of men:

JAYNE
I'm no good with words. Don't use 'em much, myself...
MAL
Jayne, your mouth is talking. You might wanna look to that.
WASH
How did your brain even learn human speech? I'm just so curious.

Of course, Jayne has more than his fair share of memorable lines though:

JAYNE
Do you know what the chain of command is? It's the chain I go get and beat you with till you understand who's in rutting command here.
JAYNE
Time for some thrilling heroics.
JAYNE
I'll be in my bunk

For someone generally lacking in refinement in both character and speech, the impact is all the greater when it is Jayne who responds first to Mal’s call to arms in Serenity, even if he has to borrow Shepherd Book’s words to express what it is he wants to say:

JAYNE
Shepherd Book used to tell me, “If you can't do something smart... do something right.”

Jayne’s opposite in terms of refinement is Inara. In Mal’s words, Inara is “a woman schooled in telling a man what he wants to hear”. The way she speaks is gentle and reassuring, yet confident. She stands apart from Serenity’s crew in usually avoiding cursing, slang and Western speech, instead exuding class and civility:

INARA
The great city itself is... pictures can't capture it. It's like an ocean of light.
INARA
Well. That's a bit more peaceful. Will you sit?
INARA
I was hoping we could talk a little business. Would you like some tea?

In the rare moments when Inara does lose her composure, the joke is all the funnier for the contrast with her usual poise:

BOOK
My apologies, you were victimized, Wash was beaten and Inara found you here.
INARA
And then I fell. My head got hurt like Wash.

Inara’s final words in Serenity are “I don’t know”, in response to Mal asking her if she wants to return to her civilised life. It is fitting that a character who was always so good at hiding her feelings behind her eloquence should end with a simple and honest expression of uncertainty.

When I consider the way Mal, Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Jayne and Inara speak, it occurs to me that contrast plays a big role in their distinctive voices. This contrast is both between and within characters. Mal’s blunt put-downs contrast with Kaylee’s positive pronouncements, for example. Zoe’s dry wit contrasts with Wash’s crazy kind, and Jayne’s coarseness with Inara’s refinement. The voices are so clear and distinctive that when someone speaks out of character, we are primed to pay attention, either for dramatic or comic effect, such as when Wash is serious, for example, or Inara loses her composure.

For all their differences though, the voices of these six characters all very clearly belong to the same language of the ‘verse, and each contributes something to its poetry.


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