“You don’t have to die alone.”
“…Everybody dies alone.”
In “Out Of Gas”, the crew of Serenity face death after a severe engine malfunction. Zoe is nearly killed in the initial disaster, and those that are left have only a few scant hours of oxygen remaining. It is, to borrow a famous phrase from a very different science fiction property, a “no-win scenario”, Malcolm Reynold’s Koybiashi Maru test. And, like that test, it is a moment designed, in story terms, to give us a look at how all of these characters face up to the imminent possibility that they will soon die. How do they react? Who do they go to? What do they take comfort in? I’ve already talked in detail about Mal’s experience in “Out Of Gas”, how he remembers bringing all of these people together under the roof of Serenity and how his fate becomes inexorably tied to that of his ship. I’ve talked briefly about Zoe’s role in the episode, and about how she mirrors Mal’s attachment to Serenity by the conclusion. But what about everybody else?
Wash, naturally enough, fixates on his wife. He isn’t as strong as her, or at least isn’t in the same way. The thought of losing her overrides everything else, even his higher duty to the ship and the crew, at least until Mal knocks some sense into him. He remains aloof and alone through the scenes he has later, clashing bitterly with Mal until an unspoken reconciliation later. While it would be unfair to say that Wash’s character is tied wholesale to that of Zoe, it isn’t far off: without her, he becomes listless and resentful.
Kaylee’s attitude is one of guilt-ridden heartbreak. She unfairly takes a large degree of personal responsibility for both Serenity’s failure and for the injuries of Zoe, unable to comprehend that, sometimes, things just break and cannot be fixed, even by a genius mechanic. Finally facing up to this reality, she is left impotent and useless for the rest of the episode, a far cry from the girl who so easily fixed Bester’s incompetence far back in the past. Kaylee’s explanation to Mal about the ships problems are more of a confession than a report: unable to do anything to save the ship, she fades into the background of what’s left of “Out Of Gas”.
Inara is interesting. In one of the few scenes that doesn’t include Mal, she shares a quiet moment with Simon, where she, in response to Simon’s desire not to die on Serenity, says “I don’t want to die at all”. A lot can be read into that statement, in conjunction with, say, that briefly seen syringe in “Serenity”. Is Inara hiding something? Who knows? She faces the crisis with a little more stoicism than others, grasping Simon’s hand and then trying to guide Mal to a peaceful end. Like Mal, she has little to turn to too try and find comfort from the possibility of death, aside from the company of others. But she can’t even turn to Mal in this moment.
Simon, for his part, is a bit more detached, his attitude being one of unreality more than anything. His coldly clinical attempt to describe the process of suffocation unnerves Inara, but that’s the only thing he can say: he’s still a doctor, and one who was just in the middle of celebrating his birthday when disaster struck. Interestingly, “Out Of Gas” chooses to forgo any serious interaction between Simon and River. She has only one brief moment to really stand out in the episode, as she matter of factly informs Book that the crew will die from the cold long before they run out of air. She stands apart from the others, as she always has. More interesting for her, in this episode, is the way in which she seems to realise that the engine accident is coming before it happens, but I’ll talk about that another time.
Book also gets little time in this episode, which you might describe as odd, for no other reason than the crew facing into death might be the perfect time for the man of God to take centre stage. But he doesn’t. Instead, he retreats to his darkened room to read pages of his Bible, but is unable to take on-board its message of “Don’t be afraid”. It was interesting: Book might be a believer and a preacher, but his fear of dying was as acute as anyone else’s on the ship, and his lack of involvement in the rest of the episode almost magnified that.
Lastly there is Jayne. He is his usual self: twitchy facing the possibility of his demise, getting short with others, often in a hilarious way (“Fighting at a time like this…you’ll use up all the air”). But he never openly talks about the possibility that they may not make it and, unlike several other characters, actually takes practical steps to alleviate the situation, helping Mal and prepping the shuttles for departure. Jayne is actually decent in a crisis, and you can really feel his disappointment at the fact that his shuttle didn’t get back to Serenity first.
What “Out Of Gas” attempts to portray is how we all will face death, that cosmic inevitability. Mal insists that “everybody dies alone” and as a man who has seen and caused more than his fair share of death, we are inclined to believe him. When Mal faces his end in “Out Of Gas” he does do it alone, notwithstanding the intangible presence of a dying Serenity herself. And that is terrifying and final in its own way. But Mal doesn’t die, and when the situation is saved, he finds himself very much not alone, but surrounded by people in the medbay.
In a larger sense, by presenting us with a situation where the crew is in such peril, the episode allows the audience a chance to experience the fear of death and its awesome power vicariously. Of course, through “Out Of Gas”, we never really think the crew aren’t going to make it, or even that Zoe will die. It’s too early in the shows run. But the episode does get us thinking. Skipping ahead, you have to look to the film, and how affecting the crew deaths in that story were. Death, as a storytelling device, has that power, to move us and make us feel if employed in the right way. “Out Of Gas” was a dangerously close brush with it. Serenity will be a nose dive straight into the concept. The second is emotionally devastating, but the first was the gentle prodding of the heart: a presentation of what might be, and how it might make us feel.