Those Left Behind is the first released Serenity comic book and I do quite enjoy it. The art is great, and I’ve always felt particularly entranced by the panorama of the Battle of Sturges, Dobson’s twisted office on Whitefall, the contrast between Kaylee in Serenity’s cargo hold and the Hands of Blue underneath, and the portrait shots of each of the crew members. The story is simple but fits in with the established universe. It has its problems – Dobson isn’t really the kind of character you would expect to carve out his own criminal niche and is fairly easily dealt with in the end, some of the soft reboot elements can be a bit jarring, etc – but is a nice addition to the canon overall.
Its purpose was, in my view, two-fold. Firstly, it meant to serve as a way of introducing fans of the TV show to the “soft reboot” elements of the film. Secondly, it had a more practical purpose as a transitionary device, a way of bridging the gap between what came before and what was coming after.
There are two main aspects to the soft reboot. A soft reboot is what we can describe as a partial alteration of somethings continuity for the benefit of a future story, without tearing everything down and starting from the scratch – I suppose that would be a “hard reboot”. I’ll probably talk about it a bit more when I do, finally, get to Serenity and the mountain of stuff I want to talk about in regards that film, but suffice to say for now that Joss Whedon, having to fit his larger vision for Firefly into a two-hour film, needed some significant things to have changed between our last glimpse of the crew in “Objects In Space” and the re-introduction to them in Serenity.
The first that really springs to mind is about Book of course. Those Left Behind opens on his sermon to an attending flock, a sermon that is part and parcel of the crew’s efforts to engage in criminal dealings, apparently without Book’s knowledge. Book has always had his secrets, but there was a potent oxymoron in the way that this man of God, peace, turning the other cheek and forgiveness, was satisfied with being on a boat of thieves, prostitutes, killers and occasional malcontents. It went beyond, to a point, Book being just where he needed to be, signified most heavily in “War Stories”, when Book took up arms against others (contrasted sharply with “Heart Of Gold”, when he stuck to damage control and shooting water).
Those Left Behind tries to deal with that contradiction, while manufacturing a way to get Book off the ship. Serenity didn’t have the room for all nine of the established crew to get proper screen time. A way for Inara to not be present for a large part of the film was already in existence, but Book wasn’t given the chop as well. So, in Those Left Behind, we see first a frustrated Book seeing his association with the crew damaging his religious mission, then an ever more frustrated Book who has to become an accomplice in order to get the crew off the planet alive (while driving a crazy over-sized vehicle, one of the oddest parts of the story really). Book’s lost again, as he was briefly in the pilot, realising that his intended outlook on life can no longer mesh with that of Serenity.
This manifests itself most obviously in the second issue, as Book lashes out violently at Mal. The man of God is no longer able to hold back from the taunts and the jibes, and his incredible dig at Mal is the surest sign yet that Book no longer belongs on Serenity. Even when later doing something to save the ship, and River, from the predations of the Hands of Blue, Book is still disgusted with himself, his mind tainted with his association with killing.
So Book has to leave, in order to, essentially, save his soul. He finds a place on Haven, unseen, and has his part to play yet in the coming story. That part is of the advisor, and he has to be somewhat separated from Mal and the others in order to fulfil that role.
The other soft reboot point that needs to be talked about surrounds Mal. Firefly ended with him fully accepting River as part of the crew while preparing to say goodbye to Inara: Those Left Behind runs with the second thread and uses it as a potent foil to show Mal as a man being pushed right to the edge. Serenity is a film that, in its early stages, needed to show Mal as a man who had lost everything twice over – first in the war, and then with Inara. As a result, he’s become bitter, lashing out at the undeserving like Book and losing the will to fight for his living, as we can see in the opening showdown with Ott.
This sets up the Mal who so angrily dismisses both Simon and River in Serenity, not considering them crew unless it is convenient for him. Those Left Behind shows us that man in pain, taking dangerous jobs too connected with his past, drifting away from those around him, becoming ever more isolated. That isn’t the Mal that we are really used to in Firefly, but it is the Mal that needs to be present in Serenity, the man willing to turn back into the “Mal who fought the war”. While Those Left Behind is a bit of a short story to get across all that is needed properly, we can easily imagine Mal, running short on jobs and losing the woman he loves, showcasing this ever more negative side.
Those are the two main points that Those Left Behind needs to get past in order to set up the soft reboot. But Those Left Behind is also a more general transitionary vehicle, and I’ll touch on that topic next time.