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Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale

on Wed, 12/08/2010 - 00:00

“Been out of the world for a while,” Shepherd Derrial Book explains in the pilot episode of the FOX sci-fi drama Firefly. “Like to walk it for a while, maybe bring the word to them that need it told.” The path he inevitably chooses leads him onto Serenity, the ship captained by Malcolm Reynolds. Reynolds and his crew, however, are a collection of space scavengers who earn a living through illegal means on the outskirts of civilization—hardly the kind of company one would expect a man-of-the-cloth to be consorting with, but Derrial Book is not a typical shepherd.

On the surface, Book appears to serve as the moral compass on Firefly to the more ambiguous Malcolm Reynolds. Reynolds fought on the losing side of the War for Unification years earlier, advocating independence rather than rule under one all-controlling Alliance government. The defeat changed the man into a hardened cynic intent on traveling his own path. “You’re welcome on my ship,” he tells Book. “God ain’t.” While Shepherd Book never actually attempts to bring the word of the Lord to the crew of Serenity, his belief in “doing the right thing” still has an influence of Malcolm Reynolds despite the captain’s reluctance.

But Shepherd Book is also more complex than he appears on the surface. During the course of Firefly’s mere 15 episodes, for instance, he easily disarms a federal agent and knocks him unconscious, continually displays knowledge regarding both notorious criminals and dubious activity, and his ID badge solicits special treatment from Alliance officials. Unfortunately, Firefly was prematurely cancelled by FOX and the show’s subsequent motion picture, Serenity, did little to shed any additional light on the mysterious nature of Shepherd Book.

“It’s of interest to me how much you seem to know about that world,” Malcolm Reynolds tells Book in Serenity in regards to the shepherd’s seemingly unlimited expertise. “Have to tell me about that sometime.”

“No, I don’t,” Book replies back.

As fate would have it, that was the last conversation that would ever take place between the two men. Although Malcolm Reynolds never discovered the story of Book’s past, fans of Firefly and Serenity were rewarded with answers in November 2010 when Dark Horse Comics released the graphic novel, Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale. Beginning with the events that led to Derrial Book’s heroic death, the tome flashes backwards through the shepherd’s life and slowly pieces together the backstory of the enigmatic preacher man.

“You get little indications that his life is so much more interesting than you think, but you never know what it is,” Zack Whedon, who wrote The Shepherd’s Tale, explained to SFX in September 2010 in regards to Shepherd Book on Firefly. “This story goes all the way back to his childhood, to see how he ended up the man in the show. It’s very much a character story. It’s very human. It’s really charting his emotional and psychological life.”

The Shepherd’s Tale is not told in a linear fashion but slowly peels away the layers of Book’s life and reveals what lies underneath. “If you look at your life as a chain of events, each responsible for the next and caused by the last, where does any story begin?” Book explains in the opening pages of the narrative. From there the story spins to his time on Serenity all the way back to his youth, revealing individual small snippets that eventually add up to lifetime.

As already known, Derrial Book was a shepherd at the Southdown Abbey prior to Firefly. Peel the layers of his life back a little further, however, and he was a broken man living on the streets, getting into bar fights and seeking refuge in shelters. It was at this low point that he found his way to God and redemption. Peel back even further and Derrial Book is a high-ranking officer within the Alliance who led his troops into an ambush at the hands of the Independents, responsible for the loss of 4,000 lives in the process. Go back even further, and you find a more junior officer intent on rising through the ranks of the Alliance through raw drive and ambition.

As the layers are continually pulled away, however, those brief mirrors into the past of Derrial Book take on a different meaning. Here one finds a younger man, but still a man that is more than adept at handling himself in a street fight against three Alliance soldiers on some unnamed planet. A man eventually drawn into the underground movement for Independence, a man searching for a purpose to his life.

“We infiltrate,” he hears at a secret meeting. “Send in a mole. Someone to join the Alliance now, before the war starts. They’ll rise through the ranks, manipulate them from the inside.”

“And tell them to walk away from their life indefinitely?” another Independent counters. “The candidate you’re talking about doesn’t exist.”

The layers continue to peel back to reveal a young boy living with his alcoholic father. A young boy that grows up to be a street thug and common criminal until approached about joining the Independents. A young man who changes his name to Derrial Book in order to secretly infiltrate the Alliance. An officer responsible for masterminding the greatest military loss in Alliance history in a clandestine attempt to help the Independents. A lost soul living on the streets who eventually finds God. And finally, the Shepherd who inevitably makes his way onto the Firefly-class ship Serenity. In the end, these disparate pieces all fit together to complete a picture of the man known as Shepard Derrial Book.

“All of creation supports this bowl,” Book philosophically muses during a brief stint in a homeless shelter. “Which supports the soup. Which supports me. It gives me life. What do I do with the life it gives me?” It is a question any of us could ask, but in the mind of Shepherd Book it is a difficult one to answer. Life, after all, is not easily measurable. It is a series of moments that cannot be quantified but are interconnected nonetheless, containing an infinite number of events that ultimately shape who we are, were and will eventually become.

The life of Derrial Book and Serenity: The Shepherd’s Tale is a testament to both the man and his philosophy and a fitting epitaph to the “preacher man” of the Firefly universe. Zack Whedon not only created a narrative that fans of the series have longed for, but did so in a fashion that reflects the subject of that story as well.

It may not be a straight-forward narrative, but then again, nothing about the life of Shepherd Book ever was straight-forward.

Anthony Letizia

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