Shepherd Derrial Book - The Preacher with a Past
(played by Ron Glass
We first meet Shepherd Book on the Eavesdown Docks on Persephone. He had just left the Southdown Abbey and decided to get out into the world... bring the word to those as need it told...
Less than two days later... "I've beaten a lawman senseless, I've fallen in with criminals. I watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect... I think I'm on the wrong ship."
He wasn't, but was he even a shepherd; a man of the cloth? Jubal Early didn't think so (Objects In Space). Didn't think he was a shepherd but not necessarily a member of the 'church.' There are clearly monastic orders as no-one thinks that's unusual. Monastic orders can have specific functions in the hierarchy of a large religious organization including martial orders (e.g. Templars). There's a lot of history there that doesn't have much to do with being a common preacher.
Book signed on to Firefly as a passenger before Simon did, which on the surface appears to rule out his being there specifically because of the Tam siblings. Kaylee could read his body language rather well, and her intuition told her he was a good soul who was more interested in the ships than in the destinations. He tells her that he had once sailed on a earlier model of Firefly ("Long before you were crawling."), and admits to having been "out of the world for a spell."
There seems to be some serious skepticism that 'Book' is actually a long tenured member of a monastic style order whose primary secular boss is the 'church' that exists in the 'verse. All clues indicate a long tenure in the abbey, but as most stories (sci-fi and otherwise) have the enigmatic yet suprisingly capable preacher be ex-military/police/criminal. People assume that Joss Whedon would just do the same here. How is this conclusion comparable to analysis of the other characters of Firefly? Would Joss have decided to have this one character be the cliched 'reformed ex-military/police/criminal/alliance'--seems unlikely.
So, who was (or is) Book?:
- An undercover agent for the Alliance?
- A double agent for Independents who had infiltrated Alliance trust?
- A retired Alliance officer, Alliance Federal Marshal, or "Operative" who 'got religion'? (My personal theory. -Doyce)
- An operative of Blue Sun, keeping an eye on River and Simon?
- It is possible Derrial Book was a FORMER Operative of the Alliance, who saw the light and turned his back, moving onto a life of religious servitude.
- Perhaps a ex-con? Perhaps at one time worse and more sadistic than Adelei Niska, but who had since found religion?
- A member of a specialized order of the apparently very influential 'church' that pervades the 'verse. An order that is akin to pre-industrial Jesuits in terms of information gathering & problem solving for the church hierarchy. This would explain the Ident Card respect as who wouldn't fall over themselves if the card said the equivalent of 'Cardinal Such-and-such, Spanish Inquistion' or 'Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (current Pope Benedict XVI's former position).'
What do we really know?
Was being a shepherd just a cover or had Book joined the Abbey for a few years, perhaps immediately after the end of the war, and sincerely set out to live a life of moral and spiritual enlightenment, only to find himself fall into this "den of thieves"? He seems to genuinely care for River Tam and Jayne Cobb, but in Objects In Space River hears him think "I don't give half a hump if you're innocent or not. So where does that put you?" when only she and Jayne are in the room. It is worth noting, however, that Joss's commentary during this scene states that River's perspective "is somewhat disassociative from reality".
- He's definitely not what meets the eye. On the surface Book appears to be an ordinary man of God in an extraordinary situation, dealing with people straddling the fine line between good and evil, but there are other indicators that, while inconclusive, do persuade one to believe he may have ulterior motives. For one thing, when Book finds himself suffering from lead poisoning without a medic on board (in Safe), Malcolm Reynolds orders Wash to the nearest Alliance outpost for medical help, expecting to eat crow. Just as the Alliance officers deny medical assistance, Book has them check his Ident Card. He's almost immediately wheeled into the operating room, no more questions asked. (Not common Alliance treatment even for men of the cloth.) Also take note of the teaser of War Stories and his pro-active stance towards rescuing Mal.
- He knows a fair bit about the criminal element of the 'verse. Current information, in some cases more than the professional criminals that he flies with. One instance of this is in Our Mrs Reynolds when he explains to the crew about the specifics and tactics of the ship scrappers, particuarly about some of their newer tactics.
- He knows how to shoot (and well), and can identify relatively rare weapons merely from the hole they leave in a man. A level of shooting that would've required a lot of practice to achieve and maintain. Has the supreme confidence in his shooting skill that he can take snapshots from the hip with a carbine and make the shots hit in a not immediately lethal location and did just that. Equal to the finest commando level of skill. He picked a carbine versus a pistol or an assault rifle indicating a preference that is unusual as police would tend to pick a pistol and military infantry types would pick an assault type weapon (ala the weapons used in the opening scenes of Serenity 1 & 2).
- He knows some martial arts (disarming and knocking out a lawman in Serenity). Confidence in disarming an unstable firearm wielding maniac.
- We know he never married and therefore has no children or grandchildren. (Or so he says.) Indicating that as he considers things: procreation comes from marriage. Also implying that sex outside of marriage wasn't an option (for him at least) as that may lead to procreation.
- We know his religious order requires he not cut his hair. In the movie it is braided in cornrows, not cut.
- We know he studies a version of the Christian Bible (which apparently survives another five hundred years relatively intact) but we don't really know the name of his denomination. There seems to only be one non-descript denomination (though in "The Message," he mentions he does not know Tracey's denomination) in the 'verse--a side-effect of the great migration?
- He knows his way around a spaceship, especially a Firefly class. He's been on one before, but it was an older model. He knows intimate details of spaceship engineering functions despite not having flown in quite a spell.
- We know that he felt prepared to take up arms to defend a friend. He implied, though we do not know for sure, that he would not go as far as cause another's death.
- We see him benchpressing fairly impressive amounts of weight (at least for a man of the cloth) with Jayne, it is speculative, but it would seem he has lifted weights elsewhere and knows the protocol well.
- He appears to be at the oldest, at 55+ years of age. As far as people that appear older than him on the show there are very few. It's a hard life in the 'verse.
- He intimates that he has been in the abbey for 20+ years ('before you were crawling'). There is some disagreement on this. His behavior is consistent with that of someone having spent a long time in an abbey/religious order, even one as unusual as this one seems to indicate.
- He will sometimes resort to foul language (in Chinese).
- His full name is Derrial Book. (although, in the special features on the DVD, He is labled as 'Ron Glass - Neria Book')
- We can tell that he has some sense of humor, because in 'Our Mrs. Reynolds', he tells Mal that if he takes advantage of Saffron, he will go to the 'Special Hell', which is reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.
- In the episode Objects in Space, the bounty hunter, Jubal Early, says, "that ain't no shepherd" when Simon questions him knocking out Shepard Book
And that's about it.
Played masterfully by the venerable veteran actor (and, ironically, Buddhist) Ron Glass, Shepherd Book is one of the more cryptic and puzzling characters of Firefly's basic nine (which is really saying something about a ship full of people with secrets). If he was a pretender to the cloth he played the role remarkably well. If he's serious about his faith, he may have a long path ahead of him towards self-enlightenment.