Somewhat disappointingly, this is not a story about what happens to Malcolm Reynolds and the crew of Serenity after the Rapture. It's an interstitial between the abrupt ending of Firefly and the Serenity movie, covering some of the difficulty the crew has getting work, as well as Shepherd Book and Inara's departures. We also see an old antagonist, Lawrence Dobson, return for revenge.
In case you don't remember him, Dobson was an Alliance agent on the trail of Simon and River in the first episode. Mal shoots out his eye and leaves him for dead. Now Dobson is back, and he wants Mal. He's rather obsessed about it. And now he gets a little help from the men in blue gloves. Only not that much, see, because his plan is ready to be put into action. He just doesn't have Alliance clearance, which makes his plan more difficult but not impossible. The men in blue gloves are a convenient opportunity and nothing more.
Yeah, this story is a little all over the place.
Unfortunately, Serenity: Those Left Behind just tries to do too much. It invokes several guest characters from the book: Dobson, the hands of blue, and even Badger. But the plot is messy, paced much too fast, and not all that enthralling. Mal and the crew are having a hard time getting work, but Badger supplies them with the coordinates to a spaceship graveyard left over from a famous battle in the War for Independence. This is apparently a setup, because Dobson lies in wait to ambush Mal why he's exploring the wreckage for Nazi gold. Er, Alliance gold.
It's all a little too convenient, contrived, and not at all clever. Seems to me that it would be much easier to ambush Mal on a planet. I guess Dobson, obsessed as he is with revenge instead of just eliminating Mal safely and efficiently, is not thinking too clearly. I expected something more formidable from the men in blue gloves, but they come off as a bumbling pair of incompetents.
The characterization isn't impressive either. There are some heavy-handed moments between Simon and Kaylee where the latter says something and Simon acts dense, and the mood is lost without the tone provided by Sean Maher and Jewel Staite. Similarly, any of the significance in the tension between Book and Mal or Inara and Mal suffers.
The trouble with tie-in media for my favourite television shows is that it just isn't the same. Comics and novels that continue the adventures of my beloved characters lack a crucial part of the experience: the actor's performance. When I was a child and an adolescent, this did not bother me as much (I remember that the first audiobook to which I ever listened was a Star Trek: Voyager audiobook on CD, narrated by Robert Picardo). Nowadays, I tend to avoid Star Trek novels. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer is a show that was so great, sometimes it hurts just thinking about its greatness. Yet I have been in no hurry to read its continuation in comic form—the same goes for Angel, and even for Firefly. Joss Whedon is a brilliant writer, but his characters are also partly the result of the acting of his well-casted talents. And those are absent from productions such as this.
I don't mean to be a hater. There are some "special features" that almost redeem this book: Nathan Fillion's introduction, Joss Whedon's pre-production notes for Serenity, and artwork of the characters by various artists. It's a neat little package, but it has the misfortune to be wrapped around a story that does not meet my expectations when it comes to Whedon and the Firefly universe. There are a few moments where I can see the characters shine through, such as when Mal is about to surrender the money but then chooses to pick a fight when the other thief demands his gun as well. I knew even before I turned the page that there was no way Mal would part with his gun. But that is a trained reaction I acquired after coming to know and love these characters in the TV series. This comic book had great potential, but for the most part, I got left behind.