It opens with a simple text narration. The narrator has a *strong* southern accent that would be very comfortable in Ken Burns' documentary on the Civil War or coming from the mouth of a southern gentleman in virtually any movie set in that period. This sets the pace of this show as a story told from the point of view of the losers in a war of "independence" which history records as a civil war. It also states outright that the Alliance is spreading its control throughout the galaxy - there is no system vs. galaxy ambiguity here as in the opening narration to later episodes.
The show itself opens with the sight of Mal, Jayne, and Zoe breaking into a space ship from the outside. We get some nice zero-g effects as they break in while Wash plays with toy dinosaurs back on the ship until an alarm sounds. Kaylee rushes to the engine room to shut down all of Serenity's systems.
A nearby Alliance cruiser observes the ship that they are breaking into but note that it was "lost with all hands" a few weeks ago. They deem it unimportant and prepare to move on but a strange sensor reading prompts them to move in for a closer look. An alert crewman spots men in space suits moving cargo off the abandoned freighter.
Serenity detaches from the freighter. Her big main engine lights up and metal vanes spread out to reveal the ship's bright bulbous engine - just like with a firefly which not coincidentally is the class of ship to which Serenity belongs. The engine shines brightly and gives off a trail of bright green exhaust as the ship moves away from the camera. Jayne compares the maneuver to "mooning" the Alliance cruiser.
"They wouldn't blame me. I'm just the pilot. I could always say I was flying the ship by accident." - Wash on his role in the heist.
Jayne is worried about the cargo and heads for Persephone to contact Badger whom we saw for the first time in "Shindig" thanks to the broadcasting geniuses at the Fox network. Zoe feels that Mal is more worried about the cargo than he is letting on. Wash suggests flying off someplace after the job is done. They can get some "real" food, Zoe can bathe, Wash can watch her bathe. But they need Mal's permission first - after all Mal is the captain and Wash is just the husband.
Inara is off working. Her client is quite smitten by her and begins to suggest that she stay with him but he loses his nerve and trails off. He leaves and Inara walks out of her bedroom with its exotic decor to reveal the cockpit of her shuttle. She confirms Serenity's location with Wash and flys off. It's a very cool looking scene as Inara's shuttle joins a half dozen or so tiny ships that are buzzing around Persephone's futuristic skyscrapers.
In stark contrast to the skyscrapers is Persephone's Eavesdown Docks which are reminiscent of an open-air market in a 20th century third world country. Serenity lands as Kaylee wants to buy a new compression coil for the ship's engine while Mal wants her to find passengers. Mal goes to see Badger who is looking over a new slave - he checks her teeth and sends her on her way. He claims that they are late which alerts Mal that he is trying to put them on the defensive. This is a signal that something has gone wrong and Mal wants to know what it is. Badger shows Mal a bulletin about a rogue vessel - firefly class - seen conducting an illegal salvage operation. The Alliance stamps "every molecule" of its cargo and Badger no longer wants anything to do with the goods he hired Mal to steal. Jayne gets angry and Badger's hired thugs pull out their weapons.
We get a small recap of Mal's history as a sargent in the war from Badger. Badger says he's still a sargent in his own mind - "a man of honor in a den of thieves" - he calls him. He doesn't like being looked down on by Mal, Badger feels that as a "respected businessman" he should be the one looking down on him. Mal leaves angrily.
Book appears for the first time looking over the ships at the docks. Serenity's horse headed cockpit catches his eye. Kaylee notes this and assures him that her ship is the nicest. Book is clearly familiar with ships and even notes a modification in Serenity compared to other firefly class ships. Kaylee asks if he can pay. Book notes that he has a little cash and opens up a small box. Kaylee practically swoons over its contents. These are later revealed to be fresh strawberry's. The scarcity of fresh food beyond pre-packaged rations is a recurring theme in the pilot and comes up quite a bit later on during the series.
"I don't understand why we didn't leave that sonovabitch in a pool of a his own blood."
"We'd get paid. Can't get paid if you're dead." - Jayne and Mal
Jayne does some math and notes that his share of the job is currently "nothing." Mal also notes that unless they get paid, they won't have enough money to fuel their ship. He suggests turning to a woman named "Patience." Zoe notes that Patience shot him once. They go through their list of alternate buyers and come up short of alternate buyers. Patience it is - besides her moon, Whitefall is the closest and safest.
Reaching his ship Mal meets Simon Tam. Simon is elegantly dressed and debonair. He also has a huge crate with him that he wants treated with care. Inara arrives in her shuttle and docks with Serenity. Meanwhile Simon stands over his huge crate looking suspicious.
Mal introduces the passengers to the dining area. Viewers will note a suspicious looking man next to Book. We know he's suspicious because it's the pilot episode and this man doesn't appear in subsequent episodes - thanks a lot Fox! But in all fairness Fox, this particular actor (Carlos Jacot of She Spies and numerous bit parts in other genre shows) always plays a bad guy in Mutant Enemy shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. There is some small tension between Mal and Book. Mal tells the passengers that the Alliance has ordered them to drop off medical supplies on a nearby moon so their arrival at their current destination (Boros) will be delayed by a day.
Inara shows up and Mal calls her "ambassador." Book takes this literally, causing Mal to chuckle. He informs Book that she's really a "whore" and generally makes an ass of himself - perhaps one reason why the pilot was delayed. But he explains that Inara is like an ambassador for them because most planets won't even let them dock without someone "respectable" - like a registered companion on board.
"So does it happen a lot, the government commandeering your ship?" "That's what governments are for, getting in a man's way." - Simon and Mal. At dinner, Books fruits, spices, and vegetables are a hit. But Mal is still rude to him. Simon is concerned about their detour. The third passenger hears that a lot of the border moons are in bad shape. Zoe and Mal explain that like the central planets, the border moons (it appears that Firefly is using the words "planet" and "moon" interchangeably at this point - if a planet is important they call it a planet, if a planet is not important, they call it a moon - this is an interesting semantic point which should be noted for future reference) have been terraformed but "once they're terraformed, they'll dump settlers on there with nothing but blankets, hatchets. Some will make it, some won't." This is a very important point which explains the primitive lifestyle and lack of technology that is seen in series. Kaylee and Simon like each other which leads to some crude jokes by Jayne. Mal banishes him from the dinner table and jokes that his job on the ship is "public relations."
Book walks into Inara's shuttle. She thinks it is to explain the "wickedness" of her ways to her. But he is there to apologize. But he does like her use of the word "terpitude." She lets him know that she has a strict policy of not sleeping with passengers or crew. He explains that while he doesn't approve of her business, it is at least legal. He suspects that is the only business on this boat that is legal.
Wash detects a signal sent out to the Alliance and alerts Mal - they have a mole onboard. He finds Simon in the cargo bay and suspects that he is the mole. He punches him and pulls out his gun. Book arrives and tells him that he has the wrong man. Mal turns around and sees the still nameless third passenger pointing a gun at them. Mal assumes he's here to arrest him and puts his hands up. But he arrests Simon instead. Mal asks if there is a reward.
The lawman doesn't believe Mal's story about ferrying medical supplies and wants to arrest him. Book tries to reason with him but he is not in the mood. Kaylee barges in and the nervous lawman shoots her in the gut. Book grabs the lawman's gun and punches him out rather easily - he's very tough for a man of the cloth. But he refuses to let Jayne near the man. Jayne pulls a gun on him and Zoe pulls a gun on Jayne telling him to just tie the man up. As Simon tends to Kaylee a cruiser hails them and tells them to deliver Simon to them. Simon tells them to change course or he'll let Kaylee die. It's a tense minute until Mal tells Zoe to change course.
They get Kaylee into the infirmary. It's interesting to note at this point that Mal tells Simon that he has a "laser saw" on board. It's interesting how they do have some advanced technology on the ship but they still use good old slug throwing guns as weapons. Simon operates and gets the bullet out. With the immediate crisis averted Mal decides to get some answers.
While Jayne holds Simon back, Mal opens his huge crate. When the mist clears away, a nude female form - lying in a fetal position - is revealed.
Mal immediately assumes the worst. He thinks Simon is a slaver or worse. But girl wakes up and is screaming and scrambling about. Simon runs to her and calms her down. He explains that the girl is his sister. He also explains that he is "very smart" and gives a brief rundown about how quickly he went through medical school to explain just how smart his sister River is - she makes him look like a moron. A government sponsored academy presented their family with a very exciting program and they sent her there. But all was not well. They began to receive strange letters. Simon realized that they were in a code - that they (Simon uses the word "us" here, presumably there are more kids like River out there) were being hurt at the academy. He managed to get her out with the help of some men who got them to Persephone.
Mal is angry over this because the Alliance is going to come after them now. Mal makes things very simple for Simon - if Kaylee survives they can get off at Whitefall, if she doesn't they get off sooner, i.e. they get spaced. There is a lot of debate, Jayne also wants to kill the federal officer and a large argument ensues. Mal makes it clear that he's in charge and he alone gets to say who lives and who dies but he's clearly leaning in Jayne's direction.
Book prays over Kaylee and talks to Simon. Simon picked the ship because it looked "disreputable." Book takes note of the ship's name, "Serenity." He suggests that he should "get the lay of the land" and some "psychological insight." Simon takes a look at an encyclopedia. This "book" opens up and has a view screen on the right side and data rods on the left side. The book's narrator has a crisp british accent and explains that the "Battle of Serenity" was among the most "devastating and decisive" of the war. The independents held it for two months against superior Alliance forces.
Zoe hears the book and tells Simon, "we're not in there." She explains that nearly half a million people were killed in that battle, "a third of them 'winners'." Mal was her sargent in command of "thirty-odd grunts." But so many officers were killed that Mal was soon in command of 2,000 troops. He kept him together but only about 400 survived. After the fighting was over both sides left the survivors in that valley and many of them kept dying. This was why Mal named his ship after the battle because, "once you've been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learn to live there."
"If they take the ship, they'll rape us to death, eat our skin, and sow it into their clothing. And if we're very, very lucky, they'll do it in that order." - Zoe on the Reavers
Wash encounters another vessel - a very old vessel, without "core containment." This is "suicide" according to Wash. Mal realizes that the ship is full of "Reavers." Reavers are mentioned earlier on in the episode as having a attacked the settlement of one of Mal's potential buyers whom she assures Zoe is now dead. He gets on the intercom and makes an announcement to the passengers and crew. A Reaver raiding party is passing them and may or may not attack their ship. Everybody is scared but the Reavers don't change course, the ship is safe.
Mal and Jayne interrogate the fed. Jayne pulls a knife and Mal walks out. He enjoys waving his knife around as he asks the fed what he told his people about them. The fed, Lawrence, tells Jayne they know everything but his face betrays him, they don't know a thing. Jayne is very disappointed at Lawrence's inability to lie. Lawrence tells Jayne that there is a reward waiting for him if he turns on Mal and delivers the girl to the feds. River that important to the Alliance.
Kaylee regains consciousness and talks to Mal. She is now even more fond of Simon and tells Mal that "you've just gotta have faith in people." Inara gives Simon some medical supplies from her companion kit and tells him that they are all very fond of Kaylee. Mal walks in and Inara teases that she "gave the boy a free thrust since he's not long for this world." Mal is still angry at Simon, everyone on the ship could be killed because of the fed. He tells Simon that Kaylee is dead. Simon runs to the infirmary and concludes that Mal is psychotic when he sees that she isn't. Wash, Jayne, and Zoe agree with this assessment after they finish laughing.
Mal will only admit to being a "bad man." Mal talks to Patience and offers her the cargo. She's not bothered by the fact that the Alliance have tagged it. She actually seems to appreciate Mal's honesty - not to mention the steep discount he is offering for the cargo. Mal realizes that she is planning to shoot him again. Jayne suggests that they try shooting her this time. Wash notes that "it's her turn." Mal decides to risk it anyway. Meanwhile Lawrence is working on freeing himself. Serenity lands on Whitefall. As she and Mal walk, Zoe notes that this is a "nice place for an ambush." Mal gets the lay of the land as Jayne "tests" their transmitters. Jayne takes a position on a high ridge above the town. They hope that he can take out Patience's snipers before they can take out Mal and Zoe.
Patience shows up with a heavily armed party. Jayne takes out one sniper and assumes his position. Mal tosses her a gold bar. Taking off the golden wrapper, reveals it to a be bar of food stuffs. "One of those will feed a family for a month, longer if they don't like their kids too well." Patience tosses him a bag of money and asks for the rest. Mal tells her to turn around and ride away first. Patience makes it clear that she's not letting him leave alive.
Mal notes that Patience's best shooter has a nice hat - just before Jayne shoots him in the head from his sniper's nest. Mal and Zoe open fire. and immediately take out three men. Patience shoots Zoe in the chest and she falls. Jayne shoots more men from his sniper's nest and Mal pick off a few more. Zoe rises from her position to shoot another man and complains that her armor is dented. Patience is alone now alone. Mal shoots her horse and it collapses on top of her. She's pinned under it - helpless. Mal tells her he expects to get paid when he does a job and takes her money. Jayne rushes down to tell Mal that there is another ship coming. The Reavers followed them.
Meanwhile back on Serenity, Book goes to warn Lawrence that he's in danger and promptly gets knocked out by the federal officer who has finally freed himself. He tries to send another signal but his device is jammed. He pulls a gun. River gets out of bed and asks for Simon. Lawrence grabs her and prepares to leave. Simon and Wash are up in the cockpit unaware of what is going on below. Wash explains that he always worries about Zoe when she is out on a deal Kaylee signals that Lawrence has taken River.
But a second signal pulls Wash's attention away. It's the Reavers, their ship is shown entering the atmosphere. Simon attacks Lawrence and pulls a gun on him when Wash announces the incoming Reaver ship. Mal, Zoe, and Jayne ride back to the ship on Patience's horses. Their sound distracts Simon and allows Lawrence to retrieve his own gun which he promptly puts to River's head. He barely has time to threaten to kill her when Mal shoots him dead. Mal and Jayne toss his body out of the ship and they take off.
But the Reavers are in hot pursuit. Wash needs Kaylee in the engine room. Mal tells Inara to get all the "civilians" into her shuttle and prepare to take off if they're boarded. The Reaver ship belches smoke like Al Gore's worst nightmare as it continues to follow Serenity. Jayne carries Kaylee to the engine room and Book decides to help. Both ships are slicing through the clouds as Mal notes that the Reaver ship is trying to "lock us down." Kaylee is still groggy but she gives Book and Jayne instructions on how to set up a "full burn." Mal suggests that they try a "Crazy Ivan." Kaylee points a control box to Jayne and assures him that the procedure is "real simple." Jayne is shocked by her definition of "simple."
Wash tells the crew to "hold on to something." He reverses thrust on the maneuvering engines one at a time to turn the ship around and gives Kaylee the signal. Serenity's main engine spew out a veritable fireball of thrust as it rushes out of the planet's atmosphere. Jayne whoops it up while Kaylee purrs at the engine and beams with a mother's pride over it. Zoe asks Mal to take the helm as she needs Wash to "tear all my clothes off." "Work, work, work," replies Wash as Zoe drags him out by the collar.
"I've been out of the abbey two days. I've beaten a lawman senseless. Fallen in with criminals. I've watched the captain shoot the man I swore to protect. I'm not even sure if I think it was wrong." - Book On Inara's shuttle, Book is feeling overwhelmed. Did he pick the wrong ship? Or is he exactly where he ought to be.
Simon promises River that they'll find a safe place.
Jayne tells Mal that River is a problem. She's special and the Alliance will keep looking for her. They're best off getting rid of her and her brother. Mal realizes that the lawman tried to make a deal with Jayne and asks him why he didn't turn on him. Jayne says the money wasn't good enough. Mal asks what happens when it is good enough. "That'll be an interesting day," is Jayne's only reply.
Simon asks where Mal plans to dump them. Mal says that's up to him but that he would be safer on the move. He tells Simon he needs a medic. He'll have to live by his rules and keep his sister under control. Simon asks how he can know that Mal won't kill him in his sleep. Mal makes it very clear to him...
"If I ever kill you, you'll be facing me, and you'll be armed."
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