Firefly Episode 1: "Serenity"
The episode opens with the Battle of Serenity Valley, in which Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds leads a daring operation that he thinks may turn the tide in his side's favor. Despite the operation's success, his commanders opt to surrender to "The Alliance," and Mal and Zoe are the only two survivors from his unit. From Mal's despair, we flash forward six years to when he and his crew from the small, worn transport Serenity is performing an illegal salvage operation on a wrecked spaceship when they are caught by an Alliance cruiser. They escape, but not before the cruiser puts out an APB on them.
This encounter brings out something I like about the series, in that the Alliance isn't actually villainous, and in fact, in most shows would represent the good guys. The cruiser's captain is understandably contemptuous of what he sees as a group of scavengers turning profit off a tragedy, while a little later in the show, the ship's pilot point out that, "We're criminals. If everything we're right, we'd be in prison."
The crew had been hired to steal the goods by Badger, a crime lord on Persephone. Badger, however, refuses to touch the goods now that they're known as stolen, and refuses to pay. Mal decides to try selling them to a woman named Patience on a moon called Whitefall, saying he doesn't hold a grudge over the fact she once shot him.
On board also are three passengers they had taken on to make extra money and give them an excuse for their next journey: the elderly Derrial Book, a Shepherd (Christian Preacher) fresh out of the abbey and going to do God's work in the universe; Simon Tam, a wealthy, somewhat edgy and pushy doctor from the Alliance worlds with a large storage unit; and Lawrence Dobson, a schmo. There is also Inara Serra, a Companion (courtesan) who has been with them for awhile hoping to see the universe while getting them access to places that wouldn't accept just any rundown freighter.
Mal tells them the Alliance has ordered them to drop medical supplies on Whitefall, batting back an array of questions from Simon. However, they detect a message from within the ship to the alliance, meaning there is a mole on board. Mal immediately believes it's Simon and confronts him in the cargo bay, but Book to the side declares he has the wrong man. The Dobson appears, holding a gun. The gun, however, is primarily aimed at Simon, whom Dobson says is a wanted fugitive.
In the resulting commotion, Dobson shoots Kaylee, the ship's young and perpetually happy mechanic. Simon starts to treat her, but when an Alliance cruiser appears, he refuses until Mal agrees to change course and flee. Initially stubborn and continually put off by Simon's elitist manners, Mal gives the order at a moan of agony from Kaylee, and then he and Simon get her to the medical bay where she is treated. Mal, however, decides to find out what all this is about, and opens Simon's container, which turns out to be a cryogenic suspension chamber containing his sister, River, whom he has rescued from an Alliance facility where she was being harmed in some unknown manner.
Mal decrees that they will be put off at the next stop as a danger to the crew, despite protests and an open promise by Inara that if he puts them off, she's gone. When they reach Whitefall, however, Dobson escapes, beating up Book in the process. (Book had been Dobson's protector on the ship, especially against Jayne, the ship's tough who wants to kill him as quickly as possible.) He then goes to the medical bay and takes River, threatening to kill Kaylee if she does anything. Eventually he reaches the cargo bay with her, where Simon confronts him with a gun. After another shuffle, Dobson has a gun to River's head and Book hobbling off to the side. Mal, returning from an exciting visit to Whitefall, sizes up the situation while striding aboard the ship and shoots Dobson. They then escape from the Reavers (did I mention them in all this?). In the end, Mal offers Simon a position on board as ship's physician, which he accepts.
I went through a lot of summary mainly because there was a lot worth summarizing. Much of what I didn't mention is also good, such as Mal's encounter with Patience on Whitefall. Also important are the key interactions between characters, particularly Book and Inara, Mal and Simon, and Mal and Jayne. The dinner scene does a good job establishing the crew as a family-like atmosphere with Mal at its head; when Jayne is taunting Kaylee over her crush on Simon, Mal gives him one warning before ordering him to leave the table.
This also establishes Mal as a protector of the crew, and one easily ties this to the opening in which he lost almost everyone under his command. What's more, no matter how much he pretends otherwise, he's responsive to their opinions, as his decision to allow Simon and River to stay is prompted as much as anything by the urging of the wounded Kaylee and Inara's strong stand. Further strenghtening this point is the fact his reluctance to do so is grounded in the danger they pose to the crew, a point with which he at one point confronts Simon in what I believe was a test.
"Serenity" also did a great job at establishing the universe, both the lawless atmosphere of the outer worlds where the characters do business and the cultural elements which show creator Joss Whedon wished to mingle - the crew drinks out of Western-style mugs while eating with chopsticks. The ship itself is also established as an important character - not much to look at, but a home with which everyone is bonded and which given the proper care can perform.
The one element that seemed too much was the Reavers. The plot could have gone just as well without them, and it would have given the audience less to try and assimilate if their introduction had been postponed just a couple of weeks to "Bushwhacker." Still, this was a great introduction to the show, one which as an episode I would assign 8/10.
Mal: "Had a good day."
Simon: "You had the Alliance on you, criminals and savages... half the people on the ship have been shot or wounded including yourself, and you're harboring known fugitives."
Mal: "We're still flying."
Simon: "That's not much."
Mal: "It's enough."