Firefly Episode 3: "Bushwhacked"
The transport ship is portrayed in a suitable dark and eerie manner, which sets the tone for the eventual discovery of the bodies, at which Mal immediately orders everyone back to Serenity. The discovery of the survivor contributes to the sense of urgency, as it involves Jayne panicking over a fight, assuming he is far more vicious than he actually is (at that point). In an equally eerie medical bay, we see the survivor driven mad, to the point where Mal, who has obviously encountered their handiwork before has Simon put him to sleep out of mercy.
Mal and Jayne then describe the Reavers to a skeptical Book. This skepticism sets the stage for the even bigger skepticism of Commander Harkin, who arrives with an Alliance cruiser to accuse Mal of committing the atrocities on board the transport, as well as the standard illegal salvage operation. In the end, however, he is forced to acknowledge the truth and Mal, driven to speak poetically in trying to get Harkin to understand, saves his life by killing the Reaverfied survivor despite being in handcuffs.
Even as it establishes both the horror of the Reavers and the general skepticism about them on the inner planets, the episode fits it lots of nice character moments. The basketball game at the beginning is one, showing the crew just having fun together for the first time in the series. Shortly after that, Simon's fish-out-of-water position and his courage are seen simultaneously as he falls for Jayne's trick to don a spacesuit and enter what he believes is a vacuum. We see the same thing when he enters space for real with his sister, whose bright inner spirit comes through for the first time in her enjoyment of the experience. Finally, we see Mal demonstrate his sense of honor and/or loyalty when he hides Simon and River rather than use them as a bargaining chip with the Alliance, as both Simon and Jayne expect.
In one or more of David Eddings's series, a character uses a technique of requesting random objects to ostensibly torture people, on the theory that their imaginations will come up with worse stuff than he could actually do. "Bushwhacked" uses the same theory brilliantly. Had we actually seen the Reavers torturing and killing, the show would have simply become a gorefest. By leaving them offstage and focusing just on reactions, the show puts us inside their effects, giving us a similar reaction that of the characters. All in all, it was a nicely done piece of work which I give an 8/10.
Mal: "That poor bastard you took off my ship. He looked right into the face of it — was made to stare."
Mal: "The darkness. Kind of darkness you can't even imagine. Blacker than the space it moves through."
Harken: "Very poetic."
Mal: "They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away, and they wouldn't let him. You call him a survivor? He's not. A man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it."