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The first scene is not in the "present day", but 6 years earlier in Serenity Valley at the end of the civil war between the colonialists and the Alliance, which the Alliance won. We see the future Serenity captain, Malcolm Reynolds, as a sergeant in a small troop with Zoe as his right-hand man (woman?), like she will be in the future. Things are going very badly for the colonialists, but Mal is doing a tremendous job keeping his small force together and effective. And then the colonialist side surrenders (as they ultimately do to end the war), which devastates Mal.
When we jump to the present day, we find Mal and his crew in the process of illegally "salvaging" cargo from a dead-in-space transport ship. This scene highlights one of the relatively small things that I like so much about the series: it accurately depicts the lack of sound in space and the effects of weightlessness. They break into the transport ship in eerie silence, and all their motions appear to be in slow motion, similar to watching contemporary astronauts on spacewalks outside the International Space Station.
An very large and weird-looking Alliance ship shows up to investigate the wreck, and Mal and his crew narrowly escape capture by tricking the Alliance commander with a fake distress call. This shows nice tactical planning on Mal's part.
They travel to the world of Persephone, where the man that hired him to steal the cargo is waiting for it. Unfortunately, there are two problems. First, the cargo (some kind of bouillon, perhaps) has markings on it that denote it as Alliance property, which would make it difficult to re-sell. Second, the Alliance cruiser that saw them put out Serenity's description for transporting stolen goods. The buyer, Badger, refuses to pay them or take the cargo.
This is bad news, as Mal informs Zoe and Jayne that if they can't sell the goods at their next stop, they won't have enough money to even buy fuel for the ship. They plan to head next to a more peripheral world, where the authorities don't have as much power. Meanwhile, they hope to pick up passengers on Persephone, because they will pay.
The ship's engineer, Kaylee, is also appointed the salesman to attract passengers. Kaylee is one of the bright spots on the show, as she is always cheerful and optimistic, although not as innocent as she might look. It's nice to see a woman for the engineer, and one that isn't a complete geek.
As Kaylee lounges outside Serenity to lure in passengers, we get a look at the world of Persephone. Like in the society overall, there are big differences between the haves and have-nots on the world - we get a glimpse of a modern-looking city, but around the docking area, we see crowds of dirty people that are probably just living day-to-day. Since Serenity isn't exactly luxury accommodations, presumably the passengers will not be from the upper class. By the time they leave, three passengers have booked a trip. The first, Dobson, is pretty non-descript. The second is Shepherd Book, who is some kind of priest and missionary, and is looking forward to the trip more than his destination. The third passenger is Simon Tam, who is dressed far nicer than anyone else in the vicinity and has mysterious cargo. We find out later that Simon is a surgeon from one of the main Alliance worlds.
Before Serenity leaves Persephone, Inara rejoins them. Inara is a Companion (basically a high-class, well-trained, socially-acceptable prostitute). She has her own shuttle, but has joined up with Serenity for transport on the longer journeys between worlds.
As the passengers board and Serenity gets underway, we get a series of awkward moments: Mal finding out that Book is a man of the cloth, and Mal introducing Inara as a whore. Clearly Mal is not afraid to speak his mind. Despite his rudeness to Inara, we see that overall his is almost a southern gentleman, as he reprimands Jayne for boorish behavior at dinner. We also see that he expects to have his orders followed, and he's not even afraid of the more-formidable and somewhat crazy-seeming Jayne.
Things have been progressing pretty slowly, until the pilot, Wash, detects one of their passengers signaling the Alliance. Mal immediately assumes that one of their passengers is an Alliance spy after their stolen cargo; he also assumes the spy is Simon, who is obviously the odd man out. However, it's Dobson who pulls the gun, and he's after Simon, not Mal.
Mal is more than happy to let Dobson take Simon into custody, but Dobson is nervous and begins threatening Mal as well. Book shows up and tries to get everyone to calm down, which just makes things more confused. As more of the crew comes into the cargo bay, Dobson panics and shoots Kaylee in the stomach. As he does this, Book takes out Dobson with some very good hand-to-hand combat moves; he then protects Dobson and refuses to let Jayne shoot him until Zoe confirms Dobson should be kept alive.
Simon and Mal rush to help Kaylee, who is seriously wounded. Simon begins working on her, but then realizes that he's still in danger from the Alliance ship that is just minutes away from rendezvousing with them. He refuses to help Kaylee any further until Mal orders them to flee the Alliance ship. Mal doesn't like anyone giving him orders on his ship, but he finally gives in and orders the course change. They rush Kaylee to the infirmary and Simon goes to work.
Once Simon does as much as he can - Kaylee's prognosis is still uncertain - Mal decides to see just what is in Simon's cargo, which is presumably the reason the Alliance is after him. Over Simon's protests, he opens the large box, which turns out to be some kind of cryogenic storage and is holding young woman. For once, Mal is speechless... and this part of the episode ends.
There isn't too much to say about this episode, because most of it was just introducing the characters and was pretty slow. There were also some heavy-handed "this is why you should be interested" parts. One was Badger's speech about how Mal was still playing the soldier even though the civil war was over. Another was when Inara and Book were talking about Mal: Book says Mal is interesting and mysterious (gee, should we notice that?), and Inara confirms that that's why she stays with Serenity even though Mal is not so polite about her occupation.
One small comment by Zoe that imparted a lot of information: she said that terraforming had been done on many of the worlds, to make them like "Earth that was". First, this seems to imply that something happened to Earth - what? Second, it's a nice nod by the writers to the fact that one star system couldn't have so many habitable worlds; I'm not sure it would even be able to terraform that many, but at least the writers realize it's an issue.
We get some setup for future conflicts: Wash complaining that Zoe just follows Mal's orders too much instead of going against him on minor things; Jayne finding it hard to follow orders and being strictly a mercenary; Mal disliking Book's religious focus; Mal and Inara apparently attracted to each other in some way, despite their mutual disdain for the other's occupation.
The dialogue is already pretty snappy, such as: "Jayne, your mouth is talking. You might want to look to that."