Nail/head interface, IMO. Despite the ‘ghost ship’ plotline, the main purpose of this episode seems to be to further fill the audience in on the day-to-day lives of the characters. So, we get the initial scene of the improvised basketball game in Serenity’s hold, plenty of detail about how one goes about conducting an illegal salvage operation, hinting at River’s clairvoyance abilities (while making it plausible that the rest of the crew doesn’t quite pick up on this), more picking on of the nerd (Simon) by the schoolyard bully (Jayne), and the interrogation scene provides a convenient opportunity for the characters to explain a bit more about themselves.
The rest all seems to be mood and atmosphere. This episode, directed by Tim Minear rather than Whedon and the first in the series to be set entirely in space, is extraordinarily beautifully lit and photographed. Considering the TV budget, the density of detail is amazing. The derelict homesteader’s ship, perhaps a bit derivative of Alien’s Nostromo, has its own distinctive design and creepy personality. The bizarre tendrils that, without explanation, attach themselves to Serenity when she docks with the derelict (we later learn it’s a Reaver boobytrap). The color red (a warning of the bloody horrors to come?) figures again and again: River spotlit in her red frock, seemingly channeling the ghosts of the passngers, Simon carrying a ludicrously bright red doctor’s kit; later, a red balloon is seen floating eerily in the background in the darkened derelict’s corridor. The scene in which Simon and River hang on to the outside of Serenity, Simon terrified and miserable, River gazing in rapt wonder at the billions of stars, is really quite lovely. And the flashlit shot in which Mal and Zoe discover the eviscerated passengers hanging like slabs of beef in the hold is one of the more disturbing images I’ve seen in a TV show over the past few years.
Then the survivor turns up, and this part of the plot, unfortunately, goes to hash. I never found myself buying the central premise: that simply having witnessed the horrors carried out by the reavers would somehow push him into becoming one himself. It seems pretty clear that his main plot function is to provide a justification for the Alliance officer eventually letting Mal and his crew go. Even then, the officer suddenly developing a conscience, after demonstrating repeatedly that he doesn’t appear to have one, doesn’t ring all that true either.
Still, not particularly bad. I’ll keep watching.