In 2003, the episode won the award for "Best visual effects in a television series" from Visual Effects Society, and was nominated for a Hugo Award in 2003 for "Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form".
Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres) are survivors of their rebel unit in the Battle of Serenity Valley during the Unification War, in which their side lost. They are now eking out an existence on the edges of space in their Firefly-class spaceship Serenity, taking odd jobs even if they involve petty crime. They take on passengers to supplement their income, but one has a secret that makes their lives more difficult.
Several other crew members are introduced at this point: Wash (Alan Tudyk) the pilot, Kaylee (Jewel Staite) the engineer, and Inara (Morena Baccarin), a "Companion" who docks with Serenity at Persephone, where the crew intends to deliver the goods before moving on to Boros.
On Persephone, the crew attempts to close their deal with the employer for the heist, Badger (Mark Sheppard), but word of their encounter with the Alliance, and the fact that the goods are government-stamped, makes Badger unwilling to close the deal. Meanwhile, to supplement their income, they take on passengers, which adds to the tension, since now their passengers will be sitting on top of a quantity of government-stamped, illegal salvage goods.
Their new passengers are a preacher named Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), Dobson (Carlos Jacott), and a wealthy doctor named Simon Tam (Sean Maher). Having decided to try their luck with an old adversary, Patience, to sell their goods, they change their flight plan and head for Whitefall, telling the passengers they need to detour to the moon to drop off Alliance medical supplies. En route, however, Wash discovers that someone on board sent a message to an Alliance cruiser, which he managed to scramble in transmission. Suspecting the wealthy doctor Simon is the mole, Mal confronts him only to discover that Dobson is the "Fed" and that the object of his pursuit is Simon, not Mal and the stolen cargo. In Dobson's attempt to arrest Simon, he shoots Kaylee in the stomach before being overpowered by Book. An Alliance cruiser then hails them and Simon threatens not to treat Kaylee if Mal does not flee. Torn between the threat of capture and Kaylee's safety, Mal reluctantly agrees.
Curious as to why the Alliance wants Simon, Mal goes to the cargo bay, opens Simon's crate, and finds a young nude woman inside in a cryonic sleep. It is revealed to be River Tam (Summer Glau), Simon's sister. Simon explains that she was born with a gifted intellect in diverse fields and that at the age of fourteen she was sent to an Alliance-funded academy where she was subjected to some unspecified experiments on her brain. Simon rescued her from the Alliance and is on the run trying to protect her from them. Mal decides to leave them at Whitefall. Inara threatens that if he expels Simon and River from the ship, she'll leave too. Mal decides to proceed to Whitefall as planned, dropping off both the goods and the Tam siblings.
Soon after, they discover that a Reaver ship is approaching. It is explained that if boarded, everyone on Serenity will be raped to death, eaten, and have their skin sewn into the Reavers' clothing (in that order, hopefully). Luckily, the Reaver ship passes by.
Mal tells Jayne to interrogate Dobson and find out what he told the Alliance about them. Once Jayne finds out that the Alliance knows nothing, Dobson attempts to bribe him.
Serenity lands on Whitefall and Mal, Zoe, and Jayne walk out into a valley to meet Patience and her henchmen. Mal gives Patience a sample of the cargo, which turns out to be nutritional/immunization bars, each one of which can feed an entire family for a month. Patience attempts to renege on the deal, but Mal and Zoe, with the help of Jayne taking a sniper position, dispatch Patience and her gang, taking the money they were promised. Jayne then joins the others, having been contacted by Wash with bad news: the Reavers followed them to Whitefall.
Meanwhile back on the ship Dobson escapes, knocking out Book and grabbing River. Simon attacks Dobson and tries to stop him leaving with River, when Mal arrives and shoots Dobson. Mal and Jayne dump him off the ship as they prepare to leave, the Reavers on their tail. Mal orders the passengers to Inara's shuttle as Jayne carries the still-convalescing Kaylee to the engine room. With Jayne carrying out Kaylee's instructions and Wash's flying, Serenity escapes.
Book goes to Inara and, in essence, confesses that he's terribly lost and might be on the wrong ship. Inara thinks he just might be exactly where he ought to be.
On the bridge, Jayne tells Mal that River's in danger and that Dobson had told him the Alliance will keep after her. Mal asks if Dobson tried to bribe him, to which Jayne lets him know it wasn't enough of a bribe, and that it'll be an interesting day if the bribe is ever big enough. Jayne leaves as Simon enters. Mal suggests to Simon that he and River might be safer on the move than hiding in one place, and points out that Serenity is always moving, and in need of a medic. Simon accepts his offer.
Despite the script stating that Dobson is killed by Mal, Joss Whedon had planned to bring the character back. Although the series was cancelled, Dobson coming back for revenge was a key part of the plot in Serenity: Those Left Behind, a three-issue comic book miniseries intended to bridge the television series and the movie Serenity.
Another theme is the fusion of Asian and frontier culture. As Brett Matthews said, you couldn't ask for a better mission statement for the show than the shot of Mal with a Western tin cup and chopsticks. He then contrasts this to the tall, vertical Alliance cruiser that detects them, as he wanted to show how inefficient the Alliance government was.
He also wanted to show a lifestyle that was very tactile and physical, and contrast it to the lifestyle of the contemporary audience where things "fall in your lap".
Also, at the time they were shooting this, Rebecca Gayheart was playing the role of Inara Serra, but Whedon knew that it was not going to work out and so shot scenes with her interacting with the crew in singles, so that the only part that would have to be reshot would be the shots of Inara.
After the Reavers are introduced, the screen goes to near black before cutting to commercials. Whedon wanted to give the audience time to "breathe" before being hit with commercials, but a true black would automatically cue the ads. Instead, he went with a color that was as close to black as he could go without causing this.
The logo of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation from the Alien series can be seen at the top of the interface screen on the anti-aircraft gun during the battle sequence at the beginning of the episode. (Joss Whedon wrote the script for the fourth movie in the Alien series.)
As part of the effort to have props serve as meaning, the Chinese character for "Short Interval" is visible on an hourglass in Inara's shuttle when she is with her client during the character's introduction.
When Inara docks her shuttle with Serenity, a Lambda-class Imperial Shuttle can be seen taking off in the background.