"Why were the Independents even fighting us? Why wouldn't they look to be more civilized?" History is written by the victors. Another child speaks, only to be interrupted: "I hear they're cannibals." "That's only Reavers!" The children fight over whether Reavers exist -- it's a standard point that the Alliance planets have a vested interest in not believing in Reavers, and I always thought that was because of the chaos/control stuff, but as we'll see in this movie, it's a bit more involved than that. Same war, different battle. "Full well they are. I heard they attack settlers from space and kill them, and wear their skins, and rape them for hours and hours." Succinct, you creepy little kid. The teacher shouts in Mandarin, asking them to button it. "It's true that there are dangers on the outer planets..." Toward the back of the class, a cute but severely baggy-eyed little girl is doing amazing things with her desk, tapping it like a hummingbird, making it dance and bleep. "So with so many social and medical advancements we can bring to the Independents, why would they fight so hard against us?" And the spooky, funny little girl, genius River Tam, gives the child's answer, no less right for being blunt: "We meddle. People don't like to be meddled with. We tell them what to do, what to think. Don't run, don't walk. We're in their homes, and in their heads, and we haven't the right. We're meddlesome."
And the teacher gives the authority answer, no less wrong for being logical: "River, we're not telling people what to think, we're just trying to show them how." She leans in and stabs something deep into River's forehead. We jump-cut to an older River (Summer Glau, the River you know already), where she's being experimented upon in a cold, blue laboratory, needles in her brain, strapped in a chair. The world of you watching a movie has become the world of a history lesson, has become the world of a history class, which has become a nightmare. She screams. Dr. Mathias registers that she's in REM, "off the charts," and wants to "amp it up." He turns to a freakishly beautiful Alliance inspector, a guy named Simon we know from the show, who's holding a strange-looking device and looking at him intensely. Simon does everything intensely.
"See, most of our best work is done when they're asleep," the doctor explains to the guy. "We can monitor and direct their subconscious implant suggestions. It's a little startling to see at first, but results are spectacular. Especially in this case. River Tam is our star pupil." The man, whose name is Simon, has in fact heard that. The doctor refers to her suitability for "defense deployment, even with "the side effects." Yeah, the side effects are a bitch. "Tell me about them." She unstable, clearly, due to the "neural stripping" somehow fragmenting "their...reality matrix." This gobbledygook is basically manifested as "borderline" something. "What use do we have for a psychic if she's insane?" This Simon man is wearing a flattering uniform. "She's not just a psychic. Given the right trigger, this girl is a living weapon." She screams and moves, in the chair. He doesn't seem to notice. "She has her lucid periods. We're hoping to improve upon the...I'm sorry, sir, but I have to ask. Is there a reason for this inspection?" Simon, who is creepy on a good day, asks if he's making Mathias "nervous."