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Psychic Definitions - What is a Reader?

First aired: The Signal: Season 7, Episode 12
Written by Craig Kurumada
Read by Craig Kurumada
Edited by Kara Helgren

Psychic Definitions: What is a Reader?

As a follower of science fiction and fantasy, I have often fallen into the various debates of plots involving supernatural events, undiscovered science and trying to find the logic which governs how these alternative universes run. It leads to picking apart stories, finding flaws in the writer's work or, even better, seeing where a really good writer stays consistent and believable. Good stories give us the conditions under which super powers function and what their limitations are. Superman can do all his super deeds, except when there's Kryptonite around. Star Trek transporters can't work through shields, well, usually anyway. Vampires are super strong, but can't be exposed to daylight (unless they're living in Bristol and move to Wales.) All of these rules are necessary so we don't just chalk it up to "magic" and not care what the limitations are. I'm afraid I'm one of those guys who says out loud, "Hey! How come Spike can smoke a cigarette, but Angel doesn't have breath to give a drowned Buffy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?"

It was this kind of "how does it work?" question which led me to speculating about River's condition.

So should we really make a difference between someone who can predict the future or someone who can read minds? To me, there is a huge difference in the "logic" of these abilities. Reading minds seems much easier to believe for me. It would simply be an enhanced form of communication between sentient beings. In the same way, in the so-called normal world, some non-amygdala-ravaged people can pick up on unspoken communication, body language and mood. My wife is one of those. She can walk into a party and immediately know who is interested in whom, even across the room.

Seeing the future, however, requires a lot more investment regarding belief in supernatural abilities, a bit of time travel and astral projection thrown together. It's harder for me to believe that it could be induced by any amount of brain surgery.

In the Firefly 'Verse, River's brain has been conditioned to be ultra-sensitive to all things around her.

INSERT CLIP [ARIEL]: Simon: "She feels everything. She can't not."

So, I suspect the Alliance's work on River created a person super-sensitive and even able to read current thoughts. Mal even says so himself:

INSERT CLIP [BDM]: MAL: "She reads the way of things. Sees trouble before it comes, which is of use to me."

But, "seeing trouble before it comes" could just be knowing what someone is thinking before they act, as is demonstrated by River's letting Zoe know who's planning to draw a gun on them.

Every scene where River demonstrates her psychic abilities requires that there be a mind present to read. From Ruby and the Patron on Jiangyin, Jayne and the Blue Hands on "Ariel" to the poor settlers on Lilac being attacked by Reavers and, of course, the key members of Parliament all were able to think about their history, secrets and, ultimately, crimes.

INSERT CLIP:[Bushwacked] RIVER: "No, can't sleep. Too much screaming." SIMON: "River. There is no screaming." RIVER: "There was."

So, River can hear the screams of the victims of the cargo ship, but this could be explained by the lone survivor who held those memories in his mind.

Running contrary to this theory that she only reads minds; however, are some seldom seen, but nevertheless present moments where River understands what will happen in the future.

In Ariel, as she, Simon and Jayne are making their way through the treatment room in the hospital:

Insert clip [ARIEL]: SIMON: "No one here is going to die." RIVER: "He is."

I suppose one could argue that some technician or even the incompetent doctor was thinking that the patient was doomed and, thus, had the idea for River to pick up.

But, there is one scene which always gives me pause about River as just a "mind-reader" and not someone who can read the future. This is from "Out of Gas".


All the crew are in the dining area. No one could see the fire approaching or mentions it. But, River knows about it before it reaches the crew.

My favorite conclusion from this is that, in this moment, she's not predicting the future, but that River IS only a mind-reader. So whose mind is she reading? Why, Serenity's, of course. Our tenth character. Serenity knows about the fire on its way through the ship, and River senses it.

Steve's previous article about Serenity's "voice", the crew's love and personification of the ship and the bonus feature in the DVD box set all speak of Serenity as a part of the cast and crew. So, when River says, "Fire", is she being prescient or is she simply reading Serenity's mind?

I prefer the latter interpretation. Let us know if you think otherwise.

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