The Expanse makes no effort to hide what it is. This is not a show that distracts its audience with great jokes (though there are a couple) or simplistic story-hooks. We open with a woman in zero gravity, floating through a seemingly empty freighter; things go badly for her, but we don’t know quite how badly just yet. The pilot follows three distinct storylines, and while those storylines have connections, they remain resolutely separate from beginning to end, with little concession made to the typical demands of TV narrative. “We’re doing science-fiction here,” this pilot communicates, “with world-building and complex political intrigue, and if you aren’t into that, well, maybe you should try something else.”
We’ll see how effectively that works as a marketing strategy (the show’s online presence and the decision to release the first episode before it officially aired at least ensured that people would know something was happening), but as a TV show, it’s refreshing to watch a series that so clearly knows what it’s trying to do, even if the results of its efforts aren’t entirely evident. For good and for bad, “Dulcinea” goes about its business without spending much time getting us up to speed. Oh sure, there’s an opening text crawl to explain the basics, and Miller’s (Thomas Jane) partner gets some quick lessons in how to navigate the undercurrents of Ceres Station, but hand-holding is still gratifyingly light. You get it or you don’t, and if this particular vibe doesn’t click with you, little effort is made until the very end to pull you in.
It works for me. The show’s universe is interesting enough to make it worth watching the threads dangle for a few episodes at least. The setting: it’s the 23rd century, we’ve conquered the solar system, and Mars is now an “independent military power.” Earth is controlled by the U.N., and materials mined from asteroids are in high demand—which means there are miners, called “Belters,” who risk their lives to keep the rich in comfort, even as they themselves choke on shitty air filters. So, we have two powerful warring factions, and we have the proletariat who labors beneath them, and everybody’s just a few sparks away from a really good KA-BOOM.
Enter Juliette Mao; or rather, exit Ms. Mao, whose “disappearance” is the low-key focus of Detective Miller’s storyline. Miller is a familiar archetype—the down-on-his-heels police detective who’s more than a little corrupt, but also has your basic heart of gold thing going on, which means he’s likable without being a stick-in-the-mud. Jane is clearly having fun in the role, and the episode allows him to play both a rogue and a hero. It even gives him a mini-arc, as he first takes a bribe from a shifty air-filter dealer, and then threatens the guy when his filters break, endangering the lives of children (among others). He’s a drunk and a wash-out, and his boss has assigned him to find Julie and deliver her to her rich parents. Which means he might find a spine at some point, should the need arise.
Does this sound familiar? It should. There’s plenty of room for development, but at this point, all the major characters fall along recognizable patterns. Miller’s the bit-of-a-bastard; Holden (Steven Strait), the ship’s officer who follows his conscience (much to his regret), is the underachiever who could be pushed to greatness; even Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a kindly grandmother who is also a ruthless interrogator of “terrorists” for the U.N., isn’t completely new. This is not a show which at first blush is heavily invested in character, or least in delving deep into complex, ambiguous human beings. That complexity may come, but what’s most immediately striking is the thoroughness of the worlds these characters inhabit. Miller, Avasarala, and Holden are essentially tools to help us connect to three distinct places. At best, those places will reveal new aspects of who these people (and the people around them) are; at worst, they’ll simply fade into the background.
But still: it’s one hell of a background. The show is gorgeous from the start, with all those fun touches (gravity boats! Pieces of glass with moving images! Jonathan Banks!) that makes great science fiction such a pleasure to get lost in. Nothing here is entirely new, each location a hodge-podge of elements borrowed (or stolen) from other sources, but thievery is a key tradition of genre. Besides, each location finds a new twist on an old idea, like Ceres’s fake blue sky, or the brutal cost of high speed space travel aboard the Canterbury. Belters, who live their lives in artificial gravity environments, suffer from bone density problems—it’s a concept mentioned while Miller is showing a younger partner the ropes, and it comes back with a vengeance later on when we learn the U.N. uses Earth’s higher gravity to torture accused Belter criminals.
This is smart, thorough stuff, and that thoroughness helps to convince even when the immediate story concerns are more about setting things up than tearing them down. Apart from the cold open, which has Julie discovering something horrible happening on-board the Scorpuli, the only plot with any real urgency in “Dulcinea” is Holden’s quick rise to temporary executive officer, and his misguided decision to respond to a distress signal—the signal is coming from the Scorpuli, which briefly suggests that the cold open, Holden, and Miller’s storyline are about to come closer together—but the freighter is empty. The signal, it turns out, was a trap set by a Martian vessel with cloaking technology, and in the ensuing chaos, the Martians destroy the Canterbury, leaving Holden and a handful of crew aboard the rescue ship.
It’s this final sequence that’s meant to hook viewers once and for all, and it works well, challenging our expectations several times over. Holden’s decision to log the distress signal, thus forcing the ship to investigate, makes him look temporarily heroic, albeit in a way that pushes the potential blame onto the ship’s navigator, who had complained bitterly over the captain’s initial decision and who also happens to be Holden’s lover. Because we’re in the audience, we know a little more about what went down on the Scorpuli, so we’re pushing for the Cantebury to make contact. While it’s possible that Julie is still alive (and maybe even with the Martians), what matters now is that one of the show’s apparent leads just got punished for short sightedly doing the “right” thing.
So this isn’t going to be a warm and fuzzy series, then. That’s fine; hard choices on spaceships is one of my favorite genres. If I have a criticism, it’s that the ending doesn’t do as great a job as I would’ve liked bringing everything that came before it together. That’s a tall order to expect of any hour of television, and the fact that it comes up here should reflect on how much I enjoyed this first episode. It’s good stuff, and should give us plenty to talk about in the weeks ahead. The fact that two of the three major story threads exist mostly as a “no, seriously, this will be important later” placeholder is a let down, but there’s enough earned here, between the environment, the threat of war looming over everything, and Holden’s story, to make it worth the risk of investment.
- So what the hell was that thing in the Scorpuli? The engine going haywire? Some kind of bomb? An alien life form? It’s a little frustrating that the visit to the freighter late in the episode doesn’t give us any more information, but I’m sure it will come up again soon.
- “What’s the deal with the hat?” “Keeps the rain off my head.”
- Another great example of subtle world-building: one of the Cantebury’s men loses an arm, and we get to hear about all the options he has for replacing it, like it’s just not that big a deal at all anymore.
- Great cameo from Jonathan Banks as the executive officer Holden ends up replacing. He’s space crazy! (I briefly hoped that we’d see Banks again at some point, but since he was on the Cantebury when the ship was nuked, I’m thinking probably not.)
- “I say we move on, let the good god Darwin sort it out.”
- Not only is Holden indirectly responsible for the death of most of his crew, there’s a woman, Naomi (Dominique Tipper) left on the rescue ship who knows what he did, which should be fun.
- See you tomorrow!