Not having read the novels that The Expanse is based on, the pilot feels a little like the subplot of Total Recall (1990). Where “Cohaagen” (played with suitable smarmy menace by Ronny Cox) punishes the local Mars denizens by shutting off their air. In this new SyFy space drama, the cosmos is dirty and full of bias. Extreme opposites mark the opening episode.
The “subway” system on Ceres, where the series begins more or less, is loud, like real subways, or the tube in England, and compared with the relative calm and low level decibel emissions on the surface, is too loud. The show’s main protagonists are, thus far, Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) a “Belter” cop, Holden (Steven Strait) acting XO on an ice freighter.
There are other characters in and around the periphery and the most important of these is Julie Mao, played by Florence Faivre, who we see at the very start of the premiere episode. This young woman, first encountered in a locked room which she has to escape from, is the motivator of this story. Detective Miller is assigned the job of locating and returning the rich girl to her home.
The Expanse follows recent popular ideas of what space in the future will actually be, an uneasy alliance of miners, companies and a certain hostility between same. In this instance, Mars, Earth and the “belt” are at odds and the currency is powered by air and water; precious commodities in the future. There are also other nods to existing science fiction themes and films.
The splendid character actor Jonathan Banks has a minuscule cameo in the pilot as the stressed out XO who suffers a breakdown. In the scene where Holden has to break into the executive officer’s room, Banks’ character is treading barefoot in dirt; from his plants, and softly singing “Daisy, Daisy.” (The character is also muttering other things, not least of which is the oft seen “why did we not bring more light” from teaser trailers.) This singing of “Daisy” is a clear nod and wink to the Stanley Kubrick film A 2001 Space Odyssey and HAL’s singing of Bicycle Built for Two.
*Sidenote* It has to be pointed out that only Banks could so solidly steal an entire episode from the rest of the cast with his killer breakdown.
In this future world of mankind’s move to the stars, people who are born and live in space, i.e. the Belters, suffer from birth defects because of the minimal oxygen levels and dirty air, along with the lower gravity and smaller G forces. Michael Jane’s character has “spurs” at the top of his spine where the bones did not knit properly.
Later in the opening episode a Belter is taken to Earth for questioning. The too skinny prisoner is held up against a wall. The suspect is in agony as his lungs and body cannot cope with the crushing gravitation forces that are killing him.
The Expanse may spotlight a future that is dirty and full of biases based upon which world one is born on, but it is, thus far, an intelligent mystery. Unlike other futuristic settings in space, there are no aliens, unless one counts that large bulging mass that envelops an unidentified crew member while Julie Mao screams in horror.
In some ways, the Julie Mao character feels like a McGuffin, or at the very least like the female character of Laura Palmer in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Time will tell whether this new offering really is a space age “TP” or not…
This hungry “mass” could well be a ball of energy or some space anomaly, there is no real indication that aliens are part of this verse. Once again, not having read the novels that the series is based on, any observations are from this version of James S. A. Corey’s world (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck).
Clever nods and winks to other science fiction works aside, this world appears bleak and life is, apparently, cheap and very disposable. This is pointed out when the ship that Holden is on received Julie Mao’s SOS. The crew on the bridge, consisting of the ship’s captain and the new XO all vote to ignore the distress beacon and erase it from the freighter’s logs. All done in a matter of seconds.
Only later does Holden rethink what he has done and recovers the erased log entry forcing the ship to answer the beacon.
Viewers expecting a fast-paced, action-packed space opera will be disappointed. The Expanse is moving slowly forward taking its time introducing the players and the plot. The series premiere, which can be seen now via the Internet with VoD and on SyFy’s site, will debut properly Monday, December 14.
This looks pretty impressive, if not a bit slow, tune in and see what you think.