Monday, December 14, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Expanse' - Miller Gets a New Case While the Canterbury Responds to a Distress Signal in 'Dulcinea'

Syfy's The Expanse - Episode 1.01 "Dulcinea"

In the asteroid belt near Saturn, James Holden and the crew of the ice-freighter Canterbury investigate a distress call from a mysterious derelict ship, the Scopuli. On Ceres Station, Detective Miller begins an off the book investigation of a missing heiress, Julie Mao.

The Expanse is really kinda dense in its first episode, "Dulcinea." As a story that is set 200 years in the future, it's easy to understand because the episode needs to show how evolved society has become while also getting into the nuances of the newfound problems. There is an interesting discussion about class and representation throughout this first episode as the people from Earth, Mars and the Asteroid Belt are largely divided. It's intriguing that even in the future, society is still heavily discriminatory. People make quick judgments based on where someone came from. That's a crucial element of the story and the dynamics between the three civilizations. Most of the story takes place in the belt. The hour has a lot of plot to get through. So none of the characters or their stories pop all that much. That's problematic because this type of space adventure is so much more enjoyable when it features characters who are actually multi-dimensional and fun to watch.

The hour starts with Julie Mao fighting her way out of an abandoned spaceship. It's a nice tease for the tension that will run throughout the remaining hour. What happened on this ship is crucial to the mystery of the show right now. Detective Miller is brought onto the case of this missing woman who turns out to be an heiress to one of the richest families on Earth. Meanwhile, Jim Holden assembles a team to actually board this ship once they receive a distress signal. That mission is met with trouble once an unknown ship closes in on them. It establishes the importance of this abandoned ship with Julie. And yet, Jim and his crew don't uncover anything of vast importance - just a way that could explain how they got a signal despite all the equipment being powered down.

The hour does build to a couple of really engaging moments. Space travel has the ability to look cool on television. The Expanse does a fantastic job in showing how these various space vessels are able to move around. Some do so more easily than others. Miller's world is literally attached to an astroid that provides water to the rest of the system. The ship carrying Jim and the rest of his crew is this massive freighter. Jim is approached about being the ship's new XO after the previous one finally drinks himself out of the job. That literally happens. It's a strange use of Jonathan Banks. I guess he just needed some money for a role that has basically one scene of drunkenly ranting about the lack of light in space and then crying. It's very weird. But it does establish that Jim is a man with purpose. One that isn't directly tied to this ship despite the opportunity it provides both professionally and personally - considering he's in a relationship with the ship's navigator. But all of that is rather meaningless because the premiere closes on the sight of that ship being destroyed by nuclear torpedoes from a ship that apparently has stealth capabilities. That's a thrilling sequence. But it's not a huge loss for the show. Those characters really weren't that important. Sure, Jim's girlfriend dies so that means no more anti-gravity sex scenes for him for a little bit. But every character of importance from that ship was on the mission to the abandoned ship from the distress signal.

This twist does set up an intriguing mystery for the show considering just how tense things are between the three civilizations of humanity. The words that set up this world at the start of the hour say that anything could ignite a war between these three systems. The complete destruction of an important freighter could do just the trick. However, the various pieces of the show have to come together in a more meaningful way to make such a conflict interesting. Avasarala is an important person down an Earth. She's the one in control of an interrogation of a belter who wishes Earth harm for their mistreatment of people in the asteroid belt. She seems to be aware of the threat of this new stealth technology. But that's such a small tease in this premiere. It comes into action at the very end given the twist with Jim's crew. It connects the stories in an obvious way. But it's also done in a very plot moving way as well.

And then, there is everything happening back at the Ceres station with Miller's investigation of Julie's disappearance. He doesn't make much progress and the work that he actually does is incredibly cliche. Just by taking the boring aspects of a police procedural into a space environment doesn't make it any less boring. Miller is suppose to be this show's version of a man who is willing to break a few rules if it means doing some good - both personally and to the entire station. His minor story about taking money from a man in exchange for not inspecting his air lock cleaning work is really dreadful. It does not have the same amount of intrigue and tension as the episode concluding explosion of the freighter. Those two story beats happen at the same time and it's so disproportional. One is exciting and thrilling. It intrigues the audience to learn more. The other just gives Miller something to do that is also big and intense. It just doesn't work all.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Dulcinea" was written by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and directed by Terry McDonough.
  • Okay, what's going on with Thomas Jane's hair? It just makes no sense other than saying that may be a style in the future. It's just not all that flattering.
  • No one on Jim's crew has much of a personality at all. The people who died had more time devoted to meaningful characteristics than the people who actually lived. There's the one who knows Jim's secret and another who is the doctor of sorts. But that's about it. The others leave no mark at all.
  • It's interesting to see how the show approaches generations being born in low gravity environments and how that effects the body. Those physical changes make for some great effects but don't really push the story forward.
  • Miller's partner is already annoying because he's new to the job and needs to be told everything about how these detectives work. Plus, him questioning everything gets expositional very quickly.