Tuesday, December 29, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Expanse' - The Donnager Engages in Battle with a Mysterious New Enemy in 'CQB'

Syfy's The Expanse - Episode 1.04 "CQB"

Holden and crew are caught in the middle of a desperate battle as mysterious war ships attack and board the Donnager. As Miller pursues the Julie Mao investigation, his partner has gone missing.

Space action is a very exciting genre for television. There have been bits and pieces of it in The Expanse throughout its first three episodes. But it takes much more of the focus in the fourth episode, "CQB." The need to spend so much time on the battle between the Donnager and the unknown target is thrilling. The other two main stories know that they don't need to take too much time away from that story. The Holden part of the show's narrative has always been the most gripping story. It's a story filled with action that defines the characters - even though the remainder of his crew are still broad archetypes. The stuff with Avasarala down on Earth is simply showing how that civilization is reacting to everything else playing out in space. Meanwhile, the plot with Miller is largely world-building and nothing more. It's a chance to showcase various aspects of this society in the belt without really establishing why it's important for the audience to know about it. The main mystery is a great narrative drive for the show as it pertains to the Holden story. Answers are slowly being teased. It is very apparent that the show is purposefully keeping the identity of this new war hungry power a secret. But that also adds a nice layer of intrigue to the proceedings as well.

The hour picks up immediately following the conclusion of last week's episode with Holden needing to make a decision regarding his new statement that will be released throughout the galaxy. He isn't able to record a new statement clarifying that Mars had nothing to do with the destruction of the Canterbury though. Instead, it was this new player that has once again arrived to do harm to a space vessel. It was established in a previous episode that the Donnager was the head ship in the Mars space fleet. Destroying it establishes just how powerful and dangerous this new entity really is. So, that makes it a bit confounding that the show wants to keep this entity in the dark for so much of the proceedings. Yes, telling things from the point-of-views of Holden, his crew and the soldiers aboard the Donnager establishes the severity of the situation for the main characters. But this is a show that is very conscious of how these actions will play out across the entire universe. This action will have vast consequences on Ceres, Earth and Mars. So there needed to be more than just a cryptic tease with the brief appearance of Chad L. Coleman as a leader of the OPA who is keenly aware of the situation happening with the Donnager - when he's not too busy building a major space vessel for the Mormons.

However, it's still thrilling to watch as the destruction of the Donnager takes place. The Captain looks at this threat as a very minor thing at first. Simply something that should be monitored but not enough to cause concern. When in fact, it was the very thing that led her to initiate the self-destruct protocol. It is meaningful in knowing that this is the same ship as the one that destroyed the Canterbury. This organization clearly has an agenda. It's just one that Holden and his crew have gotten caught up in. It could be seen as incredulous for all five of them to be the sole survivors of the destruction of two space ships. That's basically the only reason why the doctor is killed off in especially brutal fashion. And yet, that moment solely played as a sensational beat. Something to establish tension at that part of the ship when it seemed pretty obvious that the other three would make it out of this situation alive - simply because they are series regulars. It wasn't completely necessary. But they also needed to play a part in this story as well. There needed to be something to delay Holden getting to the escape ship to make sure this story is told correctly in the outside world. It's just a tad too complicated and based in relationships that haven't really been established. And yet, this crew has fought to survive. That has bonded them in a strong way. There's not a lot of individuality to it. But it is meaningful that most of them survive to live another day - though the evil organization knows that at least one ship made it off the Donnager.

The main story works so well because the tension is just so immediately palpable and easy to understand. It derives stakes in believable ways. These people need to do whatever they need to do in order to survive. It's a kind of urgency that is missing in the rest of the narrative. Sure, the stuff happening on the Donnager doesn't work in its entirety. The officer judging Holden simply for being from Earth and talking on and on about how the Martians are vastly superior people wasn't that great. It's pointing out how all of these societies are different after generations removed from one another. It's conflict simply to create conflict. That way it's more meaningful when the team needs to work together in order to get to the escape ship. Meanwhile, Avasarala has to be content with the fact that there is nothing that Earth can do in this situation - because all of their ships won't make it there in time. However, the stuff happening on Ceres continues to be awful in a way that is only getting more troubling.

Who cares about Miller's partner? Miller certainly doesn't. He has been a much more committed and insightful detective when he's doing the job alone. That's the basis for his story. His investigation into Julie's disappearance is something he's determined to work alone on. There simply was no place for his partner. That made it rather lackluster when he was killed off at the conclusion of the previous episode. It established just how lethal the threat from the OPA was without needing to take an important character out of the narrative. Miller doesn't notice his partner's absence at all in this episode. In fact, he gets a far superior one in the female officer who is actually able to help him with his new corpse. But then, the show treats it as a huge twist that his partner really isn't dead at all. He's just still clinging to life with that pole stuck through him. It's an even more lackluster twist because it's delaying the fate of a really bland and unnecessary character. His death serves purpose in creating tension and stakes. His fate being left in limbo simply elongates this story to the point where none of it can be taken all that seriously. That's a problem - especially once the various stories start to come together. 

Some more thoughts:
  • "CQB" was written by Naren Shankar and directed by Jeff Woolnough.
  • The Mormons were treated as a joke in an earlier episode. And now, they are being treated as a serious plot beat. That erratic nature keeps that story from truly taking off and being just as intimidating as it wants to be.
  • The only reason to care about the Chad L. Coleman character is because he's playing the role. That introduction is so brief and cryptic. The show is just trusting its audience to understand what all of it means.
  • The Miller story also had another major stalling technique in the scrambling of identities on his victim who may be connected to Julie. It was just a bad story all around. Fortunately, it was such a small part of the episode.
  • There wasn't much to the Avasarala corner of the world in this episode. But it was amusing to see how all of this action in space looks from Earth.
  • It's not that surprising that the doctor was killed given Paulo Costanzo's commitments to USA's Royal Pains. And yet, that death sequence was weirdly directed. It was difficult to understand what just happened and who was just killed. I needed to watch it twice just in order to figure it out. Though it did have a cool effect with the blood floating out into space.