Syfy’s newest voyage into space, The Expanse, outlines a new take on our solar system, one divided and on the brink of war. As tensions escalate among the colonies of Earth, Mars, and the Belt, the scope of The Expanse teases the possibilities of space, political, and detective drama, but it is the sheer, well, expanse of encompassing all of that in one series that could threaten to undermine The Expanse’s most compelling aspects.
In the 23rd century, the United Nations has taken a galactic approach to its control, though strife between Earth and Mars threatens the balance of life in The Expanse. And then there are those in the Belt, miners and other workers dealing in valuable cargo, risking their lives in a segment of the world where water and air are as precious as the commodities they’re handling.
“Dulcinea,” the first episode of The Expanse’s season, traverses the drama of the system through three distinct stories — Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) on the hunt for a missing person on the UN Ceres Station, Jim Holden (Steve Strait), the “acting” executive officer on the ice freighter Canterbury, and the work of U.N. undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo).
Holden and the Canterbury’s crew is given the most impactful screen time during the premiere, including what feels like the series’ sole piece of marketing: the floating sex scene. (Thankfully it comes early in the episode and allows the rest of the crew’s story to stand on its own, rather than being a showpiece for the show’s otherwise impressive visuals.) Holden is engaged in a relationship with another crewmember, but their love is a finite one, in more ways than they know.
The Canterbury receives a distress call reaching out from the Scopuli station, which their captain, not wanting to miss out on the bonuses for the cargo they’re hauling, decides to have deleted and ignored. But Holden can’t quite shake the worry of what the message may indicate, and so he recovers it and forces the ship’s hand in having to chase after it.
He hears a woman’s cry for help transmitted deep within the message — that woman is presumably Juliette Mao (Florence Faivre), who opens the premiere finding herself alone on Scopuli. She also happens to be the person Detective Miller is searching for on Ceres off the books, as she’s the daughter of wealthy shippers who use Ceres.
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Holden and his crew don’t know that, of course, and so, much to the disappointment of his captain, Holden takes a crew to investigate the distress beacon. Among that crew is Naomi (Dominique Tipper), Alex (Cas Anvar), and Shed (Paulo Costanzo), but not Holden’s zero-G lover Ade (Kristen Hager). They come away empty-handed, save for a transmitter set on Scopuli, but they have to scrap further investigation when a ship surprises their location. It sends torpedoes in their direction, but rather than aiming for the smaller mission crew, they head straight for Ceres, blowing up the ship, its cargo, and everyone on it. Included in that destruction is Ade, who has some secret to tell Holden, but just misses the opportunity.
And though the Canterbury crew does not find Juliette, Miller is still on the hunt on Ceres, where tensions between Belters and Earthers — a few of the rare examples where the show uses its own jargon for otherwise obvious ideas — run through the streets of the station. Miller has made several names for himself, viewed by some as a traitor and by others as a protector of the downtrodden.
Where the Canterbury crew’s scenes hint at the space operatic ambitions The Expanse has, Miller’s story offers the opportunity for a more grounded thread to follow; Thomas Jane anchors the noirish role with his enigmatic yet confident tendencies for Miller.
And Jane isn’t the only recognizable actor to pop up in The Expanse. The first episode is a continual game of “Oh, I know that face,” as character actors from Jonathan Banks to Julian Richings make all-too-brief appearances. It’s a shame such great actors can’t take more of a central role, but Jane holds his own, while Strait, who is not as immediately fascinating to watch, is aided by the group dynamic of the segmented Canterbury crew.
The most underutilized aspect of the series is what surely could become its most important one in time, as Chrisjen’s plot follows the U.N. underambassador from her home to the interrogation of an OPA agent, stemming from the group of Belters dissatisfied with their treatment. The overarching understanding of The Expanse’s world is left surprisingly thin in the premiere, Chrisjen’s brief appearances offering the scant glimpses of Earth and the U.N.’s place in the interplanetary struggle.
With that overriding tension being so underdeveloped in the initial outing, it’s tough to say how the macro view of the solar system will jibe with the micro-examples of life in this fractured society. The promise of viewing political and societal tensions through this lens will have to take a much more central role for The Expanse to set itself apart and give more heft to the various scattered plot.
The premiere is bogged down by the sheer amount of table setting required with so many story lines while also trying to begin tying them together. The inherent philosophical issues of the world, which could make for fascinating societal and character studies in the episodes to come, take a backseat to introductions and spectacle — and the world does certainly feel a cut above when it comes to constructing believable sets and CGI space stations on a cable network budget.
But with the foundation laid, The Expanse needs to find the time to explore those thematic issues, the classist struggles, the scarcity of precious resources, and more, in more sharply defined detail with the episodes to follow. There’s promise in the mines of the Belt, the familiar yet new landscape of Earth, and everywhere in between, but Syfy’s latest will need to find more engaging means of exploiting that scale before it loses its way in the expanse of space.
The Expanse airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on Syfy.