The Expanse Re-Watch – S1E01, Dulcinea

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Originally posted on my writing blog which was active from 2010 to 2018.

I started to write a blog post about The Expanse Season 3, Episode 7 (Delta-V). That episode seemed to be the beginning of a brand new story arc, perhaps the start of a new book in the source material. I didn’t particularly care for the episode, and I ended up ranting about all the things I didn’t like about The Expanse, especially in Season 3. I’m fully aware that others love this show and praise it endlessly, and most consider Season 3 to be the best one yet, while I’m over here struggling to find a single thing to hold onto and enjoy. I wondered what I was missing. Surely I must be missing something?

So I decided to re-watch the first season, which I remember liking but not necessarily loving. After that, I plan to re-watch the second season, which I remember liking more at first, then throwing my hands up in despair near the end of the season when I stopped watching completely. I’m hoping to learn from a second viewing where the show went wrong for me. The show is densely packed with information, so perhaps it simply requires a second viewing to understand it. (I see this as a flaw, but maybe I’ll learn something different.)

Then, maybe, I can go back and re-watch Season 3 again, and see it differently.

I started re-watching Season 1 on Saturday, May 26th, 2018, when I watched the first five episodes and made some notes. The next day I watched the next five episodes and made some more notes.

I know everyone will ask: No, I have not read any of the books. I own the first audiobook, and plan to listen to it eventually. But I am a firm believer in watching the television or movie adaptation before reading the book, if you have a choice about it. That way, you can enjoy both mediums. Reading the book first almost always results in a disappointing viewing experience of the visual adaptation, with incredibly rare exceptions (eg. Lord of the Rings). That’s my philosophy, anyway.

Summary

For this post, I’m going to summarize the plot. I quickly learned that’s a fool’s errand, and for the rest of my posts, I’ll lean on others to do that heavy lifting.

The first episode was written by Mark Ferbus and Hawk Ostby, and directed by Terry McDonough. Directing duties for the first season were split among four different directors, with McDonough helming the most at four. I didn’t remember it very fondly, to be honest.

The show begins with a credits sequence which, if I’m not mistaken, we don’t see again until episode 9. It’s quite good, though it is somewhat reminiscent of Game of Thrones. I love the music. I’m puzzled why they don’t use it more.

After the credits, we get a text prologue to explain the system-wide political state of The Solar System. This is an immediate disappointment.

I don’t like it when movies and television do this, as it strikes me as lazy, and I’m immediately put off. It feels like I have to do homework before I can even start to relax and enjoy the show. It’s the equivalent of starting a book with backstory and worldbuilding, instead of starting with a story.

Thankfully, that sin is quickly forgotten because we launch into a very atmospheric, beautiful, tense visual prologue showing a woman trapped in a space ship. We will come to know her as Julie Mao, but for now, we have no idea who she is, but I’m completely captivated by her dire situation. We seem to understand a lot about her from this brief screen time, even though she doesn’t say anything. She is smart and resourceful as she struggles to survive on the derelict ship, floating in zero-gravity without food or water. The scene ends when she arrives in the engine room, where a glowing blue “growth” covers everything, and a body jitters. She screams and we cut away.

Extreme close-up of Julie Mao trapped on a space ship.

It was one of the best scenes of the episode, and it set the stage for the whole season. Very well done.

But … after the prologue, I found the majority of the rest of the episode to be pretty flat. Granted, every story has to start somewhere, and this one starts out on Ceres Station in the Asteroid Belt with a lot of explanations about the political climate on the UN-controlled station, and a lot of background information about living in low-gravity. Intellectually, I found the backstory and worldbuilding interesting, but I felt no real connection with Miller, the first lead character we meet here. He appears to be a typical doesn’t-play-by-the-rules noir cop trying to show his new, fish-out-of-water rookie partner the ropes on the station. I don’t hate it, but it feels like a trope I’ve seen a million times before. Miller will become my favorite character on the show, but for now, I don’t see it.

The real story begins when Miller’s chief at “Star Helix” (a private security force, one assumes, hired by the UN) gives him a new assignment: Find a missing girl named Julie Mao. This is the woman from the prologue.

We cut away to the next major plotline, which consumes most of the rest of the episode, involving the space trawler Canterbury near Saturn, gathering ice. We will get to know The Expanse’s scene-switching techniques very well over the course of the show. The show tends to use captions to describe new settings to us, and if we happen to blink or miss the tiny text, we might be lost. I never get used to this, and I don’t care for it. I find it to be a crutch, to compensate for what wasn’t filmed due to lack of time, budget, or imagination. There isn’t much consistency in when they use the captions, either.

Here I will also mention that I don’t care for the show’s tendency to cut away from scenes just as they start to get interesting. I am largely letting all the exposition from Ceres Station wash over me, not really caring what’s going on or understanding why any of it is relevant to any kind of story, when Miller is given this assignment to find Julie Mao from the prologue. Suddenly my ears prick up and I lean forward thinking, “Ah ha, now we’re getting somewhere!” Then we cut away to something else entirely, never to return in this episode, and I sink back in disappointment.

Out in space, we meet Jim Holden on the Canterbury, arguably the person who will become the main character of the show if not completely in season 1, then certainly by the end of season 2. I’ll be honest, initially, I find him to be kind of a jerk. Or maybe childish is a better word. He looks like a college kid to me. He’s a lazy second officer, who has a chance to move up to the executive officer position, but doesn’t want it. He’s having an affair with the ship’s navigator Ade, and he seems to like her a lot more than she likes him (which is understandable to me, because see aforementioned comment regarding jerkness). He’d rather stay in the comfortable second officer position, with no real responsibilities, not making waves. He sure doesn’t seem like hero material to me.

I have to mention that we see Jonathan Banks (who played Mike in Breaking Bad) criminally underutilized in a very brief scene as an executive officer who goes a bit bonkers. I am stunned at how little screen time this fantastic actor gets, and assume he must have a larger role later, but he never returns.

We meet several other lead characters on the Canterbury here, but they have no special role in this episode. We’ll get to know them later.

Canterbury receives a distress call from a freighter identified as Scopuli. (Learning and familiarizing ourselves with the names of ships is another unique concept in The Expanse. Ship interiors all look basically the same, so we have to make sure we read the captions to confirm the setting.) Legally they must investigate, but the captain orders them to purge the logs of the distress call and ignore it, fearing pirates (and losing their “on-time bonus”). Later, Holden secretly un-purges the log and informs HQ about the distress call, forcing his captain to respond anyway.

It’s not at all clear to me why he does this, but upon reviewing the scene a few times, we can see that he finds another signal buried in the noise of the distress signal, and hears a weak voice saying, “please help me.” I assume we are meant to think that Holden feels bad for whoever is in trouble out there, but this is an assumption I have to make. Whatever is going on inside Holden’s head remains entirely hidden, and this is a problem that I will come back to quite often in the show. (Much later we will learn that this voice message is Julie Mao trying to broadcast a signal from inside her cell.)

Ironically, Holden himself is ordered to lead the team to investigate the Scopuli and they take a shuttle over, leaving the Canterbury behind. They find the Scopuli empty, and the distress beacon planted. It’s a trap! (The distress beacon sounds more like an owl than a distress beacon, by the way.)

Another, unknown ship appears out of nowhere (it had been using an unexplained “stealth technology”). Holden is ordered back to the Canterbury, but en route, the stealth ship fire torpedoes. The Canterbury is destroyed-nuked completely, valuable cargo and all-leaving Holden and his team stranded in the shuttle.

It is only at this moment, at the very end of the show, that I find my first personal connection with the character of Holden, who actually looks shocked and upset at what happened. My interest in the show is renewed. I haven’t cared much about what has been going on and I’ve lost interest since we left Julie Mao. But as Holden is en route on the shuttle, as the unknown ship’s torpedoes are on their way to the Canterbury, the tension and stakes ratchet up quickly. Holden contacts his girlfriend Ade back on the Canterbury. He assumes the unknown ship to be pirates, just trying to disable the Canterbury to take her cargo. Holden is afraid for her, and tries to tell Ade to stay calm. Ade tries to tell Holden something, then the torpedoes hit and completely destroy the Canterbury in a blinding flash. It’s a great scene, and hooks me into watching the second episode.

Holden’s stunned reaction at the destruction of the Canterbury.

There is a third brief storyline which takes place on Earth, showing United Nations official Chrisjen Avasarala interrogating an OPA (Outer Planet Alliance-a Belter organization) suspect (OPA is viewed as a terrorist organization by Earth) about stolen stealth technology. Chrisjen’s most notable characteristic is that she is played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, an actor who you may not know by name but would certainly recognize her very distinctive Iranian-American voice. We don’t precisely know what position Chrisjen has in the government, but it’s probably something in the intelligence field.

In future posts, I will be referencing some other recaps. Here’s what they have to say about this episode:

From Wikipedia: “The series opens with Julie Mao alone aboard a spaceship in a Scopuli suit. On the dwarf planet Ceres, Detective Miller is assigned to find Mao and return her to her rich parents on Luna. In New York, UN executive Chrisjen Avasarala interrogates a captured operative of the Outer Planets Alliance (OPA), a militant Belter group, about contraband stealth technology. On its way to Ceres, the ice hauler Canterbury receives a distress signal from the freighter Scopuli, and acting Executive Officer Jim Holden is ordered to lead a rescue mission with the ship’s engineer Naomi Nagata, the mechanic Amos Burton, the pilot Alex Kamal, and the medic Shed Garvey. They find the ship empty but for a distress transmitter, but as their shuttle heads back to the Canterbury, a stealth ship destroys the ice carrier with nuclear torpedoes.”

Syfy Episode Recap | Dulcinea

The Pilot for The Expanse Is a Tense Socio-Political Thriller Inside a Gritty Space Opera | Tor.com

Highlights

The visual effects were fantastic, and this will be a highlight in (nearly) every episode, so I won’t keep repeating myself. Julie Mao’s floating hair in the prologue, for example, was a great effect that sold me on the zero-gravity environment immediately. (Never to be repeated, unfortunately.)

I was intrigued by only two compelling scenes in the first episode of The Expanse: Julie Mao’s prologue is fantastic, and so is the torpedoing of the Canterbury in the final sequence. Everything in between felt like plain old, formulaic backstory and exposition to me. Necessary to set the stage for the rest of the series, perhaps, but still, flat and not very dramatic. Most of the details went right on by me and I hoped they weren’t important. (As I will learn, though, the show does not let you get away with this for long.)

The first long sequence where the camera flies into Ceres Station was interesting to watch, puzzling out where the cuts and edits were, while the voiceover provided background on the political situation. That voiceover seemed like it set the stage just as well, if not better, than the prologue text before the episode.

Holden, stunned, at the end: “They nuked her. She’s gone.” Referring to perhaps both the ship and his girlfriend. I was stunned, too, because the show accelerated from zero to sixty in the blink of an eye. And that’s where the episode ended, and I couldn’t wait to start the next one. The second episode would turn out to be better than the first, but for Holden, this moment, when his naked emotions were on display, would be one of his only highlights for me as a character in the entire season.

Lowlights

The obvious CGI bird on Ceres Station: I honestly couldn’t tell whether it was intended to be a real bird living on the station, or intended to be some kind of future robot bird toy, or something else entirely, and the show gave me no clues. (Miller did toss the bird some food later in the episode, so I guess that means it was supposed to be a real bird?) In any case, it looked very fake in an episode with otherwise great visual effects. Perhaps it was meant to look strange because of the low-gravity environment? After three viewings of the episode I still can’t figure out what I was supposed to get from watching that silly bird, and this is a hint at future problems with the show. I imagine anyone who read the books instantly understood the bird and its significance, but us television viewers are left out in the cold, thinking the show has “made a mistake.”

There is a distinct lack of information technology professionals in the future: When you delete logs for nefarious purposes, there should not be an “undo” feature to get it back. I laughed out loud when Holden seemed to simply un-delete the distress call log. Maybe there was more to it (again, perhaps in the book?) but that’s what it looked like. There was a tab on the screen just for deleted logs! How is that “hiding” anything?

What We Learned

I’m going to use this section to try to document what we learn about the characters and the story in each episode, for myself if nothing else. Because it’s actually quite difficult to keep track of this stuff, and this is a problem I will definitely have with the show as we get farther into the second season. Unless you study the episodes, you can very easily forget important details. With some shows you can just watch and enjoy the character drama without necessarily knowing all the technical details, but this is not one of those shows.

Ceres Station, a UN-controlled station in the Belt, is a political mess, with the lower-class Belters fighting for their rights against an oppressive UN administration. Belters live in deplorable conditions that seem to be worsening, and their civil unrest is reaching a boiling point as the show begins. All of this makes perfect sense to me, by the way, and I have no trouble believing in this Future Solar System they’ve built.

Miller is an aging cop on the down slope of his career, a mental and physical wreck, an outcast from his Belter people because he works for Earthers at Star Helix. “Star Helix badge” and “welwalla,” he’s called-“traitor to my people.” He’s a stereotype, to be blunt, but I will grow to love this character over time. He’s handed an assignment to find Julie Mao for her father.

Holden is a reluctant Earth officer just trying to get by and not make waves when he stumbles into a big mess after responding to a distress call on the Scopuli. He strikes me as one step removed from a college frat boy. I actively dislike this character initially, but over time I will grow to … tolerate him, I guess? He won’t ever be the reason I watch the show, let’s just leave it there._

_

Back on Earth, Chrisjen Avasarala is a grandmotherly figure who is actually involved in quite a lot of shadowy spy work for the United Nations. Her pleasant demeanor hides a very dark side.

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