I caught the premiere of Syfy’s intriguing new space drama ‘The Expanse’ early via On-Demand a couple weeks ago. The show had its proper broadcast premiere this week as a two-day event, airing both the pilot and a new episode on Monday and Tuesday respectively. Although it still may be a little too soon to judge for sure, so far this feels like the best new TV series of the season.
If that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise considering how poor most of this year’s fall TV season has been, that wasn’t my intention. It’s a genuinely promising series. In fact, I rewatched the pilot before the new episode and actually liked it even more the second time around. Story details I’d either missed or found confusing during my first watch became much clearer.
The second episode, called ‘The Big Empty’, once again divides its action among three primary locations.
After the ice freighter Canterbury was destroyed, the small crew of the shuttlecraft Knight is left stranded in space. Why they don’t consider returning to the abandoned ship Scopuli is never addressed, but perhaps that just doesn’t look like a viable option to them. A rain of debris from the Canterbury bombards the shuttle, destroying its radio antenna and causing a breach in the airlock. Nominally in charge, Holden wants to chase after the attacking ship before it gets away and they lose it forever, but the other four crewmembers won’t have any of that. They refuse to take orders from him, and effectively demote him. Everyone else agrees that engineer Naomi should be their new leader.
With nowhere near enough fuel to get to the nearest space station, the shuttle’s only hope of survival is to fix the radio antenna and send a distress call. (That line Holden’s girlfriend muttered about karma in the pilot episode seems awfully prophetic now.) Holden volunteers to do an E.V.A., but the broken airlock means that the only way he can get outside is to vent the oxygen from the entire shuttle. As such, everyone has to put on their spacesuits. Holden and the other engineer Amos climb out to work on the antenna while Naomi, pilot Alex and medic Garvey wait inside, all fully suited up.
After a few minutes, Alex’s oxygen tank fails and Garvey has to share air from his. The two of them deplete that single supply pretty quickly. Holden and Amos get the antenna fixed and climb back inside without a moment to spare. They repressurize the cabin just as Alex and Garvey are on the verge of death.
The crew then has to scrounge up every inessential electronic device with a battery to collect enough power to amplify the signal. While praying for a response, Naomi inspects the distress beacon from the Scopuli and determines that it’s a Martian Naval device. As they suspected, it was a trap to lure the Canterbury.
Eventually, as the shuttle’s air dwindles, they receive a response to their own distress call. A ship sends them a vector to rendezvous. They’re saved! But wait, what ship is it? Oh no, it’s a Martian Navy vessel. Is it coming to finish the job?
Rationalizing that they’re dead anyway, Holden broadcasts a transmission to whomever will listen explaining what happened to the Canterbury and saying that they’re about to be taken prisoner by the Martian Navy. Unfortunately, it appears that the Martian ship has jammed the signal. As the episode ends, the shuttle is scooped up by a monstrous vessel and the crew is swarmed by armed soldiers.
Since the Canterbury missed its ice delivery, the water supply aboard the Ceres station is tightly rationed. As a result, unrest is brewing among the populace, especially the lower classes.
Miller (Thomas Jane) continues to investigate the case of missing rich girl Julie Mao. He breaks into her apartment and plays her messages, to find that she had big time daddy issues. (Who can blame her? Her dad is Dr. Pierre Chang from ‘Lost’!) Later, he follows her trail to the station’s port and learns that she was last seen boarding the Scopuli.
In between breaks in that case, Miller and his partner Havelock (Jay Hernandez) are also assigned to catch some thieves who’ve been siphoning water from the station’s greenery. Although Miller catches them, he feels sympathy for them and lets them go with a warning. That’s certainly not what his bosses want.
In New York City, U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) takes some heat for torturing the Belter who was caught smuggling stealth technology. Because his body can’t take the Earth’s gravity (which is how she’s been torturing him), she has to put him in a water tank to talk to him. She accuses him of being a terrorist for the “OPA” (Outer Planets Alliance). He won’t admit anything and remains defiant to her questioning. Later, during transport to a prison facility on the moon, the Belter commits suicide on the shuttle.
What’s perhaps most interesting about this show is how thoroughly thought-out and plausible its futuristic universe is. In scene after scene, I found myself marveling at the impressive attention to every detail of life aboard a space station or in a spaceship. When Miller snoops around in Julie’s apartment, he even flips through her social media dating profile. These worlds have a very realistic sense of being lived-in. I also appreciate how interconnected the plotting is, such that the destruction of the Canterbury (which nobody even knows about yet) already has ramifications for the populace of Ceres.
As happens in many series, the second episode has a subtle but noticeable drop-off in budget and ambition compared to the pilot. The bulk of the episode takes place aboard the stranded Knight shuttle, and those scenes almost feel like a bottle episode. However, things open up enough with our visits to Ceres and Earth to prevent that from being too much of an issue. For the most part, the second ep is just as interesting as the first.