Syfy’s ambitious space drama ‘The Expanse’ was one of the most exciting new series of the 2015-2016 TV season, but its incredibly complex plot was often a challenge to keep straight even week-to-week during its first ten episodes. The second season arrives a full year since the last episode aired. I feel like I should have rewatched the entire first season before jumping back in.
The two-part premiere opens on Mars. We’re introduced to a squad of Martian Marines wearing heavily-armed power armor environmental suits that would make Robert Heinlein proud. They’re engaged in what appears to be a major firefight but turns out to be an elaborate training exercise. The squad leader, Gunnery Sgt. Bobbie Draper, is a bit of a hothead and blames Earth for the fact that Mars hasn’t been fully terraformed yet. She receives word from her commander that they’re being shipped out to Phoebe Station on a Martian Navy ship called the Scirocco. (As a reminder, Phoebe was the moon where the so-called “protomolecule” was discovered.)
Having escaped from the tragedy at Eros Station, our heroes on board the Rocinante make their way back through the Belt toward Tycho. Thanks to the miracle of 23rd Century medical science, Holden (Steven Strait) and Miller (Thomas Jane) have been pumped full of anti-radiation drugs and are recovering from their cancer. A handful of refugees from Eros are also aboard the ship.
Amos manages to open the safe recovered from the science ship called Anubis (the one where Julie Mao was imprisoned and infected). Inside is a sample of the protomolecule cryogenically frozen. Also inside are videos with lab notes from the scientists that discovered the molecule, which suggest that it may be the first proof of life from beyond our solar system. Most of the crew want to destroy the molecule as soon as possible, but Naomi argues that it’s too important. Nonetheless, nobody wants it on the ship. They eventually agree to load it onto a rocket and hide it in an abandoned asteroid mine in the Belt, where only they will know where it is.
On Earth, the United Nations issues statements blaming Fred Johnson and the OPA for building the attack ships that destroyed the Martian Navy ship Donnager. Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) knows that this is a lie and that her boss, Undersecretary Errinwright, is part of a conspiracy trying to drum up war with Mars, but she plays along for now so as to not arouse suspicion, even after an assassination attempt blows up a shuttle she was supposed to board. The OPA is blamed for this as well. On the sly, Chrisjen recruits a spy named Cotyar to work for her and provide private security.
Tensions mount between Miller and Amos over the latter killing Miller’s friend Sematimba. They exchange blows and Amos kicks his ass. Later, even though Miller still thinks that Amos is a simple-minded psychopath, he accepts that Amos only did what he had to do in the moment and he buries the hatchet between them.
The U.N. sends a military ship called the Nathan Hale to Phoebe Station to investigate what’s going on there. The Martian ship Scirocco trails slightly behind it and launches missiles. Monitoring on Earth with a twenty minute delay, Errinwright proclaims this an act of war and moves for immediate retaliation against Mars. However, Chrisjen successfully argues that this may just be a warning shot across the bow and cooler heads should prevail until more details come in. The missiles fly right past the Nathan Hale and impact Phoebe, destroying the station before the Earth ship can get to it. With war averted for now, but still needing to placate Errinwright, Chrisjen suggests that the U.N. should destroy a comparable Martian moon (which will have only minimal casualties) as a tit-for-tat “proportional response” to let Mars know that Earth can’t be trifled with. The admiral in charge of the Earth fleet sees this as a dangerous act of aggression and resigns in protest. Chrisjen will meet with him secretly later asking him what he really knows about Fred Johnson. She then instructs Cotyar to arrange a covert call so that she can talk to Johnson herself.
The Rocinante docks at Tycho, and Holden informs Fred Johnson about what happened on Eros. Having traced the broadcasts that were transmitted from the scientists on Eros to an unregistered communications relay in the Belt, Johnson assembles an assault team of OPA volunteers to breach the station. (In order to do this, he first has to put down some dissent among OPA factions by kicking an unruly faction leader out an airlock.) They’ll fly there in the cover of a cargo freighter that will tow the Rocinante behind it. As they approach the station, the Rocinante will have to take out a heavily-armed and dangerous stealth gunship that’s protecting the station. A very nervous Alex trains for this intensely through repeated simulations until he gets it right.
Miller joins the assault team that will storm the station. Among the other volunteers is Diogo, the sewer rat kid he caught stealing water on Ceres Station (the one who was also ejected into space by his own uncle in another episode). The kid is crazy reckless and practically begging to get himself killed.
Johnson pilots the freighter Guy Molinari himself. Hilariously, the assault team are hidden in two pods disguised as Fed Ex shipping containers. (I wonder if UPS has survived into the 23rd Century as well?) Preparing for battle, the crew of the Rocinante put on space suits and depressurize the ship, hoping to minimize damage when they take fire. The Guy Molinari then cuts the Rocinante loose and lets it spin uncontrollably so that it looks like space debris.
Johnson broadcasts a message to the communications station claiming to be on a salvage mission for a piece of loose cargo. When he gets close enough, he launches the two Fed Ex pods and the Rocinante rights itself and flies toward the station. The stealth ship quickly reveals itself and the Rocinante opens fire on it to provide cover for the pods. The stealth ship fires back and pummels the Rocinante, forcing Alex to fly into the station’s ring and hide. The station itself then blasts one of the Fed Ex pods with a cannon (fortunately, not the one Miller is in).
Eventually, Alex pilots the Rocinante to destroy the cannon and disable the stealth ship. The second Fed Ex pod docks and the assault team breaches the station. They take only light fire from a handful of soldiers armed with gel rounds (basically, paintball guns) and easily mop them up. Clearly, whoever’s running this station didn’t prepare for an invasion.
The station appears to be otherwise empty until Miller and the team come upon a room with a small group of scientists plugged into VR simulations of something. The scientists continue to work and are unresponsive until Miller unplugs the VR equipment, upon which they all go completely nuts and attack. The assault team opens fire and kills all but one of the scientists. At this point, Holden and Johnson arrive as well.
In the next room, Holden finds someone he recognizes, the scientist named Dresden who ran the experiment that wiped out Eros Station. Dresden warns him that all the data on this station is encrypted and only he can decode it. If they kill him, they’ll get no answers. He then launches into a lengthy spiel claiming that he’s “trying to save us all.” He believes that if he can crack the secrets of the protomolecule, it will enable the next step in human evolution, allowing humans to live in any environment, even the vacuum of space. “We become our own gods,” he says. He explains that the protomolecule was deliberately sent into our solar system by an alien intelligence targeting Earth for takeover, and all human life is doomed unless he’s allowed to continue his work.
This all sounds very frightening. Dresden wants to strike a deal. He offers two switch allegiances to the OPA (he only cares about the work itself, not politics) and give Johnson everything he has, in exchange for being able to continue his experiments with no restraints or restrictions. Johnson mulls this over and is just about to accept when Miller steps into the room and shoots Dresden dead. He’s not having any of this BS. Dresden killed Julie Mao and everyone on Eros, and would do the same to potentially many others. Johnson and Holden are both a little shell-shocked by what just happened and the implications it means if Dresden was telling the truth about an alien invasion.
I’ll be honest, I had a little trouble getting back into the show during the first hour of the premiere. It’s been so long since the last episode that I needed to re-read some of my recaps from last season to refresh my memory about the character relationships and the numerous space stations that are all so critical to the plot.
Frankly, the opening scene is not a good start. I get that it’s supposed to pump up the audience with an action scene right away, but the visual effects are a little cheesy and the revelation that it’s a training exercise immediately deflates any excitement. The power armor suits also make no sense at all. They’re not anywhere near large enough to store all the ammo the Marines fire. A compartment on Draper’s back even opens up and launches a dozen rockets. Where the hell were those being held? Inside her abdomen? It’s ridiculous.
Fortunately, the premiere gets better as it goes and I was fully back on board by the end. The Rocinante’s big battle against the stealth ship is very exciting and the revelations from Dresden go a long way toward clearing up mysteries left dangling at the end of last season. I’m eager to see where this goes.