The Expanse – A Season 2, two-episode toe-dip
Somehow manages to be even more stellar.
It's always a pleasure to spot the budgetary difference between a tentative first season compared to a proven concept second season. Make no mistake: The Expanse has expanded in all ways. To those of you viewers who have been orbiting this series curiously, there's never been a better time to chart an intercept course with the best sci-fi show you're somehow not yet watching.
Being a newcomer, you'll not be left to float about, struggling to make heads or tails of this universe – Season 2 will put your feet on the ground faster than locked mag-boots. We're hundreds of years into our spacefaring future, during a time when most of the solar system has been colonised. Good old fashioned tribalism still exists, however, as the now independent, cashed-up and militaristic colony of Mars is eyeing Earth suspiciously. Some shadowy group is doing their level best to kick off an interstellar war, and this situation is not being helped by a third faction known as the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA), a terrorist offshoot of down-trodden asteroid people (or "Belters") who are essentially fighting a class war.
In the inaugural season we had three main narrative threads running. The most pleasing of the bunch is the detective-noir stylings of Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane) a Belter gumshoe who becomes obsessed with Julie Mao, a well-connected missing person who could be the key to this Cold War. Elsewhere you have James Holden (Steven Strait) an Earthen ice hauler Executive Officer who, when the Martians destroy his ride, becomes the Captain of a ragtag crew of survivors. This huge interstellar flashpoint, known as the Canterbury incident, has to be investigated by the Earth-based United Nations executive Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a cunning official struggling to keep the peace and stay one step ahead of a phantom puppet master. Damn compelling stuff, but it was quite the slow-burn.
In comparison, The Expanse season 2 throttles up its sub-light engines early and finds a faster cruising speed in no time. Now that detective Miller and Captain Holden's threads have folded into one, there's more time to weave in a perspective from the red planet. Rebellious Martian soldier Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) is at the top off her class, but is suffering from a bad case of the Douglas Quaids – she dreams of a blue sky on Mars. Unfortunately, the Canterbury incident has rerouted all Martian funding into military projects, which pushes back the terraforming process by at least a hundred years. Needless to say, Bobbie isn't amused by this. In her mind, the only way she'll get some grass is by kicking arse. All Earthlings and/or Belters in her way must die.
Clearly this is bad news for Holden and the remaining crew of the gunship Rocinante. The team now consists of Miller, who's a free agent, since his last case was a literal dead end; Alex Kamal, pilot and the fish-out-of-water Martian of the group; Naomi Nagata, bad-ass engineer and the only person who can control the ship's borderline-psychotic grease monkey, Amos Burton. They're a colourful bunch who've somehow survived the political machinations of two warring planets and a conspiracy involving an extra-solar virus whose source and nature remains a mystery. In order to solve the riddle of said protomolecule, the crew of the Roci request aid from the less-than-trustworthy terrorist group known as the OPA.
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Cue the aforementioned improved budget space battles that were only sprinkled here and there in season 1. One especially memorable moment is the daring Roci-OPA strike on the shady types responsible for murdering an entire space station in the name of science. The CG in the last season was utilitarian at best; the dogfighting on display here is much more exciting and in line with the J.J Abrams standard. Speaking of slicker presentation, the gunplay is of a much higher quality, too. The choreography and action in Bobbie's introduction scene (involving war games with her exo-suited squaddies) was much appreciated. Though that's probably just the Call of Duty gamer in me talking.
In terms of set-work and visual effects, The Expanse has made a lightyear leap forward, but its main attraction is still the way it focuses on the human reaction to the unknown. Even in the future, after ungodly technological advances, we're still a pathetically fearful bunch. We're afraid of our neighbours, afraid of inequality and fearful of the extra-terrestrial. That said, given how said virus hoovers people up like I do Pringles while watching this show, I think that last instinct is a pretty solid one.