"What the hell are we tangled up in here?"
-Med tech Shed Garvey capturing the essence of the sci-fi that is The Expanse-
Writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby return for their second (of three) entry in the ten episode run of The Expanse (2015-present) Season One.
Director Terry McDonough also returns for his second of four outings. McDonough has enjoyed a hand in a number of quality programs including Eleventh Hour (2008-2009; H2O) and even Vince Gilligan's extraordinary Breaking Bad (2008-2013; 3 episodes: Bit By A Dead Bee, Better Call Saul and Bug).
Fergus and Ostby continue to pay tribute to the book's roots as a science fiction crime noir. Leviathan Wakes, by James S. A. Corey (the pen name for Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck) is richly penned and woven as a nourish sci-fi space mystery and beautifully so.
The Expanse, Season One, Episode 2, The Big Empty is a kind of allusion to the big easy, New Orleans. The complex atmosphere of the aforementioned city suggests the kind of fascinating and complicated world weave and melting pot of a place like Ceres station (a fictional station based on an actual icy dwarf planet) with its roughly six million residents and 30,000 security forces established as a port of call in the Belt.
The Big Empty further suggests the kind of difficult crime investigation that surrounds a city like New Orleans, made popular in a TV series called The Big Easy (1996-1997) and a 1987 crime film of the same name starring Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. Crime is indeed central to the narrative in play in The Big Empty and the empty expanse this world takes place within as humanity has entered the stars and the small space of this big empty it occupies.
Viewing The Expanse in detail on Blu-Ray is a much richer and much more rewarding experience on closer inspection as a second viewing. So many wonderful details were missed during its initial TV broadcast coupled with iPad streaming. Blu-Ray is the way to go. There is no substitute.
The Big Empty opens with the Knight under assault from the fallout of the Canterbury's destruction as it is pelted by a debris field like a tank by artillery. One can't help but consider that Holden both inadvertently lured the group to the Scopuli resulting in the death of a good many crew members, but has also through his decision saved a handful of that crew from the same end. James Holden, Naomi Nagata, Alex Kamal, Amos Burton and Shed Garvey live on.
Composer Clinton Shorter maximizes the binge-viewing experience with a score that infuses the building momentum of swirling events with a real orchestral urgency. The Canterbury's demise and the missing Juliette Andromeda Mao are somehow linked and the tension genuinely continues to mount.
As The Big Empty moves to Miller we enjoy the world-building story details from Star Helix Security technology and hand terminals to the need for water rationing on Ceres station where Miller is based and searching for Mao.
His investigation takes him to her apartment where the noir aspects of this component of the series register strongly with a style or a nod reminiscent to the crime noir of another era but even more specifically Blade Runner (1982). The approach to minutia is indeed pleasantly Blade Runner-esque informing the Miller segments beautifully and making the details work all the more enjoyable.
In Julie's apartment there is even a hamster in a hamster wheel that is clearly not alive, but an electric hamster as in Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968). The sequence is an allusion to the owl sequence featuring Harrison Ford and a young, deadly gorgeous Sean Young.
"Do you like your owl?"
Was the homage to a classic film and story intentional? Well, I like the hamster. Miller again stops to observe the hamster after finishing an unfinished shower by washing his hair in Julie's sink.
It's clear Jane underwent a significant physical transformation for the role here not only in style for the character but in physique as he has obviously trimmed down even further from his normal frame (see Hung) for the appearance of a slender, svelte Belter impacted by zero-g and having been born on Ceres himself.
His investigative gumshoe style and look also echoes one classic, hard to embrace hero in the form of Rick Deckard too.
The Expanse is a gripping experience and writers Ostby and Fergus plunge straight into Corey's narrative extracted from the pages of Leviathan Wakes. Much of the literary appeal of The Expanse becomes clearer upon a second viewing. The series benefits from a third viewing or a complementary examination of the Corey text which is an equally thrilling ride as a publication. The TV series and the book are exceptional companion pieces and aid in filling in some of the holes while the viewer's imagination and intellect enjoys filling in the rest.
The series, unlike the novel, enjoys departing to Earth for a third component of the story surrounding Deputy Undersecretary of the U.N. Chrisjen Avasarala. This third portion of the series is not part of the alternating chapter text between HOLDEN and MILLER in the book but rather a political subtext. The TV series does an exceptional job of weaving in this component with Corey's involvement. It aids in coloring the political dynamic between Earth, Mars and the Belt further enriching the compelling narrative.
This component also offers a mirror to our own Earth bound issues of terrorism as embodied by the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance) who "demand legitimacy through violence." This taps into contemporary fears and problems that plague our world today and efforts to differentiate the competing agendas within a given group. The Expanse like the best science fiction offers a timely social narrative and a lens to our own world beset with issues and problems while creatively weaving its own original space yarn.
Avasarala had previously implemented the "hooks" in Dulcinea as a form of questioning now deemed torture whereby the "tank" is perceived a more benign, acceptable means of forced interrogation as evidenced here in The Big Empty.
It's also worth noting, again, that The Expanse is a visually stimulating science fiction gorgeously framed in almost every scene making it a delight to the senses like some of the visual best in science fiction television including Stargate Universe (2009-2011) and Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009).
The Belter patois is also unique and the play with language by Corey and adapted by Ostby and Fergus makes for a challenging excursion into science fiction in spots. This is likely where the book offers some compensation to understanding The Expanse. But again, repeat viewings go a long way to remedy these ever so rewarding difficulties.
As much as The Americans (2013-) is a period piece set amidst the Cold War between the Americans and the Russians, The Expanse explores a similar game between the Earthers, Belters and the Martians. "The Cold War is over. This is something new." Determining the power plays and what may shift the delicate balance of power to the spark of a full on war is the question. The future depicted in The Expanse tells us the more things change the more they seem to stay the same as far as human behavior.
Even questions regarding stealth technology are in play in The Expanse as much as the Russians sought to steal information on stealth technology from the Americans in the 1980s.
Like Thomas Jane as Miller and Steven Strait as Holden, Shohreh Aghdashloo delivers a commanding, meticulous performance as Chrisjen Avasarala in this third important area of the series.
On Ceres, Miller and partner Dmitri Havelock pursue a complaint on the station whereby Belters may be stealing water from the gardens. The sequence underlines the delicate balance of life on Ceres. Water is like gold, but the gardens require it to recycle air. In the scene there is the weight of a kind of racism and indeed classism. Economic injustices and other societal ills continue to plague humankind into the future. Corey's work realistically portrays the realities of man's shortcomings in the future.
On the side, Miller learns of Mao's connection to the "dumpy old transport" The Scopuli. The Scopuli was first glimpsed in the opening of Dulcinea and would ultimately be the bait that lured The Canterbury to her fate and ultimate demise. The question will remain why and drive The Expanse.
Miller flexes his chops as a detective attempting to get inside the mind of Julie Mao. She is the spark that has awakened Miller to a life with purpose. As Leviathan Awakes notes, "This was why he had searched for her. Julie had become the part of him that was capable of human feeling. The symbol of what he could have been if he hadn't been this" (Chapter 28, p. 285).
On the Knight, the small ship from within The Canterbury, following some terrifying life and death struggles to repair the antennae and rig a transmitter, the four man, one woman crew is contacted.
With life support running out the Knight must wait for what appears to be bad news. The flagship of the Martian Navy, The MCRN Donnager is coming.
An effort to transmit a message throughout the Belt to ensure their survival may or may not have been jammed by The Donnager. The surviving crew members of The Canterbury now aboard the Knight await their fates out there in the big empty.
The Expanse interlocks just the right mix of suspense, action, story and character to have you hanging on every epic word. The Big Empty is further evidence of its wonderful source material roughly drawing from Chapters 6 through 10. Having said that, Dulcinea was more faithful to the first five chapters. The Big Empty takes its liberties drawing from the book but infuses the series with a significant amount of original material. The space thrills aboard the Knight and Miller's investigative efforts are quite original here particularly their survival prior to the arrival of The Donnager. It's difficult to get a handle on these characters early on but with each passing episode there is something more to like and appreciate in all of them. This is science fiction that will leave the science fiction fan smiling.
Writer: Mark Fergus/Hawk Ostby. Director: Terry McDonough.