The Expanse: Season 1, Episode 1 – “Dulcinea”

Dystopian space opera The Expanse successfully continues SyFy’s new plan to create high-quality drama.

Syfy has recently been rebranding its channel by steering away from reality ghost hunters while producing high-quality dramas reminiscent of its crowning glory, Battlestar Galactica. These efforts can be seen in The Expanse, a space opera based on James S.A. Corey’s popular novel, Leviathan Wakes. Fantastic in its world-building, The Expanse throws viewers into a futuristic universe rife with political intrigue and warring factions. Although the plot-heavy first episode is slow to produce riveting (or even likable) characters, the various mysteries and superb storytelling are fascinating enough to draw me in for more.

The Expanse is set in the 23rd century, where the solar system is fully colonized and the inner planets rely on the Asteroid Belt for resources. Life in the Belt is hard for its citizens, who are essentially slaves to the higher authorities controlling the supply of water and clean air. On one such asteroid, Ceres, Detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) is given the case of finding missing heiress Julie Mao (Florence Faivre). We first see Julie on the freighter Scopuli, which is mysteriously abandoned and lifeless, until she comes upon strange blue lights and a terrifying creature. Meanwhile, we’re introduced to the rag-tag crew of the Canterbury, an ice trawler that’s on its way to Ceres until receiving a distress beacon from the Scopuli. While some of the crew are sent to investigate, a ship appears out of nowhere and destroys the Canterbury. Back on Earth, tensions run high between Earth and Mars as a politician named Chrisjen (Shohreh Aghdashloo) interrogates a member of a terrorist group found with stealth technology.

The creators of the show do a terrific job in fully realizing the machinations of this dystopian universe. Populations on both the inner and the outer planets are a cultural mish-mash of ethnicities and language, which is mostly reflected in the diversity of the cast. Science fiction elements are treated with careful thought and attention, and I appreciated the show’s approach of showing futuristic technology rather than having a scientist explain it in a long-winded and scientifically silly speech. We see that acceleration in space hurts. We see the biological effects of low-gravity. Relying on the viewer to take in these pieces of sci-fi candy, instead of using jargon, is a rarity among the genre.

Visually, The Expanse’s a treat. Aside from one goofy CGI bird, the special effects were seamless and believable, showcasing high-production values. The overall tone of the show conveys a bleak dystopia, where space is dark and monochrome, and the only sources of light are either coldly artificial or glimpses of a faraway sun. Even on Earth, with all of its lush greenery and sparkling waters, the colors seem muted and dull, implying a utopia that’s masking deep political turmoil within.

Because “Dulcinea” spends so much of its time establishing plot and setting, the characters largely fall by the wayside. I was rather unimpressed by the lack of charisma in any of the lead characters, although there is hope that with less exposition in the future, the actors will have the opportunity to exhibit range and depth. Miller is your stereotypical gumshoe detective, complete with cocky swagger, a disregard for authority, and yes, even a fedora. Although initially appearing disaffected and without any moral agenda besides solving his case, his tough exterior softens at the plight of children made sick by neglected air filters. I’m sure we’re meant to root for this curmudgeon with a heart of gold, but so far, he is proving to be too cliché and boring to care about.

Jim Holden (Steven Strait), the captain of the Canterbury, is the only character that’s proved to be empathetic, and even then, he’s still sort of a bland, reluctant leader type who seems really keen on not having any ambition whatsoever. I was also just starting to become invested in the camaraderie of the Canterbury crew in general, but now that half of them have apparently died, I’m hoping the chemistry hasn’t died with them. I’m still not sure how I feel about killing off Holden’s girlfriend, Ade (Kristen Hager), in the explosion. Time will tell if it was necessary for the story, or simply another instance in a long history of female characters dying so the protagonist can feel man-pain. At the very least, I am somewhat comforted by the inclusion of seemingly complex characters in Naomi (Dominique Tipper), a no-nonsense surviving crew member, and Chrisjen, a loving grandmother and ruthless political figure.

This episode effectively laid the groundwork for exploring the Cold War-esque tensions between Earth and Mars, while the Belters have only one imperative: survival. There are still plenty of questions that remain unanswered, and while I applaud the show for drawing out the mystery, I also caution the writers to not move too slowly as to lose the less-patient viewers. I’m intrigued by the radical organizations mentioned here and there, and definitely want the answers to who exactly sent the ship that nuked the Canterbury, and why. As to the episode’s title, I can only assume that Dulcinea refers to the elusive and alluring Julie Mao, who seems to be at the center of an interplanetary maelstrom. But much like the fictional Dulcinea of Don Quixote, Julie Mao’s secrets will most likely be what you least expect.

Other Thoughts:

Although the pidgin mixture of English with “Belter Creole” was cool, it made it difficult to decipher dialogue at times.

I loved the brief cameo from the esteemed Jonathan Banks as the crazy XO.

Just in case you thought this was going to be a dour, too-serious space drama, Syfy gave you a floating space sex scene.

Miller was called out as a traitor to his people, the Belters. So what exactly earned him that reputation?

Will we ever find out what Ade needed to tell Holden? And who wants to bet she was pregnant?

Elena Zhang is a freelance writer living in Chicago. When not writing about food or television, she can be found selling cupcakes at her local farmers market. Follow her on Twitter at @EZhang77.

RATING 7 / 10