What do you call a space opera that is even grimmer and more arcanely plotted than Wagner? If you’re SyFy, you call it “The Expanse,” and hire some of pop science’s most cheerful edutainers/writers to rev up enthusiasm for an even grimmer and more arcane second season.
Grim and arcane, of course, aren’t bad things — at least when it comes to television. Some of television’s best are grim and arcane! Certainly SyFy’s all-time best was — and “The Expanse” (adapted from the book series by James S.A. Corey) is the space-based effort that’s come closest in the years since “Battlestar Galactica” to regaining that prestige glory. “The Magicians” is justifiably lauded, being pretty much perfect, and Originals and imports like “Wynonna Earp,” “Dark Matter” and Screener fave “Killjoys” recommend the network highly — but when people think Syfy, they think “BSG” — and “The Expanse” is as close as we’ve yet come.
This week’s double-header premiere (Feb. 1) picked up right where the first season of “The Expanse” left off — for readers, right in the middle of the series’ first book, “Leviathan Wakes.” Detective Miller (Thomas Jane) and the crew of the Rocinante are piecing themselves back together after barely escaping the alien pathogen attack released by parties unknown on Eros station; Mars and Earth continue to rattle metaphorical sabers at dry military council roundtables in an effort to stave off an inevitable space war; and the Outer Planet Alliance is still gathering sabers, real ones, to rattle convincingly enough to be taken seriously by either superpower.
What has changed from the books is the sudden presence of Martian soldier Roberta “Bobbie” Draper (Frankie Adams), whose arrival in the opening moments of Season 2 comes a whole plot arc early from her first appearance as a POV character in “Caliban’s War,” the second volume. Like the early introduction of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s Chrisjen Avasarala in Season 1, it’s a welcome change — and not just because Bobbie is a compelling character who illuminates the reality of Martian life even better than does the Rocinante’s resident Martian, Alex (Cas Anvar). It also embeds Bobbie in her unit, giving us the chance to really invest in those relationships before war hits — an opportunity for investment we lost with poor Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) in Season 1, who quickly became the object of Miller’s obsession, but never quite seemed real enough for the audience to connect with.
If Bobbie’s appearance ends up introducing even more arcane political machinations into a script already fit to burst with them, who cares? Again, compare to classic opera above, for a reminder of how valuable clarity of plot is when compared to depth of emotional investment in the characters.
Hint: Not very — especially if in exchange we now get to see Bobbie arm-wrestling robots every week.
As far as the overall plot goes, the premiere takes its time putting Season 2 pieces in place: The Eros pathogen is confirmed to be of alien origin, though now with the added nightmare-inducing theory that it was part of a weaponized projectile flung at our solar system from an outside one; Miller shoots the scientist studying it, as a war criminal, which will be putting him at odds with pretty much everybody.
The crew of the Rocinante discover a cryo-chamber of the stuff hanging out in their cargo bay, shuttling it into hiding and heading out to discover if an antidote can even be made, while trying their best to resettle refugees from the various Season 1 conflicts, and Holden (Steven Strait) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper) finally hook up.
Chrisjen strides around building a spy network within the UN while wearing increasingly formidable saris, and reaching out in secret to discuss her plans with soldier-turned-terrorist and public enemy Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman), who airlocks a Belter dissident leader for refusing to take part in the Rocinante’s mission to take the station where the Eros Project data resides — and take custody of one of its “Minority Report”-esque madmen to study.
Where “Expanse,” like “The Magicians,” improves on granddaddy “Galactica” is in its scene-by-scene dedication to excellence: Not a moment is wasted, and not a scene goes by without some cinematic gracenote or surprise beauty or insight. The new crop of Syfy flagships shares an unerring sense of EQ: A detail- and human-centered focus on the real emotion and specificity behind the genre trappings that puts Sad Puppy worship of robotic alpha-male space marines to absolute shame.
The details that stand out in these two hours, as in the ten preceding them, are linked by grimness and their grace: Miller’s summary execution of the only man who may be able to stop the contagion, Avasarala using fierce fashion as camouflage for her stealthy diplomatic work, Bobbie’s reverent faith in and compulsive fantasizing about a free, breathable Mars that drives her bad-assery.
We’re taken most — and not surprisingly — by a pair of scenes between Holden and Naomi. First on an EVA, when they turn off mics and touch helmet-to-helmet for a suddenly intimate and very caring post-traumatic check-in: The fully realized hassle of space travel, from airlocks to oxygen reserves, is one of the most wonderful parts of the show, and watching these two heroes snatch a moment of quiet while floating in the void was moving enough… But following them back inside the ship, painstakingly helping each other strip the spacesuits off their bruised bodies, finally giving in to some pretty frantic passions, without a word…
As Gunny Bobbie puts it — speaking for show, speaking for its wondrous characters: “I don’t use sex as a weapon — I use weapons as weapons.” There is more emotion in these human, inconvenient moments than in the whole of most “sci-fi” epics. The irritation of clanking straps and skintight bodysuits, bodies reacting to shifting gravity, and radiation, and always the hungry void on the other side of steel — the sheer physical, and moral, weight of it all — doesn’t just add to the show’s beautiful authenticity: It’s the heart of it.
“The Expanse” airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Syfy.