We live in surprising times. I don’t think anybody anticipated the run-away success of ‘The Expanse’, the TV adaptation of James Corey’s series of novels. Following the conclusion of its second season, many fans feared a long wait until the next installment, or worse – cancellation.
But in a peculiar move, SyFy seem to have released The Expanse’s third season a year early, and without any particular fanfare or promotion. And that’s not the only risk taken – many of the series regulars fail to make an appearance, and one prominent character has been entirely re-cast.
‘Context For Kings’, the first episode of the third season, opens cold inside a prison transport. We are immediately greeted with three familiar faces: Kenzo, the spy who was discovered aboard the Rocinante; Janus, the commanding officer of the UN science vessel in season 2; and Doris, the botanist who helps Prax following the attack on Ganymede.
What’s interesting is that these three characters all seemingly perished in the previous two seasons. Kenzo was abandoned by Holden to the protomolecule, and Janus also died to the creepy blue stuff when his ship was dismantled. And we last saw Doris floating out of the airlock of a Belter rescue ship.
How these three characters survived, and how they came to end up all together on a prison shuttle, isn’t explained during this episode, but will presumably be revealed later in the series. What we do know is that they travel with a former UN Fleet officer called Burnham, who has been imprisoned for mutiny.
Their shuttle is disabled by what appears to be the protomolecule, draining power from its engines. However, the prisoners are rescued by an advanced UN vessel, called Discovery. The prisoners are greeted with suspicion and insults as they are brought aboard the secretive vessel. Paranoia and secrecy seem rife on the Discovery, and it doesn’t take long before enough hints are dropped that the ship is a military research vessel, engaged in experimentation with the protomolecule itself.
It seems the UN has gone ahead with its plan to purchase the protomolecule from Mao and his company, and placed the research project under the command of Lorca, a UN officer who ticks all the boxes of a classic ‘Expanse’ character – mysterious, untrustworthy and manipulative, Lorca is par for the course of utilitarian and calculating leaders we’ve come to expect in the dark and gritty view of the future that ‘The Expanse’ presents.
Lorca’s background, however, brings up one of the main weaknesses of this episode. It seems that the UN finds itself at war, and Lorca is happy to do anything he can to seize an advantage, willing to use the protomolecule and the mutant monsters it creates, if he can turn them into effective weapons.
But one thing that’s really missing is his motivation – he tells us that he’s fighting a war, but barring a single enemy combatant, we have no idea of how this war is progressing. Is the UN winning, or losing? How come we don’t see anything from the perspective of Mars? Or the OPA and the Belters? Lorca’s role as an unscrupulous warmonger is fine, but it needs the context of the larger story to fully explain why such sinister research is required to win.
Absent from all of this is our usual cast of characters. The Rocinante and her crew don’t appear, and neither does Chrisjen, her fate left hanging from season 2’s finale. Whilst the show runners clearly want to set up this new string of developments, it felt more like an introduction for viewers new to the show, which is a shame, as everything in this episode is already incredibly familiar to fans of ‘The Expanse’.
What’s more peculiar is the fact that the three characters we do recognise are pretty quickly put on the space-bus, in favour of following Burnham. Confusingly, our party of three resurrectees attack Burnham without reason during a meal break, after which we don’t see them again. Burnham, however, is brought onto the Discovery‘s crew by Lorca, who needs her skills and experience to assist with the protomolecule research.
This offers us probably the first main dump of solid information on the protomolecule. It seems that the research aboard the Discovery has revealed that the molecule is fungal in nature, and spread across the cosmos. There’s a lot of pseudo-scientific poetry spewed by the chief researcher, which sounds more like Qui-Gon Jinn’s explanation of midichlorians than it does the hard science this show is known for.
We also get to see more of what the molecule can do to living beings. The Discovery‘s sister ship, the Glenn, suffers an accident whilst conducting identical research, and Burnham is sent with a few other members of the crew (who we’ll get to in a moment) to find out what happened. Once aboard, we see that the crew have been violently twisted into broken heaps of flesh by the effects of the experimentation on the fungal protomolecule. It’s all very gory, and exactly in keeping with ‘The Expanse’s level of violence and occasional body horror that would be out of place in any other franchise.
This begins a short ‘Alien’-style romp through the abandoned ship, as Burnham and crew attempt to escape without being devoured by a hulking monstrous creature, some twisted form of an animal that was presumably kept aboard the Glenn. We don’t find out if this is an intentional part of the research, although the episode closes with the reveal that Lorca is keeping the creature securely in a creepy lab filled with skeletons.
This felt very on the nose for ‘The Expanse’ – the show usually deals with grey morality, with the ethical spectrum, and giving Lorca an actual skeleton-filled secret laboratory seemed like a very clumsy means of highlighting his villainous nature. We’re all adults here, we can reach our own conclusions, thank you.
Overall, this episode was a bit lacklustre. I’m hoping it’s just because it’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come, but we didn’t get any of the politics that make the universe of ‘The Expanse’ so interesting. Getting to learn more about the protomolecule was neat, but it seemed to be more to service the characterisation of Lorca.
And this also sadly telegraphs what I believe will be the ultimate story path for this set of characters. With Burnham being established as a mutineer, and already setting up Lorca’s betrayal of his promise to her following her challenging him on ethical grounds, it seems obvious that she will eventually hold him accountable and seize control of the ship itself. I hope it’s not that predictable, but in any case, hopefully next episode we can get back to Chrisjen, the Rocinante and the real meat of the story.
I also just want to briefly talk about the departure of Frankie Adams from the cast, and the decision to recast her character, “Gunny”, with Mary Wiseman. It was fun having the socially-awkward super-soldier back on screen, but it was jarring seeing her in a UN uniform and a wide grin. Not as jarring as the shift in her character, however, which has taken her from a brooding idealogue to a preppy, very-nearly insufferable sidekick for Burnham. I’ll wait to see how this plays out, but I’m cautious about how this bodes for the rest of the season.
And one final, final aside, I quite liked the Discovery‘s first officer, Saru. We don’t learn much about him, but given his lanky frame he seems to be a belter. How he came to be the second-in-command of a UN vessel should be an interesting bit of backstory.