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'The Expanse' Season 5 premiere reminds us what makes quality, cerebral sci-fi

If fan service doesn't float your boat, if you're not bothered by nostalgia and if adherence to canon isn't the be-all-end-all of existence, then you're probably already a big fan of "The Expanse" on Amazon Prime Video. And we can tell you the fifth season is the best yet. 

The new season, which dropped on Dec. 16, marks a return to top form, the likes of which haven't been seen — in our opinion — since the first season. 

Being unceremoniously dumped by Syfy was probably the best thing that could have happened to this incredible sci-fi show and thankfully now, it benefits from all the advantages of being made by a world-dominating corporation like Tyrell Amazon, including a nice big budget to continue the unparalleled high standard of mind-bogglingly brilliant production design. This show is gorgeous

There's a powerful opening, pre-credit sequence that reminds us of the tone of the show almost immediately and we quickly get to see the ruthlessness of one of this season's villains, Filip (Jasai Chase Owens) – son of Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander) and Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper). Right at the end of Season 4, Inaros launches asteroids cloaked with Martian stealth technology at Earth saying, "They'll never see it coming." 

Related: Gear up for 'The Expanse' Season 5 with our guide to the interstellar action  

 We pick up 173 days after Inaros launched the asteroids, tracking "rock #9" with an iron-nickel core. It passes the sun, where the intense heat causes it to break into smaller fragments and it's soon detected by the science vessel UNS Hasami, near Venus. They're interested in the rock because the asteroids weren't on any known chart, and as such they're seem to be an astronomical oddity. However, the scientists onboard can't understand why they're having so much difficulty in tracking them.   

Suddenly, the UNS Hasami is boarded and Filip and a few of his followers hold the crew at gunpoint, demanding to know what the scientists themselves know about the rock, since they were able to detect it after it broke up. The researchers hand over their data core, offering no resistance whatsoever after which Filip and his marauders execute every scientist without hesitation. 

Outside, in space on the exterior of the ship, one of his own men becomes trapped while retrieving the comms buffer. Knowing the asteroid fragments are inbound, he leaves him there saying, "My father will be proud of what you have done." And the UNS Hasami is destroyed. Roll opening credits. 

The Expanse Season 4: Here's a recap to get ready for Season 5!

Filip and his father, Marco Inaros, already promise to be two ruthless, love-to-hate villains in the fifth season.  (Image credit: Amazon Prime Video)

The Rocinante is at Tycho Station for long-term repairs; Naomi talks to Tycho Chief Engineer Sakai (Bahia Watson, who played May Ahearn in  four episodes of the second season of "Star Trek: Discovery). And once again, we hear Naomi's accent change from Earther (in this case, East London) to much more heavy Belter and back again when she speaks to Jim Holden (Steven Strait). 

It hasn't gone unnoticed over the past few seasons, but no official explanation has ever been given and it's not even mentioned in the books. We can only assume it's an added layer of nuance representing a subconscious response that she might not even be aware of when she talks to fellow Belters. It does sometimes jar though. 

Related: How Amazon (and Jeff Bezos) Saved 'The Expanse'

The high standard of production design in "The Expanse" means we love space stations and lunar bases.  (Image credit: Amazon Prime Video)

Being on Amazon Prime Video, the profanity also makes an entertaining return. Sometimes it's totally realistic in, and even improves, a scene. Other times, you wonder if it was really necessary. 

Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman) tells Naomi that her son is on the asteroid Pallas and makes plans to go alone, despite Holden's objections. And then we get to what is so far, the most interesting sub plot in the first few episodes, Amos Burton's (Wes Chatham) return to Earth. He's on The Lazy Songbird, a Belter ferry en route to the Moon. He's basically backpacking, with one duffle bag on his shoulders and sharing meager sleeping accommodations with three other people. This whole set piece is classic Amos and it's testament to how well the writers and Wes Chatham know him.

Amos shares the cabin with two younger Belters who are clearly not quite so worldly-wise. There's a knock at the door and two older, much more suspicious looking Belters enter and try to make the younger passengers pay them for "additional travel insurance." Amos has been around the block, he's clocked some serious star miles, and he recognizes a protection racket when he sees it. He counter-threatens them and they back off, but promise retribution. Amos grabs a towel and says to the tenderfoot travelers he's going to take a shower. He knows exactly what's coming and the bathroom is out of the way and any remaining business can be conducted without interruption. "I hate waiting," he says.

Despite claiming to be "off the record" reporter Monica Stuart uses a cybernetic recording implant. Want.  (Image credit: Amazon Prime Video)

Four heavies enter the washroom while Amos is brushing his teeth. "Could not let it go, coyo. Bad for business," says the ringleader as he comes at Amos with a knife. Cut to black. After a few seconds we cut back and see Amos, with blood dripping from his mouth stagger into a shower cubicle and enjoy the feeling of water droplets on his face. Then, by way of a montage of flashbacks we witness the fight that took place, but what adds the finishing touch to this well written, deftly directed and beautifully filmed scene is the subtle crescendo of church organ music, which combined with the raging fire we see in his eyes, represents the Biblical level of anger Amos has available, inside of him, more than likely exacerbated by the events of the last 12 months. I hope with all of my heart we get to see more of this. 

Holden runs into journalist and filmmaker Monica Stuart (Anna Hopkins) in a bar on Tycho. (She was assigned to film the lives of the crew of the Rocinante during their journey to the Ring back in Season 3.) She says her sources tell her that despite the official declaration that all protomolecule samples were destroyed, someone is experimenting with it at a secret facility in the Belt. 

Meanwhile it seems Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar) has inherited the Razorback – Julie Mao's old racing pinnace  – and is flying to Mars to make amends with his family and meet Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). Bobbie is posing as an underground arms dealer, acting on instructions from Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) in an attempt to learn who is trafficking military weapons between Mars and the Belt. However, her efforts aren't yielding the leads she was hoping for. Alex attempts to patch things up with his estranged wife, Talissa Kamal (Supinder Wraich) and son, Melas (Kaden May), but it doesn't go too well and he has an up-hill struggle ahead of him.  

Let's face facts, Amos Burton is our favorite character and his journey in this season already looks amazing. (Image credit: Amazon Prime Video)

Back on Tycho, Holden confronts Johnson about the protomolecule rumors. He doesn't deny it and simply plays it down. Holden however, is livid and plays him a video made by the research team led by Dr. Elvi Okoye (Lyndie Greenwood) who are experimenting with the alien artifact on Ilus. Holden believes humans – Earthers, Martians and Belters alike – might inadvertently be waking up the race that killed the Ring Builders. 

If you recall, this particular sample of protomolecule was taken by the crew of the Rocinante from a cryogenic safe from the Anubis and hidden in a debris field in the second season episode "Safe" (S02, E01). Then later Naomi confesses to Holden that she never destroyed the sample and gave it to Fred Johnson in "Caliban's War" (S02, E13).

Amos arrives at Lovell City, Luna’s largest settlement and de facto capital. This is the first time we've seen this in the TV show and as you'd expect it's gorgeous. One of many reasons why the first two seasons are so good is the production design. The early elements of the story that are set on Eros and particularly Ceres, beautifully portray the environment, living conditions and hardships that must be endured. He is immediately met by two goons who escort him to Avasarala's office. What follows is an extremely entertaining exchange between the two, equally strong characters. Avasarala is interested in his visit to Earth so he tells her it's to sort out the affairs of a friend who recently died. And that's as far as her questioning gets, so we will no doubt find out more about her interest in the activities of Amos later on. Could it be that she might be looking make use of his special set of skills later on?

The next weaponized asteroid is destined to hit Earth, 25 miles off the most western tip of Africa, in 12 days. (Image credit: Amazon Prime Video)

UN Admiral Delgado (Michael Irby) shares some alarming information with Avasarala that suggests foul play might be involved in the destruction of UNS Hasami, but the evidence is still sketchy at this stage. 

The final minute or so of this outstanding season premiere episode is a montage set to the audio of a video Avasarala is watching in her office of an OPA protest. We see Alex looking sadly at all the empty business spaces and properties as Martians leave their homeworld for the prospect of life on a new world and not under a dome. Amos is continuing his journey on to Earth and Marco Inaros looking menacingly at a hologram projection of presumably the next weaponized asteroid, destined to hit Earth — 25 miles off the most western tip of Africa — in 12 days, 7 hours and 13 minutes.

The first three episodes of Season 5 of "The Expanse" are also now available to watch now on Amazon Prime, along with Seasons 1 to 4.

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Scott Snowden
When Scott's application to the NASA astronaut training program was turned down, he was naturally upset ... as any 6-year-old boy would be. He chose instead to write as much as he possibly could about science, technology and space exploration. He graduated from The University of Coventry and received his training on Fleet Street in London. He still hopes to be the first journalist in space. You can follow Scott on Twitter @LorumIpsum.