The Expanse Pushes Beyond Its Horizon

As its second season draws to a close, it is very clear that The Expanse, arguably the flagship TV series on Syfy, has thrived and become must-see TV.

Based on James S.A. Corey’s series of novels, The Expanse tells several related stories that take place two centuries from now in our solar system as it has been colonized by humanity. From Earth to the the asteroid belt to Jupiter’s moons we see how life is for humans living under different conditions. People living in the Belt deal with harsh conditions and are stigmatized, while those on Mars appear war-like and disdainful of everyone else, especially Earthers. Meanwhile, life on Earth isn’t exactly a picnic from the few glimpses we’ve been shown as it seems that the citizens live under a severe dichotomy where most people are unemployed and destitute while the privileged few control the planet under luxurious conditions.

protomolecule julie mao and miller

The Expanse has many interesting characters with segments devoted to their diverse locales. Tying everything together is the mystery of the protomolecule. It’s an extra-terrestrial substance discovered on Saturn’s moon Phoebe by an Earth-based company called Protogen. It interacts with living tissue and radically alters it, and of course, the company tries to weaponize it. What happens is that the protomolecule is difficult to contain and quickly threatens humanity as it infects anyone that comes into contact with the substance.

Rocinante Crew

There are roughly three storylines devoted to the impact of the protomolecule. Out in the Belt and Jupiter’s moons, we follow the story of the crew of the Rocinante, who try to contain the spread of the protomolecule. The best way to think of them is to look at Firefly, meaning the characters are supposed to be your average joes who live in space in a hard-scrabble existence. The crew is made up of citizens from different planets such as the Rocinante’s Earth captain James Holden (Steven Strait), his lover and ship’s Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), the ship’s Earther mechanic. The four have distinct personalities ranging from easy going (Alex), to brutish (Amos). In the first season, the protomolecule overran a colony on Eros and nearly consumed the Rocinante crew. Now, they’re on an unsanctioned mission to hunt down all traces of the protomolecule elsewhere and to destroy it. Thanks to their likable nature and heroism the crew are effectively the heart of The Expanse.

Bobbie Draper

We also follow the story of a tough-as-nails Martian marine, Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). Introduced in the beginning of the second season, she came off as an unlikable thug who was itching for any opportunity to fight Earthers. But she saw firsthand the destructive nature of the protomolecule as a solider intentionally altered by the substance wiped out her team on Ganymede. This incident nearly starts a war between Earth and Mars as the two powers are bitter rivals. This experience has a profound impact on Draper and she starts to question her way of life. Out of all the characters in The Expanse, hers is the one that has grown the most and her development has made Draper a quick fan favorite.

Chrisjen Avarsarala

The other storyline is devoted to the United Nations assistant secretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is trying to get to the bottom of the protomolecule and to prevent a war from breaking out between her planet and Mars. Aghdashloo easily provides the best acting in the show and presents a mature, regal presence that is so captivating to watch thanks in part to her husky, hypnotic voice that vaguely recalls Lauren Bacall. While the Rocinante crew are the show’s heart, and Draper the soul, Chrisjen Avarsarala represents its mind as her scintillating dialogue  with diplomats and corporate heads provide much needed food for thought.

The Expanse has another distinguishing element and that is its adherence to hard science. Although we still hear the sounds of spaceships flying about great pains are taken to show life under microgravity. We see the perils and fragility of life outside of Earth where being able to breath can be a life-or-death situation. There is time-delayed communications between colonies and Earth. One interesting segment had a group of Martians (including Bobbie Draper) arriving on Earth and having to deal with life under alien conditions. The gravity was hard on them, the sun was too bright for their eyes and they needed medication to be able to breath Earth’s air. These were nice, realistic touches. It’s not always accurate but kudos to the producers for trying their best.

martian marines on ganymede

Syfy should be applauded for championing The Expanse early on and allowing it to prosper in its second season. It has pushed the envelope in its story and given us fascinating characters. On a side note, it is regrettable that Thomas Jane’s hard-boiled detective Joseph Miller died this season but his final actions helped save Earth from being infected by the protomolecule. On the other hand, The Expanse’s second season has introduced interesting new characters that have kept its momentum. Add terrific scripts and superb production and special effects and it is easy to see why The Expanse is the best science fiction TV show airing right now.

Lewis T. Grove and José Soto

Despite Controversy & Flaws Iron Fist Hits Its Mark

The latest Netflix/Marvel TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is Iron Fist. The main character and his story are based on the Marvel Comics hero created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. As the final piece of the superhero puzzle that will make up this year’s Netflix mini-series, The Defenders, Iron Fist has been mired in controversy. Most of it having to do with charges of that the title character is just another white savior type since he emulates a stereotypical Asian monastic lifestyle. Other complaints about Iron Fist are that it is slow moving and uninvolving.

These criticisms levied at Iron Fist are unfortunate because it’s generally an enjoyable, well-produced entry of the MCU. It does have its share of problems and is not as engaging as Daredevil or Jessica Jones. On the other hand, after last year’s disappointingly dull and overacted Luke Cage, Iron Fist is a course correction for the Netflix/Marvel shows.

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The TV show centers on Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a homeless heir to a multinational corporation who reappears in the company’s Manhattan headquarters after he was believed to have died fifteen years ago. In his backstory, he and his parents were in a plane crash in the Himalayas that killed his folks, but he survived and was rescued by monks. They take Danny to K’un-Lun, a mystical, extradimensional city that appears every fifteen years on Earth. Once there, Danny is raised by the monks, learns martial arts and eventually becomes the latest in the line of a mystical warrior called the Iron Fist, the Living Weapon. His duty was to protect K’un-Lun from an evil mystical group called the Hand but is shocked after his return that the Hand are on his native world.

It takes some time for him to convince the world that he actually is Danny Rand. What doesn’t help is that when we first see him he’s barefoot, unkempt and disheveled. He spends much of his energy trying to reconnect with two childhood friends, the siblings Joy and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), who run Danny’s company and are a couple of corporate douchebags, especially Ward. They see him as either a fraud or worse a genuine threat to their hold on the company that was founded by their fathers. The twist is that Meachum’s father, Harold (David Wenham), who supposedly died years ago, is alive and in hiding. An amoral and abusive type himself, the father takes an interest in Danny Rand’s re-emergence. This is because he sees Rand as an opportunity to take on his enemy the Hand (featured in Daredevil), who have a hold on him. With this in mind, Harold forces Ward to allow Danny into the company. Once in place as a majority shareholder, Danny begins righting the wrongs done by the company.

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As this corporate plotline unfolds, Danny meets a downtrodden karate instructor Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who operates a dojo, and the two connect. She becomes his partner as he tries to get behind the reason of the Hand’s purpose on Earth and how they are connected to his company.

Iron Fist may not be immediately engaging at first. The first couple of episodes are actually frustrating with drawn out flashbacks of the plane crash and Danny trying to convince people of his identity. While he is sympathetic, Rand comes off as being too naïve and trusting. This leads to a dull stretch where he is imprisoned in a psychiatric ward and the narrative injects a pointless notion that he may be insane. While this works so well in Legion, here the subplot is plodding. But in the end, after he exhibits his first manifestation of his superhuman martial arts the show picks up momentum.

iron fist attack

Speaking of martial arts, a major drawback to Iron Fist is that for a TV show about martial arts many of the fight scenes lack power and energy. They look too choreographed and listless. This is seen in the first few minutes of the first episode “Snow Gives Way” when Danny has a by-the-numbers fight with some guards as he tries to contact the Meachums. This is a dangerous flaw for a show of this type. We are supposed to be shown that he is a superhuman martial artist, but the show has a hard time showing this to viewers. There are some good fight sequences though, many of which involve Wing, who is one of the best characters on the show, but they pale when compared to Daredevil or even Arrow.

But take heart in knowing that whenever Danny’s hands start glowing, you will be treated to some climatic displays of raw power. One drawback to keeping this show in the gritty and grounded MCU shows from Netflix is that it prevents the more mystical aspects of Rand’s backstory from being shown. It might’ve lightened the show’s mood and better matched Danny’s persona.

Of all the heroes in these shows, he seems to be the most optimistic and exudes an inner calm. This presents a challenge in that it makes it difficult to showcase any of the inner turmoil and demons which plague the stars of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. In reality, this different kind of personality is a welcome change of pace from all the brooding and conflicted heroes, though it makes him a bit one dimensional. Danny just wants to do good for others during his return to our world. He just has to go through these hurdles to achieve this goal.

Once the show gets going after the early episodes, it picks up the pace and becomes more action-oriented as we want to see what happens next to these characters. The villains are not the greatest but there are attempts to give them some layering, which keeps things interesting. In Joy’s case, groundwork is laid for making her more amendable to Danny’s cause. While we try to figure out what is Harold’s ultimate agenda and though Ward comes off as one dimensional at first, there is more to him than being a corporate tool.

When compared to Daredevil (season one) or Jessica Jones, Iron Fist does not reach their levels of quality. Yet, it has its merits and is a welcome addition to the MCU. Frankly, much of the criticism is unfortunate because Iron Fist is being faithful to the source material, in the comic books he is a white man who grew up practicing martial arts in an Asian-inspired dimension. Although on the surface it may seem like it, he does not embody the white savior cliché in the comics or this show despite what some critics may want to believe.  Others may simply be tiring of the MCU and are looking for a reason to take it down a notch. Whatever the case may be, try to keep an open mind and sample this show. Iron Fist takes a while to engage you, but once it does it’s worth binge watching.

José Soto

Kong Rules Skull Island

Kong: Skull Island is new feature film starring the famous giant gorilla, King Kong. It is set up to be part of a new shared cinematic universe that focuses on giant monsters and by itself Kong: Skull Island is quite an exciting thrill ride.

The film opens in the early 1970s as Bill Randa (John Goodman) launches an expedition to an uncharted island surrounded by perpetual storm systems. He is coy about the expedition’s purpose, claiming it’s a geological study, but we find out later his real reason for undertaking the voyage. Joining him is an all-star cast including Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former soldier turned expert tracker, Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, a crusading photojournalist, and Samuel L. Jackson as Col. Preston Packard, the military head of the expedition. Once they and several others make it to the island they incur the wrath of Kong, a gigantic gorilla that strands them on the dangerous island. As the expedition survivors make their way to a pick up point on the island, they meet a marooned, World War II-era pilot, Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) and learn first hand of the true danger of Skull Island: gigantic beasts that are a bigger threat than Kong himself.

Kong: Skull Island is an exciting and brisk-moving ode to those great old monster movies from the bygone era where hapless people are stranded on an island and have to contend with giant monsters. It does what it sets out to do: show us lots of scenes of giant monsters attacking and eating people and there are many invigorating action pieces with Kong that are the film’s highlights. The standout scenes include Kong’s attack on the Vietnam War-era helicopters carrying the film’s stars, and anytime Kong shows why he’s the king of Skull Island. That is any scene where King Kong fights with giant monsters. The creatures are wonderfully unique creations and quite imposing like the two-limbed skull crawlers that are Kong’s main monstrous enemies.

His other chief antagonist is Col. Packard who quickly becomes obsessed with killing Kong after his people are wiped out by Kong. This Ahab-like obsession is the driving force for this character and the people around him while an opposing viewpoint develops from Conrad and some others who just want to get off the island.

Admittedly, Kong: Skull Island isn’t a terribly deep or thought-provoking film and the characters are written on the flimsy side, but the film delivers on what it is supposed to be a fun giant monster film. Even then, some characters do stand out and that is largely due to the star power of the actors playing these roles. The standouts include Reilly, who provides quirky comedy relief though he does have a sad backstory, Hiddleston turns out to be a hard-fisted action hero, while Larson, Goodman and Jackson do their best with their limited roles. The only other gripe about Kong: Skull Island is that it doesn’t feature any dinosaurs. Aside from a triceratops skull, there isn’t a t-rex or other prehistoric monster to be seen. But in the end, the creatures conjured up by the effects them makes up for this. By the way, the creature effects were well done as were the production values and the film’s groovy early ’70s soundtrack is a plus. Any giant monster film that features Creedence get bonus points!

Of course, the real star of this film is King Kong himself. The film wisely let the big ape hog the spotlight and there are plenty of scenes featuring him to keep the film moving along briskly. Even the moments when Kong isn’t fighting humans or other monsters are awesome and there is a well thought out sense of scale to his enormous size.

kong vs skull crawler

 

Kong: Skull Island is an entertaining giant monster film that might’ve been a better fit for a summer viewing. Some critics are being unfair to this film with their complaints. But don’t let that stop anyone from going out, turning off their brain and worries, and enjoying themselves with this giant monster romp. Bottom line, this film delivers many great Kong action scenes of him stomping and smashing monsters and puny humans, and that is enough to keep any giant monster film fan entertained. And stick around for the post-credits scene that promises an eagerly anticipated meeting of Kong with the other great giant monster.

Waldermann Rivera

Top 10 Star Wars: The Clone Wars Episodes & Arcs

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Star Wars: The Clone Wars was an epic TV series that vastly expanded the Star Wars canon and was a boon for Star Wars fans after the conclusion of the prequel trilogy in 2005. The animated show originally aired on the Cartoon Network from 2008 through 2013 and since then has been available to stream on Netflix. However, Netflix will stop streaming it very soon (March 7, 2017) and the only way to see this terrific series is through downloads or DVDs/Blu-rays. It has lots of devoted followers because it had so many different adventures and stories that spanned the galaxy and showed the reach of the huge conflict that engulfed the galaxy. Star Wars: The Clone Wars also took its heroes to so many different places, not just physically, but in terms of their lives and development as characters. Here are 10 of the best story arcs and episodes of the show.
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10. “Hostage Crisis” Season 1, Episode 22: The first season finale of Star Wars: The Clone Wars introduced the notorious bounty hunter Cad Bane and it was a memorable debut. He was someone who specialized in hunting Jedi, thus, he has armor at the sides of his neck to prevent Force chokes. The cruel executions of hostages in his invasion of the Senate building was both shocking for an animated series and also let the audience know that he was no pushover. His later appearances in the show further cemented his place in Star Wars: The Clone Wars as a great adversary for its heroes.
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9. “Obi-Wan Undercover” arc Season 4, Episodes 15-18 (“Deception”, “Friends and Enemies”, “The Box”, and “Crisis on Naboo”): A very interesting storyline that has Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi going undercover as a prisoner in a Republic detention facility, in order to gain information about a plot to kidnap Chancellor Palpatine. This arc has him attempting to survive life on the inside, then going on the run with bounty hunter Cad Bane with a vengeful, fellow Jedi Anakin Skywalker in pursuit, who believes Obi-Wan was killed by the person Obi-Wan is impersonating! This story is quite different from the usual Star Wars plot and shows the strength of the show in that it really expanded the idea of what Star Wars could be.
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8. “Padawans Hunted” arc Season 3, Episodes 21-22 (“Padawon Lost”, and “Wookiee Hunt”): Another familiar character in a new setting is fan favorite Chewbacca, who appears on the show when Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano is captured by Trandoshans and sent to a world to be hunted. She allies with other Jedi padawans to escape and meets Chewie, who was also captured by the Trandoshians. Together, they are able to turn the tables on their captives and escape. Having Chewbacca on the show is a nice link to the original trilogy and demonstrates Chewie’s heroism and resourcefulness, as well as a nice back story to an iconic Star Wars character.
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7. “Darth Maul Returns” Season 4, Episodes 21-22 (“Brothers” and “Revenge”) and Season 5, Episode 1 (“Revival”): Darth Maul’s return to Star Wars was a nice surprise for fans of the great Sith villain. The introduction of his brother Savage Opress was also an interesting revelation. Their back story as natives of the world of Dathomir and Opress finding his long lost brother in a state of insanity on a distant Outer Rim junk world with mechanical legs are definite highlights of the show. Maul (obsessed with getting revenge) and his confrontation with Obi-Wan Kenobi was thrilling and a treat for fans of the much maligned Phantom Menace.
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6. “Mortis” Season 3, Episodes 15-17 (“Overlords”, “Altar of Mortis”, and “Ghosts of Mortis”): Anakin Skywalker actually sees his future as Darth Vader in this set of episodes. He, along with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Ahsoka Tano are stranded on the mysterious world of Mortis that has only three beings on it, Father, Daughter and Son. They seem to embody the Force itself and the Son sees Anakin as the Chosen One and gives him a vision of his future as a Sith Lord. This causes Anakin intense grief and pushes him to ally with the Son against the other two. The Father eventually erases Anakin’s memory of his future, thus sparing him further pain, but at the cost of letting Anakin continue on his eventual path to evil. Again, this shows how Star Wars: The Clone Wars puts familiar characters in fascinating situations that were previously unknown to audiences.
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5. “Clone Conspiracy” season 6 episodes 1-4 (“The Unknown”, “Conspiracy”, “Fugitive”, and “Orders”): This group of episodes starts the final season of Star Wars: The Clone Wars on a very ominous note. Clone troopers Tup and Fives are embroiled in a conspiracy which takes them from the clone home world of Kamino to the heart of the Republic on Coruscant, as they try to uncover the reason behind Tup’s sudden violent attack on a Jedi Master. This results in them discovering the secret of Order 66 and Chancellor Palpatine’s plot to destroy the Jedi. Unfortunately, they are thwarted at every step as they try to unmask all of this treachery as Palpatine’s all-pervasive power in the Republic is shown, which will have very tragic consequences for the galaxy.
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4. “Landing At Point Rain” Season 2, Episode 5: This episode most embodies the name of the show. A clone war. This action-packed story shows the Jedi and their clone troopers assaulting Geonosis and a massive droid factory. The special effects are great and demonstrate the high quality of the work done for this series. The fighting is both intense and brutal, and demonstrates the horrific cost of Darth Sidious’ plans to embroil the galaxy in this seemingly never-ending conflict.
Star Wars malevolence
3. “The Malevolence Trilogy” Season 1, Episodes 2-4 (“Rising Malevolence”, “Shadow of Malevolence”, and “Destroy Malevolence”): This story arc kicks off the show with a bang and has Jedi Knights Anakin Skywalker, his apprentice Ahsoka Tano and Master Plo Koon attempting to destroy a new Separatist warship called Malevolence. These episodes feature great space battles and visual effects and really showcase the huge struggle between the Galactic Republic and Separatist Alliance. They also introduce the iconic Y-Wing bombers to Star Wars canon and demonstrate their usefulness to the Republic and of course, later on to the Rebellion.
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2. “Ahsoka’s Trial” Season 5, Episodes 17-20 (“Sabotage”, “The Jedi Who Knew Too Much”, “To Catch A Jedi”, and “The Wrong Jedi”): Ahsoka Tano’s last appearance in Star Wars: The Clone Wars was both memorable and tragic. She is framed for a bombing at the Jedi Temple and forced to go on the run, chased not only by Republic forces, but also by her mentor Anakin Skywalker. The betrayal she feels at being abandoned by the Jedi Council and her subsequent decision to leave after she is exonerated is one of the most striking events in the whole series. Ahsoka’s last scene shows her sadly walking off into the sunset as her devastated mentor can only watch. This no doubt had a huge influence on Anakin and his feelings toward the Jedi as a whole.
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1. “Yoda’s Journey” Season 6 episodes 11-13 (“Voices”, “Destiny”, and “Sacrifice”): The last arc of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and the best one. Master Yoda hears the voice of Master Qui-Gon Jinn and journeys to the Sith home world to find the origin of the Force, all the while his Jedi Council members fear for his sanity. This last series of episodes goes right to the heart of Star Wars mythology and shows how Master Yoda was able to persevere in the dark times of the Empire; by using the lessons he learned from his departed friend and from the Force itself. His last words in the final episode of learning lessons that will help not only during the Clone War, but for all time, demonstrate the lasting power of his wisdom.
C.S. Link

Colony Is A Compelling Sci-Fi Mystery In Its Second Season

 

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Out of the many sci-fi TV shows currently airing, the most surprising one happens to be Colony, now in its second season. The reason is that it continues to be intriguing and compelling to watch.

For anyone unfamiliar with Colony, the show is about life in Los Angeles about one year after mysterious aliens have taken over the world. Or that’s what we think. It isn’t flat out stated that aliens are our conquerors, but that is the general assumption. So little has been revealed about the conquerors and they’ve only been shown two times so far, and all we’ve been shown is something that is heavily armored and probably unable to breathe our air. This may be frustrating to some but anyone enjoying slow burns and reveals will be thrilled. For instance, we, and even Colony’s characters are unsure about the aliens and their objective. Why have they come? They’ve shown that they outclass humanity very easily and could have just exterminated the entire species. Instead, they were content to just take out our power grid and separate our cities with these giant walls. More importantly, they remain unseen and let human proxies run things for them with their ultimate goal unclear. The only clue we have been shown is that human prisoners on Earth and its moon are put to hard labor.

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While viewers have the overall mystery of the aliens, the show concentrates on the cost of alien occupation to humanity, in particular, the Bowman family. Led by Will (Josh Holloway) and his wife Katie (Sarah Wayne Calles), the family lives a desperate and paranoid life in a cut-off L.A. that is boiling with tension. The end of the last season had the human authorities, which Bowman is a part of, hunting down human rebels that managed to capture one of the aliens. What the rebels, (oh, by the way, Katie worked with them) didn’t realize is that acts of rebellion lead to cities being wiped out. So, L.A.’s existence is a precarious thing as shown in one cold opener this season where the human ruling council in Europe were trying to decide if the city should have been punished for the acts of a few rebels. Adding to this mess, is that the aliens and human authorities have increased their surveillance capabilities a thousandfold. Now as shown in the second season, every citizen in Los Angeles is actively and discreetly monitored. This has driven the human resistance deep underground and made the stakes much more dire. Frankly, we’re asking how can you fight back with the constant surveillance?

santa-monica-colonyMaking things difficult for the Bowmans are the issues with their three children. A driving force last season was the family’s search for their missing son Charlie (Jacob Buster), who was trapped in Santa Monica when the walls came down during the aliens’ arrival. Will managed to make his way into the city in between seasons and found him, but Charlie’s more of a feral child because Santa Monica is a literal hell hole where gangs and warlords rule. So, now this preteen is emotionally damaged and obviously has issues. Then their young daughter Gracie (Isabella Crovetti) is being re-educated by a creepy tutor (Erin Way) to worship the aliens. Finally, their oldest son Bram (Alex Neustaedter) was caught trying to cross the wall and is now sentenced to hard labor. Now we’re seeing the occupation from his point of view at a brutal prison camp.

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As all this is going on, we’re wondering how can humanity fight back and what will be the cost? It’s riveting watching the Bowmans trying not to attract attention and just survive. Is this even possible in the long run? Colony isn’t like V or other humans vs. aliens TV shows were it seemed that humanity had some kind of fighting chance. This show can seem bleak and will and katie bowmanhas shown that people are ready to give up. A case in point was shown in one episode that showcased Will’s co-worker, Jennifer (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who struggled internally with the idea of turning in Will and Katie for their activities. Unable to betray the family, and wracked with loneliness since her family is now gone, it was implied that she committed suicide. Other episodes show how the rebels are near the breaking point. As for the Bowmans, they just want to be left alone, but more and more they are realizing that is impossible and recent episodes have shown their coming to this conclusion.

Colony succeeds because it is able to deftly juggle being a spy drama, a sci-fi mystery and an entertaining look at family dynamics during a war and under occupation. A big hurdle was the sophomore curse and Colony has dealt with it nicely and in its own way has become must-see viewing in its second season.

Lewis T. Grove