Space is a tough sell for me. Star Trek and Wars never grabbed my attention. Revivals, reboots, and reimaginings go by without me noticing. It’s only when I’m ignorant to what it is I’m seeing does the idea of space seem to attract my attention. One such case (possibly the first) was the ’04 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, back in the golden days of SyFy. The idea of space didn’t factor in as much as the character drama taking place, but I was captive from the start. That seemed to be the case for the die-hard fans who are still devoted more than a decade later. It’s what put SyFy on the map and convinced viewers there was something worth watching on their network.
From the opening title of “Dulcinea”–hearing the chant of something foreign pouring forth from the speakers–it’s obvious SyFy thinks The Expanse will be BSG’s successor, and possibly their way back into the heart of their core audience.
The Expanse takes place in the (relatively) near future where the United Nations acts as a global government body locked in a cold war with the newly independent Martian Congressional Republic. In the middle of this conflict are migrant workers on various asteroid belts who are governed by crime lords and corporate entities that use their labor for profit.
After intercepting a distress call from a marooned ship, James Holden, XO of the Canterbury, a glacier-hauling frigate, is isolated with a small crew as the rest of the company is killed in an attack from a mysterious ship. Being the only ones to escape with their lives, the five survivors of the Cant are determined to tell everyone that Martians, as far as they know, have destroyed an Earth ship. Working alongside them, though surreptitiously, the UN attempts to demystify the explosion of the Cant with a combination of politicking and spycraft, hoping it will keep their cold war from turning hot.
At the center of all this is the Julie Mao, a wealthy heiress who has disappeared from Ceres Station. Tasked with locating the missing rich girl and bringing her home is Josephus Miller, detective for Star Helix, a private security firm acting as the station’s police force. Right away he learns that Julie had fallen in with the OPA, a separatist movement seeking independence for “belters” on the station, and is possibly linked to the explosion of the Cant.
These days it’s rare for me to come across anything blind. Unless it’s a totally new IP–clearly an endangered species in modern media–I typically know the layout of new shows or movies because I’ve read the books their based on or I’m familiar with the original. Meaning I’m intimate with the source material and will likely complain about it from start to finish. So to see something for the first time with no opinion of how it should be, I was able to set expectations to low. And then, just like that, they lifted off the ground as though they were weightless.
I make no bones about it. Go read my reviews on 12 Monkeys to know how I feel about SyFy’s attempt to brand itself as a serious network since the end of BSG. Spoiler: it hasn’t gone well. I can only take so many animal-hybrid storms before I’m convinced that executive producers are drawing words out of hats to assemble scripts. And while this isn’t equal to BSG, it’s as close as SyFy is going to get.
There’s a degree of authority that’s lent to The Expanse over its portrayal of life in space. If you know anything about the pressures of space travel for astronauts out there for months at a time, starting and ending a life there seems like a nightmare, and that’s the case with emaciated belters stretched out to impressive heights, shambling about on glass bones, succumbing to the shakes as their bodies break down.
Even travel is perilous. I got bouts of horror vacui watching The Martian and Gravity, imagining the horrors of drifting out into the endless void of space. But that’s simple to contend with when you consider all that’s presented in the Expanse. You get the sense that space, though populated and colonized by humans, is a vast, unknown sea that exists without mercy and can claim anyone at any time.
But you also marvel at the technology that got man that far away from where he first began. When a miner has an arm ripped off by debris, he doesn’t fret. He’s blase. The company will outfit him with a prosthetic that’s better than what he lost. When the Cant has to change course, people strap in for a flip and burn, working with the properties of space as we understand them, not against it.
I’m not arguing it’s science-accurate. I’m not that poorly educated, and we know for a fact that sex in space isn’t as simple as they make it look. But there’s a credible foundation there that not even BSG had that makes this just that much more worth the watch.
Technicals aside, the art also has a lot to offer. Keep in mind, I never read any of the novels the Expanse based on, and yet I felt at home during the pilot. Ceres is a suitable stand-in for 2019 Los Angeles, complete with open-air noodle eateries and annoyed detectives in beat-up hats begrudging the thought of their next case as sex and drugs float about in the background, as organic as the industrial pipes jutting from the ceiling.
Nods to BSG, 2001, and even a little Mass Effect are found in uniforms, space suits, ships, stations. It’s a love letter to a lot of near-future sci-fi of the last forty years or so, enough that just about everyone will find something familiar.
Earth, unfortunately, hasn’t gotten much exposure this season. We see Manhattan, and with how fast I see the skyline mutate over the last few years we may have one that looks theirs in a handful of years, not in the next hundred years. But the talk of a world gone volatile with an aggressively changing climate is something we can all imagine, especially if you’re still dealing with this week and a half of intense winter.
Performances are serviceable. Thomas Jane shines as he does anywhere he goes, and any sci-fi regular is going to be able to recognize Canadian faces in the mix from shows over the last decade and a half, and gamers may recognize a familiar cyborg spy in the mix, but there hasn’t been anything outstanding this season in terms of performance. Same for the writing. The conspiracy at play is tight, which is what you want. Everything links up in a logical way thus far, and motivations are clear for those who have displayed them thus far.
But this isn’t the poetry of Asimov or Vonnegut gazing at the majesty of space travel, wondering what it’d be like once we got there and the strange creatures we’d encounter along the way. And that doesn’t matter. What’s here just works in a grounded fashion that many other space-faring shows have failed to present. And while it’ll forever be in the shadow of that other SyFy show about humans drifting through space, it’s earned its own place on the network’s short list of successes.
The Expanse – Season 1 (8/10)