“The Expanse” is a SyFy channel series that premiered in 2015, and is based on a book series by James S. A. Corey (which I’ll confess I’ve never read, let alone heard of till recently).
When the show first premiered, I was intrigued by the promotional material I’d seen at Comic Con 2015; the series looked like an intra-solar system version of Ron Moore’s brilliant “Battlestar Galactica” reimagining of 2003. In the series’ 23rd century (a FAR cry from Star Trek’s), humanity has colonized the solar system. We see (what appears to be) a cleaned up Earth, a fully colonized moon, exploited miners/settlers living within the asteroid belt (“belters”), an independent (and somewhat militarized) Mars, and mining outposts as far away as Jupiter’s moons (there are mentions of mines on Ganymede and Callisto, two of Jupiter’s Galilean satellites).
Despite this seeming optimistic expansion (no pun intended) of humanity, the future still looks dark. We still bring all of our problems with us. Our greed, our desire to exploit, our vices, our predilections for caste systems, etc. Prejudices based on gender and skin color appear to have given way to prejudices based on where you live within the solar system. There is even torture based upon one’s personal gravitational tolerances (one earth g has damaging effects on those raised on the various lower gravity colonies throughout the solar system).
When I first gave the series a whirl two years ago, I was rather turned off by it. I mean, there’s dark, but this was really bleak stuff.
A bitter, alcoholic spaceship officer seen in the first episode “Dulcinea” (played by “Breaking Bad”/“Better Call Saul” co-star Jonathan Banks) just about summed it up with the line, “We make it out this way, so far out into the darkness… why couldn’t they bring more lights?”
Early on, it was more torture than entertainment. None of the characters (at first) seemed to have any redeeming traits, and I found my lack of empathy with them rapidly turning into all-out apathy for the show itself.
After about 2-3 episodes, I gave up on it. The end… at the time.
Then came all of the good buzz; from online friends of mine, and even one or two real-world friends. I began to think I’d cut it off too soon. So I opened up my Discflix queue and added the first and second seasons to my my rentals.
I’ve gotten to the end of the second disc of the first season (about 8 episodes in), and I’m not too pig-headed to concede that I gave up on this show too early. While I don’t yet find it as intriguing as say, 2003’s nail-biting “Battlestar Galactica” or even 2002’s witty/colorful “Firefly,” I find it intriguing enough to continue to watch. The story of “The Expanse” is a slow burn, but given time and patience, it grows on you…
What I love about this series (even at this early stage) is the world-building. Each society is very specific and well-delineated. The dark-bellied utopia of 23rd century Earth, the exploited working class of Ceres and the other asteroids (who speak in a colorful, vaguely Caribbean-sounding patois), and the militaristic, fiercely independent Martians (who have advanced technology). And, like “Battlestar Galactica” and “Firefly”, there are no bumpy-headed aliens slathered in latex prosthetics. All of the drama and tension comes from where it’s come from for thousands of years… humanity itself. I’ve heard rumors that aliens may/may-not show up in S2, but so far? Nada.
*** ASTEROID-SIZED SPOILERS FROM SEASON 1 OF “THE EXPANSE” ***
Earth power is represented in the character of United Nations’ executive Chrisjen Avasarala, played by the wonderful, gravelly-voiced Iranian-born actress Shohreh Aghdashloo (who also appeared briefly as “Commodore Paris” in 2016’s “Star Trek Beyond”).
Aghdashloo’s character is a walking/talking dichotomy; kind and maternally gentle with her grandson (even forgiving his launching a water balloon at her), yet steely and unshakably cruel in her torture of a suspected ‘belter’ terrorist by subjecting his atrophied bones and muscles to full Earth gravity. She is a political animal; brutal, but with a purpose. She plays for all of the marbles all of the time.
We later find that some of her ruthlessness is personally motivated by guilt; her son (and father of her beloved grandson) was pressed to go into the space service by his mother and was killed. Her guilt not only drives her, but only insulates her against other distractions and vulnerabilities. Shohreh Aghdashloo adds much so much dimension to her character that she is my easy favorite of all of the characters I’ve seen in the series so far. And that voice…she has perhaps the most unusual and intriguing female voice I’ve heard since the late Mercedes McCambridge (of “The Exorcist” fame).
The ‘Belters’ are represented, in part, by a surly cop named Joe Miller (Thomas Jane, of “The Mist”), living on the asteroid Ceres, who is seeking a wealthy rebellious heiress named Julie “Juliette” Mao (Florence Faivre). She disappeared from a doomed starliner en route to Ceres, and she may or may not have been mixed up with Belter separatist terrorists. He has allies within the police force (a current partner and ex-partner/lover), but essentially he is a ‘lone wolf’ type.
The case is further complicated when a Ceres-bound ‘ice trawler’ space freighter called the Canterbury intercepts a distress call from the missing heiress’ liner, The Scopuli, and the Canterbury crew seem intent on ignoring it; save for a conscience-stricken first officer James Holden (Steven Strait) who secretly logs receipt of the signal (against the rest of his crew’s wishes) and commits them to rescuing the vessel.
The Canterbury is ambushed and destroyed, save for Holden and his small boarding party who were aboard a rescue shuttle; belter engineer Naomi (Dominique Tipper), hotheaded Amos (Wes Chatham), pilot and former Mars naval officer Alex (Cas Anvar) and an ill-fated medic. Cas Anvar gives his “Alex” character a vaguely Texan accent as well. A nice touch…
They are the last survivors of the Canterbury, and were believed to be killed by the Martian navy, using unknown stealth technology.
The Martian navy later commandeers the Canterbury shuttle, but later helps the survivors escape in a smaller Martian war craft (which they later rechristen “The Rocinante”) when the Martian mothership comes under attack.
Blame for the attack and destruction of the Martian ship is assigned to Belter terrorists. When the twice-lucky Rocinante crew is discovered alive (taking refuge) on the asteroid Eros, a spy relays that information to Earth, putting the living ‘martyrs’ lives at risk.
This seeming missing persons’ case and the resulting attacks lay the grounds for suspicions throughout the solar system. And these suspicions may, in fact, lead to war between Mars, the Belters and Earth as well.
I’m only 2/3rds of the way through Season One, so I can’t quite say where it’s going just yet, but I’m willing to follow it.
Those are the basic mechanics of the story, but there is a LOT more going on than that. There are layers, complexities, real world-building going on within this show. I’d almost go as far as to say this is (perhaps) the most detailed and specific future vision I’ve seen since Sir Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic “Blade Runner.” And I’m only 8 or so episodes in; there is still the remainder of S1 and all of S2 to go through. Season 3 premieres next year, which gives me a while to catch up. But more importantly, a chance to digest this rich and intriguing new universe.
Are there flaws? Of course.
^ One of the immediate flaws is the deeply cliched ‘tough cop’ character Joe Miller (Thomas Jane); he is one of the most concentrated collections of hardbitten detective cliches I’ve seen in awhile. I half-expect him to call women ‘dames’ or ‘broads.’ His emo-haircut and silly Mike Hammer-ish hat are a bit overstated, but actor Thomas Jane is game enough to carry on, thus I’m willing to swallow my nerd-picking observations and do the same.
The dark, dreary vision of the future is well-realized (impressive, considering the relatively low budget of the show), but is a real downer at times. Almost every ship interior, every asteroid belt bar, hotel room, etc. all look like sleazy, neon-lit, room-sized foot lockers. While that look may add to the overall claustrophobic feeling the series’ aims for, it also has me occasionally wanting to stop and come up for air every now and then. I find that a nice, sunny episode of “Doctor Who” or “Star Trek” tends to cleanse a palette a bit afterward; allowing me to fortify enough to dive back in and reenter this forbidding world of “The Expanse.”
The characters (save for the immediately commanding Chrisjen Avasarala) all take a while to register as individuals, and not just grim-faced space jockeys. They eventually do, and once that happens, you track their stories and begin to care about them…warts and all. Sometimes surprisingly so.
But while enduring the occasional darkness and grimness of this future vision can seem like a chore at times? I assure you that (so far, at least) “The Expanse” is worth it. I plan to tough it out for a while longer since I just have to see where it’s all going. And frankly, I’ve endured too much to quit now. But patience IS required.
If anyone who reads this has seen the rest of “The Expanse” season 1 and 2? Please… I don’t want to know! I’m just getting my toes into “The Expanse”, and I’m finally working up enough fortification to keep going.
Not easy, but (so far) worth it.