Amazon Prime has resurrected SyFy’s cancelled sci-fi saga “The Expanse,” and it’s never been better. The greater production value afforded by Amazon’s money bags have given the series a luxe sheen that is greatly deserved, as “The Expanse” is easily one of the greatest sci-fi series going on right now (and of the 21st century to date). “The Expanse” has filled the harder-edged space opera void left in the wake of Ron Moore’s “Battlestar Galactica” (2003-2009), which was a pioneer in that particular subgenre.
Since I’ve not yet read “The Expanse” books for fear of spoiling the series for myself, I won’t reveal the resolutions to any of this season’s plot threads out of respect to those readers who’ve not yet finished all ten episodes of the new season.
****RING-NETWORK SIZED SPOILERS!!****
Despite its fancy new digs at Amazon, “The Expanse” is still very much the same series we last saw in seasons 1-3, save for the singular recasting of the character Arjun Avasarala (Secretary General Chrisjen’s long-suffering husband), formerly played by Brian George, and now played by Michael Benyaer. Have to admit, I did a double-take when I first saw new Arjun, since Benyaer looks and acts nothing like Brian George (for a moment, I thought perhaps Chrisjen remarried during the hiatus). But it’s a very minor nit in an otherwise phenomenal new batch of episodes. I’m pleased to say that the rest of the actors have returned to their roles, and that their characters are well served.
Speaking of Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), she is back and with Amazon Prime’s new freedom, she is more delightfully blue in her language than ever. We also see some interesting new facets to her character, as her leadership role as Secretary General of the United Nations is now challenged by a young upstart rival named Nancy Gao (played by Lily Gao). This is one of but many challenges Avasarala faces this year, and she handles each with her customary cunning and gravitas.
This season sees the action sprawling further outward into a greater universe, with last season’s discovery of the “Ring Network”, a vast portal outside the orbit of Uranus consisting of traversable wormholes to thousands of new solar systems. In a typical sci-fi series, such a discovery would unify humanity in a saccharine, schmaltzy, Kumbaya way. The writers of “The Expanse” (novel authors Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Star Trek veteran Naren Shankar) wisely understand that the ‘discovery’ of new frontiers on Earth have never led to instant peace (and those ‘frontiers’ are usually on someone else’s doorstep). Typically these ‘discoveries’ only lead to expansions of existing conflicts and skirmishes over resources, albeit in all-new playgrounds.
The newly discovered Ring Network is naturally fought over, with occasional traversing ships hijacked by desperate “Belters” (the long-exploited residents of the asteroid belt) who live under the banner of the OPA (Outer Planets Alliance). The OPA are often dismissed as lesser beings by the ruthless, greedy “inners” (residents of Earth and Mars, who have major beefs with each other as well).
One of the newly discovered worlds on the other side of one of the Ring Network wormholes is a seemingly Earth-like planet named “New Terra”, and is immediately colonized by squatting Belters, who have staked a claim. That claim is immediately challenged by a contingent of Inner-settlers, under the leadership of a ruthless monster named Adolphus Murtry (“Torchwood” costar Burn Gorman), who immediately instigates clashes with the Belter settlers, whom he considers an undesirable caste.
The Belter colonists, as it’s later revealed, tried to shoot down the Inner’s transport, disguising the attack as the work of alien shrapnel launched by the planet’s own long-dormant defense mechanism, which is now unwittingly triggered. The Belters and Inners have taken their generations-old fight to a new arena, with each group dangerously intransigent towards the other, and the crew of the Rocinante (fittingly named after Don Quixote’s horse) acting as half-ass mediators in the dispute.
The good ship Rocinante are all back, and not recast (thank goodness). Captain Jim Holden (Steven Strait), his lover/conscience, former-Belter Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), wonderfully sociopathic strongman/mechanic Amos Burton (natural scene-stealer Wes Chatham) and Martian-born flyboy Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar).
Though they are separated for much of the season, they are still very much a family. If anything, the bonds between these characters seem exceptionally charged this year, with the dangers of a new colony world offering all sorts of diabolical challenges to their lives. Each of the main cast are very well served this year, and their respective cheering sections will not be disappointed.
Holden, of course, remains ‘haunted’ by the head-version of dead Ceres-based detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane). Their relationship is expanded upon (though remaining just enigmatic enough for some unresolved mystery) as Holden is given an assignment (by Avasarala) to assess New Terra’s situation and report back to her. Obviously that plan won’t go as…well, planned.
Things are also tense on Mars, as Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) settles into a blue-collar life while staying with relatives. Mars is due to receive a largely ceremonial (but unproductive) visit from Chrisjen, who invites Draper as her ‘token Martian’ during the reception. Tough-as-nails Bobbie is horribly treated at the reception by rude diplomats.
As she leaves the reception, Bobbie is met by Chrisjen, who wants the headstrong Martian ex-marine to work for her. The insulted and prideful Bobbie refuses, choosing instead to work at a blue collar job. Her new career sees her unwittingly caught up in a crime ring, whose high-profile members kidnap her nephew for her cooperation.
Turns out this local syndicate has a wide (and powerful) reach. Will she reconsider Avasarala’s offer (and protection)? This Mars-criminal underworld subplot well serves the ever-increasing range of the imposing Frankie Adams. Like Amos, Bobbie has a mental agility that is an equal match to her physicality.
The OPA (Outer Planet Alliance) Belters still have their warship, now rechristened “Medina Station” (formerly “Behemoth”). The ship was a massive Mormon colony vessel commandeered and refitted into a Belter warship and base of operations. Medina Station has now has taken up a position near the newly discovered Ring Network, to safeguard OPA interests, and is still led by former rivals and current allies, Commander Klaes Ashford (David Strathairn) and Camina Drummer (Cara Gee). The two have a much greater affinity for each other than they did last season.
Ashford is the older, battle-hardened war horse (with a nascent desire for peace in his later years), while the frosty Drummer, who was nearly killed last year, is attempting to uncover the truth behind rogue OPA attacks led by Marco Inaros (Keon Alexander). Inaros is also a former lover of Naomi Nagata, with whom he has a son. Despite how soap opera it sounds, rest assured; the emotional fireworks of The Expanse are earned, not tacked on as melodramatic afterthoughts.
While all the stories and subplots of this season are well-tended to, much of the primary focus of the season is Holden’s de facto leadership of the New Terra colony under extreme conditions that change moment-to-moment, with the combined lives of untrusting Belter and rival Inner colonists hanging in the balance. Every year we see Holden assuming greater and greater responsibility, and season four sees Holden’s natural, though not infallible, leadership capability reach its apex.
Brave New Worlds… That Don’t Want Us.
One of the themes that is prevalent throughout the season was humanity’s knack for taking old quarrels into new worlds. The only significant physiological difference between the inners and the Belters is the latter group’s intolerance to stronger gravitational fields, as we see Naomi having to inject herself with muscle stimulating drugs to be able to even walk on New Terra. Living on low-gravity asteroids (and spaceships) instead of larger planets will atrophy muscles over time, and the series gets points for not ignoring this issue. The injections are admittedly a stopgap, but at least the problem isn’t ignored as it usually is on other space shows, where almost all worlds seem to have gravity and atmospheres miraculously similar to Earth standards.
I also enjoyed the notion of New Terra not being particularly safe to live on, either. Not just the planetary defenses alluded to earlier, but there are also biological contaminants and other issues that must be dealt with as well. Humans and whatever life we encounter on alien planets will be from two wholly different ecologies… can they coexist at all? We always see alien biospheres in the worlds of Star Wars and Star Trek as being more or less perfectly safe for humans (other than extremes in temperature, or some other climate-related issue). I salute “The Expanse” for reiterating that this might not always be the case, and that just because a planet is superficially similar to Earth doesn’t necessarily make it so. Humanity’s hubris, such as immediately naming an unexplored world “New Terra”, will no doubt follow us into the stars.
In addition to the aforementioned Burn Gorman as the cold-blooded Murtry (who has choice encounters with Holden and Amos), there are some other new characters as well.
Dr. Lucia Mazur (Rosa Gilmore) is a Belter colonist who settles on New Terra with her husband and ambitious daughter. Dr. Mazur also who harbors a secret regarding the crash of the Inner’s transport ship.
We also have Dr. Elvi Okoye (Lyndie Greenwood), a biologist to Earth, who arrived in the crashed colonist ship, and who later becomes a vital ally to Holden and the colonists as they fight to survive on New Terra, which is actively resisting the colonists like antibodies fighting a virus.
From Reluctant to Rabid Fan.
I’ll admit, I initially gave up on “The Expanse” during Season 1 after only a few episodes. I found it too dark and gloomy. Convinced by the opinions of others whom I trust, I decided to give it another try, sticking through Season 1 (the hardest one to get through, in my opinion), until Season 2 grabbed me by the collar and wouldn’t let me go. I was officially hooked.
As I continued watching, the scope of the series broadened quite a bit, and I really enjoyed the new characters, such as the botanist turned friend of Amos, Praxidike Meng (Terry Chen), and the aforementioned Martian marine Bobbie Draper (though her name brings to mind Don Draper’s young son in “Mad Men”).
I also enjoyed more active role of newly promoted UN Secretary General Chrisjen Avasarala (whom I utterly adore, despite the fact that she’s a political monster; she’s the J.R. Ewing of this series). Avasarala is one of my favorite characters, mainly for her acidic charm and the perfectly wicked delivery of Shohreh Aghdashloo.
By the end of Season 3, I was a full-on devotee of “The Expanse” and was devastated to hear that it was unceremoniously cancelled by SyFy network. My grief was mercifully short-lived…
The 23rd Century in the 21st.
Now, thanks to Amazon Prime, the series has not only returned, but its future seems bit more assured. This is a series born for a streaming format, where one can catch episodes like chapters in a novel, leafing through as many as time allows. I fell in love with “The Expanse” by renting the DVDs (from Discflix) and watching one or two episodes at a time. By the debut of Season 3, I was caught up and had to watch it weekly. I must admit, it was agony waiting for the next installments every week. With streaming entire seasons at once, that’s no longer a problem.
The 4th season of “The Expanse” also uses the 2.39:1 theatrical ratio seen in most widescreen motion pictures (as do “Star Trek: Discovery” and “The Mandalorian”). But instead of using it as a fixed aspect ratio, “The Expanse” employs variable frame sizes, depending from where the story is being told at any given moment. We see the 16:9 frame (the ratio of today’s TVs) for those segments taking place within the solar system (Mars, Earth, the asteroid belt, the Ring Network). Then the show switches to the wider 2.39:1 frame for stories based on the ‘frontier’ of New Terra. It’s a subtle switch, but it signals to the brain that the story will be shifting from familiar terrains and into the wider, open-air terrain of the unfamiliar.
Season 4 of “The Expanse” was better than most sci-fi movies that I’d pay to see theatrically. Hell, give me “The Expanse” over “Ad Astra” any day. I devoured this latest season within a 24 hour span over a single weekend. Binge-watching (for me) is like overeating; I tend to feel sluggish and atrophied afterward, but I literally couldn’t stop myself because it was that good. It was worth the cramped legs.
Without revealing too much, it’s safe to say that Season 4 ends with a cliffhanger (E4.10: “Cibola Burn”; titled after one of the “Expanse” novels on which this current season was based). On July 27th it was announced that a fifth season of the series is on the way (no firm airdate as of yet).
With thousands of new planets within humanity’s troubled fingertips, it’ll be interesting to see where the series goes next (and if you’ve read the books, don’t tell me; I don’t want to know…)