Science fiction as a genre has been in vogue lately, and an unexpected trend has seen claims of watering down stories in favor of action beats and ease of accessibility. Indeed, recent remakes of Total Recall and Minority Report have shed the philosophical and existentialist questions of their premises and feature gunplay and sleek visuals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and the injection of style that J.J. Abrams gave Star Trek in 2009 paved the way for a lot of what we’re seeing now. Still, it’s nice to see sci-fi that recalls the genre’s roots as political commentary and a way to explore questions about our natural world and human society, and in that way, SyFy’s The Expanse is a return to form.
Based on the novel series by James S.A. Corey, The Expanse imagines our solar system two hundred years from now, with a complicated society of interplanetary governments and colonies. The governments of Earth and Mars are engaged in a cold war, and scarcity of resources threatens not only life on Mars, but the lives of those living on colonies in the asteroid belt. These “Belters” are an impoverished society of workers, many of whom call for independence from and revolution against the Earth government. The series itself follows three leads: Detective Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), a cop investigating a missing woman in a colony on Ceres; James Holden (Steven Strait), an officer on the ice freighter Canterbury who is drawn into a shadowy conspiracy; and Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a U.N. diplomat trying to prevent the cold war from going hot.
It’s a series with a developed world and a lot of moving parts, so the comparisons to Game of Thrones that SyFy loves to flaunt aren’t too far off. I’d actually argue that The Expanse is often more impressive in balancing deep worldbuilding with engaging hooks, if only because it’s rarely allowed to get as violent as an HBO series, and never as nude. The set design and costuming for The Expanse is varied and full of statements about both characters and culture, but it’s a drab, grimy future for the most part, more akin to the corporate world of Alien than the bright lights of The Fifth Element. Belters are thin and emaciated from growing up in a low-gravity environment, and they speak in a unique patois that’s difficult for Earthers to follow. The introduction of Martian environments is delayed, and when we finally do see the interior of a Martian warship, it’s austere and powerful, with cleaner, starker lines than the cramped ice freighters and colony corridors. There are no alien races or near-magic technology (thus far), and the setting has a familiar, lived-in feel, even though the political landscape is totally foreign. Humans are still humans, and the governments and factions of the show are still distrustful and competitive over the slice of the universe in which they live.
The actual stories of The Expanse are a bit of a mixed bag so far, but they all show promise. Thomas Jane’s Miller has some interesting aspects, like the tension between his Belter heritage and his more Earth-like sense of style and preferences for the finer things. Seeing his interactions with both his Earther rookie cop partner and the local Belter riffraff (including Jared Harris as a shady dock crew guy, with a dye job and a crazy accent) illuminates not only the character, but the complicated, tense culture of the Ceres station residents, as well. Jane himself’s performance, however, leans a little too hard into noir and tough guy stereotypes, and it’s only when his story begins tying into the overaching plot that it truly catches my interest. Avasarala’s story fares a little better, as she’s a more interesting character. She’s ruthless and slightly Machiavellian, but not overly cruel; it’s a more human balance of traits than a similar character might be given on Game of Thrones, which for all its murkiness still trends towards extremes in morality. However, her story (as of four episodes in) is primarily an opportunity to give backstory and explain the world of the series, and while it’s appreciated, it doesn’t always pop.
The highlight of the series is unquestionably the story of James Holden and the other surviving crew members of the Canterbury, an ice freighter drawn into a conspiracy and attacked by parties unknown. The bit of the crew that we see has great chemistry, from tough mechanic Amos (Wes Chatham) to nerdy medic Shed (Paulo Costanzo) to wiseguy pilot Alex (Cas Anvar). It’s a group thrown together by their circumstances and continuously facing one crisis after another, and watching them band together or turn on each other is fascinating. There’s a fair amount of peril when they’re pitted against the unforgiving vacuum of space, as well, in scenes reminiscent of Gravity or The Martian. Strait himself is a solid lead, heroic in an understated but genuine way. The other plotlines of the show thus far have their moments, and they provide a lot of solid context, but the trials and tribulations of the crew of the Canterbury are the main event.
The Expanse is classic hard sci-fi: a vast, interplanetary story dressed in drab work uniforms and metal grates. It weaves various stories of seemingly distant characters together in a tale of political tension and survival in crisis. With the show already renewed for another season and the novels five books deep and counting, I have a feeling The Expanse is gonna be around for a while. That’s good news for fans of the genre looking for something a little more cerebral and a little more political, without sacrificing action and excitement.
The Expanse airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on SyFy.