The Expanse: Expanding Your Sci-Fi Horizons

Nov 7, 2020
The Expanse Season 4 feature poster
Adolphus Murtry: People like you always forget, civilization has a lag time. Like light delay. You come out here, and you think because you're civilized, civilization comes with you. You're just walking in the footsteps of history - the ancient frontier. Those post offices and railroads and jails cost thousands of lives to build. This is no different. I am the kind of man the frontier needs. You're the kind that comes after my work is done. You should have stayed at home… 'til I built a [sneers slowly]… post office…

Jim Holden: I met another guy once who liked using past genocides to justify his bullshit.

Murtry: You weren't persuaded?

Holden: A friend of mine shot him in the face.
We live in a Golden Age of TV, where the degree of product offered by the various streaming services can be overwhelming at times and, with an over-abundance of quality on Amazon Prime and Netflix alone, it is easy to overlook shows that haven’t enjoyed the same degree of popularity as, perhaps, Game of Thrones and Stranger Things.

The Expanse is an science fiction TV show that has been quietly plugging away for several years now, first for the Syfy Channel (which cancelled the show after Season 3 due to low viewing figures) and then in its shiny new home when Amazon picked it up and commissioned a Season 4 and, set to premiere soon on the 16th December 2020, a Season 5.

If you haven’t been watching The Expanse (and judging by its pre-Amazon viewing figures, that’s a distinct possibility), you’ve been missing out on one of the best pieces of SF I’ve ever happened to stumble across in any medium.

The Expanse - Mars

Set in some distant future when mankind has colonised the solar system, The Expanse is SF in the style of Alien or Firefly – a roughly realistic future setting that steers clear of Star Trek and Star Wars style cartoon excesses. Earth is now a United Nations-run world with high levels of unemployment, but an abundance of natural resources that Mars, its former colony, can only envy. Mars, in turn, is a competing power, technologically superior to Earth in certain respects, and more driven through its Sparta-like zeal to overcome the challenges of living on the red planet where nothing comes for free. Its people work together for the common good, making harsh sacrifices for their dream of eventually leaving a terraformed planet to their grandchildren. 

In-between Earth and Mars is the ‘Belt’ – a loosely aligned collection of habitable asteroids, space stations and frontier settlements of people who mine valuable deposits in the asteroid belt and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. While theoretically independent to a degree, in the same way that the Wild West frontier was independent until civilization caught up with it, the Belters are by and large submissive to the military might of Earth and Mars, and very much resent the fact.

At the beginning of Season 1, tensions between these three powers are strained and peace is a fragile thing between Earth and Mars, the two ‘superpowers’ who seem convinced that conflict is inevitable, as their fleets (Earth’s being far more numerous, but Mars’s ships more sophisticated) hover in position, waiting for the first slip that might send them into mutually self-destructive conflict.

Season 1 opens then with three parallel storylines that will eventually come together into a bigger story that will dominate the show as a whole. Each of these stories takes on a different genre.

We get space opera - Alien style - when we are introduced to the crew of the ramshackle space-freighter, Canterbury: James Holden (Steven Strait), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), who are reluctantly obliged to respond to a distress call in deep space that turns out to be a trap with disastrous consequences for the Canterbury.

We get a police procedural on the space station Ceres, where Blade Runner-style cop Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) is given a hopeless job to track down a missing woman called Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), the estranged daughter of one of the richest and most powerful tycoons in the solar system.

Steven Strait and  Dominique Tipper in The Expanse

And we get a political drama when we are introduced to the scene-stealing Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) – a high ranking UN executive and member of the ruling, political elite who is fierce in her determination to secure what is best for Earth, no matter the price. In a drama which enjoys a rich abundance of excellent, complex and original characters, Aghdashloo's portrayal of Chrisjen - who can switch from honeyed charm to foul mouthed bursts of anger and back again in seconds - is one of the greatest character roles in the history of televised SF, and one of the most perfect pieces of casting I have ever witnessed in any genre of drama. 

Shohreh Aghdashloo in The Expanse
[Leaving a message after the beep, and speaking in warm, caring, matriarchal tone]: James, my dear boy, I sent you to that planet to be my eyes and ears, and now large ruins that were supposed to be inert are shooting out lightning and there is nothing but radio silence from you. So, please, [voice rising, in frustration now] find a way to carve a few moments out of your busy schedule, pick up a goddamn comm, and tell me precisely what the fuck is going on down there! - Chrisjen Avasarala
But these storylines are smoke screens, of a sort, to introduce and build on the main theme of the show, which is mankind’s first contact with an ancient (and extinct?) alien presence that initially takes shape through the form of an organic proto-molecule with (literally) God-like properties.

Soon all the other sub-plots become consumed by the dawning realisation that mankind is not alone, and that there is something out there far more ancient and terrifying in its ability to devour civilizations in the blink of an eye.

The Expanse works superbly on many different levels, any one of which would make the show entertaining, but together they make it near perfect. The characters are often brilliant, both in the writing and the casting. From the sociopathic Amos Burton, who intellectually knows that he should always do the right thing, and tries his best to do so, but is incapable of emotionally feeling anything from it, to the perfect pairing of Belter characters Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford (David Strathairn)(you can feel the character chemistry each and every time they share a scene together) to complex ‘villain’, Adolphus Murtry (Burn Gorman), in Season 4, whose motives and (often admirable) loyalties to his people adds layers of moral complexity to the crimes that he commits, the show rarely delivers a character that is bland and uninteresting. 

Thomas Jane in The Expanse
I didn’t kill him because he was crazy. I killed him because he was making sense. - Detective Josephus Miller
Excellent characters can drive a show forward on their own, but The Expanse also benefits from a thoroughly consistent example of ‘world building’, logical and exciting plots, superb pacing and gradual unravelling of the show’s main themes, and a tacit understanding never to patronise the viewer with scenes or character actions that might seem contrived or beggar belief. I often judge TV shows in the manner of a role-playing game, by which I mean, would player characters in a narrative game act in a similar fashion to the characters in the show, or would they baulk at what happens and declare it unbelievable? The Expanse rarely puts a foot wrong, and there are few (if any) scenes where you could roll your eyes in despair and think, “no real person would ever act that way.”
Every shitty thing we do makes the next one that much easier, doesn’t it? - Naomi Nagata
In fact it often advance signposts typical genre clich├ęs, and then deftly avoids them, leaving you feeling guilty for doubting the integrity of the writing in the first place.

If The Expanse has any fault, it is that it can be a slow burn initially to get into its rich tapestry of ideas, because it throws so much at you from an early point. I confess I wasn’t totally hooked on the show until the fourth episode, set mostly on a Martian warship, where you view a realistic space battle through the limited view of the main characters inside the ship, struggling to survive as the vessel begins to depressurise and take serious damage. 

The Expanse is intelligent, exciting, passionate and imaginative in its scope. If you haven’t already tried it, you’ve missing out.
I’m gonna count to one. One. - Detective Josephus Miller

The Expanse is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. Season 5 arrives on 16 December 2020.

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