This review contains spoilers.
Based on the series of novels by James S. A. Corey, the SyFy channel’s new “space opera”, The Expanse begins with a tense, slow-burning affair, culminating in a sizeable pay-off that lays the groundwork for a promising new science-fiction adaptation.
Series developers Mark Fergus and (the wonderfully named) Hawk Ostby resist the temptation many new shows succumb to: jumping out of the blocks with all guns blazing, hoping to entice viewers with a packed forty minutes of explosions, only for subsequent episodes to inevitably fail to live up to that opening salvo. Instead, The Expanse allows its audience to spend time with each primary character and location and get a feel of where this show is headed. The pacing is measured, rather than slow, allowing the epic nature of the set design and down-to-Earth characters to do the work.
With only a ten-episode run and a reasonably high-concept premise, it’s a pleasant surprise that Dulcinea never overloads the audience with information. There is an awful lot yet to be introduced of course but the characters and story threads set out here are given the appropriate screen-time to ensure that viewers unfamiliar with the books are properly orientated into The Expanse universe.
The action is centred around political tension between Earth, a colonised Mars and the inhabitants of the Asteroid Belt who feel exploited by both planets and whilst these conflicts are mostly just teased in the opening episode, it’s clear that none of those three entities are entirely virtuous. Neglecting to signpost clear cut ‘good’ and ‘bad’ means that viewers are forced to decide for themselves who to support in these early stages and this brings a very welcome ambiguity to the show’s ethics.
Such moral dilemma is encapsulated in the character of Miller (Thomas Jane), the most maverick of maverick cops who spends the episode flitting between unlikeable git and hard-nosed antihero. Of course with those Tom Hardy-esque good looks, you can assume Miller will fall permanently on the latter of those two sides sooner rather than later. Space-Kama Sutra expert Jim Holden on the other hand, played by Steven Strait, fills the more archetypal protagonist role: he cares for his crewmates, he responds to distress signals and he’s a reluctant hero, even going as far as to quip “no heroes, Captain” before popping off into a suspicious, abandoned spaceship.
It’s early days but these two main players are currently still trying to shake their respective stereotypes. Holden is arguably the closer of the two to becoming a fully fleshed-out entity, largely due to more screen-time, however Miller remains trapped in his ‘crooked-but-mostly-decent cop’ mould for the time being. Gotham viewers may recognise Miller as a Twenty-Third Century Harvey Bullock, for instance.
Visually, The Expanse is stunning for a production of its size and lives up to Syfy President Dave Howe’s billing as their “most ambitious series to date”. The spaceship interiors are plausibly futuristic, particularly the dilapidated Canterbury and the scenes on Ceres effectively give the impression of a seedy, lawless place with a burgeoning underworld reminiscent of the Doctor Who venture, Gridlock. Even the brief moments spent on twenty-third century Earth are beautifully rendered by director Terry McDonough with a mix of the familiar and the futuristic.
Of course it is the burden of science-fiction to build a world that is technologically advanced, yet still grounded in enough reality to remain believable and this is something The Expanse does very well. Much of the new tech on display is introduced with subtlety and the show wastes no time explaining ‘what stuff does’, instead relying on the intelligence of the audience to intuit what is necessary. Thanks to Miller, it’s also nice to know that even two hundred years into the future, people still suffer with cracked phone screens.
Whilst the show excels visually, the script, penned by the show’s developers for this episode, simply does what it needs to. Never sizzling with the wit of Firefly or approaching any meaty subject matter as of yet but at the same time, the dialogue never outstays its welcome and avoids wandering into the realm of ‘meaningless space waffle’.
Despite its solar-system wide setting, Dulcinea feels most at home during the scenes on the Canterbury. The chemistry between the crew is apparent, despite a few too many stereotypical sci-fi types on board, but the tension on the ship is palpable throughout, thanks in no small part to a brief, yet memorable turn from Jonathan Banks, better known as Breaking Bad’s Mike Ehrmantraut, whose performance as the mentally unstable executive officer of the Canterbury provides the main source of unease on the vessel.
Unfortunately, Banks is highly unlikely to reprise his role, as the climax of the episode sees the good ship Canterbury decimated by stealthy Martians. Those unfamiliar with the books are unlikely to have seen the ship’s destruction coming and The Expanse does a commendable job of encouraging viewers to care about the doomed crew, despite having only a single episode to become acquainted.
Staying true to its source material, The Expanse sets itself out as a more cerebral space adventure and those looking for a blaster-heavy action piece may come out of Dulcinea disappointed. The episode itself however, is well put together and neatly establishes an engaging and believable world, teasing a storyline full of conspiracy and intrigue. Clearly, the show has a lot of potential and has given itself a solid platform to build on in future episodes. Crucially however, it makes a damn good case for watching the next one.
Come back at the end of the series to read our full-season review of The Expanse.