Editor’s Note: This review of The Expanse is based on the first four episodes. It contains no spoilers.
There’s a good reason why Syfy calls The Expanse “a 10-hour epic thriller” instead of a 10-episode first season. If the first four episodes are any indication, this show is shaping up to be a massive, complex, serial story with conspiracy, corruption, mystery, and characters who feel like real people with all the requisite quirks and flaws. Although some subtleties might be lost on those who haven’t read the James S. A. Corey books on which the series is based, the nuances respect the audience’s intelligence, promising later depth rather than bogging down the narrative with unnecessary exposition.
With second season scripts already ordered, viewers can get in on the ground floor of this realistic space drama, which, according to Syfy’s press release, “is set two hundred years in the future, after mankind has colonized the solar system.” The official description goes on to say that the story “starts as the case of a missing young woman and evolves into a race across the solar system that will expose the greatest conspiracy in human history.”
The Expanse borrows some of the best elements from sci-fi classics like Aliens and Battlestar Galactica, especially with the irreverent banter between shipmates on board the Canterbury, an ice-mining ship bringing much needed water to colonists in the asteroid belt. It would be easy to imagine Aaron Douglas’ Chief Tyrol barking orders to his viper mechanics or Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson yelling “Game over, man!” right alongside the Canterbury’s motley crew.
Then there are the zero-g sex scenes, the crushing velocity of ship maneuvers in space, the magnetic boots for walking in weightless conditions, and the long limbs of those born in the asteroid belt known as Belters. The Expanse understands gravity in a way that should satisfy every science nerd in the audience. In fact, at one point on Ceres, the largest asteroid and port city of the Belt, viewers can spot a bird hovering in flight like no bird on Earth could ever do. Details like that really characterize the series as being comfortable in its own skin right from the start.
Another realistic aspect of the show that the producers have nailed is the dangerous and delicate nature of space travel. There are no force fields or matter transporters or artificial gravity. Holes can and do get punched in a ship’s hull, and acceleration or spin must provide gravity. Light speed keeps humanity confined to Earth’s neighboring planets, and because of this, the setting and the people that inhabit it seem that much more identifiable and sympathetic.
It helps that the setting is the immediate solar system rather than a fictional galaxy far, far away. The opening credits masterfully encapsulate the colonization of the moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, and it’s immediately believable that the wealth of Earth and the military might of Mars could clash with the scrappy inhabitants of the metal-rich asteroids that are dependent on outside sources of air and water. The colonies are a powder keg just waiting for a match, and the initial episodes of The Expanse depict a logical escalation of suspicion and mistrust.
In addition to the rich themes, accessible setting, and meaningful conflicts, a successful series must have a cast of likable characters, and this show presents a couple of standouts. Both main characters, Detective Miller (played by Thomas Jane of HBO’s Hung), a corrupt cop in Ceres, and James Holden (played by Steven Strait of Starz’ Magic City), an unambitious officer on board the Canterbury, have moments in the opening episodes of the series where a glimmer of conscience in an otherwise dark political landscape endears each of them with the audience.
Dominique Tipper, a relative newcomer, is the unsung hero of the cast in the role of the Canterbury’s engineer, Naomi Nagata. For fans of powerful women in leadership roles, Naomi is the character to keep an eye on. As the conscience of Holden and the only one who knows a key secret of his, she grounds the otherwise entirely male crew beautifully.
Perhaps more immediately recognizable (at least by her voice) is Shoreh Aghdashloo, who plays a powerful, ruthless, and somehow sympathetic Earth politician named Chrisjen Avasarala. This character doesn’t appear in the first book, Leviathan Wakes, and her presence in season one provides an interesting and necessary “Earther” point of view in a show that places great importance on a sort of planetary racism that motivates much of the conflict and cold war aspects of the society depicted in the show.
The only drawback to the series is perhaps its pacing, which may be a bit slow for some viewers. With the extremely serial nature of the story, waiting for details to be doled out while having to keep track of all of the rich detail this world offers can be a daunting task. Those looking for passive entertainment with questions answered quickly and loose ends tied up with a neat little bow may want to look elsewhere.
But the sink-or-swim nature of this show will appeal to those who don’t want their intelligence insulted by spoon-fed exposition. Viewers who enjoying putting the pieces of the puzzle together over time with epiphanies sprinkled about to keep their interest piqued will find The Expanse to be just what they’ve been waiting for. The scale of the show can either impress or intimidate; it depends on the viewer.
With a gritty realism not often seen in sci-fi these days (especially among space dramas), viewers who enjoyed the interplanetary conflicts of Killjoys or the season-long mysteries on Dark Matter – but without the snark – might find a more familiar and believably dark atmosphere in The Expanse. Syfy very well could have another classic on its hands.
The Expanse debuts VOD, TV Everywhere, and digital platforms on November 23rd. The series begins its run on Syfy Monday, December 14 at 10pm ET with its second episode at the same time on Tuesday, December 15 and on Tuesdays thereafter.