A much needed sci-fi drama in the same vein as Battlestar Galactica, if not in quite the same league. However, it is a thought provoking, sometimes confusing, but always satisfyingly deep new show that demands your attention. If you are in to your gritty sci-fi then you need to watch this.
There is currently quite a large gap in the market for complex sci-fi TV shows. This is not to say that sci-fi is completely amiss from our TV screens, but what we are given is often shallow and inconsequential. We have had shows like Continuum (which I barely got through the first season before giving up), the 100, Falling Skies, Killjoys, etc. All of these lack the true grit, character development, and intense narrative that a really great sci-fi series deserves. In fact, if you look over the last fifteen years, the only shows really worth mention are Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, and possibly Stargate Universe, although this is probably a more contentious choice, especially given its unresolved cliffhanger. That is, until now. The Expanse may not be perfect, but it is a damned good show, and it is the first time in many years that anyone has dared to delve into the complexities of a deep and intricate space opera.
And that is maybe one of the main issues that prevents this from reaching the accolades of both BSG and Firefly – it is just a little too complex at times. The first four episodes are the main culprit as they try to weave together separate narratives and genre-trope characters in a muddled and awkward manner. But once you get past these episodes, as long as you have a decent memory and don’t leave too much time between viewings, everything comes together in a coherent and satisfying story. It could be that 10 episodes is not enough, and a longer run would have resolved this problem, but when you are transferring a complex novel to the small screen, issues like this will always arise.
The story takes place 200 years in the future, where humans have made settlements on Mars, Earth is run by the U.N. and many of the blue-collar people living on a series of mining outposts are looking to break away from their oppressive lives. These people on the mining outposts, Belters as they are known, believe that the people of Earth are benefiting too much from their almost slave like existence, and yet out in space, there is also animosity towards the militaristic Martians, who are navigating their relationship with Earth while trying to maintain a fragile peace. Things go awry when a mining vessel named the Canterbury, investigating the distress signal from a stranded ship, is destroyed by an unknown warship. Thus ensues a conspiracy involving the survivors of the Canterbury, a missing Earther woman, a hard-bitten detective among the Belters, Earth and Mars’ strained relations, a Belter group known as the OPA, and a ship of unknown purpose called the Anubis.
As you can see there, it is clear where all the confusion stems from. There are just so many things going on at one time that it can be very hard to keep up with it all. But this also means that there are some roles that are severely underwritten. Take, for example, Shohreh Aghdashloo’s U.N. operative who seems to appear just highlight that Earth has a presence in all that is going on. Her appearances seem to only occur just to push the plot along, and this gives her very little actual development until near the climax of the season. The same can be said of Steven Strait’s James Holden, except he is pivotal to the overall story, but yet he still appears as a little bit stiff in his development and all too safe. There’s no real gravitas to his character and unfortunately he is often quite boring. The rest of the surviving members of the Canterbury are somewhat more successful. Dominique Tipper’s resilient Naomi adds a more human, relatable element to the team as she struggles with the burden of the conspiracy that she has been thrown in to. But for me, the real winner was Thomas Jane’s hard boiled, no holds barred detective, Joe Miller. There is an air of a less refined Rick Deckard about him; he does what he can to make things a little better, but knows full well that he is a small cog, with his answers often residing at the bottom of a bottle of Scotch. But it is his toughness later in the series, once you are given more time to see the flaws shine through his apathetic facade, that truly show him to be a character that will be worth watching as the seasons progress.
It seems a shame when you have such a complex narrative that not all the character relationships are as fully fleshed out as they should be. Miller is set the task of tracking down the missing Julie Mao, but somewhere along the way he develops feelings that seemingly blossom fully in to love. This is quite hard to accept when so little time is spent evolving this relationship with someone he has never met, or even spoken to, and it all ends up being a little weird. I can understand Miller falling in love with the idea of the woman, especially when he sees her as an Earther trying to make life better for the Belters, but there is just not enough time spent on this to make it a feasible concept. I get the same feeling when watching the interactions between the surviving members of the Canterbury. Considering they have worked on a crew together for a decent amount of time, they appear to know nothing about each other. They constantly doubt each other’s motives and skills, and even when we believe some loyalty has been built between them, the next scene often screams otherwise.
Yet where there are issues, there are also abundant positives. And where the Expanse really sets itself apart is in the small details. The Belt is full of dingy alleyways, scummy landlords whose laziness results in children becoming sick, a well-developed underworld rife with violence and extremism, and even the vast differences in the styles of ships from each of the different factions. The production values here are excellent, and the space fairing scenes even rival their film counterparts. The story as well, while sometimes confusing, always has purpose and carries with it an intricacy that you are unlikely to see in any other recent sci-fi saga.
The Expanse is not sci-fi escapism. If you want something easy to watch, this is not the show for you. However, if you are looking for a show with a deep flowing narrative that rivals that of classics such BSG, then this is a must watch. It can sometimes be confusing, and not every character is an instant hit, but it is compelling nonetheless, and you will find that once you have reached the final episode you are hungry for more.