Syfy has taken a lot of chin music from fans and critics about the way it defines the genre they’re supposedly dedicated to covering. Is it reality series, professional wrestling, and purposefully-horrid creature features, or should the channel aspire to actual science fiction? The Expanse answers that question handily with a series that clearly wants to walk in the vaunted foot steps of Battlestar Galactica, or perhaps it really has its sights on being “Game of Thrones in space.” The premiere episode that airs tonight, part one of a two-night launch, lays a particularly full table of possibilities, but can The Expanse pay off?
Based on the acclaimed book series by James S. A. Corey, the opening title card announces a universe 200 years away where the solar system has been settled, Earth and Mars are on the brink of war, and caught, as always, in between are the workers who mine the asteroid field for the vital resources used by both worlds. On Earth lies the Old World power-brokering, but Mars, true its name, has set itself up as the preeminent military power in the solar system. It’s a powder keg waiting for a match to light it.
There are two main storylines in the first episode. One is based on the dwarf planet Ceres, a frontier town that’s the gateway to the inner planets from the resource exploitation in the asteroid belt. Analogies abound on Ceres whether its the Old West, 1920s Chicago, or pre-Bolshevick Russia, and Ceres itself is akin to Star Wars‘ Mos Eiseley, or the titular space station from Babylon 5, the place where legitimate trade and business meets a wretched hive of scum, villainy and opportunism. Our main character in this world is Detective Miller (Thomas Jane), a kind of space Vic Mackey that plays by his own rules, but lives by a code that he sometimes begrudgingly follows.
The second story is out of the ice mining ship Canterbury, where second officer Holden (Steven Strait) avoids promotion lest he get more responsibility and his fling (and chance for more zero-G sex) with the ship’s navigator is scuttled. When the Canterbury detects a distress signal, by law they must investigate, leading the crew on the most consequential development of the premiere episode. The Canterbury scenes channel well the “space trucker” vibe of Alien as the crew members talk about bonuses and getting stiffed on their workers’ comp.
Characterization is where The Expanse is weakest, with the Canterbury crew seeming like just about every spaceship crew ever put to film, while the action on Ceres is the spitting image of a number of police dramas. The advantage is given to the Ceres world because its led by Jane doing his best hard-boiled noir detective in his “Old Earth” attire, and Jane clearly revels in being the strong silent type. By comparison, Strait is, well, straight. He’s kind of bland in what should be the Han Solo figure of the show, but maybe Strait was just far too methodological in capturing Holden’s sense of ennui and indifference.
There’s time though for the characters to evolve, and so much time is about setting the plot in motion it’s understandable why there isn’t much development spread amongst the eight-member main cast, and at least half-a-dozen secondary characters, some of whom will be semi-regulars. The primary goal of teleplay, as written by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens), is to say in big block letters that “this is EPIC!” Not much is paid off in the first episode, and the exact nature of the epicness is vague, but we’re reminded a lot that the stakes going forward are huge, and its intriguing enough to want to come back for episode two.
Aside from set-up, what The Expanse does well is world-building. We frequently hear characters on Ceres speak in a patois that sounds like a combination of five distinct languages, and it provides no subtitles. Some may find that annoying, but to me, it makes the world immersive, it throws you into the deep end and makes this a living world that evolved over decades, and doesn’t just feel “created.” It was also refreshing that Fergus and Ostby felt no need to create an audience surrogate. The closest thing is Miller’s new Earther partner Havelock (Jay Hernandez), but he doesn’t stand around needing to have every little thing explained to him. He’s green, not vacant.
Other neat touches include the subculture of those raised in space and low gravity, and the physical impact on their development from not growing up somewhere with real gravity. Through this lens, The Expanse does what all good science fiction does best, and that’s hold up a mirror to our present world using its trappings. Classism may be the sleeper theme of The Expanse, workers who are exploited for their efforts while at the same time being shunned for the physical effects of the life they’re forced to lead. A rebel-‘rouser warns Miller that there’s some bad stuff coming, and I don’t think he meant a mysterious whatsit from space either.
Even the simple things The Expanse does well. I can count on one hand the number of times that zero gravity has been done well on film, but the series’ opening scene with the mysterious Juliette Mao (Florence Faivre) escaping her prison cell is definitely one of them. It’s a beautifully haunting scene that makes you sit up and say that Syfy spent some money on this, so they mean business. The CG’s actually pretty well done too, and enhances even the most familiar aspects of this world. The one sojourn to Earth includes an establishing shot over New York City, where we see flood walls built around Liberty Island implying that climate change wasn’t stopped completely in this future.
The big question going forward is if The Expanse can be engaging on its own week-to-week, or whether it’s one of those shows seemingly designed to be binged. Watching the first episode alone, I think the intent leans to the latter, which might be problematic in the short term because when you’re made to wait for the next episode you need to have some kind of pay off to tide the audience over till the next time. Being binge-worthy won’t kill The Expanse, but if we’re going to obsess over it, it needs more than one, awesome season-long arc to payoff.