The unfortunately named SyFy channel held an advanced screening of the first two episodes of the second season of its science fiction drama The Expanse simultaneously at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin and Brooklyn this Monday, followed by a Q&A session with the main cast at the latter location. The show itself has generated a small but loyal fanbase after the first season but with its emphasis on strict scientific accuracy, politics, and adherence to Newtonian physics it has failed to create the kind of buzz and excitement as some of the sexier more exciting offerings it keeps getting compared to like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones.
To the uninitiated, The Expanse takes place two hundred years in the future after humanity has expanded into the solar system. Mars has its own independent republic with a strong military and a population focused on terraforming the red planet, Earth is the decadent old power represented by a form of the United Nations, and various colonies and mining stations in the Kuiper Belt and beyond have largely organized into a loose confederation called the Outer Planets Alliance, or OPA. The first season explores the relationships between these three primary powers both from the ground level perspective of the poor and disenfranchised OPA members struggling to survive to the high level manipulations of characters like Under Secretary Chrisjen Avasarala of the UN, who uses her considerable cunning and resources to try and avert a war between the great powers. The realities of space travel demonstrated are brutal and the furthest thing from fun but, according to actor Wes Chatham during the Q&A portion of the screening, accurate enough to receive an “A+” grade from scientists at the California Institute for Technology (CalTech) after a screening. Essentially, the quantum leap in space travel came in the form of the Epstein Drive, a modified fusion engine that allow ships to sustain thrust and therefore create a form of artificial gravity through the first half of a journey before flipping a craft around at the halfway point and constantly decelerating to continue the effect. This is all far more interesting than it sounds in both the book and the television show.
The second season picks up in a hurry, introducing fan favorite character Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), a Martian Marine, in the middle of a live fire exercise on the red planet. Originally appearing in the second novel of the series, Draper is like a Samoan hybrid of Captain Phasma and Kara Thrace and serves to bring some perspective to the Mars way of life. Meanwhile, Miller (Thomas Jane) and Holden (Steven Strait) have barely escaped the chaos on Eros with their lives and are still recovering from severe radiation poisoning. The crew of the Rocinante enter into a tentative alliance with notorious Earth war-hero-turned OPA leader Fred Johnson (Chad Coleman) to continue investigating the origin and motivations behind the deployment of the mysterious and deadly protomolecule that ravaged the population of Eros. Back on Earth Under Secretary Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) struggles to keep an all out shooting war from breaking out between the UN and Martian fleets while trying to figure out the identity of the stealth ships that have been provoking violence between the two military powers. Both episodes “Safe” and “Doors and Corners” play out without an obvious act break between the two, like a short made for TV movie and the effect is thrilling and culminates in what is easily the most effects/action heavy sequence of the series so far outside the battle of the MCRN Donnager.
One of the issues with the first season and translating to television a book like Leviathan, which is a clever mashup of hard sci-fi and essentially detective noir, is that the inner monologues and flourishing narrative that keeps the story interesting and human are completely stripped away in a visual format. More than that, the first novel in the Expanse Series is not very action heavy and has a great deal of political conversation and posturing that takes place before the novel really exposes its endgame. With all that said, the first episodes of the second season are damn good television. Excellent, even. Out of the gate they hit every beat they are looking to hit from humor to pathos to the thing everyone who is into real science fiction for whatever noble or thoughtful reason is secretly desperately craving: hot and dirty space combat. The main cast itself is clearly more comfortable in its shoes than the first season and the interiors of the salvaged Martian Navy corvette Rocinante feel much more like a real place the way the inside of Serenity felt by the end of Firefly’s short run. The larger universe, or really, solar system also feels better realized with the escalating Cold War between Mars and the Earth’s UN more clearly visualized.
The Expanse has been ending up on a lot of lists titled “The Best Shows No One is Watching” and not without some reasons involving accessibility. But this is not at all on account of quality, far from it. What the The Expanse does require is more of an attention span than a lot of network shows expect of an audience. HBO and Netflix have been making these sorts of novels-for-television for quite some time now and without the need for act breaks or commercial interruptions, or in the latter’s case, a schedule for content release it is possible to create a more compelling, immersive narrative experience. During the Q&A portion of the screening Mark Fergus made it clear that the intention of the first season was all about “lighting the fuses” and the second was going to be about the payoff. If the first two episodes are any indication, season two is going to be a lot noisier, a lot sexier, but is still one of the best shows on television. Now if only we can get people watching.
Season 2 premiered last night, 2/1 on the SyFy channel with new episodes every Wednesday night. The first season is available to stream on Amazon Prime.