Every time Syfy announces an “ambitious new series,” Battlestar Galactica fans start to get hopeful. Is it possible that this is the next BSG we’ve been waiting for? Like that show (and, frankly, any good sci-fi series), The Expanse presents a future ruled by scarce resources, a dying home planet, a military on the brink of a coup, and the exploitation of human workers. It deals with political themes, terrorism, conspiracy and issues of class and justice. And though no, it’s not Battlestar, it is clearly striving for something big.
Based on the novel series by James S. A. Corey, The Expanse presents a universe where Earth has colonized Mars which — faithful to its Roman etymology roots — has essentially become one giant military base. Earth and Mars both rely on minerals mined in the astroid belt, where a second-class group of citizens known as “Belters” work in poor conditions, including the fact that many of them are physically stretched out strangely from the lighter gravity. (If they go to Earth, the atmosphere there can literally crush them).
But many things about The Expanse feel like our own world, with addictions to cell phones, the prevalence of a Tinder-like dating app, and of course the continuation of human exploitation (there’s a curious lack of A.I. and robots, though). Those elements help ground The Expanse, which presents its three main stories in dim lighting and gritty conditions. Thomas Jane stars as at the hard-boiled Detective Miller, tasked with finding the missing daughter of a rich family in the Belt. In space, Steven Strait’s James Holden leads a rogue crew separated from their freighter ship, who are detained by a Martian war vessel and become a rallying cry for those on the Belt, while Shohreh Aghdashloo’s U.N. Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala is interested in protecting Earth’s interests, and preventing a war with Mars over resources.
The Expanse is, well, expansive, yet the three seemingly disparate stories are held together by the fear of a common foe known as the OPA, or Outer Planets Alliance. The OPA is a terrorist group that could be trying to goad Earth and Mars into a war in order to protect the interests of the Belt, and to improve life there (the Belt is often left with little water, and forced to follow harsh rations). And have I mentioned that one of their major sources of funding might come from Mormons looking for help building a gigantic missionary ship? Why not?
The Expanse kicks off with a great hook that’s reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, one that postulates a frightening question of what might be lurking out in the void, and how (or if) the inhabitants of our solar system’s inner planets might fight it. In the first four episodes though, things are only just beginning, and The Expanse takes its time in establishing characters and the relationships among them. There aren’t many scenes of war or battles, though there are some. For the most part, The Expanse is refreshingly about people and conversations.
Part of that may be to circumvent obvious budgetary restraints, which is also why we get some funky camera angles and a lot of low lighting. But the show, which will run for 10 episodes, also occasionally uses those limitations to great effect, like in a gruesome scene we don’t see first hand. Instead, it’s conveyed silently in the faces of the crew, who watch with slow-motion reactions. It builds up the tension to the horror of when the camera finally turns to the spectacle itself.
Though it thrives in such moments, what The Expanse lacks (and Battlestar had in spades), is lightness or humor. To be fair, this future universe is largely a dour, noirish place to be, but there’s something to be said about the difference in portraying darkness and wallowing in it. Both Detective Miller and Jim Holden are excessively cynical, although who can blame them with death lurks around every corner, and a huge conspiracy is controlling everyone’s fate? But the unsubtitled native language the Belters can be frustrating, and the show’s dense, insider-y feel can be hard to follow for those who haven’t read the novel series.
Ultimately, though many of The Expanse’s central conceits are fairly boiler-plate, and its cast doesn’t yet have a true stand-out to make its stories personally compelling, it has enough interesting elements to make it worthwhile, even as it works out some kinks. In an attempt to set the series apart from some of its very silly programming (essentially, all of its movies), Syfy might have gone too far in the other direction, and that unrelenting seriousness could make it less appealing for viewers who aren’t already hardcore sci-fi fans. But its complexities can be captivating, and like Miller and Holden’s characters facing the pull of the show’s central conspiracy, it’s all too easy to get lured into The Expanse‘s orbit — for better or worse.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Expanse premieres Monday, December 14th before settling into its regular Tuesday timeslot starting the very next night, December 15th.