It’s a really, really good time to be a sci-fi fan. The big studios are regularly throwing money at smart, adult-oriented genre films (and the Academy is taking notice) and television is populated with clever spins on time-travel and A.I. In the midst of all those options, not to mention the dreaded “Peak TV”, some of the good stuff is naturally going to slip under the radar. But hear this rallying cry: get on board with The Expanse, because if you like immersive, unapologetically science-based science fiction, it’s too good to miss.
One of the most slept-on sci-fi delights, The Expanse is Syfy’s tragically under-watched space opera set in the far-flung future of the human race when we have mastered space exploration, colonized the planets, and lived there long enough to develop new national identities and the warring conflict of interests that come with them. The Expanse emerged as part of the first leg of a marked programming shift at the network best know in recent years for the raucous absurdity of Sharknado and its ilk. As such, it is the flagship series in Syfy’s redirection toward becoming the home of premium adult science fiction in the tradition of Battlestar Galactica, and it’s up to the task.
Indeed, The Expanse is the best show to grace their lineup since our dearly departed BSG, and it’s got the genre cred to back it it. Based on the hit book series of the same name by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse was developed by the writing duo behind Children of Men and boasts Star Trek: The Next Generation and Farscape alum Naren Shankarm as showrunner. It’s reportedly the most expensive series the network has ever produced, and the payoff is evident in the production value and commitment to vision.
(Be aware there are Season 1 spoilers below.)
Returning for Season 2, The Expanse picks up directly after the events of the first season, with the human race on the brink of war after the targeted destruction of industrial and military spaceships by a shadow organization with a clandestine agenda. Manipulated on the basis of their existing prejudice, Belters, Earthers, and Martians are at each other’s throats, brimming with nationalism and threatening extinction at their own hand, unaware of the even greater threat waiting at the remains of Eros station where an entire population was wiped out by an alien virus.
This is where we find our heroes, Joe Miller (Thomas Jane) and James Holden (Steven Straight), whose paths finally united at the end of last season when they discovered the truth about Julie Mao and witnessed first-hand the atrocities committed on Eros (and picked up a small case of cancer). In short, Mao’s father Jules Pierre-Mao orchestrated the attacks as a means of protecting and transporting an alien virus dubbed the protomolecule before intentionally releasing it on the helpless people of Eros. Season 2 finds Miller, Holden and the crew of The Rocinante on a mission to find out just what the creepy blue virus is, what it does, and why Mao was willing to sacrifice his daughter and an entire population to foster it.
The crew is tighter than ever, but always at odds – Holden doesn’t understand the complicated and fascinating relationship between Naomi (Dominique Tipper) and Amos (Wes Chatham), and now that he finally has the chance to live out his dream as a pilot, Alex (Cas Anvar) is obsessive about becoming the best pilot he can be. And of course, no one gets along with Miller, who continues to drink, grimace, pick fights he can’t win, and generally piss everyone off in his mission to do what’s right. Miller’s dutiful love for Julie Mao never fully clicked, and it feels even stranger now that he knows his guiding light was really the spark of a potentially apocalyptic plague, but Jane is impeccably cast in the role, and he’s as unreasonably charming as he is off-putting. Chatham also continues to shine as an unexpected standout – a stone cold killer you can’t help but love.
But The Expanse has admirably never prioritized “likability” over compelling character portraits, which leads us to Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), the Earth loyalist and UN figurehead who we first saw torturing a Belter with gravity. Since then, Avarsarala has been one of the few to pick up on the hints of corruption and conspiracy among her peers, and she is caught full center in the midst of all the political fallout; picking up traces of the truth and spinning her machinations to ensure the survival of the human race. A veteran politician, she knows interplanetary war could mean the end of mankind, and we find her with a newfound restraint and humility in the face of an impossible situation she knows doesn’t fully yet understand.
Elsewhere, Mars gets an upgrade from a guest spot in the first season to a recurring role in Season 2 thanks to the introduction of Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams), a die-hard Martian patriot and militarist true believer who is itching to lash out at Earth. She’s a real hardcore hard-ass; leader of her young military troop with “dust in her blood”. She takes shots in the chest during combat training and carries on. She arm wrestles her robotic exoskeleton and wins. Through Bobbie, we finally head to surface of Mars where we get a better understanding of the military-minded people we met in the first season. The Expanse paints a fascinating portrait of Mars; desperate to become a self-sustaining terraformed plane, a goal which has been delayed by political bargaining at the expense of the people.
That narrative growth and expansion gives Season 2 a different feel than it’s predecessor. While Season 1 was naturally focused on establishing characters and the rules of the world they live in, it was also structured as a noir-tinged thriller centered on the mystery of Julie Mao. With the mystery solved and the stakes established, Season 2 is free to expand the world and color in the details, leading to a story that feels like it’s blossoming outward rather than circling inward to a single revelation. Essentially, now that the micro story of the conspiracy has been solved, The Expanse has turned its focus to the macro story that comes in its wake.
The crux of that story is the protomolecule. For all of humanity’s high-tech advancements, they have just now arrived at their first encounter with an alien species. The Expanse shines as an example of science fiction rooted in actual science. It’s a grand, political space opera to be sure, but there is little in the way of space fantasy as the writers populate the action with bits of informed, science-driven detail. Naturally, the first encounter is rife with an opportunity to play in that sphere and the series continues to put its record budget to excellent use with striking visuals and futuristic design. At the same time, The Expanse continues to match its most far-reaching concepts with deeply human stories rooted in a politically torn culture on the brink of war. It’s some of the most compelling, intelligent and immersive genre fiction on television, and it’s back in peak form.
★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television