There was a time—a long time—when every new science fiction TV series raised the same question: Is it as good as the first Battlestar Galactica miniseries? And always the answer was no. Until Syfy released the first four episodes of The Expanse, a rewardingly complex new series about interplanetary tensions after humans have colonized the solar system.
***Warning: extremely light spoilers ahead.***
Based on a series of novels by James S.E. Corey (the pen name for writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The Expanse is both a mystery and a political thriller. A cold war has been heating up between Mars and planetoid Ceres in the Belt. The militant Belter separatist group OPA is staging protests because the wealthy cities of Mars get all their water from ice miners in the Belt, but those miners are living in decayed, oxygen-starved habitats. Earth’s fleet could be deployed to “reduce tensions” at any moment, which would put Mars and Earth at odds too.
Caught up in political machinations far above their paygrade are Jim Holden (Steven Strait), an officer on the ice freighter Canterbury, and Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), a craggy cop from Ceres. Holden and Miller are sucked into two parts of the same mystery, for very different reasons. When the Canterbury responds to a distress call from a ship called Scopuli, Holden leads an away team to investigate—only to witness a cloaked ship blow up the Canterbury, leaving him and a few crew members stranded on their tin can of a shuttle. Back on Ceres, Miller is investigating the disappearance of Julie Mao, the daughter of a rich family from Luna. After poking around, Miller realizes that Mao was on the Scopuli before the Canterbury answered its distress call.
Possibly the only person who stands a chance of figuring out the big picture here is Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a U.N. Deputy Undersecretary who is a brilliant, 23rd-century Machiavelli. She knows all the power players, and isn’t afraid to torture a Belter or two to get the information she wants. Still, when the story breaks about the Canterbury’s destruction, she’s stumped. The incident has turned into a viral media shitstorm, prompting more protests from Belter activists with the OPA and leading some to speculate that a military standoff between all the planets is imminent. Who is behind the attack, and what do they stand to gain from systemwide war?
And that’s just the very beginning of a story that moves at a breakneck pace, but still takes the time to make its far-future world feel lived-in and realistic. The little details of this universe are so finely rendered that they become stories unto themselves, like the way interracial tensions developed on Ceres between humans who grew up gravity-deprived and spindly, versus those whose gravity-rich childhoods allow them to pass as Earthers. There is none of that clumsy Star Trek-style of representing exoplanetary civilizations, where we journey to worlds whose inhabitants are all “listeners” or “warlike.” Instead, there are political factions whose members stretch across worlds. And planets (or planetoids) whose populations are fragmented by class, race, and ideology. The politics here are nuanced, and we are always being asked to rethink who is right and who is wrong, because there are no easy answers.
Many of my favorite moments in the series grew out of these richly imagined social landscapes. There’s an ongoing subplot where Mormons have commissioned a union of shipbuilders in the Belt to manufacture a generation ship so the Mormons can found a colony in another star system. At one point, the Mormons get skittish about the union’s ties to the OPA, and ask that the union rep leave the project. “Good luck getting decent workers to build your ship, then,” the union rep says quietly. “You want this ship to last 100 years, so it would be a shame to have shoddy workmanship on it.” Realizing they can’t challenge labor interests, the Mormons back down. In just that single, well-observed scene, we glimpse a future that feels right because its megastructures and generation ships come embedded in a snarl of all-too-plausible power games.
Plus, the production values are awesome. Syfy, which just renewed the show for a second season, is clearly banking on The Expanse becoming its new marquee project. We get some genuinely cool scenes of the ships and space colonies, as well as sets that conjure up the grit and glamour of life in the twenty-third century.
It helps that the characters are intriguing, and the writing is fast-paced and smart. Abrahams and Franck, who wrote the original novels, are also involved with the production, which follows the books fairly closely (though Avasarala is brought forward from later books to make her a main character right off the bat). Strait plays Holden as an ambiguous hero wearing his shortcomings on his sleeve, and Jane is perfect as the hard-bitten, quip-slinging detective. Aghdashloo is scary and mesmerizing as the U.N. schemer with a heart of gold. Or maybe her heart is actually made of asteroid ice. We’ll find out.
Syfy is making the first four episodes available online, and I suggest you set aside four hours to watch them. You won’t want to stop once you get started. The fifth episode airs tomorrow night, January 5, on Syfy.