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The Expanse (SyFy Channel): Boosting the Signal

The Expanse is the new, heavily promoted, space opera television show on the SyFy channel, part of its renewed embrace of, you know, SCIENCE FICTION. I have been talking up this show for purely selfish reasons. I like the story and I want to see it reach the end of the first book.


Characters from the SyFy Channel series, "The Expanse" from the left; Julie Mao (Florence Faivre), Det. Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), and Chrisjen Avasarala (Shoreh Aghdashloo)

I saw this morning that the past few episodes have not had the audience that SyFy was looking for. That's a shame and I hope that the cold-eyes execs can hold on for a little while because a show this good is absolutely going to find an audience. 

I'm going to dispense with any arguments about how you, a SFF fan, should watch this show out of some sense of obligation. The fact is, although The Expanse is unlike any other show on television right now, we're not exactly living through a SFnal drought. There's something out there for everyone and if this gritty take on Mundane Science Fiction isn't your cup of tea then I think that's fine. Go support the shows you love. Perhaps the notion that there should be ONE channel that actually shows science fiction and fantasy is outmoded anyway.

I will say that while not perfect, The Expanse has plenty of virtues. What The Expanse does well, it does VERY well.

So let's focus on that. First off, the world building on this show is very interesting. Based on a series of novels by James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym used by a pair of writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank), the show has a dense, lived-in feel that obeys its own set-up and internal rules. James S.A. Corey have rejected the term 'hard SF' for their series and although both the books and show spend a great deal time making its depictions of Newtonian forces feel real, this should not be confused for "The Martian." Although not discussed in the show, the central conceit of the Expanse universe is that mankind discovered a reactionless drive permitting free travel around the solar system without the need to lug around enormous reservoirs of fuel. This is not hand-waving on the level of warp speed or transporters but it is important to make this distinction.

Unleashed from rigorous thermodynamics, The Expanse brings us a solar system filled with human settlement. Various colonies exist on the Moon, Mars, and Belt asteroids. Mars has developed along quasi-libertarian lines, while the various Belt colonies are the oppressed underclass of the solar system. Belters, as they call themselves, are squeezed by the two big powers of Earth and Mars, and by the relentless pressures of survival in low-gee, resource poor environments. The show does a great job bringing the Ceres station to life, filling it with squalid claustrophobia and simmering rebellion.

The rebellion sub-plot and the cold war between Mars and Earth is the other great strength of this show. Similar to Game of Thrones (a book Corey's work is often compared to) there are no good guys here, no absolute villains. There are many shades of grey and plenty of hard moral dilemmas but a viewer would also find genuinely interesting depictions of interplanetary politics and warfare. The two main characters of the show, Thomas Jane's Detective Joe Miller of Ceres and Steven Strait's Jim Holden of the Ice Hauler Canterbury, each provide a distinct perspective on these tensions without really overlapping much. This is clever because it provides an illusion of considerable breadth in a series only a few episodes in. I've seen this show described as Babylon 5 told from a dock-worker's perspective, which gives you both a sense of its scale and its scrappy, hard-luck attitude.

Lastly, the show handles suspense extremely well. Whether dealing with an abandoned freighter, sneak attacks by mysterious space ships, a slow leak of air in an escape pod, or simply getting into a secure vault, the show displays a mastery of the slow-build. The show hit an early high point in the fourth episode "CBQ" which I can't really describe without spoiling key plot developments. Suffice to say, The Expanse has its own unique and thrilling take on space combat.

Knowing the show will get a second season, I want the show to focus on these strengths and addresses some its flaws. The big one for me is the Earth subplot centering on Chrisjen Avasarala, the UN Assistant Undersecretary of Executive Administration's political maneuvering. I have never seen Shoreh Aghdashloo's work so I'll reserve judgement on her talent. Her presence here is underwhelming. I'm not sure if it's a script problem or a mis-match between the actress and character, but many of her scenes are wooden and exposition-laden. She is a character I don't remember appearing in Leviathan Wakes but one that might have been imported into the television series from later novels. Assuming that's the case, perhaps this character becomes more essential later on. Right now it feels like a distraction.

I consider myself a media consumer of some patience. I stuck with Agents of Shield during its plodding first season because I had faith the show would find its way. This isn't one of those situations. The Expanse is already a much better show than AoS was then and comes from a detailed and well-structured source material. It's a show that deserves a chance. I'm hoping enough other viewers give it the benefit of doubt to allow it to reach its full potential.



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