Warning: extremely light spoilers ahead.
There was a time — a long time — when every new sci-fi TV series begged the same question: Is it as good as the first? Battlestar Galactica miniseries? And the answer was always no. Until Syfy released the first four episodes of The expansea rewardingly complex new series about interplanetary tensions after humans colonize the solar system.
Based on a series of novels by James SA Corey (pseudonym for writing team Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), The expanse is both a mystery and a political thriller. There is a cold war going on between Mars and asteroid Ceres in the Belt. The militant separatist group Belter OPA is organizing protests because the wealthy cities of Mars get all their water from ice miners in the Belt, but those miners live in decayed, low-oxygen habitats. Earth’s fleet could be deployed at any time to “ease tensions”, which would also put Mars and Earth at odds.
Jim Holden (Steven Strait), an officer on the ice freighter Canterbury, and Josephus Miller (Thomas Jane), a gritty Ceres cop, are entangled in political machinations well above their pay grade. Holden and Miller get sucked into two parts of the same mystery for very different reasons. When the Canterbury responds to a distress call from a ship named Scopuli, Holden leads a recon team to investigate – only to witness a cloaked ship blow up the Canterbury, leaving him and a few crew members stranded on their can of a shuttle. Back on Ceres, Miller investigates the disappearance of Julie Mao, the daughter of a wealthy Luna family. After some poking around, Miller realizes that Mao was on the Scopuli before the Canterbury answered its distress call.
Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), a UN deputy undersecretary who is a brilliant 23rd century Machiavelli, may be the only person who stands a chance of understanding the big picture. She knows all those in power and isn’t afraid to torture a Belter or two to get the information she wants. But when the story of the Canterbury’s destruction breaks, she is stunned. The incident has turned into a viral media shitstorm, sparking more protests from Belter activists at the OPA and leading some to speculate that an all-planet military standoff is imminent. Who is behind the attack and what do they stand to gain from a system-wide war?
And that’s just the very beginning of a story that moves at a breakneck pace, yet takes its time to make its distant, future world feel inhabited and realistic. The small details of this universe are so finely rendered that they become stories unto themselves, like how interracial tensions developed on Ceres between people who grew up zero gravity and spindly, versus those whose gravity-rich childhoods allowed them to pass as Earthlings . There’s nothing awkward about that star trekstyle of representing exoplanetary civilizations, where we travel to worlds whose inhabitants are all “listeners” or “warlike”. Instead, there are political factions whose members span worlds. And planets (or asteroids) whose populations are fragmented by class, race, and ideology. The politics here are nuanced and we are always asked to rethink who is right and who is wrong because there are no easy answers.
Many of my favorite moments in the series came from these richly imagined social landscapes. There is an ongoing subplot in which Mormons have commissioned a Union of shipbuilders in the Belt to build a generation ship so that the Mormons can establish a colony in another star system. At one point, the Mormons become skittish about the union’s ties to the OPA and ask the union representative to leave the project. “Good luck finding decent workers to build your ship,” the union representative says softly. “You want this ship to last 100 years, so it would be a shame if it had shoddy workmanship.” Realizing they cannot contest labor interests, the Mormons retreat. In just that one, well-observed scene, we glimpse a future that feels right, as the megastructures and generationships are embedded in a snarl of all-too-plausible power plays.
Plus, the production values are great. Syfy, which just renewed the show for a second season, is clearly banking The expanse becomes the new marquee project. We get some really cool scenes of the ships and space colonies, as well as sets that evoke the grit and glamor of twenty-third century life.
It helps that the characters are intriguing and the writing is fast and clever. Abrahams and Franck, who wrote the original novels, are also involved in the production, which follows the books fairly closely (although Avasarala has been brought forward from later books to make her an immediate main character). Strait plays Holden as an ambiguous hero who wears his shortcomings on his sleeve, and Jane is perfect as the hard-hitting, joking detective. Aghdashloo is scary and enchanting as the UN 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 allocate four hours to watch them. You won’t want to stop once you’ve started. The fifth episode airs tonight, January 5, on Syfy.