This review contains SPOILERS for the entire 1st season of The Expanse.
SyFy’s The Expanse had a lot to live up to. Before the series even launched, the comparisons to Battlestar Galactica were everywhere. As a gritty space set drama with mystery, intrigue, and a great ensemble cast highlighted with beloved and familiar faces, the comparisons were unavoidable. SyFy showed a lot of confidence in the show when they followed sister network USA’s treatment of Mr. Robot by releasing the first episode of The Expanse for free on all major digital streaming platforms. My initial reaction to the first episode was mixed, I thought the series had a lot of potential, but the first episode itself wasn’t really grabbing me. I was a little nervous that the show would fly under the radar, like sister network NBC’s Hannibal, when there didn’t seem to be much chatter about the series. Word of mouth wasn’t really spreading for The Expanse in the way it had for Mr. Robot. That all changed around the release of the series 4th episode, after which an explosion of chatter hit the internet. It wasn’t the premiere release strategy that got people talking, but rather, the shows first amazing episode. Episode 4 of The Expanse brought excitement and fervor to an audience of science fiction fans who have long been left bored. After Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, Stargate, and Firefly had disappeared from television, fans of science fiction had found themselves almost universally abandoned. SyFy started betting on the genre again with shows like Killjoys and Dark Mater last year, but after the long absence those shows just felt like empty calories, fun, but not all consuming. The Expanse sat quietly for 3 episodes, with fans not ready to get super excited quite yet. Episode 4, however, was like a revelation. Suddenly, science fiction, REAL science fiction, was back.
Hard Science Fiction
One of the most endearing aspects of The Expanse is that it is, perhaps, the hardest science fiction since Trek. By that I mean that the science itself is sharp, no cheap shortcuts, anything fantastical requires plausible explanation. Humanity has divided between those who live on Earth, those who live on Mars, and those who live in space. The Earthlings are still wasteful and unappreciative of what they have. The Martians are pushing science desperately trying to terraform their planet while developing healthy war potential. The space bound Belters, named because they live within an asteroid belt that they mine, have become poor, oppressed, and physically changed, no longer able to withstand the gravity of Earth. The depiction of these 3 groups of diverging humanity is what drives the conflict of the series. The execution of the differences between these 3 groups is what makes the conflict feel so real. The physical changes to the Belters, with their elongated and frail bodies, in particular is a strong source of prejudice, while the difference between Mars and Earth is more in line with philosophical and political strife. The Expanse doesn’t stop with diverging humanity, however, hard science is present everywhere. There are no fantastical warp drives, high speeds are hazardous to humans and must be compensated with special fluid injections, and air and water purity is a huge concern in space. The science is largely accurate, and goes along way towards suspension of disbelief.
Gritty Science Fiction
There was once a divide between hard science fiction and gritty science fiction. Hard science fiction felt accurate, while gritty science fiction felt real. The Expanse has plenty of hard science fiction in play, but it is also a very gritty show. Death is always around the corner, everything feels lives in and dirty, and the characters progress largely with emotion over rationality. The hard science fiction at play informs the gritty lifestyle of the characters. Death can be sudden and shocking. A scene in the 4th episode in which a Martian warship came under attack from a mysterious stealth gunship resulted in a genuinely surprising death that struck not only the characters but the audience as well. As the camera panned away from a character, following the path of a thrown item to another character, we heard a sudden “thwunk” sound before the camera panned around the shocked expressions of the characters, ending on the reveal of the initial character in the shot, now headless. I actually rewound the scene, thinking I might have missed a clue, a hint, at what had happened. In the same episode, Mars strongest warship is forced to self destruct, proving the vulnerability of even the mightiest forces in space. These 2 events, and their admirable execution, mark the point in which the series was elevated from a cool scifi show to a top tier series for water-cooler chats, at-least in the nerdier offices.
LOST proved the importance of large mysteries in television, and thankfully, it is a lesson that is starting to sink in for many new shows. The Expanse begins with its most fantastical moment and then ignores it until the season finale in which we return to the perspective of the series greatest mystery. Julie Mao, the character in question, is the first character we see in the first episode of the series, in which she exits a holding chamber passes through the interior of a seemingly dead ship, and comes across a horrifying, and unexplained site. The disappearance of Julie is the impetus for Thomas Jane’s (The Punisher) Detective Miller to become involved in the larger story of the series, a choice that puts his life in danger on several occasions, and has left his eventual fate uncertain at best. Miller’s story involves him tracking the disappearance of Julie Mao and discovering that her path is somehow linked to the major present events of the story, including the destruction of the Canterbury and the Martian warship Donnager. Throughout the season we, the audience, are asking ourselves who stands to benefit from a war between the 3 diverging groups of humanity. The 2-part season finale begins again with Julie, as we discover the missing pieces of our mystery. Julie’s fate is tragic and painful to watch, which is further expressed in Miller’s reckless actions that follow. Once again, the scant survivors of the Canterbury, now joined by Miller face horrific death. We, the audience, have an answer to the big mystery of the season, while we are left with more questions. In fact, the type of question itself has changed. “Who?” has become “What?” and “Why?” as all evidence now shows Earth’s responsibility for the tragedies of the series so far.
The Expanse has quickly risen into my personal list of favorite shows. Though the season finale has left me satisfied, I find myself equally hungry for more. My initial impression of the series was that it had a lot of potential which it had yet to deliver upon. Finishing the season, I feel that the series has delivered beyond my hopes. The Expanse might just surpass Battlestar as SyFy’s greatest achievement.
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